Personal Essay: Running by the rules

White Clay Trail
Morgan Brownell/THE REVIEW
What happens when your favorite hobby suddenly becomes dangerous?

BY
Contributing Reporter

As I pulled into the parking lot at Paper Mill Park, close to the back entrance of White Clay that only true Delawareans know about, I looked around for all the usual frequenters of the paved paths and playgrounds. It was an exceedingly hot summer day and the usually crowded park was empty save for a few basketball players sweating in the sun. In mental preparation for my run, I fought down my typical series of doubts before getting out of the car, convincing myself I was safe.

I had chosen this section of White Claybecause of its proximity to civilization. I was running alone and therefore decided to stay within the confines of suburbia, while still reaping all the benefits that trail running has to offer a washed-up cross-country runner like me. As I debated whether to bring my phone along, I wondered how many men had the same mental deliberation. No one would willingly choose to carry the extra weight. My boyfriend certainly never did, and as a highly accomplished athlete I opted to follow in his footsteps.

I pushed my usual worries aside, locking them up in the car with my cellphone before setting off into the embrace of the park that always welcomed me home. After all, I’d heard many warnings about running alone in the woods, but nothing had ever happened to me. I was careful enough.

White Clay had always provided me with the feeling of a comfortable adventure. As the trails sprawl expansively across northern Delaware and into eastern Pennsylvania and Maryland, they circle back and wind in ways that are unexpectedly familiar, cramming so much park in between mundane shops and businesses that many people drive by unknowingly.

Little did I know, I wasn’t alone that day on the trails.

As I trekked my way through the course, I jumped at the sounds of twigs snapping, only to catch squirrels red-handed as they skittered over dried leaves and branches. It’s remarkable how much noise one little mammal can conjure up. Meanwhile, the real perpetrators I had to worry about remained silent. I heard voices along the creek throughout my journey, and though my heart sped up at the first scream, I was relieved to find only a group of children playing together on the rocks that speckled the shore.

It wasn’t until I got back to the park that I noticed something was wrong. While my car had been the only one in its row at the start of my run, it was now accompanied by two others. As I got closer, the figures by the cars took shape, and one of them was completely out of place — my mom. I hadn’t told her where I was running, but there she was, standing with my neighbor, Tom, who had apparently been one of the people playing basketball when I first arrived. My mom explained that Tom had looked over in time not only to see my car, but also another one that pulled up after me. A group of boys had immediately spilled out and watched my blond ponytail disappear into the woods before setting off after me. Instantly suspicious of this sudden burst of activity, when almost everyone else chose to spend the day inside with air conditioning, Tom immediately called his mom at home who called mine, thus explaining her presence at the park. My pursuers must have given up after a while, and their car was gone by the time I got back, but Tom had taken pictures of their plate just in case.

I had been followed and I didn’t even know it. The world was surreptitiously validating the fears I’d always had but never believed in. I hadn’t seen their faces or heard their footsteps. In fact, I wouldn’t have known about the event at all if it weren’t for my neighbor, Tom. For all I know, this could have been one of many times that I’d unknowingly been followed. I always sought nature for its comforting familiarity, but that day I found something to be afraid of.

My mom was more shook up at first than I was. As soon as we got home, she ordered me a keychain canister of pepper spray. I wondered how many men owned one of those, seeing as they only come in pink and aquamarine. I felt more confused than anything else. I wasn’t naïve to the risks posed by being a girl who likes to run in the woods for fun — I had specifically chosen the time and location of my run to account for these risks. Still I find my safe space penetrated despite my best intentions.

White Clay was my sanctuary. From my house, the closest trails have always been within reach, just a mile-and-a-half away. My earliest memories of running are linked to this park, where my family planned our own traditional Turkey Trot 5K on Thanksgiving. I trained and raced on the trails first in high school cross country, then again in college. White Clay was the bridge connecting me back home, and I’ve ridden it more than once when I needed to get away from the stress of campus life.

During the spring of my junior year I struggled to balance my heavy course load and the looming Graduate Records Exam (GRE). A couple of times I packed up my 5-pound GRE prep book and biked out into White Clay, surrounding myself with familiar sights and sounds. I studied in spots where I’d stretched with my dad countless times. One day while studying by the creek under a bridge, I heard footsteps behind me, and all of a sudden, my dad was there, like it was our own private backyard creek. When I finally got through the GRE, I bought a bagel from Newark Deli and Bagel and biked back to that spot to celebrate.

White Clay holds countless memories that have bound me to nature from a young age. But as I’ve grown older, those ties have been challenged again and again. And it’s not just me. About 30% of female runners have been followed while running, according to a survey conducted by Runners World. Additionally, 43% of women reported that they have experienced harassment while running, compared to just 4% of men Of the women who responded to the survey, 94% say that men were the primary perpetrators.

I had told myself that my fear was all in my head, that nothing would happen to me, but these statistics only validated my concerns. It felt like with each run I was testing fate. I kept pushing the odds against me, increasing my chances of becoming another statistic that the world could use to warn girls to run in groups, with our phones or on treadmills. Already, 41% of women run with other people, 73% choose to run with their phones because of experienced harassment or other threats to their safety and 27% admit they worry about their safety enough to run indoors.

All of these “solutions” just separate women further from the nature that trail running provides.

Without the comfort of a team anymore, I often run alone. Many physical injuries have barred me from running, but trails are the best supplement for my physical and emotional health. However, they turn me into a person I don’t always like. Not only do I find myself growing less adventurous in my choice of courses, but I also find myself casting harsh judgements on those around me. When the car I hear behind me slows down, my heart speeds up. When I see someone running up ahead, I am relieved to find out it is a woman. When I see a man, I instantly assume the worst — is it better to ignore them or venture a smile? When in doubt, I change my path to avoid ever having to find out.

I’m not the only one who changes where and when I run due to fear. Approximately 63% of women choose their routes based on where they feel they’re least likely to be harmed. Of these, 60% only run during the day, compared to 33% of men. Overall, 54% of women are concerned that they could be physically assaulted or receive unwanted physical contact on the run.

However, recently things have changed, at least for me. The pandemic that sent everyone home is the same force flushing people outdoors, onto the trails I run. The surplus of hikers, bikers and runners serves as a cushion between me and my fear. With my boyfriend and running partner home from school, I’ve been empowered to run trails I’ve never seen before, making connections between parts of the park I’d only ever driven to. This virus that has been wreaking havoc on the world has somehow restored my relationship with nature.

I have to be careful not to get comfortable with this newfound freedom. Things will almost certainly go back to the way they were, and come August, I’ll be moving to a new state for the first time in my life. I won’t have the familiarity that White Clay brings and will have to find new trails. How will I distinguish the safe ones from the others? Running may be optional to some people, but not to me. In all my interviews for veterinary school, I was asked what I do to relieve stress, and the answer was always the same. But what do you do when your stress-reliever causes you stress?

There have always been obstacles barring me from running. I’ve suffered countless injuries, forcing me to invest in expensive shoes that protect my body. I run on the left side of the road because of the way the asphalt slopes, supporting a leg length difference I was born with. Every doctor recommends trails because their soft surface can protect me from getting any more cracks in my bones. Additionally, I’m not immune to uncooperative weather and a lack of time and motivation, things that would keep anyone from running in the woods.

It makes me angry that in addition to these other obstacles, I have to face fear. The freer I feel, the more fear I feel. I feel like I am fleeing when I should feel like I am flying.

It makes me angry that on a morning run, I am greeted by a construction worker with “Good morning, beautiful” and a suggestive smirk, instead of a simple “Good morning.”

It makes me angry that when I go for a run, it is more like an obstacle course full of man-made hoops to jump through. These are fears that only half the population faces, while the other half lives in blissful ignorance. What’s more, the ignorant half gets to train harder, faster, longer at the sport I love just as much.

It makes me angry that I am so careful, and yet I am still followed into my safe place.

Even though nothing physically happened to me that day in the woods, my relationship with nature suffered, and I am still recovering. Harassment is more than an inconvenience — chronic fear and anxiety are detrimental to my mental health in addition to my physical well-being. I often run faster when I’m scared. My adrenaline levels are spiked earlier than they would be on a treadmill, my heart racing with each step. I ponder if this makes me a better runner, if I should be grateful for the messed-up ways of the world, the lopsided scales of gender equality, for pushing me closer to my limits. Then I get an ache in my neck from looking over my shoulder so often and remember how messed up the world is.

In the end, it doesn’t matter how fast you are. If you’re a girl you’re a target, and you can’t outrun the fear that revelation carries with it.

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