Sunday, July 17, 2016

A lonely run

The sound of her own feet on the pavement was music to her ears. The only other sounds were the four paws running next to her and the gentle backdrop of rain. She hadn’t known it was going to rain – obviously if she had, she’d have run earlier. When it started, she considered waiting it out. It is awfully hard to motivate oneself to go out into the rain when one is currently dry, and even more so when it involves the thankless task of running.

However when the ‘pros’ win out over the ‘cons’ she is never sorry. In fact, running in the rain was Zen-like once the initial hurdle of wanting to stay dry is overcome.   She was focused, driven, and at peace. Her feet pounded out her progress and her heart accelerated to match. Her breathing was efficient. In. Out. In. Out. Drops of water kissed her face and the smell of damp earth rose to her nostrils. She barely noticed the stopwatch ticking away as she took each step.

With each step she grew more comfortable with her pace. The body’s protests slowly fade into background noise if you ignore them for long enough. She suppressed them and enjoyed the harmony of her two legs propelling her forward. She was strong. Indestructible.

Lola halted unexpectedly, as she often did on a run when she needed to relieve herself, or spied something of interest, or simply decided she’d had enough. In this case, it was the former. She stopped her watch as the dog busied herself in the bushes. 

She has been so preoccupied that she hadn’t noticed the man until he was right beside her. He waved and kept running. She jumped and recovered quickly to respond politely, she didn’t want to offend him. The can of worms was open. She was unaware of her surroundings. Alone on a trail she’d never run before. The rain coupled with the late hour washed the trail in a weird dusky light. Suddenly, she could see herself from an outside perspective: pink shorts, blond pony-tail and red tank-top. Small and insubstantial compared to the woods around her. It was a familiar scene – it was how many a horror movie had started. The girl, happy, content, confident, runs alone – safe and secure in her life… until… It was not a unique hook.

Why is this an interesting draw? Why should a girl with the audacity to be alone outside be enough to trigger fear? Is it that the girl is alone or that she is happy? Which one were we supposed to avoid to in order to prevent the same happening to us?

She restarted the stopwatch and the two resumed their mission. Her breathing became more rapid as she pressed forward, each breath a single wish forward. Forward. Forward. Her heart hammered away in her chest. She lost herself in the painful meditation of a run.

The land rose steeply on each side of the trail, vines grew up trees and the undergrowth looked foreboding. Wasn’t she at enough of a disadvantage already without nature handing any would be attackers the higher ground? She kept her eyes up, aware that she was unaware. She had already missed someone once and he’d nearly ran into her. She felt as though she were being watched. These hills have eyes.

At that moment, she was especially thankful for her canine companion, an especially strong pit-bull terrier mix. Like many of her breed, she had gotten a bad reputation. Lola had been abused, starved and abandoned before the humane society had happened to intersect her path. She had every right to be distrustful, short-tempered and mean, but she wasn’t: she was violently loving. She was blissfully unaware of her own size and would fling all sixty-five pounds of herself into new guests in a form of greeting.

She encountered no one for a while. The two were an isolated pair on an asphalt trail in a grey, rainy forest.

Two small figures appeared in the distance. As they grew larger it was apparent they were a couple. They pulled to the side and one extracted something from the other’s bag – a water bottle. They shared it and chatted. She smiled and made eye contact as she passed. She did not feel alone. She did not understand why this couple made her feel less alone… What did they offer her? They were not obligated to be kind to her. Was it the solidarity? A woman would simply not turn on another woman like that or allow harm to come to her. It was camaraderie? It was na├»ve.

After drinking from their bottle, the couple returned to their bikes and proceeded in the opposite direction. After they shrank from view, there was not another soul in sight.

Maybe she had felt protected because they would have heard her scream. So what? Did that automatically mean they would respond? If she heard someone scream in the woods, would she run towards it or away from it? She honestly didn’t know.

Regardless, they were gone now. A scream is only as good as the ears it falls on and she was once more wrapped in the deadening velvet blanket of green leaves. It would be an ineffective strategy.

Scouring her surroundings for any potential threat, she brainstormed. If screams were useless, what would be her options?

She could pack a punch. She actually enjoyed boxing and trained regularly. She had the muscle memory needed to put all of her strength into a jab, to follow with a right hook, then a left elbow and a right elbow to the eye. Her favorite combination included all of those and wrapped up with a knee to the balls or chest or face – whichever was in the line of contact. She rehearsed in her head and it gave her a little peace. It was not enough though. She would have the element of surprise – to look at her, one would not expect such a calculated response. That is all she would have. She was smaller than most would-be attackers. She was far from an audience or a telephone or anyone she knew. Any defense would have to be enough to get her away.

Her breathing was not ragged. It was regular and deep. Intentional. She took in more air and noticed her heart speed up, fighting the lungs crushing down around it. Everything in her was competing for the limited space of her small yet sturdy rib cage.

She did have Lola. The dog was sturdy and could appear intimidating if you were unfamiliar with her. Maybe appearance was enough. A deterrent. How infuriating that she was thinking of herself in this manner … because the girl has a dog, it’s not worth the effort to attack her. Still, it was some consolation.

Lola certainly was loyal. She had yet to be confronted with any real danger to her owner, but at times of questionable safety, for example when she had seen her owner sparring, her protective nature became clear. She bit at the hands of the previously trusted sparring partner. Only snapping. Warning. She barked and would not let him pet her.

Her bark was loud and threatening. It was also rare. If only she’d been taught to bark on command. That would be a useful skill. As it was, Lola approached new strangers with enthusiasm, wanting to be petted, knowing that most of them thought she was cute.

Her bark is bigger than her bite. What a stupid phrase. What is the unit of measurement involved? How do the two things even compare? She understood that it was metaphorical… maybe the size was referencing the amount of fear involved. Still… She could count on one hand the number of times she had seen this bite employed as an attack. Once on a bunny, the dog had bitten down, locked on and used the powerful muscles of her chest and neck to fling her head to one side. The rabbit was dead before it hit the ground.

Another time, it had been a smaller dog. Lola was not aggressive and generally tolerated other dogs well. It was unclear what happened to change that in this particular instance. She had bitten down onto the much smaller dog’s neck but luckily only got a grip of ear and superficial tissue. Onlookers had screamed and tried to intervene, but she was having none of it. It was primal. As the smaller dog yelped and other people joined the fray, she remained unswayed from her goal, her jaws clamped down in a mortal vise.

No, her bite was certainly bigger than her bark. What damage it could do, to muscles, nerves … maybe bone.

Her thoughts returned to the trail as she passed an old mill. Several smaller trails branched off, curving upward into the undergrowth. She longed to take one of them, but knew she would feel even less safe there. She wondered what the news commentary would be if her body were found alongside one. Well, John, she really shouldn’t have been running alone. We all know that it is unsafe. No commentary was ever offered regarding the criminals choosing to commit the crime. You know, he really shouldn’t have attacked her in the woods like that. That part must go without saying… of course you shouldn’t murder, but what not everyone is aware of is the mortal sin of venturing out into the wilderness alone. The people must be warned. What an excellent way to demonstrate a moral for hundreds of would be victims, just like her.

Being on a new trail, she had settled on an out and back run. She would run forward until she had covered exactly half of her goal distance, then she would return along the same trajectory. On a map, traced broadly, it would look like she was running away from something. Only when you zoomed in close would the narrow triangle be evident, a very delicate knife.

The benefit of an out and back run was that on the return trip, the scenery was familiar. One could anticipate the curves, inclines, puddles. The problem was that every step was already mapped. At the turning point, it was only halfway. There was just as far to go. It was going to hurt twice as much. Every new sight was calculated in respect to the finish line, still several miles away. The daunting task ahead was demonstrated in striking clarity. It was a psychological roadblock more than anything.

The bike approached with impressive speed. More noteworthy was the lack of helmet and normal attire. He was dressed in jeans and a t-shirt, clothes that conveyed the message “tourist” not “athlete”. His build was bulky, large but not toned. He was not the typical bike enthusiast. She eyed him as he approached. From as far away as she could appreciate it, he met her eyes. Met them directly, unsmiling. The go go go of her heart picked up. She broke his gaze but felt it on her regardless. A bitter taste materialized in her mouth. She noticed a side trail down that led to a populated sidewalk up ahead. She focused on it and pulled herself towards it, looking nowhere else. When she finally reached it she turned and looked over her shoulder, ready to run towards humanity in the hope that someone would help her if it came to that. The large figure was still visible, but slowly shrinking and on the wrong side of the trail – clearly unaware of the etiquette. Her breathing was ragged now: her careful practice of regulating air completely derailed by the tiniest amount of adrenaline.

She continued through the woods.

The man on the bike had been Arabic. She couldn’t say for certain he was Arabic, he could be American. He had olive skin, dark eyes and plentiful dark facial hair. Was she a racist? This thought startled her. She examined her consciousness – No. she would have feared him equally, white or black, Arabic or Asian. Her fear in him had been well-established far off, before race was evident. The only clues her instincts had needed: large size and facial hair. Why the facial hair? She wondered. I guess it is inherently male.

She didn’t mind being sexist like she would have been offended by her own racism. Sexism, it seemed was biology. It made sense. It was why she had been taught growing up to not be alone outside after dark, why she was supposed to carry mace. As early as learning to drive she had learned to carry her keys poking out of her fingers like a tiny dagger. The message over and over had been: you are unsafe, be careful. Apparently, it had sunk in.

The trail rose into a bridge that arced the busy roadway below. Trees and vines on either side of the trail gave way to mechanic shops, a McDonalds. As years of competitive training had engrained into her she leaned into the incline, accelerated ever so slightly.

Untrained runners slow down on hills. As the body’s demand for oxygen increases, reflexively you slow to decrease the debt. In races, these runners would be passed on hills. Ignoring reflexes and instinct and charging only 20 or 30 feet past the peak she knew could significantly alter her standing in a race.

A group of bikes crested the trail. She slowed about halfway up. Lola tugged her forward, rapidly increasing pace to make up for her partner’s slack. She liked to think it was because Lola was a runner at heart, that after all the miles they’d logged together Lola had learned her tactics. Of course, this wasn’t the case. Likely Lola had seen a squirrel or bird that she longed to chase – she was all instinct and no strategy. Lola was a brawler, she would charge out at the first bell already giving it everything she had, disregarding all the rounds she still had to go.

Regardless, this quick speed increase snapped her out of surrender. She accelerated and the pair sped together down the far side. The scenery once again became trees and vines. It was silent but for the dripping of rain and occasional rolling thunder. The canopy enveloped her and the dusk returned.

They approached a crosswalk – an intersection between the trail and an actual road. The stop signs were posted on both sides, perpendicular to the trail to make their meaning clear. Those on the trail were to stop, those on the road were free to press onward. Such things infuriated her. Why should the gift of inertia be granted to those in motorized vehicles? She was fighting her own physiology, continuing forward when every cell within her wanted to rest. To slow down and stop only to restart – the amount of energy involved was astronomical. She pondered this while the wood paneled car with the elderly driver crept past. Maybe stepping on a pedal was equally hard for him.

She resumed her previous pace. Her lungs, spoiled by the rest, protested.

There was a lone figure ahead. His elbows were at ninety degrees to the rest of his body and he appeared to be moving with unusual flair. It was a power walker. For some reason, this fact made him seem less threatening. As she realized this, his hands dropped and his gait changed. She opened her stride, sped forward. She slowed her breathing as if to demonstrate that she was unaffected by this quick pace. Just try and catch me. The dog, unaware of the subtle signs of danger bounded forward playfully.

The man smiled as she passed him. He has a full head of white hair and headphones large enough to be found on the head of a rapper. He wore an upscale sweat suit and had a generally tidy appearance. He could easily be a congressman out for a stroll. Or someone’s grandfather. She nodded and gave a quick wave. She continued the new sprint for another ten yards before daring to look over her shoulder. The power walking had resumed.

He had ceased the jaunty movements for her benefit? She decelerated, heart racing.

She had seen no other solo females out for a run. They must have listened to the rules more clearly.

Finally, she reached her goal distance. She reeled Lola in as she slowed to wait at the crosswalk that would lead her off the trail and back to her car. She gasped for air, sweaty but accomplished. She was in her own mind as the lights changed and cars began to pile up, waiting for their turn. A dark SUV rolled up next to her and a male in his thirties looked at her. She felt his eyes slide down to her breasts. She became acutely aware that her tank-top had ridden up and her tanned abdomen was showing. Her legs were covered in mud from the trail but felt strangely vulnerable as though her shorts were shrinking, like they might just disappear and leave her exposed as her clothes sometimes did in dreams. At those times, she would wake up in a panic, thankful to realize that she was in her own bed and not on stage completely naked.

A small chill spread across her sweaty skin. She fought the urge to lengthen her shorts and pull down her tank top. You’re being dramatic, she counseled herself, he is not looking at you. She glanced back to his face. His car was still stopped but now obstructing traffic. He made a point to look her up and down once more before smiling at her eyes and accelerating forward. She was in the field of vision of over a dozen people. Those who happened to be looking her direction would have seen the interchange and thought nothing of it. It was, after all, nothing. Still, they could see her. If it had been something … they would have reacted, right? She was back into the public, protected by society. Good and Evil were now equally balanced… right?

Stop being silly, she told herself. 

 Disobeying the clear “WALK” command, she ran across the street as fast as she could. Her car was the only one in the parking lot. Lola jumped into the car and she clambered in herself and locked the doors immediately behind her, just as she had always been taught. And they headed home.

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