By Halle Shilling
Friday, February 11, 2011; 8:50 PM
It's late afternoon in October, and I'm jogging in Rock Creek Park on a trail whose terrain is scorched in my memory. I am with my dad and my husband. It is a perfect day for a run, just like the last time I ran here, nine years ago.
We run steadily, I lead. I need to make a few stops - where I first saw him sitting on the curb; where I felt him leap onto my back; where police found my Walkman on the path; where I was surprised by my reflection in the plexiglass of the Park Police station: ponytail pulled to the side, eyes wide in shock.
At these places, I whisper to the trees overhead. I say a small prayer to the clouds above. I bow in gratitude to a few ghosts.
I visualize the face of a dead woman I never met, a woman whose killer I testified against this morning.
The start of the run is difficult. I can't get my rhythm, and old images roll through my mind: "This was a crime of opportunity, and you created the opportunity," the first detective on the scene telling me; a purple dent in my finger, carved by a human tooth; a pair of knotted black running tights, discovered by police near a skeleton; a Fox News van lurking outside my cul de sac.
My father and husband run behind me, out of respect. Earlier, my dad asked if I'd be okay with this formation.
"Yeah, Dad," I laughed. "I'll be fine. Because I'll know that it's you."
Not some psychopath hunting me. Not like the last time.
We fought. I got away. He went to jail, and I pretended to forget. Except eight years later my attacker, Ingmar Guandique, was charged with the murder of Chandra Levy, whose body I had surely run within yards of that day in the spring of 2001.
In every possible way, I had been helpful to the authorities - testifying before a grand jury, returning to the scene of the crime so the police could videotape me walking there, making vague excuses for having to skip the Halloween carnival at my children's elementary school, piecing together last-minute child care to cover the days when I would be away from home.
I was happy, almost grateful, to do all that. I knew I was a rarity in the world of crime victims. Not only did I have the satisfaction of a conviction for my attacker back in 2002, but I told my story three times in a court of law. I was doing my part to help put away a bad guy. And there was a collateral benefit: Any victim of this kind of violence will tell you how vital it is to feel heard. All three times my voice quavered, but people were listening.
In the years after I was attacked, I didn't think at all about finishing the run. I still ran, of course. But I stuck to beaches, well-traveled roads and group trail runs. The idea of finishing that Rock Creek Park loop didn't come to me until last summer. Once the judge ruled that I would testify at the Levy trial along with Guandique's other surviving victims, I coped with punishing sessions on the treadmill at my gym, weeping most of the time. Running, it seemed, was the only way for me to tap into my feelings about what happened and what was coming.
For seven years, I slept at night thinking that I had tangled with a garden-variety pervert. He stalked me for nearly a mile and surprised me from behind. I put together one or two moves from a self-defense course I'd taken and fought him off.
Then one day, a reporter told me he thought I was lucky to be alive. Soon afterward I got a letter from a detective in the District of Columbia's cold-case homicide squad (a real place as it turns out, not just one on TV). The day Guandique was arraigned for murder, I read about it on the Internet and slumped at my desk, nauseated and confused.
Now there was an official connection between the man who jumped me in the park and a murder victim. The oily sludge of survivor's guilt and post-traumatic stress dragged me under. I became skittish and anxious in a way that seemed melodramatic to me - after all, I had never been to Kandahar or Baghdad.
I worried constantly about my family's safety. I scrawled my cellphone number in black Sharpie on my children's pale arms whenever we went to crowded places. I put the youngest in an intensive swim program guaranteed to drown-proof her. I made my husband join me for a two-month Krav Maga class where mouth-guard-wearing instructors showed us hand-to-hand combat moves.
I also obsessed over the Levy family's grief. How would I get out of bed each morning if I were them? I survived, so what did I have to feel bad about? I tried not to focus on how I didn't turn out to be a MacArthur Fellow or an astronaut.
That day in 2001, I'd set out for a run to get some space, to be alone. And I was, in the middle of it, as lonely as I've ever felt in my life. But let's be clear - I won. I'm a winner. I lost, too, though - something small and ineffable that it has taken me many years and many hours of therapy to accept, but it's gone for good.
And so, the run.
I finished the run for Chandra; for Chelsea King, a teenager killed last winter on a running trail a few miles from where I live now in California; for every survivor who can't get herself to the trail head. I also did it for me. It's the grand gesture of my recovery. I will take sips from it, like fine single-malt whiskey, whenever life knocks me around. And it's the ultimate lesson for my kids. If I had a family crest, I would make this the motto: We get back up, we finish the run!
I traded the bad memories of the park for the stillness of the air at the crest of the trail. And when Guandique was sentenced Friday, I didn't think of him and the years he'll spend in prison. Instead, I remembered my return to the park and the innocuous sound of footfalls on the dirt path.
The runner's high arrives after we start to loop back along the road. I am cruising steadily, outpacing my partners. For the first time in years, I feel sturdy, healthy, clear. I look across the creek and I see myself that day, running through the woods. We come to an understanding. I am no longer young, no longer free, no longer looking to be alone.
I let her go. She fades into the late afternoon, and now it is just me running in a park where I used to run all the time with people in front of me, and people behind me.
Halle Shilling, a writer, lives with her family in Southern California.
Read more of The Washington Post's Chandra Levy coverage.