Every other morning about 8 a.m., I drop my kids at high school and drive a few extra blocks down the road to the trail head for a local park. At this time of morning, the trails are packed with moms, running groups, dog walkers and bikers. I have scouted my route carefully, turning off only onto trails I know will be busy. This is just in case I have a heart attack or worse, run into a threatening man. Sound neurotic? It is. I am.
These woods near my house in Vancouver, B.C., gorgeous rain forest trails shrouded in mist and pungent with cedar, have been witness to numerous sexual assaults and murders. As my friends like to remind me, it is no place for a woman to run alone.
For years, I believed them. I let fear keep me away. Instead, I would run through my neighborhood streets, on concrete sidewalks, my view of houses, cars and gardens. It’s a beautiful neighborhood, but nothing like getting out in nature. It’s nothing like breathing in the stillness of the woods, watching how the seasons change the foliage.
I started running in the forest when my marriage was ending. I’d had enough of staying in an unhappy marriage. I’d had enough of letting fear guide my decisions. I was breaking free and choosing to believe that I would be okay — outside my marriage and on the trail. Running alone through in the woods gave me the time to think deeply about my life. I can no longer live without that.
And yet, I worry. I grew up in a house a block away from the trail head. I spent my childhood building tree forts with my brother when there were still few houses around. But by the time I was a teenager, these woods were forbidden territory. When news of rapes on unsuspecting young women reached my parents, I was terrified into submission. I no longer went to the stream to watch the tadpoles and salmon smolts travel down the currents.
I was never a runner. I’m not into marathons or crowds. Often I run for just 20 minutes, never pushing myself. Running is less like exercise, more like therapy, a chance to breathe deeply and think. But when I’m deep in the trails, it’s hard not to think about the woman who was murdered here, out for a morning jog seven years ago. Her case is still unsolved. It’s hard not to think about the assaults.
Some days, I berate myself for being stupid enough to go. Other days, I call a friend to join me. But it’s not the same. I don’t really want company. I need to be alone with my thoughts. I want to stop when I’m ready, walk when I’m tired, let my mind wander. I should probably get a dog; then I can join the legions of solo women who run without worry. But that’s a whole other story — more money and time I can’t afford.
I haven’t been in the woods all summer. Without the routine of school drop-off, I haven’t made time to go and it’s showing, in my quick irritation, my constant sense of distraction, my lack of focus. Every fall, I think about whether to listen to my friends and stay off the trails or whether to choose what I need.
It’s not much of a decision.