Thursday, April 11, 2013

The safety of darkness

The night was perfect for a run. The air had the beginnings of an autumn chill, the milky way above clearly visible without any interference from city lighting, and I was at one of my favourite trails in the Blue Mountains: an undulating fire trail that runs along a narrowing ridgeline, perfect for the faster session I had planned.

I started my run, head torch catching flashes of silver from the small gum trees lining the track. I was enjoying the peace, the quietness under a sky so vivid and clear, and the idea of being utterly by myself on a Sunday night, alone with the other nocturnal animals tending to their night-time business.

It was in this state that I passed a few parked vans. Nothing unusual for this fire trail where backpackers find a quite off-road area to bunk in for the night. The mind is a funny thing though, and the site of these vans started mental sparks. The questions started, the doubt crept in, the fight-or-flight response awakened. Soon I could not enjoy the peace of the darkness; it became a cloak to conceal any potential threat.

I am usually quite comfortable being alone. I drive a station wagon that I have "accessorized" so that I can sleep in the back when travelling or staying in a National Park for some running. I really love my freedom to just get away on a whim. That said, I always make sure that my trusty Swiss Army knife is under my pillow. It was this same Swiss Army knife I was cursing myself for leaving behind. Suddenly my speed session no longer felt like a speed session. My hearing sharpened, any crackle of leaves caused by an innocent wallaby cause a spurt of adrenaline. Before I knew it I was back in my car, and within 3 seconds I had the door unlocked, I was in, doors locked and ignition on.
Like a finely tuned Formula 1 pit stop I was in my car and off.

This whole experience had me reflecting on the ways in which the experience of running can change when the focused is narrowed under a head torch and the peripheries become dark. Why did I feel any more unsafe on the trail than when the sun was out shining? Would it have been different had I been a man? Rationally I knew that probability was on my side and that there was no reason for the emotional over reaction I was having, but I just could not shake my feelings of hyper-vigilance. Speaking to friends afterwards about the experience, many questioned the fact that I was running alone as a woman. This excerpt from a similarly themed blog really sums up my response:

Why is it, I wondered, that as a woman jogging alone at night, it is my responsibility to bring my phone and my dog, check over my shoulder regularly, and plan my route based on street lamps, and yet, young men feel no responsibility for not harassing me or behaving civilly?
If something had happened to me during my run – if I had been attacked – and the incident made the paper, do you think most people reading the story would have first thought, “Why do those men behave that way?” Or would their first thought have been, “Why was that woman running alone at night?”


  1. When mountainbiking in New Zealand I am always pleasantly surprised at large number of women out on the trails by themselves, happily saying "hi" as we pass. It is as natural as anything for them and I can't help but wonder why woman fear to be out on their own here in Australia? Is it the media? I am sure the vast majority of us Aussie blokes are honourable people.
    Women here are really missing out as a result.
    As for the car load of louts? They would(and do) hurl insults at guys on their own. It can be unsettling for us too but I feel you can't let your mind run away with you.
    Happy trails.

  2. I was a recently at an ultra and met a woman who doesn't run with out a large bowie knife holstered in her chest pouch. It was an eye opener for sure. Run safe and run smart.

  3. Hi Gretel, I've had similar experiences :( We often get louts at the Glasshouse Trail Runs and while, as Flyboy suggests, they heckle the men, it's been female runners that have felt so threatened they've run off trail into the forest where the cars can't follow. Women should feel safe and it's a sad statement on society when we start to think the opposite is true.

    Something to try next time it the darkness hits you: it's only unsettling because you can't see what's lurking beyond the glow of your headlamp. As soon as you switch off your headlamp (best done when standing still, of course!) you become the scary one in the dark - no one can see you. I like to do this to restore my sense of balance and bring my awareness back to those creatures that rightfully belong in the forest at night, like the owls and the moths and the frogs :D

  4. Really well said, and really well written. Also, saddening, because it shouldn't be that way at all.