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?”