It’s a little too quiet here. I stop for a moment, peering through the scrub oak around me. The trees are mostly thinned by the fall weather, with just enough leaves left to make an unnerving rustle now and then. I make a full circle, slowly, then quickly, since I keep thinking I have my back to something…
Nothing moves, there is no sound. I stand still for a few minutes. I know myself pretty well, since I’ve been with me for many years now, and I know I can make myself jumpy if I don’t give myself a mental slap. I’m miles from my car. I haven’t seen another person for hours. If I get nervous now, it’s going to be a long and unpleasant return home.
So I give myself that slap. Yes, it is quiet. This trail is busy when the weather is good, so I don’t think the quiet is caused by my presence. So, yes, there is probably some predator nearby. But the likelihood that I would be considered lunch is very small. Possible, but unlikely. A possibility I already knew, I always know, every time I head out on a trail. So, what to do?
Keep running. The trail climbs steeply, the trees are close around me on all sides, until it opens suddenly and dramatically to the most beautiful view in the world.
That’s just my opinion, but I’m probably right.
I stop, take pictures. Take a drink. Keep running.
People have asked me why I run alone in the mountains. Doesn’t it scare me? Am I just trying to get raped or murdered or eaten by rabid squirrels?
Yes, sometimes it scares me. No, I’m not stupid or suicidal.
Like everything in life, if you use that mushy stuff in your skull, you weigh the risks vs. rewards. If the rewards outweigh the risks, then you do what you can to mitigate the risks.
Risks. When you trail run alone, you might…
- Get lost. This is actually pretty likely, unless you really know where you are all the time. Just viewing maps of an area isn’t very helpful to me, because the topography and trees make everything so different. I look for landmarks while I run that I can head back to, and I never get so lost in thought that I forget to pay attention to my surroundings. Just in case, I always carry some basics for survival, and I always carry a cell phone.
- Meet up with bad people. This is less likely than it seems. Certainly a rapist or attacker can find easier targets than a lone woman miles from the nearest road. I’m not suggesting that everyone running and biking the trails is trustworthy, but that’s why I carry pepper spray. Also, be aware of your surroundings.
- Meet up with predatory animals. This is one of my big worries, even though attacks are ridiculously rare. I’ve seen a few coyote and a bobcat, but mountain lions and black bear live here too. I’ve never heard of a local mountain lion attack on a human, but there have been deadly bear attacks. In spite of this, I fear mountain lions much more than bears. I mean, have you ever watched a cat “play” with a mouse? The advice I’ve heard is face down a lion, make yourself big and loud and scary, but back down from a bear. I carry pepper spray. If I forget my pepper spray, I carry a fist-sized rock, or a stick. I always feel a little better with some sort of weapon. Also, be aware of your surroundings.
- Get injured. Falling hurts. Falling and getting hurt while you are absolutely alone is scary. MY NUMBER ONE PIECE OF ADVICE is that somebody always knows where you are. Running alone is a fantastic, completely independent activity, but if you find yourself on the trail with a bone jutting through your running tights, you’re going to be glad you told your mom or best friend EXACTLY where you were going and when you’d be home. I usually inform my husband exactly where I’ll be, and if for any reason I change my route mid-run, I send him a text. Even if he doesn’t know the area well enough for it to make sense to him, it will make sense to rescuers that are familiar with the area. If you’re injured and have cell phone service, rescuers recommend that you call 911 first, before friends or family, so they can get a hit on your exact location.
Rewards. When you trail run alone, you can…
- Run on beautiful trails even when the usual running buddies are not available. Without conversation, you focus on your surroundings. The loamy trail, the smell of sage, the myriad sounds that fill the trees, things that might slip your notice when you’re with companions are more obvious with solitude.
- Go at your own pace, run at your own speed (which in my case is slower than the speed of the aforementioned running buddies); take pictures; sit in a meadow and have a honey gel picnic.
- Think. Be alone and think. No television, traffic or electronic white noise. Just the sounds of the wild and the sounds inside your own head. The sounds inside your head need some alone time.
- Be afraid. Seriously. What do you fear? Not what your ancestors feared, that is almost certain. We all have rational fears, such as disease or losing a loved one, but what are your most common worries? Being late to work? Making the money stretch to the end of the month? Terrorist attacks that make us all feel powerless? When you feel fear, your heart pumps harder, you breathe faster, and your senses become sharper. When that happens to me while running on a trail, I feel alive. My thoughts become clear and I consider the danger and what to do about it. When that happens to me when I’m stuck in traffic on the freeway while heading to an important meeting… well, that’s entirely different and the effects on my body are probably as deadly as meeting a mountain lion.
- Be wild. We’re animals. That’s what we are. Being alone in the wild brings a feeling to the surface from deep inside, from long ago. Letting that animal inside of you run free now and then makes the rest of life, those other fears and stresses, so much easier to handle. Our bodies are running machines, but they were designed as such long before pavement and treadmills. Running in the wild is at the core of what it is to be human.
I hope that I have convinced you that the rewards of trail running alone far outweigh the risks, and that the risks can be greatly reduced with a little forethought.
So, the next time your running buddies bail on you, tie on your shoes and go without them. Get in touch with your inner wild animal. Throw your head back and howl if you want to, I won’t tell.
But first, remember to tell mom where you’re going.