It is spoken of often, the loneliness of the long distance runner. There are the early mornings and late nights, the toil and tedium of the same roads and same hills, and same old songs on the Ipod, the isolation, the boredom. But those of us who make ultrarunning a part of our lives embrace the solitude, even crave it. Who among us hasn't experienced a trying day and longed for nothing more than a remote trail, many miles from other people, with nothing to accompany us but our footfalls and the blood thudding in our ears? Who needs a training partner, when you could be left to yourself to think, and dream? While ultra distance runners often find pleasure in being alone, there is some inherent danger in going out there by oneself. But, by being properly armed with information on how to deal with the challenges, we will be better equipped to take off running safely.
The potential dangers of running can be broken down into two categories – conditions that are under your own personal control, and those outside of it. For safety's sake (and your mother's peace of mind) you can eliminate as many risks to your adventures as possible, and also plan for what to do if a situation outside of your own control arises.
The first thing to consider when heading out the door is to know where you are going. If you live with someone, it is a good idea to mention to them where you plan to run and when to expect you back. For the average ultrarunner, being gone for 6-12 hours is not out of the question, but neither is a short recovery day. So tell someone when you'll be home. If you are running trails, let someone know which one and how far. When you are on vacation or in an unfamiliar part of town, it's a good idea to do a little reconnaissance first. Most municipalities have a parks and recreation website that will offer you downloadable trail maps and descriptions of the terrain so you can be prepared. When running in a strange city, you can ask the hotel concierge to help you plan a safe route or search for runs put together by locals on mapmyrun.com. When you do hit the trail, be sure to bring your map. I like to use my scanner to shrink a map, then do a DIY laminating job with clear packing tape, so the map doesn't fall to pieces if it gets wet. If you are directionally challenged, and could get lost in a studio apartment (like myself), study those maps well in advance. If you feel uncomfortable, choose something easier or take a buddy.
Besides planning your route, the other safety aspect you should consider, is your attire and gear. In the winter, this can mean wearing layers and bringing more in case you slow down or the weather changes, as well as a pair of disposable hand warmers. In the summer it means carrying enough water or planning a route that will take you by water sources frequently, and using appropriate sun protection. You should carry ID in the form of an old driver's license, dog tag or a wrist band such as Road ID. A cell phone can get you out of a jam, so can a credit card or a few bucks tucked into that otherwise useless little pocket in the back of your shorts. If you are running at night, or exploring new trails in a large park, it is wise to bring along a headlamp or hand held flashlight. If a long day is on your agenda in an unfamiliar, vast or remote area, bring plenty of food and water, and an emergency kit that includes a whistle, small knife, matches and basic first aid along. It is always better to have a little more than you need than not enough. The extra weight you're carrying will make you stronger for race day!
While many unforeseen circumstances can arise during your workout – from stomach distress, to a major bonk, there are a few more serious situations that shouldn't be ignored. While we can't go about living our lives in fear or staying holed up in our bedrooms so the bogeyman can't get us, we should accept that there is a minimal risk we are taking by heading out alone and learn how to handle those situations. Though there are many scenarios to choose from, we are going to address the three that present the most real danger and learn how to minimize them.
On December 30, 2011 Robert and Linda Mathis, race directors of dozens of trail ultras and operators of ultrarunner.net, were struck and killed while on an evening walk. The driver was under the influence of drugs. It was a huge loss to the ultrarunning community and drives home the fact that our safety is not just up to us. As people who had experience with running safe races, it is likely they were taking normal precautions and they were hit while in a marked crosswalk. But the driver made a bad choice, and these two special people lost their lives. By far, the most dangerous thing to a runners life, limb, and successful career are vehicles. Millions of people run at least once a week on the roads, and you are probably one of them. According to NHTSA 4,092 pedestrians were killed and another 59,000 were injured by vehicles in 2009. I'll never forget the morning two years ago when I was out for a run and the news reported a hit and run 3 miles from my home. She was a Jane Doe and her description – 5'7”, auburn hair, 30 years old, is the same as mine. For a short time my friends and family were panicked, thinking it was me. I hadn't told them where I was going, nor brought my phone or ID. It drove home the point that being properly prepared is not just for my sake, but for the sake of those I loved as well.
So, how can you stay safe on the road? Choose your time wisely – try to avoid rush hour traffic if it's possible. If you must run in the dark, wear bright clothing, a reflective vest or blinking light, and a powerful headlamp. Be defensive – if you cannot run on the sidewalk, always run against the flow of traffic. Do not assume people can see you, even in broad daylight, or that they will stop at Stop signs, and yield the right of way to you. Drivers can be texting, eating, daydreaming, or distracted by bad weather. If there is a car coming toward you at night, wag you head back and forth signaling them with that flame thrower of a headlamp you wear. If they don't move over for you or give you enough room, always be ready to jump up onto the curb. Even if a driver does see you, some individuals may be hostile towards pedestrians in the road and refuse to give you adequate space. Be especially careful on blind corners as well. It is best to leave the MP3 player for a gym workout or trail run, since having your ears plugged effectively removes one of your senses. At the very least keep the volume low, or run with only one ear bud in. You cannot control how the others drive, but you can be alert, cautious and defensive.
Some of us dream of running into a bear, moose or big cat on our back country adventures, while that's something the rest of hope to never encounter. Whether it's your daydream or your worst nightmare, odds are good that you'll experience neither. Bear and cat attacks do happen, but they are extremely rare, and it is unlikely you'll be chased up a tree by a moose either. A more realistic animal threat however, can be found in man's best friend. In January, a 62 year old Chicago area runner was viciously attacked on his morning run by a gang of pitbull terriers. Help arrived in time to spare his life, but not before the dogs succeeded in chewing off the man's foot. This was an extreme attack, by some abnormally violent dogs, but violent dog attacks are not all that uncommon. Behind vehicles, they are the second biggest external risk we face. In my anecdotal evidence of running in local parks, the leash law is more like a suggestion than a law. And who hasn't heard those famous last words: “Don't worry, he's friendly”, moments before we had a couple of big paws up on our chests or Fido chasing us down the trail? Most of us can say that we have at least once been cornered, nipped at, chased, if not outright harmed by an unleashed dog. In 2011, over 350,000 non-fatal dog bites were treated in US emergency rooms, and 31 fatalities were reported.
Though many of us have a dog, or love dogs, we can never predict how a dog will react to a strange person running towards them. Even if their owners say that their pooch is friendly, never trust a strange dog. A good rule of thumb when you approach a leashed or unleashed dog on your run is to slow down and give it a wide berth. If the dog is unleashed and approaches you, you can ask the owner to restrain him. If he won't or can't get to him in time, or the dog seems to have no owner in the vicinity, follow these guidelines from the Humane Society: never scream or run away, remain motionless with hands at your side and do not make eye contact. Once the dog loses interest, slowly back away until he is out of sight. If the dog does lunge at you, try to “feed” it your water bottle, pack, anything you can get between the two of you. If you fall or are knocked to the ground, curl into a ball, with your hands over your ears and remain motionless. If you are especially frightened of dogs, or the unfriendly ones seem overly drawn to you, it may not be a bad idea to carry pepper spray for an emergency. There are many hand held products on the market that you can find at online running retailers such as runsafety.com. Most all of us love dogs, but a healthy dose of caution should be exercised when encountering unfamiliar ones on the road and trail.
On January 7, 2012 Sherry Arnold, a wife, mother and school teacher from Billings, Montana was abducted and murdered on her morning run. Two men later confessed to kidnapping and strangling her. What female runner heard this story, of a random crime happening to a woman who ran the same route safely for years, and didn't experience a sense of helplessness and fear? Over 5 million people are violently attacked or killed in this country every year, and statistics show that women who are currently over the age of 21 have a 1 in 4 chance of being violently attacked during their lifetime. By in large these statistics don't reflect random stranger to stranger attacks, but are the product of dysfunctional relationships, drug or gang related activity. However, the risk to us is not zero. Being prepared for potential danger is better than sticking your head in the sand and thinking it'll never happen to you. In that spirit, here are tips provided by a self defense specialist, that may help you avoid becoming a victim.
First remember to stay alert to your surroundings, getting rid of the MP3 player helps as does scanning the area for danger spots or escape routes in case you are confronted. Run or walk tall and confidently and make eye contact with others. Bad guys are looking for a victim, don't appear to be frightened, anxious or distracted – making you an easy target. Again, carrying a cell phone or pepper spray are smart choices if you will be in an unpopulated or new area. Make steady eye contact with the people you pass, be polite, but keep moving. If a car or individual stops to ask for the time or direction, keep your distance, shrug your shoulders and keep moving. If something seems suspicious, follow your gut and change directions. If a car cruises past you more than once, make a note of the license plate number or call home to report it. If you are verbally harassed or jeered, ignore it. If you are confronted, run towards a populated area if possible. If you are attacked, try to stay calm and fix the attackers description in your mind. Begging, pleading or other displays of fear can only escalate the situation. If someone approaches you with a weapon and orders you to go with them, never go. Your strengths and abilities as a runner are your best assets, and the goal is to get away as fast as possible. There are websites such as selfdefense-4-women.com that can teach you specific self defense maneuvers, and every major city should offer classes. Just taking a few minutes to become familiar with these techniques could increase a woman's confidence in running alone.
Being adequately prepared should allow us to enjoy each run without worry. These extreme scenarios are unlikely, and happily most of us will never experience these types of emergency situations. As I've often said – the much greater danger lies in letting fear keep us at home on the couch, instead of deep in the woods where we long to be. We shouldn't waste life being frightened, but being armed with information will allow us to get out there and pound pavement or dirt happily and safely for many years to come.