There is a greenway in the city that I live in. It runs from the southeastern part of town all the way up to the northeastern part.
There are pieces of it where it is obvious that it is in the middle of the city, where roads and structures, houses and cars can be seen everywhere. There are other parts where you could imagine you were wandering through the woods in the countryside if you didn’t know better. Many of these trails connect to greater parks too.
I am very happy to have something like this near to me (well, within a half hour’s drive anyways). It is nice to have a place to bike, walk, or run without having to worry about having to run in a circle or getting lost.
When I first moved here, I wanted to go for a six mile run, so I used googlemaps to map out a route. Once I got out there, though, I had to change course several times because roads did not connect and everything was closed off.
I don’t know if it’s just in this location, or if it’s a general trend everywhere, but it seems like everything is becoming more insulated. Most neighborhoods are gated and only have one or two entrances, everything is a loop that doesn’t connect to anything, and even uninhabited land is all fenced up, claimed, and protected, lest someone get the crazy idea to walk over it to get somewhere faster.
But I digress.
Today I want to talk about something else.
A couple of weeks ago a woman was sexually assaulted on one of these greenway trails at the back of a park while she was running. At nine o’clock in the morning. Without headphones.
I have mentioned that I like to run, alone, with loud music, on weekend mornings when my husband is home to watch our daughter.
Now, I have been aware for a while that bad things can happen to women who choose to run alone with headphones. I have also been aware that bad things have happened before on the greenway trails, although usually during less heavily trafficked times and more in certain parts of town than others.
Which is why this incident spooks me. It was in broad daylight during a time when one would normally see plenty of bikes and pedestrians out and about, as well as the occasional police bike patrol. And it happened in what most would consider one of the nicer parts of town. Apparently, the woman had heard something behind her, but she though it was just an animal so she didn’t turn around.
When I was at my Stroller Strides classes, the women talked about it a lot. They said “Don’t you go running out there on the weekends?” or “I’d be afraid to go out there alone.” It was a little awkward. I wanted to defend my right to run alone on the greenway, but I knew that they were right to be cautious. So why would I insist on continuing to do something potentially dangerous?
I thought about the incident a lot in the days leading up to this morning run; I was adamant about going anyways. I thought about carrying a knife, an idea I quickly dismissed since I don’t know how to defensively use a knife and it could easily be turned against me. Mace might be nice, but I didn’t have any and frankly I’m kind of scared of mace too, since I sprayed myself in the face with it once when I was a kid.
Ultimately, I decided to go for fingers in the eyes and the nose and just scream like hell if anyone grabbed me. Repeating this like a mantra, I reasoned with myself that it was most likely that nothing would happen to me at all.
Really, what I did was to make a risk decision. I weighed the likelihood of something happening against the benefits I would gain from going and decided that I would rather go. And no, nothing happened (or I’d be writing a very different post, I’m sure).
I can almost hear the people that would disagree with my choice in my head, nagging me about safety precautions and prevention. Or maybe that’s just my own little voice of caution.
But here’s the thing….
We all draw a different line when it comes to acceptable risk; that’s why some people bungee jump and others don’t.
Just for reference, I have seen myself at both ends of the caution spectrum.
As a former raging alcoholic, I used to put myself in risky situations all the time (although I wouldn’t say there was a lot of conscious decision-making going on there). I can’t even tell you how many times over I could have been arrested, raped, beaten up, mugged, or killed or could have inflicted harm upon someone else. I really didn’t give it much thought, and for whatever reason, I escaped about 15 years of perpetual drunkenness and poor decision-making largely unscathed. I’m convinced someone was looking out for me.
When I first got sober, I went the opposite direction. Suddenly, I was sure something horrible was going to happen, like I had used up all my “get out of jail free” cards and the next mistake would surely be the last straw. I would leave the house in the morning and imagine I had left the stove on and the house would catch on fire and my cats would die locked inside. I’d imagine I’d left the door unlocked and a burglar would come in and destroy the place and kill my cats. I’d imagine I’d look down at a text on my phone and go careening off the side of the road at 70 miles an hour— and I would be dead and my cats would die alone of starvation and dehydration. (I didn’t have a child at the time, my cats WERE my babies).
After hours of therapy, many AA sessions, and a short round of anti-anxiety medication, I mellowed out a bit and learned how to calm the desperate voice of fear lurking in my head.
Now, I try to find a happy middle road between living without fear and having a healthy amount of it. If I feel fear, I ask myself it is useful to my situation. If it is, I take precautions. If it is not, I tell it to go away. I’m far from perfect at this, but it is how I try to live now. Sometimes, though, there is something that I have a healthy fear of, but I choose to confront it anyways. Reckless? Maybe, but if I have something to gain from it, I have to take a good look at it and see whether the risk is worth the reward. I have to figure out where my line is.
How free should we be to draw our own personal line? That’s a tough questions to answer, but I think that being too cautious is just as bad as not being cautious enough. I think there is a trend in our society today to try to protect everyone from themselves, and it kind of freaks me out.
Imagine, if you will, a hypothetical future, a sort of “Idiocracy” meets “Demolition Man” (remember the whole “salt is illegal” thing?) kind of world where people’s ability to think critically and make their own decisions has been degraded and the government makes everything that’s bad for them against the law. I don’t think this is fantasy, I think this is a definite possible outcome of the way we live.
Why? Because of liability.
When I was stationed in Spain in the military, I went to lots of town carnivals. Many of them were heavily focused around drinking but they usually had a few rides for the kids. I remember watching kids get on this one ride that was a big circle that would spin around and simultaneously tilt from side to side—think Gravitron but without a roof and slightly slower so people aren’t smooshed up against the sides for the duration of the ride. And no, they were not in any way strapped in.
Kids of all ages got on this thing and proceeded to stumble and fall around while the ride was going—great fun for the kiddos, I imagine, but I couldn’t help but think to myself “This is an accident and a lawsuit just waiting to happen. This would never fly in the USA.” And it’s true. The ride was pretty dangerous, and I’m sure kids have been injured on it.
Now, forget about the kids for a minute (I do think children should be protected, even from their parents’ dumb decisions), and just think about the principle of the thing. Here in the States, we are very quick to assign blame and ensure that someone is bearing the burden of liability. Often, this ends up not being the individual but the organization. This is why we end up with warnings on things like “Do not drive vehicle with sunshade in place.” Somebody drove with a sunshade in place and then blamed the company who made the sunshade for not telling them not to.
So we end up with warnings on everything. But what happens when it is decided that individuals are not capable of making smart decisions, when people don’t heed warnings? We force them to–think seatbelt and helmet laws. And some people still resist even that.
Well, some people just really feel like they should have the right to take risks if they want to. I personally think it’s pretty dumb not to wear a seatbelt. I think it’s pretty dumb not to wear a helmet on a motorcycle. But….. I would choose not to wear a helmet on a bicycle if I could. Sometimes I don’t when I know no one will see me. Why? Well, I grew up riding bikes in Germany where everyone rides bicycles all the time, not just for sport but for transportation, and you don’t see a lot of helmets. It just seems excessive to me.
And that’s the thing. I have my line. You have yours. Obviously, some standards need to be maintained so that we are not creating a burden to society through reckless behavior nor are we infringing on personal rights. But regardless of what we think of each other’s assessment of acceptable risk, there has to be an allowable gray area where I can choose to take more or less risk than you do. I think that this is an important thing to uphold.
Running alone with headphones is something I look forward to all week, and it does a spectacular job of recharging my battery, giving me greater patience, mindfulness, empathy, and serenity for days afterwards.
I want to run alone with headphones. Period. I can make small adjustments to reduce risk: make sure my running route is in the most heavily-trafficked area, make sure I wait until the sun has completely risen rather than trying to get out earlier, buy some mace (maybe). But I am not willing to stop.
I don’t want to let a rare event frighten me away from something that gives me so much back. For now, I accept the risk. And for now, thankfully, that’s my decision to make.
Do you agree? Disagree? Where is your line?