I am not a fearful person – there is very little that will make me feel so, I’ve always been difficult to scare and having been a rather emotionally detached person for the vast majority of my life, I have always been desensitised to generally offensive or alarmist news articles or the sight gags of horror films, but of late, I’ve found an unease in the simplest, most innocent of activities – running.
In January, while out running, a woman was killed – perhaps a daily occurrence in other countries, but here in New Zealand, in the elite suburb of Remuera, in broad daylight, on a main road with usually heavy traffic and on her everyday usual running route, a woman was murdered.
She was killed by someone she didn’t know, randomly and seemingly without motive. After being reportedly struck with an undisclosed object, she crawled to the lawn of a nearby house and lay there hoping for attention for an hour before she the owners of the house saw her (not their fault – how often do you look out the window to admire your lawn?). The man turned himself in a few hours later and there haven’t been many more details about the attack released.
While to some it may have been just the daily news, to me it hit home a little more – not at first, but later that day once news broke and after upon finding out, my partner expressed worriedly how easily it could have been me.
The woman was killed on my usual running route – a common route for runners in the area.
The woman was killed on my usual running route at the exact time I was out running - one street away - because I’d decided my touch-and-go knees weren’t up to the hills on that route that day.
The woman was killed, on my usual running route, at the exact time I was running, where if not for my knees, I would have been at the same point, at the same time, and potentially could have found myself in the same predicament…this was the hitting-home point.
Remuera to me, had always been a sanctuary, a suburb where everyone smiles and says hello to each other, morning runners greet each other in the wee hours with grins that seems to convey the motivational cheer to ‘keep going’, it had been a place where there was no thought against walking alone at night or running through the bush trail as it started to get dark because this, was a place of sanctuary.
In the wake of the murder, many women became fearful of repeats and thus a ‘take back the night’ style running rally was arranged for Remuera women to reclaim their running routes without fear. The event was hailed by the runners as restorative though some still took to social media to show off their new personal alarms, showcasing their still palpable fear of repeat attacks (albeit through the cheerful display of matching one’s alarm to one’s running clothes) because once the hundreds of other feet plodding beside you dissipate, once it returns to just being you, alone on the street, it’s a different feeling.
The first time I ran again after the attack, I held my dog’s choker chain in my hand – I don’t particularly know what I was planning to do with it – perhaps get a couple of strikes in or end up wearing it myself on a stranger’s lawn but it took away the apprehension for the duration of the run. When I returned home, I realised the absurdity, the danger and the illegality of carrying what was basically a weapon as I ran.
The second or third time I ran (a few weeks later), I noticed a car without licence plates driving alongside me. The driver was hanging out of his car window, staring directly at me, expressionless. At the time, I didn’t think much of it, that perhaps it was just the token creepy guy that girls get leering at them as they run and that he’d leave soon enough. I continued running, rounding a couple of corners, noticing the car still following me, stopping when I stopped to cross a road, rounding the same corners as I, driving at a snail’s pace across the road from me, matching my speed for several streets until I ducked in to a nearby park. At one point, I’d taken a stealthy snapchat of the car and sent it to my boyfriend, just in case something did happen.
When I got home (alert to my surroundings), my boyfriend urged me to call the police. I declined initially because I felt like it was a waste of resources – who do you even call, it’s not an emergency? – I felt like it was just being weak and alarmist to tattle-tale to the police when nothing had actually happened but after some prompting, I called and reported it, solely because I thought it suspicious that the car had no plates – it seemed too motivated and I wouldn’t want to have known about it and find out something had happened to someone else.
Ever since the two incidents, I haven’t really run – I plan to - I lay out my clothes, heck one night I slept in my running clothes so all I’d need to do was put on my shoes, but when I’ve woken to see the dark mornings, a feeling of apprehension has taken over and I’ve made my excuses to go back to bed. The only times I have run have been in full daylight on busy streets, eschewing my preferred routes of bush trail and solitude in the darker hours I love for hot and sticky times of daylight hours where the streets are littered with people and the routes congested.
It’s an entirely new feeling – the apprehension and unease – where something as innocent as daily exercise has become tainted with a pit of fear in my chest.
There was a good line to describe it in the late-nineties TV show, ‘Roswell’ once:
“It’s funny how the world changes sometimes, how the streets you’ve walked your entire life seem darker, colder. How the silence isn’t so quiet anymore. How eyes you’ve barely even noticed now look at nothing but you. How the walk home every night is no longer routine but a victory. And then you begin to wonder – maybe it’s not the world that’s changed, maybe it’s just you but then something happened and suddenly you being to wonder all over again.” (S1, E3 –“Missing”)
These two incidents have collectively taken something from me, a freedom and delight I’d found in the simple act of running – a necessity considering the training required for the running goals my boyfriend and I have for this year. I’ve forced myself out only once of late, waiting until the morning light began to emerge, and sticking to a busy traffic route – sans weapons but also without headphones in order to stay alert. How do we find solace again after something happens to shake you in places you didn’t know existed? How do we return to a place of confidence and fearlessness?
For me, it’s my own personal brand of exposure therapy – I’ve never been fearful of anything, I don’t like being vulnerable, I don’t like feeling weak because I am an inherently strong person emotionally and I’ve always despised any show to the contrary with the exception of my partner. I try everything and anything, things I’ve never done before, apprehensive or not because if you’re fearful of life, you’ll never try anything, you’ll never accomplish anything.
It’s a refusal now to accept anything less and thus I will be running again every morning, throwing myself in the deep end again back to the bush trails I love at the time before the sun rises where the world is quiet and the air crisp, where runners greet each other with motivational cheers through welcoming smiles and the world seems to slow down just for you - with one proviso, the headphones stay at home.
It would be reckless to pretend the world is a perfect place, that people are all inherently good and that an innocent run through the local bush track will always remain exactly that, but rather it’s about facing what you’re afraid of, or in my case, apprehensive about – acknowledging the fear and why it affects you so and pushing through it to retrieve the confidence that is so rightfully yours.
What are you afraid of?