A few years ago, I did a long run for my marathon training. Part of it was with my husband, who was training for a half marathon at the time.
After running 12 miles together, he headed for home. I turned around and ran back down the bike path near our house toward town. I hoped to run 20 total miles.
The bike path ends at a quiet street in town, where I had to decide – turn left or right. Either decision results in an uphill climb, so I randomly chose a right turn and ran up the hill, past rows of houses. I was running on the sidewalk.
Ahead of me, I saw a group of people, a family by the looks of them, exiting a van, crossing the sidewalk, and walking up the path toward their house. One of the little girls was holding the leash of her dog, a Boxer.
I had to make a quick mental calculation – should I stay on the sidewalk or go out into the street to avoid the group? I determined that the family would be on the path to the house by the time I passed and opted to stay on the sidewalk.
I was correct in my estimation. By the time I ran by, the entire family had cleared the sidewalk. They were walking up the path. Some of them had even opened the door and entered the house. The last one in the group to leave the sidewalk was the little girl and her dog.
I smiled at the girl as I passed, and she smiled back and waved to me.
One second later, I felt a sharp pain at the top of my left thigh. The dog had bitten me!
Shocked, I yelled and looked down. My shorts were torn, my leg was bleeding, and the little girl was wailing. The dog, now confused by all the commotion, had given no warning of an impending attack. He never growled, never barked, never assumed a threatening posture. He just lunged at me after I had already passed him.
The rest of the family poured out of the house and came to my rescue. They apologized profusely and offered to drive me home. Shaken, I turned down their offer and, holding my torn shorts together the best I could, began walking the mile back to my house. My run was over for the day.
When I got home, I sponged the blood from my leg and saw a grapefruit-sized bruise forming around the puncture marks. I called my doctor to determine whether a visit was in order. She instructed me to contact an animal control officer to ensure the dog was current on all of his vaccinations (he was).
Of course, the wound healed eventually. I have, however, a residual wariness of strange dogs I encounter.
Before the incident, I remember standing up to farm dogs who, unleashed, came running out to the road, barking as I passed by. “No!” I would yell at them, trying to make myself appear as large as possible. “Go home!” I exclaimed, pointing in the direction of the farmhouse.
I am more timid now, making my husband run between me and any dog we encounter.
As we get older, we accumulate these cautionary tales.
We remember bad things that happened to us, such as dog bites. Or bad things that almost happened. Like the time, late at night, a car followed me home from the restaurant where I worked. I sped around corners and blew through stop signs trying to shake him, but nothing worked. Luckily I spied a policeman parked at a convenience store and pulled into the parking space beside him, which got rid of my follower.
We hear of bad things that happened to friends, like the instance when my running partner got flashed by some creepy pervert while she was running in the early morning darkness before work.
We see bad things that happen in the news. Solo women runners are abducted, assaulted, and even killed. Once, while running alone out in the countryside, a car slowed down and pulled up behind me. I began scouting nearby farmhouses for my potential escape.
The driver rolled down the car window and leaned out. It was an elderly Mennonite woman. She asked me if I was lost and needed a ride home. I thanked her and told her I was out running in the middle of nowhere on purpose, a concept foreign to her. The incident still rattled me.
These episodes are sticky. They cling to us long after they have occurred. They find hidden corners of our psyche and abide.
It is up to each one of us to strike a balance between recklessness and timidity.
As we age, there is more and more weight on the side of the emotional scale favoring apprehension.
I have a friend who once confided in me, “My mom always taught us to not be afraid.” This is the friend who has instigated many of my running adventures (and misadventures).
She is the one who suggested doing the 4x4x48 Challenge last spring. The one who signed us up for a 24-hour relay. The one who encouraged me to run my first marathon (Steamtown), and my last one (Marine Corps), and many of the ones in between (Berlin, Chicago, Boston, etc.)
This woman is bold. Her mother taught her well. And when it comes to choosing confidence over unease, she is my role model.
I don’t want to miss out on experiences because I am afraid. I learn this every time I decide not to run because the weather report is a little iffy. I learn it every time I hesitate to step outside of my comfort zone. I learn it every time I pass on an invitation because I am apprehensive.
When (if?) I am 80 I want to wear a sombrero and dance until midnight. I want to sing karaoke, travel to the far corners of the earth, and embarrass my children. I want to laugh too loudly, cry unashamedly, and hug indiscriminately.
And I want to run with joy. It may be a very slow shuffle by that time, but I still want to be out on the trails and roads, finding my bliss.
Just not too close to strange dogs.
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