So there I was… running through the pitch-black woods with an unknown assailant hot on my heels. Defenseless, I was ready to depend upon the kindness of strangers to come to my assistance. I only had one final fateful decision to make: what exactly was I going to scream?
It all started out as my normal weekend jog. It was an unseasonably warm Sunday evening in early November with the temperature still hovering in the low sixties. After much internal debate, I had decided to replace my well-worn running shoes with a new pair that hopefully would be less like running with manhole covers attached to my feet. As was my standard practice, I parked my car at our local community center which lies adjacent to the Monon Trail: a former railroad line re-purposed as a paved pathway that runs through the idyllic town of Carmel, Indiana. With my favorite playlist pumping out through the Bluetooth speakers firmly placed in my ears, I set out for what I thought would be a uneventful eight-mile jog. This would soon turn out to not be the case.
While the temperature didn’t reflect the season, the ever-shortening amount of daylight sure did. It wasn’t long before I realized that I would be forced to turn back after around three miles if I wanted any chance of finishing up before full dark. Although the trail cuts through the heart of town, there are several tree-lined stretches with no light sources whatsoever. Even now, looking ahead, I could barely make out the shape of a solidly-built young man running while wearing shorts and a white t-shirt. As my running app was happily informing me of my better than average pace, I didn’t think twice as I sailed by this young buck on my way to what was looking to be a near personal record at this distance. My freshly padded shoes seemed to be merely glancing off the earth, my legs felt strong, and my breaths were controlled. I had just passed the Palladium, our local concert hall, and was heading into a patch of woods when something caught my attention. Footsteps. Tap… tap… tap, tap, tap. The young man I had just passed had increased his speed and was quickly catching up to me.
Now, there are any number of valid reasons why this could be happening. He could have been doing training intervals, where you alternate between slow and quick speeds to build up endurance. He could have realized, like I did, that the full darkness of night was rapidly approaching. Heck, maybe his ego got a little bruised by this grey-haired old man speeding by. Or maybe… he was some sort of deranged lunatic serial killer looking for an easy victim on a deserted jogging trail. Wait a second. Where did that thought come from? Don’t be dumb, I told myself. Stuff like that only happens in cheap made-for-cable movies based on… based on TRUE STORIES! Aw, crap.
One of my many personality quirks is a fondness for imagined negative outcomes that borders on clinical paranoia. Whatever is the worse that can happen, I’ve already considered and upped the ante on. Parasailing cables detaching without warning, Halloween apples filled with pins and needles, deranged ego-maniacal business men becoming President; these are the visions that populate my brain, and with every step I ran in synchronization with the unknown man behind me, my brain was speeding faster than feet. My first reaction was to increase my pace a bit and see what happens. Tap, tap, tap. He kept right up with me. I went a little faster. He went a little faster. Now, what was I going to do? I couldn’t keep this up for the rest of my run. Seriously, what did I really think was going to happen? Was this guy going to actually hit me in the back of my head to steal… what? My iPhone? My car? My life? In the age-old contest between the fight-or-flight reflex, flight was definitely taking the lead. Shortly ahead was a cross street that followed a circular path around a large fountain and led to a Carmel police station. Involuntarily pulling in my neck to protect my head, I suddenly faked right and cut left like an NFL running back. Behind me, I could hear my shadow also shifting direction. I broke into a full run for a few seconds before looking furtively over my shoulder only to see him slowing down to an almost complete halt. What the heck? I continued on to the far side of the fountain and pondered what to do next.
I did have a couple of options. One, I could stop into the police station, sweaty and out of breath, to report to the members of the thin blue line that… what? That while out running on a public jogging trail I had been followed by another man running on a public jogging trail? Not only would I be laughed out of the station, there was I good chance I would be recognized and made a fool of on social media before the door closed behind me. I could call my wife and have her come pick me up because… I got spooked by a boogeyman? Oh, yeah. I wouldn’t be living that down anytime soon. I could just imagine years into the future having my wife shake me awake in reaction to a noise in the night, only to tell me to never mind because she was sending the cat down to investigate instead. No thanks. I could just drive myself home except my stupid car was still parked over two miles away. With only one viable course of action to take, I simply finished my loop around the fountain and continued down the trail I had just left in a panic. Little did I know that I would soon be panicking again.
Sure enough, I had only gone about a half-mile when straining with the last bit of twilight left, I dimly saw the same guy up jogging up ahead of me. He was slowly starting his way up a pedestrian bridge over a busy street, and I was again faced with making a decision. The easiest thing to do would be to just slow down and keep him a safe distance ahead. That’s when the other voice started chiming in on me. I don’t know about women, but all men know the other voice. It’s the one that says there are new lands waiting beyond the ocean’s horizon, that there are new worlds to be explored beyond our reckoning. It’s also the same voice that says, “Here, hold my beer, I want to try something I saw in a cartoon once.” It was my male ego talking to me, and that’s a conversation that rarely ends well. It was telling me how this is Carmel, one of the statistically safest cities in the country. It told me of my still near-record pace I was running. And it gently asked me what kind of man I thought I was. At that last challenge, my chest swelled. My biceps tightened. My lips drew back as I bared my fangs. And for the second time I confidently passed up the guy in the white shirt.
For the record, one should never listen to the male ego.
It may have only been about thirty seconds before my ears related the news I didn’t want to know. Tap. Tap. Tap, tap, taptaptap…He was increasing his speed to catch up to me. Unwilling to turn around, I sensed his presence closing in behind me. I found myself again asking, now what? I surely didn’t want to go down without a fight, but was there a fight to be had? I could feel myself bracing against a blow that could happen at any second; he was that close behind me. Our footsteps sounded like one. I could hear his labored breathing just off my right ear. Should I shout for help? What does one scream at a moment such as this? Is there an appropriate protocol? For example, do I just yell the word, “Help” or do I include more information like “Hey! Anyone? I’m a father of two about to be assaulted by a Caucasian male, approximately six feet tall with brown hair and a medium build”? Should I just spew out an inarticulate howl and hope for the best? We were now in complete lockstep, with him less than one stride-length behind me, entering a long stretch of coal-black forest. Something would have to be done. Now.
Desperate times call for desperate measures. I decided that regardless of the outcome, I was going to make a stand. I wasn’t going down easy. Fully prepared to fight to the death, I leaped forward into a perfect basketball jump stop and whipped around to face my opponent. He quickly stuttered to a halt, and we found ourselves face-to-face with less than a few inches between us. My whole body was tense as I stared into his eyes, waiting for him to make a move. And then… nothing. He just stared at me blankly. I toyed with the idea of quickly punching him in the face, but it would have been totally unjustified. He hadn’t done anything besides run alongside me. Seconds ticked by, and I did the only logical thing I could think of… I turned back around and started running again. And so did he.
I was approaching the last section before I would be back in my car and headed safely home. It was a pedestrian tunnel running under another busy cross-street. No witnesses. One way in and out. It was the perfect place for an assault. We passed a set of streetlights as the trail began to descend to below grade, then darkness. I could see my shadow stretching out ahead from me as I left the lights farther behind. Then I noticed something. There was only one silhouette on the path. My uninvited partner was no longer attached to my hip. Where had he gone? I glanced over my shoulder. He had simply vanished. I was now in the tunnel and coming out the other side. Had he sprinted across the top at street level? Was he preparing to flip over the railing above me and perform a perfect superhero landing on my spine? I was running near top speed in a serpentine pattern towards the community center where I had started this fateful endeavor. Voices could be heard up ahead. Accomplices lying in wait? Nope, just a group of teens hanging out at the skate park. It was probably the first time a middle-aged man felt safe at that sound.
I had made it. I had emerged from the jungle unhurt and unscathed. Regardless of the validity of the threat, I felt I had faced it with bravery and aplomb. And, as a cherry on top, I had just recorded a new personal record for a training run. The fear of death, it turns out, is a tremendous motivator. Yet, I couldn’t help thinking, “Who was that guy? What did he want?” Why was he following me?”
Quick-cut to another part of town. A quiet suburban house. A man enters, and as he strips off his white t-shirt, tells his young wife and son, “I just had the weirdest run. A grey-haired old guy passes me up twice, stops right in front of me, then runs off crying. Goes to show, you never know what some people are thinking.”