Favourite things to do while running: Worry about the car that’s stalking me

On a visit to my parents, who still live in my hometown, I decided to go for a run. My mother was a bit wary when she saw me tie up my shoe laces. “You must be careful,” she said.

In another world, perhaps you would interpret that as her being concerned that I don’t trip and hurt myself. But I don’t live in another world, and what she really meant was, don’t get attacked.

Honestly, I was unsure about running, also weighing out whether it would be safe or not. So my mother’s comment didn’t do much to put me at ease. I decided to “run forth” when I remembered  that two days before, I was in the busy Jo’burg CBD waiting for an Uber. An act which is probably the most dangerous thing I’ve done this year. So nothing else could be worse.

I did a safety-check before stepping outside the perimeter of my parents’ yard. Up straight, shoulders back, look purposeful and not like I’m lost in the neighbourhood I spent 18 years of my life.

It had been 10 years since I first started running outside the sports ground. I was still in high school and I ran with my friends. A decade on and the same fears I had back then, remain. Permanently resting inside of me, like I was carrying a load in my belly which ironically was not the previous night’s dinner. I could feel the tension in my chest whenever I passed by someone.

I swung my arms widely along my sides as I walked, like I was on a mission and too busy to greet a stranger.

I set my watched, looked at the passing cars and started off. At this point if you think running comes naturally to me, it doesn’t. I’m always overwhelmed by the rush of oxygenated blood to my brain. And the Sun, it’s like I always choose to run at the worst time of the day because I’m always looking for trees to shadow me. Then there’s my speed, I’m always trying to regulate it.

So you see with all these other things I’m trying to figure out while running, a potential offender is really just the last thing I need.

I had finished my first lap, congratulated myself for firstly making it without stopping and secondly for dodging any dangerous people, like these two things are comparable. I was doing my second lap when I passed a group of women and instantly felt safer. I was approaching one guy and automatically felt threatened.

I realize how conceited I am to think that everyone on the street was obsessed with my running.

When I eventually passed him, he didn’t say anything. He looked at me in the same way the women and the drivers did. So I concluded he was not a threat. As I continued a man and his wife set up chairs outside their yard, ready to read newspapers. It made me feel safer because I thought if anything went wrong I could always scream for help and they would hear me. In retrospect I realize how conceited I am to think that everyone on the street was obsessed with my running.

I was on my third round when I saw a silver Toyota ride past me, nothing strange, just people going about their business. I passed the lonesome guy again, this time he said I should keep going. Further proof that he is not a creep that’s going to pull out a knife on me, I suppose.

I passed the women again and then the silver Toyota. In the next three seconds that passed I rationalized that I was being followed by this Toyota. I told myself it wasn’t the same one but then I also told myself there can’t be two different silver Toyotas circling the same track in such a short space of time. I comforted myself with the knowledge that there is always an option to pray.

I continued running to the couple reading their papers.

And then as I approached a junction, I saw my mother’s SUV pull up. I waved hysterically at her, thinking she was going to the shops to get something for lunch. Her windows automatically lowered down in the most suburban way which is confusing because we live in a township. As I approached the vehicle the first thing she said was: “Is it safe?”

Yes. Not, “Hey I see you too,” or “Do you need water?” Even though she could see that I was perfectly fine she asked if it was still safe to run in the neighbourhood. This is probably the worst 21st Century problem of all time.

I assured her that I was fine and that I was finishing soon. The silver Toyota freaked me out a bit and I didn’t want to pass the couple reading the newspapers again.

I walked off my final lap and finished the rest of my workout in my parents’ yard.

A few years back I tried running in the neighbourhood I now live in, but was accosted by a man who uttered some really threatening comments. I have not run alone again since. Instead I opt to run in a park with a friend. It’s usually a controlled environment, on a particular day of the week at a certain time, and we’re normally surrounded by other runners.

I had asked my friend, who is also a woman, if she considered running in the park by herself at some other time and she was highly against it. She even found an app which generates routes to run in our area, but chose not to run this particular route because it went through a “dangerous” part of the neighbourhood.

I’ve wondered if guys worry about their safety this much whenever they have to do something as simple as running. I know my brother doesn’t. He has been running the same route I took in my hometown for years and my parents are totally okay with it. I think only once I heard them tell him not to run, because it was getting dark and they were worried that the cars would not see him. Nice life problems.

In another world, I probably wouldn’t have a whole debate in my head every time I went out. I probably wouldn’t have to check my pepper spray either or remind myself which pressure points to strike if I ended up in an undesirable situation.

In another world, I probably wouldn’t stop running.

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