As long as I can remember, running has been where I’ve felt most comfortable. The feel of my body moving through space, the wind, the matched sound of my footfalls and my own heartbeat. 

By Mel Edgar

There’s a freedom. I don’t have to worry about anything: if my face has the right expression, or if I’m saying or doing the right thing. Running feels completely natural, like breathing. Just move my arms and legs and let them carry me. Ahhh.

I’ve always been a runner, but at this moment my joy in running feels particularly sweet. My body hasn’t always been this well, or this strong. Slipped discs, sciatica, stress, burnout have all had their part to play in wearing me down. And, coming from Vancouver, there was also the ever present fear of being met with violence.

But this fear has changed since moving to Powell River two years ago. In this place, surrounded by sea, mountains and sky I’ve enjoyed a kind of running that had been elusive before. A kind of running that still remains elusive to many women.

I run alone through the forest.

This kind of running wasn’t the outcome of a big rebellious decision I made. I didn’t suddenly put my foot down and declare, “Forest! I will run in you!”

When I first began running here, I wasn’t sure of my own abilities. The first inkling I had of my own strength was after a run with the Powell River Trail Runners. Tagging along behind Karin Cummings and Joseph McLean, I learned I could run much further than I thought. That first run I thought I could maybe do 10 kilometres and we ran for 29! It was an epic run and transformative. I was sore, wasp-stung, hungry, vital and beaming—I knew in my heart that this sport was for me.

I was hooked and I needed to run. Morning runs whooping through Willingdon Beach with Karin and her dog Mali got me on my way. Then wintertime runs in the evening with the crazily funny ladies at Coast Fitness. Feeling stronger and stronger I started heading out solo.

Running alone

I began tentatively. I’d run a little bit into a trail, startle at a sound, the sight of a strange person. Is that a bear? Why is that man crouching in the bushes?

Fear would wash over me and I’d turn around and head for home. There’s thousands of years of evolution at play here and I’m the last person to tell anyone not to listen to their fear response.

So why did I keep going? Running felt good. The further I could go the better I felt. Plus the trails were so beautiful.

At first though, every person I met on the trail was a possible attacker.

It’s ingrained in girls from a tender young age that it’s our job to protect ourselves from danger. This has a real impact on our confidence as we grow up and take our place in the world. We’re told that it’s “not safe” to go to the park, walk to a friend’s house, or go to school alone. That the risk of being “snatched” means it’s not a good idea to have a lemonade stand or study at the library too late at night.

For lone women runners, the danger is real.

In March, a 32-year-old jogger was sexually assaulted and beaten on a trail in Colwood, on Vancouver Island. In 2015, a 23-year-old woman was sexually assaulted and beaten running on a trail in Langford.

In 2009, the body of the wife of one of my father’s colleagues, Wendy Ladner-Beaudry, was discovered in the forested trails of the UBC Endowment Lands. She was running when she was attacked.

When my sister lived in downtown Vancouver, one of her neighbours was Ji-Won Park, a young South Korean student. You’ll likely remember her as the jogger who suffered severe brain damage after being attacked in Stanley Park in 2002.

She was a strong student with a bright future, but after that day in the park she was confined to a wheelchair with very little awareness of the world around her. My family would see her in the elevator and her mother would nod and smile at us.

The smiles never reached her eyes. Ji-Won Park and her family were destroyed by what happened. After seeing them, my mother would sometimes lean over and ask, “you wouldn’t run alone, would you Melissa?”

But I do run alone. Since moving to Powell River I’ve run just over 1,600 kilometres.

Solo running has become so important to me. For the first time I feel as if I can truly own and inhabit my own body.

Running is sweaty, stinky and messy. Scratched legs, sore muscles. There is an honesty there that’s been liberating. What a feeling to look squarely at your abilities and limitations, accept them and keep moving along, one foot in front of the other. It’s a feeling of making friends with yourself, liking who you are. For me, that feeling has been hard won and it has come through running.

It’s wonderful and empowering and also mixed in with a lot of guilt. A feeling that if something were to happen to me it would be my fault.

Running from fear

Here in Powell River, as I ran more and more, and further and further, I began recognizing the people I met on the trail.

“Oh that’s Pat and his dog!”

“Hi that’s Ben, he and his wife took my archaeology class!”

“Hello salal and mushroom pickers! How’s the haul?”

The men I’ve met on the trail have become my neighbours, part of my community. I wave, say hi, and each time that burning feeling of fear in the pit of my stomach fades away a little bit more. And I hope I’m not wrong.

Those of you who have experienced fear might know how good it feels when it starts to lift. Something like soil rebounding after the release of a glacial weight. I wasn’t carrying the story of fear in my body any more. The constriction lifted from around my heart and I could breathe deeply. My stride became surer and stronger. I felt more comfortable with myself, even deep inside the woods.

Fear doesn’t just vanish as if by magic. Sure I still feel fear. Fear of bears, making a wrong turn, of twisting an ankle far from home. And the fear of being attacked remains.

Not invincible

In June, I read about a female runner attacked in Comox, and I was reminded that no one is completely safe.

The 35-year-old mom, Chantal Swayze, was running a trail in Condor Park in August 2016. A man named Kannon Jones had been watching pornography in a tree; he jumped on her from behind, with his pants pulled down, and choked her. She fought him off and was able to reach safety. Kannon is in jail serving a three-year sentence, minus timed served.

Speaking to a reporter at the Comox Valley Record, Chantal said what she wants now is for her daughter and for other women to be safe: “If I can raise awareness for martial arts, running without headphones, for running with a dog, for not running alone, I hope to do that.”

Chantal’s attacker climbed a tree to sit in wait. And yet her automatic response was not to question his actions, but her own right to run in public. It breaks my heart and it makes me angry. My anger isn’t with Chantal, who wants women to be safe. My anger is with our society and the fact that women and girls are not safe, and they feel responsible for that vulnerability.

Karate is not the answer. Running in groups is not the answer. The answer is women not being attacked, raped and murdered.

It seems to me that I have always been running. Running from the fear of being grabbed, of being hurt, running from the shame I felt at just being female and vulnerable.

I understand that women are particularly vulnerable in our society. I understand that this is how it is, but I can no longer just accept it. Something has to change; it can’t continue to be women who bear the burden of keeping ourselves safe.

Friends have asked me to consider changing how I run. But why should it be me who changes? I have done nothing wrong.

The courage to keep running

When I originally pitched a piece about running to Powell River Living, it was going to be about how safe I feel here as a female runner. Now reading about the attacks elsewhere in BC, I am not so sure. One thing is for certain, however: I feel more determined than ever to keep running.

I’m writing this after enjoying a lovely 12-kilometre on my favourite trails. I wore a t-shirt, shorts and my lucky striped knee socks. For safety I brought water, my phone, a first aid pack and a small can of bear spray.

What dangers did I meet on the trail? I saw a happy cohort of walking women, a lively group out enjoying the forest air and each other’s company. Today they brought a new puppy with them, a floppy-eared and soft black cocker spaniel named Captain. I picked him up and he covered me with kisses.

I’m so grateful these women are on the trail with me and I’m proud of all my fellow female runners here in Powell River and around the world.

Not every woman is a runner, but whether running a business, caring for family, or advocating for a just cause, I would like so much for all women to feel strong and confident, to live in their bodies without fear.

For those of us who do run, I hope we never stop.

But I would be relieved if we all could stop running for our lives.

 

Mel Edgar

Author, Mel Edgar

 

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