I see the man on the trail three times during a long training run before he stops me. Each time I perform a safety scan: pale, brown hair, dark eyes, solo, blue muscle tee and blue shorts. Most of the people running, biking and hiking the trails at First Landing State Park move with purpose. If not solitary, they’re in conversation or foot fall rhythm with partners in exercise and exploration. We share a “good morning” or a quick smile, a nod or wave as we pass.
Here, in southeastern Virginia where colonists breached the shore in 1607, the trails traverse thick mud through stumpy swamps and up shifting sandy dunes. Some trails are sharp with gravel, others are layered in fallen leaves and pine straw. I’m a shuffler and trail running requires me to focus on lifting my feet high and placing them deliberately. I trip a lot. Most of the time I catch myself before hitting the dirt, but I wear my scraped shins and scuffed palms with pride.
My cadence speeds up. I sip electrolytes and suck down a packet of applesauce. When I run, I carry everything I need—my route is in my head, my heartrate and pace read on my wrist. For runs over 10 miles, I wear a small backpack with water and fuel, and a Ziploc bag with a few squares of toilet paper for emergencies. A small canister of pepper spray rattles around in the bottom.
I don’t care whether strangers understand my “why” for running, but I do expect them to let me be. This man isn’t going to do that. I recognize that each time I encounter him on the trail. I list more details: no headphones or water bottle. As a woman running alone, I’m always watching. I’ve changed the headphones I wear from Airpods to Aftershox. The latter don’t go inside my ears. Instead, they conduct through bone so that I can hear what’s going on around me. Another expense for safety.
The first time I saw the man, he was talking with someone on the side of the trail. A half hour later or so, he ran toward me, chatting up a female runner. Finally, he passed on my left only to stop again 500 yards ahead of me. Maybe he’s lost. The pandemic flooded First Landing State Park with new hikers, runners and bikers, and I’m often asked for directions to the park headquarters or where trails connect. I love helping people make sense of this special place, a quiet, natural space in the middle of a city of over one million people.
The man waves his pale arms to stop me. I pause my watch, cock my head and say, “Good morning?” and anticipate his request for directions. I am 10 miles into my 18-mile run and have a full day of Zoom calls, deadlines and parenting ahead.
“I just love running so much,” the man says. He’s lean, not much taller than I.
“So, you know where you’re going?” I ask and restart my watch, picking my pace back up to a jog.
He keeps stride beside me. “Oh yeah. I’m in town for a fundraising race.” His voice nears a yell. “You look like you’re out for a long run. You’ve been out here a long time. What are you training for?”
I want to say, “I prefer running solo. Have a great run,” and either change direction or speed up. But I know the dangers of the male ego when wounded, and the relief of a locked deadbolt with the comfort of my rescued shepherd mix at my feet. Don’t upset him. De-escalate. Adrenaline prickles through my bloodstream but I keep my voice calm. The Cape Henry Trail is wide and heavily trafficked. “I signed up for a marathon in two weeks,” I say instead. “I was so excited for an in-person race I jumped at the opportunity.” Three ultramarathons loom ahead in the first six months of the new year: two 50ks and one 50-mile overnight trail race. Less information is always better, so I shush.
“Where is it? The race.”
“The Dismal Swamp.” I hate running in the Dismal Swamp. The course is flat and paved and boring, nothing like the varied trails I love.
“I love the Dismal Swamp.”
Why is he speaking so loudly? Is this his normal volume? I nod and keep running, willing him to peel off and find someone else to run with. I make purposeful eye contact with every runner and bicyclist who passes me. At the west end of the Cape Henry Trail, a small side trail, Osthmanthus, winds a beautiful, rooty and hilly five-kilometer semi-circle. It’s primarily single-track and one of the few trails spurring off of Cape Henry that I often run without encountering another person.
“Have a good day and good luck with your race,” I wave. “I’m headed this way.”
“Oh, what trail is that?” he says as he scans the trail markers. “It’s only another 5k. I’ll run with you.”
My stomach drops. I consider turning back onto the wide, well-traveled Cape Charles Trail. If I do that, I need to recalculate my route, and my body has only enough glucose to keep my feet turning over. Also, fuck that. Why should I have to change my plans? Why didn’t he even phrase it in the form of a question?
I focus on my breath and my nerves settle. I’m strong. I’m loud. I can fight if necessary. “My husband is meeting me on the trail in a little bit,” I say. I think of Bella, my frankendog—part shepherd and bull mastiff, part chow, part cattle dog and 100% lovebug—and wish she could hang for more than 15 miles. No one bothers me when she tugs at the end of my leash. So, I lean on the existence of the husband and lie. He’s at home working.
Running, particularly trail running, is one of the safer activities for women. We’re never entirely safe in our homes, and we’re certainly not safe at bars or fraternity parties or walking back to our cars or apartments after the sun has set. And women are far more likely to be assaulted or injured by someone they know intimately than by a stranger. I have lived that fact, so I should have been more scared of my ex-boyfriend than I am of this boundaryless stranger. But we don’t learn backwards. He keeps talking. I stop hearing the words. My ears are buzzing and I’m too busy watching for a move he shouldn’t make, some break from the single-plane movement of running. As long as he keeps talking, every step I take that bends us back to the Cape Henry Trail is a step closer to safety.
His uncomfortable proximity reminds me of why my running shifted from road to trail. While I was training for my first ultramarathon, I had to wedge my training hours within the rest of my life—just like every other recreational athlete—so, often I started jogging out my front door and had to log anywhere from 10-20 miles in Norfolk, VA. I frequently ended up on bustling Shore Drive or Ocean View Boulevard. Twice, cars swerved at me into the bike lane, with the male drivers laughing as I lunged out of the way. Another time, a man slowed his pickup truck to a crawl to match my pace, rolled down the passenger side window and stared at me for more than half a mile.
Finally, I realized it was worth the 20-minute drive to the wooded trails of a state park. The irony was that the man awaiting me at home during those fraught Ocean View Boulevard runs—my boyfriend at the time—was a greater danger. It was the first time, outside of my years playing competitive soccer, that I tasted my own blood and was dizzy with the ringing in my ears. I excised that boyfriend from my life. A friend sat in her car in front of my house, one finger poised to hit call on 911, when I told that man to leave. I changed the locks, blocked his number and thought that I was safe, and it was over.
The man remains inside an arm’s reach as we pass a wooden bench. I exhale audibly. We’re only a few hundred yards from the main trail. Soon we’ll encounter dog walkers and families and other runners. He was originally headed west on the trail when he stopped me. He should turn right at the trail junction. I have to make a left turn and run east. He turns right but quickly doubles-back when he sees I’m moving in the opposite direction.
“You trying to lose me?” he chuckles.
I have learned to never drop my guard. As soon as I eased back into a routine after that terrifying breakup and began sleeping through the night again, the notes appeared. Next came frightening text messages and voicemails from a new number. And then the unwanted gifts. He moved into my neighborhood, a few blocks away from my home. Fence doors that I knew I’d locked, swung unlatched and open when I returned home. Then he showed up on Halloween as I handed out candy, his face obscured and a long object glinting in his hand. He took off when I told him I was calling the police.
I faced that ex-boyfriend in a courtroom and listened to the judge ask him if a restraining order would impair his ability to work, and say, “You understand that if you have any guns, you have to turn them in?” I was unsure whether I would be granted the opportunity to live my life without threats. He would be emboldened if the judge didn’t grant the long-term and I would be in more danger than before. All I asked was to be left alone. My knees were weak and my vision was blurred as the judge deliberated, finally signing the order. I left the courtroom with a paper stating legal protection. Thankfully, I haven’t seen him since. I’m one of the lucky women, the ones for whom a court order is enough.
Still, I live on high alert. Once learned, I can’t unlearn a man’s capability for violence, his expectation of my attention, and the way the male judge automatically looked out first for his interests. The running stranger keeps my pace for another five miles. I am exhausted when I reach the barely noticeable nameless and unmarked trail that meanders off to my new neighborhood. (Yes, I moved. I wasn’t going to rely on a piece of paper for protection.) I don’t tell him where it leads. I only say, “I’m taking this back to the base.” Fort Story is also at the end of that line. I’m not in the Navy, but he doesn’t need to know that.
“I haven’t seen that trail,” he says. “How far is it?”
“About five more miles.” Another lie. It is two. Yet, I know instinctively that if he insists on following me, I will not leave the Cape Henry Trail. The back trail is too remote. My heart races.
“Shit,” he says, stopping and shaking his head. “My car’s parked at the 64th Street entrance. That would mean 10 more miles. I’ll let you go.”
I pause to see which direction he takes. He runs a few steps and then stops, looking both ways over his shoulder. My gelatinous quads move my legs so fast. All I want is distance between that man and me. A twig snaps behind me. I pull the Aftershox down on my neck so I’m not distracted by Chaka Khan. I look around. Nothing. I start running again. I can’t shake the sense that he’s behind me, so I glance over my shoulder. No one is there. But I catch my foot on a root. I fall hard, scraping the heels of my hands and my knees. I stand, relieved that there’s no one around. I dust myself off and run home.