This post is written by Jennifer Heidmann

I originally wrote this post before the Boston Marathon took place. The attack is a reminder of what the feeling of fear is based on: vulnerability. On April 16, the day after the bombings, I took a 20 mile run and without even thinking had thrown on my “26.2” t-shirt. It was a small thing, but throughout that run, I felt the love from every single passerby, whether on foot, bicycle or car. As humans, we are all vulnerable, but thankfully we live in a world filled with people that will rush right in to help a stranger, even if they are putting themselves in danger. And a world where a moment of terror can lead to a multitude of moments of solidarity. Run on, in peace.

I find trail running challenging, but not for the obvious reasons.  Not because they are often steep, have tricky footing, or major mud.

The bigger challenge for me, as a woman, is fear.

But I am determined to overcome my uncertainty. Though I love running anywhere, anytime (excluding the dreadmill, of course), nothing fills me with bliss like being on trails. Preferably miles and miles of trails, but even a short unexpected grass or dirt option during an urban jaunt can lift my spirits.

Animals, People, and Darkness.  Oh My!

5617823301_56da48ec46What is there to fear out there?  Some say that naming fears is the first step to overcoming them. So here goes:

Animals
Once when running on the trails that I can reach out my back door, I saw a mountain lion. My dog, an unusually large and running-obsessed border collie, saw it to. We had different reactions.

He ran after it, I ran away, like the big wimp that I am. It was skulking up into the woods, and it was large. I am happy to say that my dog quickly rethought his plan and was soon at my side. I wish I would’ve had a Garmin back then, because I am certain we set a world record pace. It took me 6 months to run that trail again.

People
Intellectually, I know that the people driving while texting when I am out running the roads are much more dangerous than the unlikely encounter with a creep in the woods. Only once did I have a really sketchy moment, and once again my trusty border collie saved the day. I had never before, nor have I since seen him so Cujo. The creep backed off, end of story.

Darkness
I have very poor night vision. The last two times I ran trails in the dark, I got lost because I could not see (I actually had to have someone come find me and lead me out) and I ran smack into a redwood tree. Those are big trees!

Getting Lost
Once I was running from one town in Oregon to another, along a river. It seemed like a really straightforward run, maybe 20 miles. I was pretty sure of where I was headed, but for some reason decided to ask some conservation corps workers to be sure. They pointed me in a different direction. I hesitated for a moment, but decided they must know best.

6 hours later I finally found my way back to the start. It was 90 degrees, I had run out of water and if I stopped even for one minute, the mosquitoes came in the billions for the kill. I was so happy to reunite with my family, and pretty much stuck my head under the tap and glugged water in sweet relief.

Be Prepared and Just Let Go

My trusty dog is now 15 years old, deaf and arthritic. We enjoy a slow walk together in the evenings, but he won’t be chasing mountain lions or creeps for me any more. And really, it is a lot to ask most dogs to run for hours in the woods with you. So dogs may not be the solution.

So what is the best way for a lone woman runner to overcome her fear of the trails?

First, the practical:

  1. Get a brighter headlamp. Like a klieg light.
  2. Find a partner who share your insanity love of running.
  3. Learn to use one of that GPS thingie you paid so much for.
  4. Carry a whistle. And maybe some Mace.
  5. And always, always, always, tell someone where you are headed and how long you expect to be gone.

Then, the existential. This is really the heart of the matter. What I am learning about trail running is it involves faith, and letting go.

Faith in the fact humans were built to run in nature. And letting go of predictability, pace expectations and, yes, what feels safe and comfortable:

  1. Try mindful meditation. Breathe, observe, experience, let go, repeat.
  2. Be present. Turn off the music. Be not distracted. Listen to the way your feet slap the dirt or squish in the mud. Listen to the brooks, the crows, the wind in the trees. Listen to the beating of your heart.

As women, we can’t let fear keep us from doing what we love, even if it involves taking a few extra steps. What do you do to let go of fear and take back the trails?

Jennifer Heidmann has been running for 30 years, racing every distance from the 400m to the marathon. Her next adventure will be tackling her first 50 mile ultramarathon. She is also a physician, a pianist and a mother of 2.9 teenagers. Check out her personal running blog, Redwoods and Running, for more great tips and stories.

Photo Credit

Author Doug Hay is the founder of Rock Creek Runner, host of the Trail Talk podcast, and fanatical about everything trail running -- beards, plaid shirts, bruised toenails, and all. He and his wife live and run in beautiful Black Mountain, NC.

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