Thursday, January 10, 2008

Running hazards

Starting out to run the other day, I had a choice.

I could head off down a quiet country road.

Or I could plunge into the forest to see what I could see on rocky, leaf strewn trails. For me, it was a no brainer. Into the forest I went. I pretty much always do, when trails are available.

Given my longstanding choice for the wild, a letter in the San Francisco Chronicle last month really annoyed me. The writer was distressed by a story about friends of a missing person looking for her on the trails in Marin County.

Safety in numbers
The latest tragedy on Mount Tamalpais underscores a basic hiking rule: Never, ever under any circumstances, hike alone in a wilderness area.

We see hikers often with no hiking poles, inadequate footwear, no water, no map, and no idea as to where they are, where they are headed, or how to get back to the car. Hiking trails are rough; rocks and roots can trip the most careful. A misplaced foot on the soft trail shoulder can send the hiker down into a ravine and into dense underbrush.

If you must hike alone, stick to Golden Gate Park or along city streets (stay out of Richmond). Hiking alone is simply asking for trouble.

Mr. Letter Writer, if I took your advice, I'd never get out on the trails. Of course I run alone -- how else could I explore the places that beckon, galumphing along at my own pace, occasionally turning up an unknown side trail or even stopping to take a photo?

I'm equipped enough by my standards: I carry a water bottle or wear a Camelbak full of liquid if I plan to go longer. Tucked in the latter I'll have a wind shirt. I usually have a paper towel and a pocket camera. If I'm in a new area, I try to have a map, but will admit I sometimes employ some dead reckoning, branching out from familiar paths to find new ones. If I don't know the area, I pay close attention to route finding.

Yes, I've been known to fall over a root or trip over a rock. I'm a 60 year old with occasional skinned elbows and knees to show for my trail addiction -- and not too worried by it. Maybe I should be, but I'd rather just go.

In the wild places, I've never had a really bad encounter with another human being. I know these can happen. For awhile at the beginning of the 1980s, there was a killer in the Marin Hills. And there was this chilling true story.

But I like my odds on the trails a lot better than I like my odds in urban parks. In 30 years of running, it has been in parks that I've encountered human violence. I've been yelled at from passing cars, had a gun pointed at me "as a joke," had guys expose themselves -- all in daylight in city public places.

So, no, Mr. Letter Writer -- I can't take your advice. I worry myself a little at times, but the trails still call and I still rumble along them. Usually alone.

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