I’d like to believe that growing up hearing fairy tales like “Hansel & Gretel” and “Little Red Riding Hood” is what led us to believe as adults that there are some really creepy things are lurking in the dark forest. Or maybe it was the Blair Witch Project, I don’t know. But the point is: it seems like a lot of people are afraid of being in the woods alone, and assume trail running dangers are more concerning than anything found on the roads.
I’m often asked if I’m afraid of running alone on the trails, and the answer, truthfully, is: not really. Of course, trails DO present legitimate dangers like grizzly bears, mountain lions and, even scarier, human beings with horrible intentions, though these types of attacks are rare. But for the most part, these rare occurrences do not cause fear or take up any real estate in my mind.
Instead, I’d like to share with you a complete list of the trail running dangers that I truly AM afraid of. These things: people, animals, and situations, pose a much more likely threat to my physical and emotional safety. In no particular order:
Roots and Rocks
I don’t know if you knew this, but tree roots are aggressive, predatory creatures. Sure they look innocent enough. But while you are running, roots are quietly watching for that moment when you become overly confident in your trail running skills. They are patiently waiting for the moment of trail running Zen. You know the one: when you let down your guard and start to zone out. And when you do…
The roots trip you, and you find yourself face down on the trail.
Often times roots will work together with rocks, to ensure that when you do fall, you bounce off a rock. It will undoubtedly tear the skin off of your knees, hips, hands, or forearms (those are their favorite places to bite). If you listen closely you can hear the roots and rocks giggling as you pick yourself up off of the forest floor. They’re ruthless.
Toads (Squirrels, Rabbits, etc.) that Can’t Decide Which Way they are Going
The other day I was casually running and minding my own business, when I almost landed on a large toad . Of course I threw my body weight in the opposite direction of the toad, just narrowly avoiding causing his demise. And what did the toad do? He (or she) hopped in the same direction of my avoidance path, once again narrowly escaping death.
What ensued next was an awkward trail dance that consisted of my tripping over myself in order to not become a toad killer, only to have this toad shifting directions into my path with every hop. After probably 5 or 6 footfalls of this ridiculousness I completely fall on the trail.
But the toad was fine.
I’ve had similar experiences with rabbits, squirrels, and this funny looking road runner type bird that came out of the bushes one night. Unpredictable hooligans.
Tailgating on Trail
Here’s a trail running PSA that isn’t discussed frequently enough: the dangers of tailgating your running pals down a single track. Sure, it makes life easier, you can actually hear what the person ahead of you is saying. Your group can carry on a legitimate conversation. But without fail, someone in the front of the conga line will see something, be it a snake or an adorable bunny rabbit, and stop short, causing the whole group to slam into the person ahead of them. It’s akin to a peloton crash at Le Tour or a 15 car pile up in Nascar. It never ends well.
Actually, it usually ends with my husband yelling at me, because apparently I do this all of the time.
Spider Webs in your Face
Let me preface this with the fact that I’m NOT afraid of spiders. Not one bit. I’ll even hold one, it doesn’t make me cringe. That said, one of the more horrific trail running experiences I’ve had is running right into a Banana Spider web that covers the entire trail, conveniently located at face height. Here in the South, this is a very common occurrence, especially at sunrise and sunset.
You THINK you’ll see the webs before you hit them, and sometimes you do…only because you catch a glimpse of the 4 in spider just seconds before he latches on to your face. If you’re lucky, you stop dead in your tracks just before face planting into his or her home (and hopefully the runners behind you don’t plow into you, pushing you forward into the web. See “Tailgating on Trail” above. )
If you’re unlucky, you’ll spend the rest of your run pulling webbing out of your hair, and worrying every little movement you feel is that giant spider crawling around on your head.
Make no mistake: I have zero personal beef against mountain bikers. Hell, a few times a month I don my padded shorts and helmet and pretend I know what I’m doing on my own mountain bike. (Spoiler alert: I don’t know what I’m doing. But I’m trying.) However, hands down, one of my biggest fears while trail running (at least on our trail here in Myrtle Beach) is getting flattened by a mountain bike on a blind corner. My eyes are not constantly up for fear of cougar attacks, but rather being pounced by a fat tire. Or worse, rounding a corner and catching a bike mid air off of a hit or jump. It turns out that breaks don’t work in the air.
There is no logical reason that an insect should have THAT many legs. End of story.
Back in 2013 I was running the Peak Snowshoe race in Pittsfield Vermont. At one point in the race, the single track widened enough that my husband and I could pass a group of about 15 racers. I called “on your left” and the group happily let me run ahead. When I got to the front of the line, I turned back to yell “thank you” . It was at that exact moment a giant tree branch fell from the sky and nailed me in the head. An instant headache, and likely a small concussion, followed.
Perhaps this is how the trees get you in the winter. When their roots are covered by snow and they can’t trip you?
Regardless, any significant wind in the woods now makes me wary. And I can’t look up when I run, because I’m too busy looking out for malicious roots and rogue mountain bike tires.
Showing my Butt to Strangers
Here’s the thing: I’m not actually afraid to pee in the woods. What I am afraid of is giving an accidental peep show to an innocent, unexpected bystander. Because with out fail, that ALWAYS seems to happen. I can go four HOURS without seeing another person on trail. Yet, as soon as “nature calls”, and I pull off to the side of the trail to drop my running shorts: here comes a gaggle of hikers.
So there you have it: 8 things that terrify me more than bear attacks or encounters with random strangers in the woods (both of which have statistically low occurrences. Spider webs in the face? There’s like a 1 in 3 chance. It’s gonna happen, eventually. )
In all seriousness, there ARE a number of safety precautions you SHOULD take before heading out for a trail run. You can find them in my post “Trail Running Safety Tips” . I highly recommend giving it a read if you are new to trail running.