I did some of my run today on the Rails to Trails in Sanford. I had seen the trail sign on many occasions. It is only 1/2 mile away from my Sanford office, but I have always been leery of it. I don't like the idea of entering the woods alone in plain view of passing motorists. I also don't like the idea of running in a wooded area so close to a heavily populated area. My theory is the more people in an area, the more likely there will be bad people among them.
I spend a lot of time alone in the woods, but I try to enter unnoticed. I usually move away from parking areas and trail heads as fast as I can and stay especially alert until I am a mile or more into the woods. Several years ago, shortly after the brutal murder of a Canadian woman in New Hampshire's White Mountains, a Forest Service worker stopped and spoke to me about hiking and running alone in the woods. He did not lecture to me about hiking alone, instead he said that he understood why people like the solitude of being alone in the woods. Then he went on to explain what I could do to stay safe. He gave me a lot of sound advice. The advice that struck me most is to always move away from the parking areas and trail heads as quickly as I can without drawing attention to the fact that I am there alone. He advised that I stay especially alert while within a mile or two of the parking areas. He pointed out that the majority of incidents against women in wilderness recreation areas occur within a mile of their vehicles. The average assailant isn't an outdoorsy athletic type and isn't likely to hike miles out into the woods to wait for a chance meeting with a lone woman. Instead he is likely to scope out the trail heads and follow his target into the woods.
I will always remember an incident on the Sawyer Pond Trail back when I was in my early thirties. I was returning from a very long day of hiking and running and was less than a mile from the parking area. A man was leaning against a rock in an unnatural looking pose. His hiking clothes were top quality and brand new and spotlessly clean. He had a corny looking walking stick and a brand new pack that was big, but appeared almost empty. I took all this in as I approached and I suddenly felt nervous about him. He stepped out in front of me and said, "you don't want to continue that way, there is a big bear in the trail." I made a wide sprinting detour around him through the trees on the side of the trail and was past him and back to my car in a flash. I got in, locked the doors, and left there as fast as I could. I never gave the alleged bear a thought, the guy just gave me the creeps. He could have been a harmless guy who was trying to keep me from getting mauled by a bear, or he might have been a lonely guy trying to find a date in an unusual and original way, but I trusted my instincts and got the hell out of there.
Today I jogged slowly on the sidewalk in front of the trail head taking note of the parked cars and pedestrians nearby. Once I was fairly certain that nobody was showing any interest in what I was doing, I entered the trail system and moved away from the road fast. On the trail itself I was alert for "red flags", things like beer bottles, cigarette butts, and campfire pits. I didn't see any of these things on the trail today. I kept my guard up and trusted my gut feelings. Because of my gut feelings I avoided a trail where someone had left their bike leaning against a tree. When pedestrians approached, I made sure to give a wide berth. When someone tried to talk to me I make a quick friendly comment and moved on pointedly, without hesitating.
I love running alone in the woods, sometimes I feel like I live for it! But lets face it, as tough as I pretend to be, when all is said and done I am still a 102 pound weakling. And at this stage in the game (my sub 18 minute 5Ks are long behind me), I can't count on outrunning an assailant. So what is a solitary woman trail runner to do? Get out there and enjoy every day, but do so with caution.