The Follower

When I was in school, I used to have a tendency to tilt the stories I would write for creative writing projects a bit toward the scary side. I remember one story I wrote when I was in 6th grade… I told it in the first person, and it was about a soldier who… well… maybe I should just revise and rewrite it instead. It’s been a long time, but I remember the basic plot. Now, anyone who knows me knows I’m not a very dark and brooding person, but this story certainly was quite dark, and my teacher loved it. She actually hung onto it to share not only with her other classes, but with teachers and people she knew. In the 8th grade, I put an “Unsolved Mysteries” spin on an assignment where the first few paragraphs were already written… teacher got a kick out of that one. Anyway, I haven’t really tapped into that side of my writing in a looong time, but I recently came across a little writing contest: share a “scary” workout story. I thought about sharing my Silverman Race Report, since that was a pretty horrific situation for me, but then I remembered a training run I did a few months back. That story fit the bill perfectly and it even allowed me to revisit my scary story writing youth. 🙂

So… what follows is a story about a run.

It was a typical day in San Diego, sunny, warm but not hot, and my proximity to the ocean meant a gentle breeze that helped dull the sun’s effect. The plan for my training run was a simple one, I’d head out for around 30 minutes, mixing in various intervals per my coach’s instruction, turn around and then return home for a total workout of about an hour. The route I had chosen was a favorite due to it’s lack of traffic lights and stops, taking me through a smallish business district an area scattered with a few office buildings and popular lunch spots – and onto a popular local bike and running path. The path travels about 10 miles from end to end, and has two distinct characters: a section shrouded by trees and bushes as its undulating path twists and turns past neighborhoods, and a relatively straight path broken up by some respectable climbs, all unprotected from the scorching sun. My path would take me along the former route: shaded, twisty, and with enough elevation change to prep me for my upcoming race.

The run started as all my other runs did. I traveled through the business district, monitoring my pace, while letting my mind wander to places far away. I was grateful to have my visor, it kept the sun out of my eyes and my face shaded, and combined with the cool breeze I was feeling quite comfortable. The business section was uneventful, I kept a steady pace and was able to integrate my warmup skips and butt kicks as I jogged along before eventually reaching the entrance to the path. I made my way down off the sidewalk, turned right under the road, and began to navigate the twists, turns, and undulations that the path was throwing at me. While this is an enjoyable route, its popularity means you have to keep an eye out for oncoming cyclists while trying to not block the path of riders coming from behind. Unlike many shared paths in the county, this one does not have a speed limit, so it’s not uncommon to encounter someone on a tri bike, full tuck, doing in excess of 20mph. San Diego is also home to numerous creatures, one of them being rattlesnakes, so keeping an eye out for a snake sunning itself on the road becomes a thing of habit. These creatures also mean you tend to not hug the side of the path too tightly, since nothing can ruin a run quite like a rattlesnake digging its fangs into your leg.

I was well into the path and I was hitting my stride, my cadence was good, my form felt smooth and effortless, my heart rate was right in the zone I was aiming for, and I was balancing my position next to the bushes and low hanging trees on the side of the road with my visibility to cyclists well. This was shaping up to be one of my better runs… and then I heard something.

It’s not uncommon to see the occasional lizard scurry off the path and into the foliage as you run. It’s also not uncommon to hear them rustle some leaves as they dart further away in an effort to escape the large, strange creatures whizzing by. But this was different. Something in the leaves took a few steps behind me… following me. I immediately felt the warmth of the adrenaline being poured into my bloodstream, and took my next few steps at a much higher pace. The sound stopped, and as I slowed back to my normal jogging speed, I looked behind me to see if there was someone… something there. The path was empty. It was just me.

“Must’ve just been a lizard, or a mouse or something.” I thought, and I carried on.

But then I heard it again. Something was running behind me, something was chasing me. My heartrate jumped, and I upped my pace dramatically. I turned, and again, there was nothing. At this point I was beginning to get nervous. My head was beginning to fill with thoughts: what was following me? Why was I being chased? Was there a snake near by, angry for some unknown reason? Was it something larger, like a stray, aggressive dog? My body had switched over from “casual training run” to full fight or flight mode. I was scanning the road for anything that seemed alive and harmful, I was listening for threatening sounds around me, my pace and heartrate had both elevated well above what my targets were. I was beginning to feel scared. On a day where the path would normally be populated with other runners, walkers, and cyclists, I was alone, and I was certain I was being followed.

I was faced with a dilemma. My path home was either back toward whatever I heard following me, or I would have to take a detour and add 4+ miles to my route. I was on a time schedule, which meant lengthening the run was unfortunately not an option, so I had to turn around. I hadn’t heard my unwelcomed companion for a few minutes, so I elected to make my turn and up my pace back home. I was ready. My legs felt primed to sprint at a moments notice, I was prepared to protect myself… whatever was following me had better be ready for a fight because I wasn’t going down easy. Then I heard the sound again.

Only this time it was different. This time it was in front of me. This time, I could see what was following me… It was a nice day, the San Diego stereotype: sunny, warm, but a nice ocean breeze helping to keep the temperatures down. That nice breeze stirred the stiff, dead leaves on the side of the path, causing them to gently tumble over each other, rolling and rustling as if they were puppies playing. Occasionally a few leaves would blow onto and along the path, scraping and scratching the ground, making sounds akin to an animal scampering along the asphalt. I realized at this point that the reason my adrenaline levels surged, the reason my body prepared itself for survival, the reason I was scared, was because I was hearing the wind rustle the leaves behind me. I had no choice but to laugh at how ridiculous this was. How ridiculous I was. I was ready to fight for my survival, about to break out in a dead sprint any second, because of a handful of dead leaves. I felt my body relax, all the fear and tension melted away, my pace slowed to normal levels, and I continued my run home, chuckling and smiling at the whole episode. It was a story I was sure to share with my fiancé that evening, she would certainly get a laugh out of it.

As I laughed at myself and jogged toward home, I passed an area of the path where the plants form an unusual landmark. They grew into what appears to be a sort of shelter, as if they were protecting something. Within the thicket of bushes and plant life, deep in the shaded darkness of this strange natural structure, a pair of yellow eyes locked their gaze upon me. I continued on, oblivious to unsettling fact that I was being watched. That I was being hunted.

Leave a Reply