I’m an avid runner. Since my early teen years I’ve run through freezing rain and searing heat, foggy nights, and sunny days. But every once in a while something happens that makes me reconsider my dedication to my passion. On a cool August night a couple years ago, something changed my running habits indefinitely.
I had recently moved back into my parents house in that awkward interim period between college and career. It’s funny, because I had done my night runs in sketchy cities and bad neighborhoods for years and nothing special had ever happened. But in this suburban middle-upper class neighborhood on the outskirts of town I had one of my most frightening running experiences ever.
My normal two mile jog took me through one lamp-lit intersection three times before getting home. Don’t ask how exactly, because it’s a complex route. But suffice to say, I must go through this intersection once to leave my house, once half-way through my route, and once to get home. I had run this route hundreds of times both night and day and it was always safe and scarce of traffic.
The night in question, I took off on my run around 10:45pm. My parents were already off to bed and the neighborhood was usually dead-quiet by nine. I took off down the street at a standard pace, the silence of the night rejected by the epic music blaring through my cheap wal-mart headphones. The first pass through the lamp-lit intersection came up and I immediately noticed something was off. Under the lamp, legs resting in the road, was the silhouette of a man sitting on the curb, hunched over. In this neighborhood, seeing anyone out at night was quite unusual.
He was across the street, so I didn’t feel imminently threatened by him. Running creates this stupid illusion that you’re somehow safe as long as you’re moving, even though you’re more exposed than ever. The first half of my run took me through a section of houses under construction. It was always creepy in this area and a few shadows seen out of the corner of my eye had finally inspired me to start running with a small folding knife. It was stupid security theater on my part, like a knife that size could do anything. The legal knife limit in my state is five inches and my running knife was jealous of that size.
As I ran through the abandoned construction sites, the sight of the man earlier began nagging at me. I half expected him to pop out of one of the shadows created by the large half-built structures. It was really strange him sitting hunched over like that. His existence there just didn’t fit with the vibe of the rest of the neighborhood. My next turn took me back towards the lamp-lit intersection. A little bit of dread built up in me as I approached the intersection. For a moment, I didn’t see the man. I relaxed, hoping he had wandered on. But my pounding heart sank as I saw the figure sitting a bit outside of the light on the side of the road I was currently running on. It was as if he had changed position, knowing full well where I would come from.
But I maintained my course and speed, refusing to let some random guy sitting on the curb bother me. I had seen stranger things that a sitting guy. I didn’t let it bother me in the slums, I wasn’t going to let it bother me here. But my confidence melted quickly as I grew closer to hunched figure. I was twenty feet from him when I noticed the man was fiddling with something in his right hand. Fifteen feet, the man turned and looked up at me, his hand dropping. Ten feet, he hunched lower, the thing in his hand still concealed by the darkness. Five feet from the man, I suddenly saw a glint in hand. He had a knife, and not a dinky little folding knife, it was a twelve in Bowie knife gripped tightly in his fist. I sort of went into auto pilot at this point. I was already practically stepping over this weird guy and now I realized he had a massive knife. But I myself am a collector of knives. It wasn’t the knife itself that scared me, it was what he did next.
As I ran within inches of him, the man leaned forward and began tapping the knife on the ground just next to my feet. I sort of awkwardly side-stepped away from the man, crossing the street and continuing on my run. It took a minute to set in what just happened and that’s when I realized I had to pass this guy one more time to get home. I stopped my run, pocketed my headphones, and pulled out my dinky folding knife. I had run around a corner of wooden fences and out of sight from the man, so I decided I would peak back around and spy for an opportunity to run through the intersection and back home.
But as I peaked around the fence and into the light, I was sure more than ever that I should not go back through that intersection. The man with the massive knife was crawling around on all fours. Now fully revealed by the light and no longer hunched, I could see this guy was big. I would say he appeared around six and half feet tall, but I suppose he was six and a half feet long, as he was crawling. He clambered around for a minute or so, stopping and rolling around in the grass. At this point I noped out of the situation and called the cops. Lucky me I used my phone as a timer for my runs so I had it with me that night. I called the operator and let them know the situation. Not to brag, but I sounded super chill when describing the scene to the operator. But my chill began to fade as I peeked around the fence to give a description of the guy to the operator. Black pants, boots, grey shirt, standard useless descriptors. But, it now appeared he was laying down in the road. Not laying down, sliding. He was pushing himself into a storm drain. As I watched, this guy stuffed half his body into the drain. It looked like he was having trouble, since he was a big guy, but he was somehow getting in. Like an idiot, I took my eyes off him to step back to safety as the operator told me to.
The police arrived a minute or so later. No less than five cop cars flooded into the neighborhood. It must have been a slow night. With one of the officers backing me up, I walked back through the intersection to get home. The lamp-lit intersection was empty. No one was there. There wasn’t even any evidence someone was there. I waited out front of my parent’s house for a while until one of the police cars drove by me. The officer let me know that they found no one. Whoever it was had slipped away. The police believed it was probably a resident of one of the houses nearby who just ran back home once he saw the emergency lights. And I think that’s the most likely possibility.
But I still remember the last time I saw the guy, half-wedged in a storm drain. Sometimes I wonder if he made it in. Maybe we’re both right, the police and I. The man did just run off home when he saw the lights, but maybe his home was not one of the houses placed so quaintly above ground. It’s probably stupid, but I give most storm drains a wide birth now. Better safe than sorry when there may be a knife-wielding lunatic slashing at your ankles.