(Ir)rational fears

Day No. 11

Total miles (thus far): 38

I have a few big fears.

The first is being the sole participant to show up to a yoga class, just me, the teacher and an empty room. Some might say, “But it would be like a private yoga lesson.” Yeah, that’s the problem. I prefer to sit in the back of yoga classes and suffer, sweat and curse under my breath in inconspicuous anonymity while trying my hardest to remain invisible. Just pretend I’m not here and no, I don’t want to work on handstands or any other gymnastics-inspired poses.

The second is crossing main street in winter, slipping on the ice and falling down. Then a bus comes along, and, unable to stop on the aforementioned ice, runs me over. If you’ve ever experienced the skating rinks that are the winter streets in Telluride, you know this particular fear is not irrational at all, but actually a daily possibility.

The third is being eaten alive by an animal while on a trail run. In Colorado we don’t have wolves or grizzlies (Thank God. I like my place to be firmly situated at the top of the food chain) so that leaves: mountain lions.

I’ve never seen one in the wild, but they are out there. People occasionally spot them or a hunter shoots one. About two years ago, a Placerville women even reported being stalked by one. But attacks on humans are rare. Since 1890, there have been about 20 fatalities in North America by mountain lions. That’s far fewer than fatalities from bears, dog attacks, snake bites, lightning and bee stings.

In an effort to make light of this fear, I once told a running buddy that being attacked by a mountain lion wouldn’t be the worst thing to happen to you. There were basically two outcomes: a) you fight off a mountain lion and win, thereby cementing your reputation in the annals of badassery or b) a mountain lion eats you, thereby ensuring posthumous fame and the likely memorial naming of a trail or something after you. It’s a win-win.

Then my friend confessed he had actually known someone who was eaten by a mountain lion: 18-year-old Scott Lancaster, who was killed in January 1991 when he was trail running in Idaho Springs. My friend had competed against him in high school cross country. Yikes. Foot-in-mouth. Plus, the story did nothing to downplay my fear. In fact, it made it worse.

mountain lion

This was the exact conversation I was thinking about the other day as I went for a run up Bear Creek Trail. At times, Bear Creek is busy, crowded even, with hikers, fat bikers, skiers. But at other times, particularly the times when I go running — early morning and after dark in the winter — the trail feels lonely, desolate, dark. A few times I’ve heard voices — a conversation — coming from the hills or down by the river but when I stopped and strained to listen, the noise stopped. It’s entirely possible they were the voices of hikers, ice climbers or some other outdoor recreationists, given the popularity of the trail. But maybe it was the whispering of the spirits of miners or the Utes, who traversed this valley’s hillsides long before this generation of skiers took over.

As we made our way up the trail my dog suddenly took off at a full sprint past me, with his fur standing on end. I shouted after him, but he didn’t even pause. After about five more minutes of running uphill, I caught up to him at the base of a tree. He was staring intently up into the branches.

“Silly dog, what are you doing?” I asked. Then I heard it. A low growl. I froze and followed the dog’s gaze up into the tree, terrified of what he might have treed. But the tree was empty. Only snow clung to the bare branches. Not even a squirrel or porcupine. I scanned the forest around me. Nothing. The dog quickly lost interest and trotted away to sniff a bush. But I was spooked and decided to turn around.


I ran back down, looking back over my shoulder every few seconds, until I saw a group of ice climbers heading up the trail. Then a couple of snowshoers. Then a dog-walker. Returned to civilization and the comfort of human presence, I felt silly and regretted cutting my run short.

But what about the low growl I had heard? Did it belong to some predator, just out of sight in the thick underbrush, waiting in its lair for its prey to wander by? Maybe the noise came from the crunch of my sneakers on the snow. Maybe it was the nearby babbling brook. Maybe it was just the blood pounding in my own ears. It’s likely my imagination supplies the biggest fears of all.