Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Road Hazards

(To mark twin 50th anniversaries in 2017, as a fulltime running journalist and as a marathoner, I am posting a piece for each of those years. This one comes from 1992.)

ONE MOMENT all can seem right with your world. The next instant it can spin out of control. Literally, in this case.

My life was going superbly as 1992 neared its end. Barbara and I had settled into a new house, one that we agreed we never wanted to leave. We had a flight to Honolulu scheduled the next morning, a respite from Oregon’s darkest and rainiest month.

My son Eric, now 15, had joined his 10-year-old sister Leslie at the Oregon School for the Deaf in Salem. The school nurse called that afternoon to say, “Eric has the flu. We can’t keep him in the infirmary overnight, and he can’t go back to the dorm, so you’ll need to take him home.”

I made the hour’s drive north on Interstate 5, then reversed course with Eric dozing semi-reclined in the passenger seat. I planned to drop him at his mother’s house.

The trip seemed no less routine than dozens of others I’d made on this highway. Then came a sudden “Whomp!” A speeder had rear-ended our little Honda, which now fish-tailed out of control and onto the muddy right shoulder, where it rolled.

Our car came to rest upside down, leaving me hanging suspended by the seatbelt. I looked over to see Eric dangling the same way.

He spoke first: “I’m okay. Are you okay?” I was. We released each other’s belts and lowered ourselves to the ceiling.

Eric kicked open his door but mine wouldn’t budge, so I crawled through his side. Only on the outside did we realize how lucky we were, and how shaken.

We stood in a puddle, wondering what to do next. Eric finally announced, “We survived,” then threw up.

A State Highway Patrolman arrived promptly, from his headquarters just across the freeway. A witness identified the culprit, who hadn’t stopped, as driving an American-made muscle car twice the size of mine and going at least 25 miles an hour faster.

The cop let me call my wife, then offered to take us to a nearby restaurant to wait for her. I took a last look at the crumpled Honda. Its final act was its best, as it protected us from serious harm.

The crash didn’t cancel the Hawaiian trip, only delayed its start by a day. I still ran the Honolulu Marathon as planned, just slower than hoped and feeling as if I’d recently played a football game without pads.

DRIVING THE roads is risky enough. Running them is far worse, though we tend to take too lightly the threats zipping a few feet (or inches) from our unprotected flesh and bones.

As runners, the roadways are never ours, no matter what the laws say about shared access and rights-of-way. The roads belong to the vehicles, if only because they’re built at least 10 times our size and powered to travel more than 10 times as fast.

Most of us still run on the roads because they’re always right outside our door, they offer smooth, all-weather surfaces, and (in town at least) they are lighted for early-morning and late-evening runs. We hit the roads for this convenience, and in doing so we court their dangers.

Most runners can recall near-misses in chilling detail, as in one example among many of mine. One morning I shuffled into an intersection on a green light. From the left, through the red light on the otherwise empty street, came a taxicab at full throttle.

The cabbie saw me too late. His tires screeched and smoked as he slid past the spot with the invisible “X” where I would have been if my brakes hadn’t worked. The driver looked at me with an embarrassed shrug, while I put a hand over my heart in relief.

This incident didn’t result from the driver’s intent to do great bodily injury, but from his inattention or impatience. That’s the case with most road collisions. Our best defense as runners, then, is to stay hyper-attentive and extra-patient ourselves.

We see drivers much clearer than they see us. We see them rubbing sleep from their eyes or checking their faces in the mirror.

We see drivers with the day’s newspaper folded across the steering wheel. We see them eating, drinking, smoking – sometimes all at once – or holding a cell phone in one hand and gesturing to the unseen listener with the other.

Drivers speed as if the limits were the slowest pace they could legally travel. Drivers wander into bike lanes, which serve equally well as running lanes.

Drivers turn without signaling for mere pedestrians, or drive at dawn or dusk without lights. Drivers gun through yellow lights and coast through stop-signs without looking to see who might be about to dash across their path.

If it makes you feel better, point a warning finger (no, not that finger) at the offending driver. But don’t shake a fist or shout an obscenity – and please don’t pound the side of a car or run over the hood like a steeplechaser on the water jump. This is the runner’s version of road rage, and it can have dire consequences when drivers hold a deadly weapon in their hands.

When you point a finger, remember that three fingers point back at yourself. You drive more than you run, and probably make the same mistakes that infuriate you in other drivers.

Examine your own habits, both as a driver and a runner. Then promise yourself and those who love you that you’ll drive more courteously and run more defensively – and vice versa.

Run as if the drivers can’t see you. Drive as if the lives of fellow runners are in your hands.

Photo: A hard-earned shirt from the Honolulu Marathon, run five days after my auto accident.

[Many books of mine, old and recent, are now available in two different formats: in print and as ebooks from Latest released was Miles to Go. Other titles: Going Far, Home Runs, Joe’s Journal, Joe’s Team, Learning to Walk, Long Run Solution, Long Slow Distance, Pacesetters, Run Right Now, Run Right Now Training Log, See How We Run, and Starting Lines, plus Rich Englehart’s book about me, Slow Joe.]

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