A Walk in the Dark

I’m walking more than I used to. It’s become a thing. 

I’ve been a car-driver, suburban-dweller and commuter for over 25 years, but my current job has led to a significant decline in the amount of simple movement in my daily life, and now I’m remedying that. Good. 

This means that most days I take a walk. Most days that walk takes place at the end of the day; before or after our evening meal, depending on who’s cooking and what time I get home from work. I walk for between 30 and 90 minutes factoring in how sedentary my day has been. I’ve been doing it for long enough that I know a number of circular routes round my neighbourhood, which take predictable lengths of time to complete. 

Now, as the evenings draw in, I’m more and more often walking in the dark and this has prompted a surprising discovery; I’m afraid when I walk in the dark. More surprising still was how I made this discovery. I only noticed the fear had existed when I realised it wasn’t there. 

I’m not afraid of the dark itself. I can sit in a garden as darkness falls enjoying the bats, or rummage round the house in darkness so as not to waken my sleeping family. Nor am I generally afraid in my neighbourhood. We’ve lived here for over 20 years, occasionally leaving the garage open or the back door unlocked with no ill outcome. The crime rate here is lower than the city where I grew up. But still, when I take the cloak of darkness and my pleasant neighbourhood together, I feel fear when I’m out walking. 

I’m not so afraid that it stops me walking. That’s why I didn’t notice I was afraid at first. I would strike out each evening, determined – perhaps a little grimly determined – to complete my walk and I’d come home flushed and thirsty and declare my steps done. Then my 16yo son got a new longboard and offered to skate along with me as I walked. This is how I came to notice the fear was gone. 

When 16yo skates the road that I’m walking, my pace slows down a fraction. I’m still brisk, but no longer rushing headlong. (This is not an illusion, my walk-mapping app tracks this.) The tension in my throat and the little tickly cough disappears. My arms relax as they swing, hands no longer clenched into fists. I arrive home without a sour taste in my mouth. 

My 16yo is taller than me, but he’s a long skinny thing. I doubt he’s any heavier than I am. I’ve no idea if he’s handy in a fight. But he’s a male person alongside me and it makes a difference; a difference I would almost certainly have denied could be possible, until I actually experienced the physical relief of walking without my stomach tied in knots with fear. 

When I’m walking alone, I’m constantly, unconsciously, assessing the level of risk around me, the single men that come up behind me silent and swift, the cars that pull alongside and then pass, the groups of walkers that loom towards me in the darkness (are they a mixed group, or all men?), the parked vans I have to pass, the vehicles that pass me and then pull up next to where I’ll be walking in a moment or two (do they want something, do they just live there?) 

Since the first time I experienced a walk in the dark without fear, I’ve chosen to make a more conscious assessment of my surroundings. I’ve been doing this for about a fortnight now and in that time I’ve not come across any other woman just walking alone, at least, not without a dog in tow. 

The fear may not be rational; by objective measures, my neighbourhood is safe, and I’m walking at a time which isn’t “late” (in high summer, it would still be light) but the fear is real. I feel it viscerally when I stop to notice, but it’s so very built in and ingrained that most of the time if I’m walking in the dark alone it’s just my normal state of being. 

My 14yo daughter walks with me sometimes instead. Does this bring the same relief? No. Of course, no. In fact my nerves are taughtened. I’m fearful and protective both of her and me. Is this justified? I don’t know. What I do know is that walking in the dark with her, vehicles that approach us from behind honk us and rev their engines at us. “Who is that?” asks my daughter, “What do they want?” And I honestly have no idea. I’ve never been honked or revved at when out walking with 16yo. 

“Maybe,” I say, “they just want to make us afraid.” 

It works. 


Some thoughts on goal-setting. (It’s that time of year). 

I used to have my Jawbone UP (like a Fitbit) set to the goal of doing 8,000 steps a day. That’s not all that many more steps than I would do just pottering about on a normal day and some days I would walk that many steps without trying. It seemed like an attainable goal without requiring much behaviour change on my part. 

I failed to hit that goal most days of the week. Every week. 

A couple of months ago I made a change, and pushed my goal higher, to the 10,000 steps that is recommended for basic health and fitness. 

The thing is, I would never hit 10,000 steps by accident on a normal day. If I wanted to hit this target I would have to set out specifically to walk 

So that’s what I did.

For the last couple of months I’ve built a daily walk into my day, and other than when extreme events have intervened (not weather events, I walk come rain or shine) I have hit the 10,000 every day. Go me! 

What was it about having a more demanding goal that made it easier to achieve? 

I think it was because it forced me to make a really conscious and deliberate change to my routine, which I have now repeated often enough for it to become a proper habit. Before, when I was often nearly at the goal, I told myself I’d probably make it without much extra effort, and if I missed it by a few hundred steps, it didn’t matter very much. That meant that I didn’t really try very hard and if I failed I already had my get-out clause: “it’s no biggie”. Now I know that if I want to hit the goal, a walk is a must, and if I miss the goal it’s because I made a conscious choice not to try. I don’t want to consciously not try – that would be a rubbish way to go after a goal – so that gives me the extra motivation I need to steer myself away from the comfy sofa and to put my shoes on again to notch up a couple of thousand extra steps. 

I now know a whole range of circular walks that get me from 1,000 to 7,000 steps on the clock, and I’ve walked many of them with my children, who seem happy to come along. (This has been a pleasant surprise). 

It’s caused me to reflect that a more challenging goal may perversely be easier to achieve because it requires a significant, observable change in behaviour, and that can actually be more motivating than going after “marginal gains”. 

Works for me anyway. Happy walking.