Running Safety: Three Lessons to to Help You Stay Alive on the Road

If you’re like me, you think you’re invincible. You say things like, “That will never happen to me!”

This morning I was out running and got caught in a crazy thunder storm. Torrential rain. Bright flashes of lightning…immediately followed by deafening claps of thunder.

It was scary.

You’re not supposed to be out running when lightning is striking down so close. I was slipping around in mud on the trails in Rock Creek Park and being splashed by cars driving by on the road.

And it reminded me of the same thing that happened about a month ago. Except last month the lightning and thunder was coming every five seconds. The rain was also thicker – so thick I was actually choking on it.

When I finished my run I thought to myself, “Damn, that thing that I thought would never happen JUST happened!” I was in a pretty dangerous situation. Sure, I wasn’t hurt, but I easily could have been.

What if I broke my ankle on the trail because I couldn’t see in the rain?

What if I slipped in the mud and fell into the road… in front of an oncoming car? (Sounds ridiculous, but I’ve fallen mere feet from traffic)

What if a tree near me got struck by lightning and fell on me? Shit, what if I got struck by lightning?!

Maybe I was being paranoid but I was freaking out. Running isn’t as safe as most non-runners make it out to be. There are some very real risks that you expose yourself to when you go running around town, through the woods, and into unfamiliar territory.

“You Worry Too Much!”

That’s what I used to tell my mom when I was in high school. My motto back then was, “Barring nuclear war, I’m getting my run in today.” I’m still bullish on running no matter what, but I recognize that I’m not invincible. I’m not Wolverine.

Maybe I’m getting old.

Or maybe all those dangerous things I never thought would happen to me have already actually happened to me. Thinking back a few years, I’ve had some VERY close calls.

Just last winter, I was bit by a dog twice during my long run. Since I’m Wolverine… uhh… almost Wolverine, I kept running for over an hour. I couldn’t see where he bit me because I was wearing three layers because of the cold. Take a look for yourself what happened:

Dog Bite

Gross huh? That’s my ARM but it almost looks like my leg. That’s how big the bump was – like a golf ball. I should have gone to the hospital but I didn’t. Next time (hopefully there is none), I definitely will. Don’t take chances with dog bites or other animal wounds like I did.

Accidents don’t just happen when running. When I was getting back in shape after my ITB injury, I was riding my bike a lot to boost my aerobic fitness and make the transition to running a little easier. I knew that triathlon training was a great way to get in shape, so I was adding in the bike portion where I could.

I was on a typical ride on a typical day. Less than two miles from home, I hit a big downhill and decided that it was a good idea to see how fast I could go. At the time, I didn’t have a bike computer so I had no idea how fast I was going. But I was cruising….

All of a sudden, my front tire jerked to the right and I fell hard on my left side, scraping my ankle, shin, elbow, and part of my forearm. I sat on the ground in shock for a full 30 seconds before I slowly stood up and pulled my mangled bike to the side of the road.

Luckily, the car behind me didn’t run me over. He pulled over and turned out to be a doctor, who evaluated me and found that I didn’t break anything. He then told me that he was driving 35 mph and I was pulling away from him. Yep, I was moving.

This is what my shin looked like:

Somehow I didn’t break any bones. But here’s a pro tip: if you ride bikes a lot, for God’s sake shave your legs! There’s a reason pro cyclists shave their legs – the scab on this road rash was made even more painful by the leg hair intertwined in it. Not cool.

After three weeks, I was able to start running again. The throbbing went down and the scab finally fell off. If you’re curious what a scab like this looks like after a week or two – I got you covered:

Bike Scab

Oddly enough, I have no idea how I fell. The road wasn’t wet, I didn’t hit a pothole or patch of sand, and I was in full control of the bike the entire time (or so I thought). All of a sudden, for a reason I still don’t know, my tire went out to the right and I fell hard.

It’s a good lesson: you never know when things will go wrong. I heard a quote recently that said, “There are two types of cyclists – those who’ve crashed, and those who haven’t crashed yet.” Your time will come.

After my scare on the bike, I got nervous and bought a Road ID bracelet to wear whenever I was riding or running. I learned that I wasn’t invincible and bad things can happen when you least expect them to. It’s better to be safe and cautious.

It’s Not Just Me

Recently Lisa emailed me to tell me about a scary situation she found herself in while running. She was running a trail in the morning and some creepy guy stepped in front of her and tried to grab her. I can’t 100% identify with Lisa because I’m a guy, but I can only imagine this must be absolutely terrifying.

She’s a champ and brushed it off and got on with her workout. Thankfully nothing happened – it was just some weirdo trying to get a cheap thrill (or worse). But as a runner that I coach, Lisa’s story got me nervous. Dangerous situations are happening more and more to me and the people around me.

If you run in the dark predawn hours or after the sun sets, be careful and stick to roads that are well lit where there are other cars and people. Running desolate roads in the dark is asking for trouble.

I’m not trying to scare you, but I do want to be realistic and recognize that you’ll probably find yourself in an unpleasant situation on the road, while trail running, or on your bike at some point.

Staying inside on your coach isn’t a safe alternative either. Get out there and hit the trails! Pound the big ring! Tear up the track! But when you do, be mindful of your surroundings and don’t take unnecessary risks. Running when there’s enough daylight and where there are other people are ways that you can reduce your risk of falling or being confronted by a weirdo.

You should also be wearing some form of ID so that in case something happens, you’ll have your name, contact information, and any vital information available to first responders. I wear my Road ID almost every time I run and definitely every single time that I ride my bike. It has my penicillin allergy and Meaghan’s phone number – just in case.

Stay safe!

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  1. Kris @ HouseBuying Tips says:

    This summer I went out running on a bright, sunny summer day. Hit a local trail, nothing too difficult, well marked, just a short run. Then I got lost. Took me over 3 hours to find my way out. Had no water (on a 90+ degree day), no phone, no map – after all it was just a short run. Fell on my butt while walking down a hill and felt numbness all the way up my back (I still feel some numbness from an old herniated disk injury). And I’m no outdoorsman so it was quite a scary adventure.

    But lesson learned – from now on I always bring a phone and water while trail running.

  2. I’ve had similar stuff happen on the bike. Too many times to count! I always have my Road ID or GoSport ID with me. My phone, not so much. But I do take it with me on the trails. But this one time, I was on a trail and there was no signal (which I didn’t know) and my phone was searching the whole time I was out there so the battery died. Next time, I’ll make sure it’s off until I need it so that doesn’t happen again.

    Wild pictures, Jason! I’m glad you were okay from that fall (for the most part) and didn’t break anything!

  3. Good article. I run early in the morning out on the roads. The first thing I do is pick roads that have minimal traffic. When it is getting darker in the mornings, I wear a Black Diamond Sprinter headlamp. It is AWESOME! When I first got involved with Ragnar relay races where you have to wear a headlamp and run at night, I just bought the cheap Energizer headlamps at Walmart. Eventually, I got tired of replacing batteries and subpar light, so I switched to the Black Diamond Sprinter. It puts out an amazing amount of light. I can run full speed (my full speed is much slower than Fitz) with this light. It is rechargable, so I don’t have to worry about replacing batteries plus it supports getting better light because I keep it charged. Plus, the other feature I like is that it has a blinking LED light on the back of the headband. I used to wear a RoadID blinking LED light. Now, all I have to do is wear this headband. If you run in the dark or dusk situations, I would highly encourage you to consider a headlamp.

    Lastly, running outdoors in the winter can be dangerous depending on your geographic location. I’ve had good success with YakTraks that you place over the bottom of your running shoes. They do wear out, but they make a heck of difference. I also know some runners who put sheet metal screws in the bottom of an old pair of running shoes. They said it worked well, but I stuck with my YakTraks.

    I also agree with Fitz’s recommendation for a RoadID tag or similar. I don’t run with a cell phone (my only time during the day that I am away from it) or wallet/ID, but I always run with my RoadID.

    • Thanks Steve – having a light in the dark is a must, especially if you’re on the trails! Do Yak Traks make your footing feel uneven? I’m hesitant to try them…

  4. I’ve done the road rash thing a few times. The way you describe it, your tire likely hit something – not necessarily head on, but in a glancing manner. I crashed once navigating from a shoulder to the road at decent speed, but the road was a little higher than the shoulder, and the seam was vertical. That was enough to put me down. (The fat tires on a car and the mass of the car makes that kind of maneuver in a car much safer.) At your speed, it wouldn’t take much.

    I also tripped in front of a car once – due to shoe lace loops being too long and catching a foot. Luckily, the car was moving slow and could stop. Unluckily, I broke my elbow catching myself on the pavement.

    The scabs and injuries are never fun. Be careful and be vigilant and be safe no matter what outside activity you do.

  5. Steve hints at it, but I’ll go deeper – it’s almost the time of year to start being aware of ice as a hazard (well, maybe not where you live Fitz). Even Yaktrax (which I’ve reviewed at don’t help with black ice, only packed snow.
    Worst running accident I’ve had was when I took a cul-de-sac too fast in the predawn tacking on 0.1 mile to my run (it was right across from my house). I slipped on the ice, fell instantly, and banged my head, just above my left eye, on the curb. Broke my glasses (fortunately an old pair), scraped up my relatively-new Garmin and was dazed for a bit, fortunately it was a short jog home. Still have a scar from the cut.
    Had no ID (I have RoadID now) and no phone (still don’t typically carry that), so I was glad it wasn’t more severe and I was close to home. Needless to say, I avoid cul-de-sacs as much as possible in the winter.

    • Damn that’s a scary story! Black ice is just as bad running as when you’re driving. One short story I didn’t mention happened about 4 years ago in the predawn hours during a light snow flurry. There was just enough snow to cover the road and I was crossing the street in front of a car. There was plenty of time, but I slipped on the snow and somersaulted on the ground toward the car. Luckily they were going slow and I wasn’t hurt, so I popped right back up. But it easily could’ve been bad…

      • I’ve had pretty good success with YakTraks. As Greg points out, they are not perfect. I’ve actually had good success on ice, but I don’t run full speed. There are different varieties and brands of YakTraks; some work ok on ice while others don’t. The ones I wear have the steel rings around the rubber that I suspect give the ice some bite. Nevertheless, I run more slowly in these types of conditions and try to stay on the look out for black ice. I feel safer with the YakTraks, but I try avoid getting complacent about ice.

        Fitz – in regards to your question, they really don’t bother me. I can feel them on the shoe, but I tend to forget about them during the run. It is nice to get off the treadmill in the winter months.