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The Safety Dance: Balancing Long Distance Road Running, Hazards and Situational Awareness
Folks often ask if I “zone out” during runs like my trans-USA run in 2020-2021 or my previous runs across Texas and Iowa. It’s indeed easy to zone out—but it’s dangerous, too, and I try not to do it.
With traffic coming at you, running on a steep two-foot-wide road shoulder or narrow bridge while watching for dangerous road debris and distracted drivers quickly produces a physiological stress response. Fellow transconner and retired Navy doctor Terrie Wurzbacher calls this Sympathetic Nervous System Overload.
While it doesn’t rise to the level of clinical PTSD, this “Pre-TSD” is real. You can’t muscle through it like you can with minor pain. Encounter enough hazards and you start to feel like you’ve got a target on your back. You’re jumpy. The tiniest sound and you’re whipping around looking for the threat. You’re constantly thinking about the million little things that could kill you.
That can take you to a bad place, one where you make mistakes and use poor judgment. It can affect your sleep and your thinking in situations where you must have your head screwed on straight.
Dealing with hazards and other safety issues means learning everything you can about how they manifest, what you can rationally do about them, and then calming yourself down and following your plan without wavering instead of panicking and making a stream of bad decisions that could get you killed. Or as a friend of mine in the military says, “stay on mission and unfuck yourself.”
Running too close to the road
In some stretches, even the safest routes run through narrow canyons with steep drop-offs. Sometimes, they all suck, so it’s just a question of which narrow canyons and steep roads you plan to run. For example, after leaving Tucson I found myself on Arizona 82 crossing the Continental Divide outside Sonoita, picking my way uphill on the narrow and crumbling outer edge of a guardrail above a steep drop into a canyon, because running in the actual road on a blind uphill looked like Russian roulette by comparison. Believe it or not, that was the safest road in the area. The alternative—AZ-83 through Vail, AZ—was worse. There’s no way oncoming traffic will see you until the last minute, so rule #1 is stay out of traffic, and rule #2 is don’t fall to your death.
Short guardrails, tiny shoulders or steep dropoffs don’t give you much room to maneuver, which makes it tempting to run out in the middle of the road. That might work for very quiet, untrafficked roads, but zone out on a busy one and you’ll suddenly look up to see a truck coming straight at you at 80 mph.
Traffic behind can be just as perilous. More than once I’ve been on a lonely two-lane road, vaguely aware of a Class A motorhome crawling along behind me on the other side of the road, only to be snapped out of it by the roar of an engine as the guy behind the Class A finally sees his chance to pass—in the lane *thisclose* to me.
Running too far from the road
The farther you get from the actual road, the taller the weeds, the greater the abundance of thorns, the rougher the ground, and and the likelier it is that you’ll run across something you don’t want to encounter.
Bobcats in California. Coyotes in Arizona. Feral hogs in Texas.
I’ve leaped over more rotting carcasses than I can count.
Hopscotched through huge fire ant hills.
On FL-41 outside Inverness, I happened to kick rocks into a cculvert just feet away—and startled alligators. Twice. Right by the side of the road.
Around Bushnell, FL, on a road with high grass edging a swamp, I encountered no fewer than 6 snakes, all of whom had fortunately encountered cars before I got there. It was a reminder of what actually *lives* in the grass.
In West Texas, getting off the paved road means stepping on 3/4-inch mesquite thorns or goat head thorns, both of which will easily puncture the sole of a running shoe or even a car tire. More than once I’ve had so many thorns stuck all the way through my shoe soles that Leslie had to get out the needlenose pliers.
And if I had a dollar for every cocklebur I had to stop and pick out from bafflingly far inside my socks–despite wearing gaiters (shoe gaiters, not the ones from Inverness!), I’d be writing this on a Caribbean island.
You just don’t want to run where you can’t see things.
Combined with the first hazard, that often gives you a very narrow strip of shoulder to run on, if there is one at all.
Not being visible to drivers
I always cringe when I see photos on social of people running in dark clothes on or next to roads. I know something about it calls out the romance of the open road, the allure of running under the full moon…whatever. Every cell in my body is shrieking DANGER! As my wife likes to say, “It’s all fun and games until somebody gets hurt.”
At 60 mph, that driver a mile away has exactly one minute to notice you AND take action. That might sound like a lot of time, but it isn’t. Strangely, it’s more time for me: I can start moving away as soon I hear or see you. But if you’re behind the wheel, in the 6 seconds it takes you to notice me and think about what to do, you’ve driven almost 200 yards.
Many folks drive more like 80 out here, so they’ve got even less time to notice and act. Remember, the last thing they’re expecting to see out in the middle of nowhere is somebody on the side of the road.
The biggest issue is often simply being noticed, and the good news is that there’s a lot you can do about that.
I wear high-vis orange and high-vis yellow shirts and shorts every single day when I’m out running, no exceptions. I’m especially fond of SeeMeWear’s orange and yellow stripes. I used to wear a lot of solid high-vis yellow until we realized it didn’t stand out very well against the green landscape in rura Iowa, and blaze orange/hunter’s orange was much more visible in shadows. These days, I never wear black or dark gray shirts, shorts, or jackets when I’m running on roads. You need every bit of visibility you can get.
Bright lights are also a good plan, the brighter the better, and the more the better.
It’s not enough to wear a headlamp. Headlamps are “see” lights, so you can see what’s in front of you. Often, they’re barely visible from a distance despite what they illuminate. The LED light vests I wear are “be seen” lights, so you can be seen by drivers. It’s a Class 2 OSHA-compliant safety vest designed for crossing guards, nighttime road crews and the like, and it conforms to the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Specification 108 (FMVSS-108). It is BRIGHT.
On one drizzly day, a trucker stopped to tell me he could see me wearing it from a mile away. Mission accomplished!
I’ve worn it in all kinds of conditions: from torrential rains through New Mexico and outside Tuscaloosa, AL to fog outside Cross City, FL and heavy overcast skies in Iowa.
Not being noticed by drivers
This is not the same as above. I am talking about situations where you are lit up like a Christmas tree and people still don’t notice.
Because even with all this extra effort, you have to stay hyper-alert. There’s *always* someone who doesn’t notice you.
I was running on the gravel shoulder of US-82 west of Crossett, AR, when I heard a deafening screech of tires that sounded like it was just behind me.
I jumped instinctively off the shoulder, without even looking back—just in time to glimpse a woman in a passenger car heading straight toward me in the near lane. She had crossed the center line and veered across my road shoulder, dodging me just in time, and then swerved wildly back to her right, overcorrecting and plowing headfirst into a ditch on the far side of the road. I could hear the front of the car crunch as it hit the mud.
Another driver and I stopped to check on her. Thank goodness her airbag had deployed and she appeared to be fine. But she admitted she had been looking at her phone and had lost track of where she was on the road.
In my experience, the people most likely to pay attention are commercial truck drivers. Shout out to all the trucker friends I’ve made on my runs! And practically every vehicle with a logo seems to have a responsible professional driver.
The least attentive drivers I’ve run across are people in passenger vehicles. They constantly run off onto the shoulder, won’t move to the inside lane even on a four-lane highway, and they’re often driving oversized SUVs, which are basically out-of-control tanks in this situation.
The best plan is to spot them early and give them a wide berth.
Not registering your surroundings
Cars are just half the battle. There’s a lot of other stuff lurking out here that can get you into trouble, too.
For some reason, bridges tend to gather a lot of debris against the guardrails: tangles of metal from blown-out steel-belted radial tires, big chunks of wood, tie-downs, and broken glass. You can’t afford to zone out.
In Coolidge, AZ, my feet got tangled up in a big snarl of tire wire on the shoulder of a busy bridge. I grabbed the guardrail to avoid falling into traffic and tore a substantial amount of skin off the fingers of my left hand. It swelled up so quickly I had to force myself to work my wedding ring off over raw flesh before it turned into an ER-level problem. Not cool.
One morning outside Cross City, FL was so soggy and foggy that I found myself running just off the road in the least wet and most flat areas I could spot. But I was so focused on avoiding traffic and mudholes that I actually tripped over a full-sized log that was as thick around as my thigh.
Coming out of Tucson toward Nogales, I tripped and banged up my shoulder and wrist three times in two days, landing every time on my InReach live GPS tracker, which finally died from the abuse. Not proud to say it took me that long to notice the roads out there tended to have random “knobs” or lumps of asphalt just waiting to trip you up.
And then there are dogs. On cross-state ultra runs or transcontinental runs, you will invariably meet a lot of dogs.
Out in the boonies, you’ve got to be alert for dogs anytime you’re heading past a house or trailer. Some are friendly, or at worst curious. Some are territorial. When they bark at you, they’re doing you a favor: they’re telling you to keep your distance. But sometimes they’re genuinely aggressive and a real threat, and those don’t always bark. I’m thinking of two in particular just outside Texarkana who actually crept up on me quietly and then circled, growling and snarling, until a guy drove his truck between me and them and scared them off long enough for me to get on down the road.
All of these times, I was lucky, because I sure wasn’t paying attention.
Not taking care of your body
This covers everything from eating enough calories and protein, to lubing and taping your feet, to getting enough sleep, to keeping your blood sugars in range when your body is full of stress hormones from running 40 miles at top speed on dangerous desert roads.
Sooner or later something is going to give. Your job is to fix it before it gets to be a problem, because failing to take care of yourself can lead to:
- Sleepless inattentiveness, zoning out and wandering into traffic
- Swollen ankles, edema, slipped discs (these happened to me running across Iowa, then Texas) or Blisters that Just Won’t Quit and eventually cause infections that require you to cancel your run (this happened to Jacob Fetterolf on his attempted run across Texas)
- Diarrhea from reduced osmolarity of sugars in the gut brought on by constant consumption of a single high-energy food source (high-carb running gels) without adequate hydration
- Flu-like symptoms, caused by immunological reaction to damaged myoglobin from the body’s breakdown of muscle for fuel; creates toxic environment that can damage kidneys and is a precursor to rhabdomyolysis–can usually be addressed by slowing down, getting more protein, and getting a good night’s sleep
- Dangerous weight loss despite massive calorie consumption as your body kicks into “survival mode” and starts catabolizing itself for energy (I lost 12 pounds running across Texas and 7 pounds running across the US)
The answer is almost always: eat right, sleep well, and slow down. That’s why you seldom see a transconner busting their marathon pace over 3000 miles.
How to Improve Your Visibility
Wear fluorescent clothes. Wear reflective clothes.
You can’t always get both of these together, but Proviz makes a fabric called Reflect 360 that’s bright yellow in the daytime and super-reflective at night. The fabric is coated in glass beads, so it isn’t super breathable, but if you wear it selectively you’ll still be able to bleed off body heat while improving your visibility.
Wear super-bright lights, including BOTH a headlamp AND a safety vest when the sky is overcast or it’s night. LED Light Vest makes a great light vest that’s OSHA highway-use certified and meets automotive lighting standards.
Try not to run at night. Even if you’re well lit and have a good headlamp, you’ll miss stuff and trip over it eventually. And it will hurt.
Run facing traffic.
Get your crew to drive down the road with a “Runner on Road” sign on the back of the vehicle and have them turn around so the traffic headed towards you knows you’re there.
Wear reflective body paint such as Safety Skin. It contains zinc oxide, so when the sun’s out, it doubles as sunscreen.
How To Improve Your Situational Awareness
Don’t use your cell phone unless it’s an emergency or you’re delayed meeting your crew. Then, step way off the road and make it snappy.
No earbuds. No music. Hum to yourself if you want, but don’t plug your ears even if the buds claim they let outside sounds in.
Get a good meal, a good night’s sleep, and rest when you can
You’ll be more alert, better recovered, and less inwardly-focused on pain and exhaustion.
Consider taking rest days every ten days or so so you can fully recover, because some injuries accumulate.
Scout the terrain in advance
A little route scouting goes a long way, whether it’s in-person, via Google Maps, or both. The absolute worst time to develop a strategy for running dangerous roads is in the moment. If those roads are the only way you can possibly travel, get to know them well. Drive out and do some dry runs if you can.
First, especially in bright sunlight, wear a cap with a large brim that’s dark underneath, plus sunglasses. This helps keep your eyes fresh.
Then, keep checking out your surroundings. I know that’s hard to do when you’re running 10 hours a day or more. Watching for interesting stuff helps you keep alert and tuned in to your surroundings. I keep my eyes peeled for money and cool roadside trash. On my US run, I found something like $5 worth of road change, including a 1971 silver dollar outside Montgomery, AL. Running across Texas, I found a metal sign that looked like the Superman logo.
I always grab anything I think Leslie would like seeing. Once, a heart-shaped leaf, another time a Valentine’s Day card blowing in the wind, another time a tinsel garland and once a cheerleader’s pom-pom. And any metal washers I see, always. It’s our tradition!
Actively scanning your surroundings requires just enough attention to help you spot hazards without distracting you from noticing traffic. Plus it’s a good way to spot dogs so you can assess their intentions before they get too close.
On a quiet road, you can hear the Doppler shift of tires on pavement a mile or two away. It’s a great way to anticipate when traffic is headed your way.
Try to get a sense of whether the sound is behind you or ahead of you. If it’s behind you, get off the road in case they’re passing someone. If it’s heading towards you, it may give you an idea of how long you can stay on an un-shouldered road before stepping into a ditch. Plus, you’ll have time to decide which weeds you’d rather step into.
If this gets too boring, play this game: try to guess the size and type of vehicle just by the sound of the engine and the tires on pavement. After a while, I got pretty good at this, and it helped keep me attentive to risks.
Attune yourself to patterns
If you are truly paying attention to what’s around you, you’ll become hyper-aware of the places along the roadside that likely have thorns, animals, and road debris. You’ll start to get a sense of which types of drivers pay attention and which ones don’t.
(You’ll also become more present, calmer, and more aware and appreciative of the beauty around you, which will go a long way toward taking your mind off your aching feet.)
Keep energy in reserve
People who throw it all out there and drain their reserves can make dangerous mistakes.
For example: crossing a long bridge can take both timing and a burst of energy to make it across the bridge before oncoming traffic gets there. My route avoided long bridges as much as possible, but sooner or later you’re going to find a creek you can’t just jump across. You’ll be on that bridge, along with its narrow shoulder and road debris, so make sure you have a good sense of what you’re getting into before you bet on the Most Dangerous 30 Seconds Of Your Life.
Don’t push through
Pushing through is overrated, especially when you’re risking injury or death. Forget those Successories-style motivational exhortations about #HTFU, pain is weakness, embracing the suck or glory requiring suffering or whatever, no matter who’s selling them.
You’re running to FINISH. That means actually being able to, you know, FINISH.
They don’t give out prizes for Fastest Transcon in a Severe Thunderstorm, or Fastest Almost-Run Across Dangerously Flooded Desert Basin.
If nature is working against you, take a weather day and rework your schedule, including rest days, to maximize progress on safer days.
If you can barely walk on huge blisters, take care of the blisters first, because massive blisters have a way of turning into a showstopper. Give your feet a decent shot at bouncing back with a rest day, some protein, disinfectant, ice packs, and elevation. When you start running again, tape them, lube your feet and the tape, and make sure you’re in the right shoes for this moment.
Understand the scope of your effort
It may seem like it’s been forever since there was a break in traffic, but it’s probably been more like 45 seconds. Wait until it’s safe. If that means lowering your estimate for all-up-all-in running speed, so be it.
People sometimes think that I walked when I say my transcon and Texas runs averaged a 15-minute mile. But it’s not like there are aid stations, or cops waving me across busy intersections. You have to make bathroom stops, and unless it’s a quick whiz behind the bushes, it takes a little time. You have to eat and drink. You have to change the tape on your feet. You have to massage sore feet or squeeze ice water over your head. You have to run in the rain, on pine needles and in mud, on a slanted roadside. You have to sit on guardrails and pick thorns out of your shoe. You have to wait for traffic at long bridges. And unlike the trail ultras most folks are familiar with, you won’t be done in 24-36 hours.
If you can run fast, good on you. But you won’t always run at your maximum speed on a transcon no matter what you do, so settle in and learn to do things the safest way possible.
Because your life actually does depend on it.
While I’ve focused on safety issues in this post, the positives more than offset the daily stresses.
Nearly everyone I’ve ever met during these journeys has been curious and kind, even handing us cash or offering free food, water and lodging.
When being present and aware is the most important thing on the day’s schedule, it allows you to fully experience that kindness.
Yes, the world is full of danger and never far removed from death; and it is also alive and beautiful and wonderful and joy-filled.
Pay attention: a miracle is unfolding for you in real time.
A Final Word about Risk and Responsibility
If you are running with sponsors, for a national charity, or to a popular tourist destination like Disney World, sooner or later you’re going to encounter people who are risk-averse. And yet, running across the US is NOT without risks!
So how do you balance things? How do you keep something inherently dangerous as safe as possible? How do you reassure sponsors, media, or towns that they’re not fools for investing time and attention in your event?
Here’s what you can do:
- Reduce the risk as much as possible: stay off the Interstate. Stay off private property (ability of others to repeat the run without special permission will also affect whether your run can qualify for a record). Don’t run with traffic at your back unless it is the safest or only way to get somewhere. Try not to run at night. Stay on the shoulder, not the road, whenever possible. Obey cops, traffic laws, and the like. Wear reflective clothing, fluorescent clothing, and brightly lit clothing–all three at the same time if you can.
- Have a plan for dealing with the unexpected: When my run was forcibly paused due to COVID-19 lockdowns, my wife and crew chief re-examined our lodging strategy to focus on places that were vacant for quite a while prior to arrival and had openable windows. Usually that meant Air B&Bs. We stocked up (which was hard to do during a pandemic) on disinfecting wipes and sprays and wiped down surfaces upon arrival. We stockpiled toilet paper (yeah, that was us :-/ ), dry food, and water in anticipating of doing more camping and less staying in hotels. And it worked. We had to pause twice, but we finished, and did it safely.
- Let people know what your plan for the unexpected is: On our website, it says right there in big letters that we would stop the run in the case of “acts of God”, natural disasters, etc., instead of doing something risky or stupid. It helps to say it out loud. We also told folks we’d restart as soon as it was safe, and we did.
- Let folks know how you’ve prepared: Tell them about your effort to scout safe routes, your dry runs through oilfield country, and your safety precautions. Let them know how you’ve supplied yourself with adequate food and water for the 200-mile run across the Mojave Desert. Let them know about the emergency satellite beacon you bought as well as the over-the-road cellular signal booster. Let them know that you’re familiar with the weather on your route and aware of things like seasonal thunderstorms, tornadoes and floods.
- Share your track record: There was a reason I practiced on Iowa before running across Texas, and practiced on Texas before running across the US. You learn stuff. You get better at risk-awareness (usually) and are less likely to do something stupid and unnecessarily risky. At least most people are.
- Be careful about inviting folks to run with you: If the road camber (slant) is significant, inexperienced runners or walkers can roll ankles. They’re also less likely to pay attention to traffic. They may even assume you have their safety under control, which is a dangerous thing to do. When you DO allow folks to run with you, pick a section of road with a wide shoulder, make sure they talk to your crew chief about the realities of eating, drinking, and using the bathroom in the middle of nowhere, and make sure they brought decent running shoes, the right hat, and some kind of hydration equipment. With all of that, it may be a better strategy to just have them meet you at your lunch or dinner stops, or chat briefly while in town or at a pull-off on the side of the road.
- Make it clear that in your undertaking, YOU ALONE are assuming the risks and hold NO ONE else liable in any way whatsoever. The one exception is that for anyone running WITH you, make sure they know THEY assume responsibility for their own safety.
If you’ve done it right, your story is likelier to have a happy ending that your sponsors, friends, family, media, towns along the route, and people at your destination can celebrate.