In more than 30 years of running the roads, I have encountered intentional bad behavior only a few times.
Once, passing teenagers spit out the window and nailed me good. A few other times, oncoming drivers have laid on the horn or veered toward me on the shoulder just for the fun of it.
On a frigid morning last winter in Central New York, it happened again. This time, I was able to do something about it.
About halfway through my daily run, I was on the left shoulder of a busy two-way road, facing traffic as I should, when I was startled by someone yelling at me from behind. It came from a vehicle heading in the same direction as I, and I didn’t see or hear it coming. It caught me off guard and scared me more than I expected.
A young man was leaning out the passenger window of a truck, yelling at the top of his voice, “Hey! What the f— are you doin’?!” or something like that. He then pulled himself back inside the truck, which went on its merry way.
Some mornings I would laugh that off. Not that morning, perhaps because of single-digit temperatures and a biting cold headwind. But I refocused on my stride and my mundane plans for the day. Not quite a mile later, as I reached the corner where I normally turn for home, I happened to look over at the convenience store across the street. There was the yeller’s truck at the fuel pump.
Decision time. Do I “let it go,” as cautious people would advise?
I crossed the street to the store, slowing to a jog and then to a walk. As I passed the truck, it appeared to be empty. Inside the store a young man stood at the counter paying for some empty calories, but there were no other customers. I asked the young man if the truck was his, and he shook his head no. I asked the clerk if she knew whose truck it was, and she said no.
Their answers didn’t pass the sniff test. I took my time and followed the young man outside, and he indeed headed toward the truck. Just as he got around to the driver’s side door, it opened from the inside and another young man suddenly jumped out.
I approached the second young man, who apparently had decided to hide in the truck as he saw me cross the street. “Excuse me, do I know you?” I asked. I must have looked quite intimidating, all 6 feet and 155 pounds of me in running clothes, winter hat and mittens.
Not gloves. Mittens.
He, a chunky fellow in his early 20s, blanched and gave a nervous, “No, sorry.”
So I asked him why he yelled at me. His reply, as he opened the passenger door and climbed back in, was that he thought he knew me. A lame answer, and we both knew it.
I grabbed onto the door, leaned toward him and asked him a favor, to please not yell at runners. I was calm at first, but my anger rose as I spoke. It’s rude, I told him, and you might pick the wrong runner and the wrong day. In fact, you just might pick a crazy runner.
As he clutched what I believe to have been chips and soda at 8 a.m., he asked, “Are you crazy?”
A good question. I think I said something like, “I’m running outside in 5-degree weather. What do you think?”
Our exchange ended without incident, because the truck pulled away (much too fast, of course) with my brave new friend lobbing F-bombs out the window. I even returned one as a courtesy.
As I jogged away, I wondered … was that worth it?
Here’s why: Despite whatever failings this young man has (including his diet), maybe there’s something within him that will make our little encounter bear fruit.
I hope he looks in the mirror one day as he shaves and feels a sense of … the easy word here would be “shame.” But any shame will come every time his friend, the driver, calls him a Nancy Boy and reminds him that he once hid to avoid a confrontation with a skinny 49-year-old man wearing mittens.
Rather, I hope he realizes this: It’s not always strength that comes in numbers; that young men, in the company of other young men, sometimes do stupid things — things they wouldn’t do if they were by themselves.
I hope he understands he got off easy this time, and that he shapes up and outgrows that kind of nonsense.
Is that crazy, to want that for young men?
Note: This incident occurred in the winter of 2006-2007, and I wrote about it shortly thereafter. I’ve edited it only slightly.