This week my anxiety levels have been through the roof. I’m pretty good at self regulation these days but sometimes I lose control of the carriage and find myself in a space I don’t want to be in. There were just one too many variables to manage with grace. The final straw was a string of events that started this time last week.
Last friday afternoon I listened to 20 Square Blocks, a great podcast I love where the host Ben Plazzer interviews people within 20 square blocks of him in Ballarat. It’s excellent local content, beautifully made and the guests have fascinating and interesting tales. In this particular episode Ben spoke to Sergeant Peter Anderson about the 1998 abduction of a 16 year old Ballarat girl that ended up with Peter crawling through a 100 year old mineshaft in Black Hill.
Black Hill is the area I run through at 6am every second day. It’s part of the Goldfields Track, which is a 210 km track from Ballarat to Bendigo. The Wallaby Track, which is the section I run on, is beautiful. The track meanders through bushland and forest and is full of wildlife. It’s also full of old mine shafts. We’ve spent hundreds of hours exploring Black Hill, especially during lockdowns with the kids. I very much consider it an extension of our backyard.
Listening to Peter talk about the girl who was eventually found in one of these mines, alive thank goodness, was pretty upsetting. Even though it was nearly 30 years ago, I knew exactly which mine they’re talking about and the thought of being down there thinking you’re going to die is unfathomable. Given the circumstances even the police were surprised to find her alive.
Fast forward to Monday morning this week when I went for my run at 6am. It's dark at 6am now. I used to run with a head torch but the bloody kids run the batteries dead so I’ve been accustomed to just running in the dark. In some ways I prefer it because your eyes adjust to the darkness where a head torch just gives a spot light and you lose peripheral vision.
It’s scary. Running in the dark though the bush, before even the early morning birds have started to sing. It’s crazy as well. To be honest I feel a little mad when I’m doing it. Like I’m in some survivalist game escaping an unknown enemy. But I do it because 6am in the morning is the only time I can carve out for myself. And running like I’m being chased keeps my pace and heart rate up. It’s also my medicine. Without regular hardout exercise I start to crumble.
This Monday morning was different. My normal anxiety around running along Wallaby track was higher than normal. I had obviously been affected by Friday's podcast more than I thought. I spent the first 3km of my run on the footpath convincing myself that worse things had happened in those hills (imagining 1800’s Ballarat to be like Deadwood) and if I was to avoid running in the bush now because I was scared, I’d regret it.
The thing is, as a woman, I’m pretty much always scared. Sure, running in the bush at 6am in the dark is scary, but I’m scared walking home from the train station at 10pm at night. I’m scared to walk past a group of men standing outside a pub. I’m scared to walk across an empty car park at night. Being hyper vigilant about my surroundings is the default mode of being female (or LGBT or a minority or any ethnicity that isn’t white for that matter).
If I was to not do something because I was scared or felt vulnerable I wouldn’t do anything at all. I had to be brave. I literally said it out loud as I turned onto Wallaby Track. “I have to be brave”. So the second half of my run was through the bush as it slowly started to wake up with the sun rising behind me.
I think it was my fastest ever 6km because I was trying to get home as quickly as possible. I had done it and my fear, even though it was particularly strong that morning, didn’t stop me. Maybe I was proud of myself. I’m not sure because I couldn’t quite shake the anxiety.
At lunch time on Monday I checked the news and the first headline was ‘Concerns grow for Ballarat woman last seen leaving for morning run’. What the fuck. I honestly had to take a moment and make sure I had read it correctly. On Sunday morning at 7am Sam Murphy went for her morning run and hasn’t been seen since. That was 6 days ago.
I understand that this chain of events is a conscience but it felt for a second that I’d somehow manifested this story. I obviously didn’t but I’ve felt really consumed by its news coverage all week. All of Ballarat has. I had to put restrictions on how often I was allowed to check updates because it's been so distracting. There has been much speculation in the community about how the mother of three can just vanish without a trace. I can’t even begin to imagine what her family is feeling throughout this time. My heart goes out to them and I hope that there is some kind of conclusion soon. Not knowing is the hardest part.
It was still night time dark at 6am this morning. I ran on the roads mostly and didn’t go on the Wallaby Track. I instead met some girlfriends who were surprised to see me running alone. Yes, I was running alone because despite Sam still being missing, life still goes on. I may sound cruel and heartless and it's no disrespect to this horrendous situation at all. If anything it's because of Sam. She was a woman who woke up everyday and went for a run like me. I can only assume that she worked hard for her wellbeing like me. She is a mother like me.
If women cower away and retreat back to the safety of our homes (which statistically is where women are most likely to be killed) we move backwards. We give ground to fear. We lessen the power we are holding onto so tentatively. The power that is so easily reduced by a dark carpark or a group of drunk arseholes.
All of my friends this morning were on high alert. We’ve all updated our ‘find my phone’ apps and emergency contacts with our partners so if anything does happen we’ll hopefully be found. I gave Matt exact details about my run this morning in case anything happened. I ran past a couple of men out this morning and I can guarantee that none of them would’ve thought twice about their safety when they left the house this morning. They have never had to hold their car keys in a clenched fist like wolverine as they walked home from the station, just in case.
It makes me sad that Alice will eventually have to understand that the world is not as safe for her as it will be for Frank. Already I’ve noticed that I unconsciously treat them differently. I’m more cautious about Alice talking to strangers than Frank. I’m overly concerned about her wearing bike pants with her school dress. I want to protect her and keep her from the realities of being a woman for as long as possible while also empowering her to know what's ok and what not. I don’t know the answer to this. I can only hope that these unavoidable life lessons are learnt when she’s ready and able to grow stronger from them like the rest of us.