My shorts were digging into my stomach. I hadn’t shaved my legs properly and could feel a few hairs on blowing in the wind. To top it off, I seriously doubted my bra’s capabilities.
But I was going to turn up. That was all that mattered.
There are few people in my life who would have expected to see me walking towards the woods at quarter to eight on a Sunday morning with running gear on, but I was on a self-betterment journey. I was going to do right by my health and try new things. Plus, I had already paid a full month’s membership fee to a running club, so there was no backing out now.
I found the club on Facebook. The Cherrywood Runners, all abilities welcome. They ran an easy trail of three miles in the woods every Sunday and went for coffee and cake afterwards at the café down the road. The description on Facebook used far too many exclamation marks and some of the members were alarmingly open about chafing issues, but that was probably what persuaded me to join – it was the least intimidating running group I had ever come across.
I had already received a message from Sue, one of the more vocal members of the club, telling me how lovely the other members were. She also recommended a cream for my inevitably sore thighs.
On the morning of my first run it was bright, warm and autumnal, and I felt hopeful for the first time in a long time. The new runner version of me was going to be optimistic and adventurous and bubbly. Runner me was the kind of person who never said a bad word about anyone, always looked genuinely interested in conversations and posed well in group photos.
The club was going to like me. I was going to like them. This wasn’t going to be a waste of time and money. This was the start of something amazing.
I took a deep breath and rounded the corner to the entrance of the woods but, rather than a bunch of smiling faces waiting to greet me, there was just one. One slightly frazzled-looking man standing very much alone. He was in his mid-forties and I recognised him immediately from Facebook. He was one of the admins. Greg something.
I skipped over to him, waving.
“Morning, Cherrywood Runners?” I asked.
He looked around him as if trying to work out where my voice was coming from.
“Erm…yes,” he said eventually.
“I’m Annie,” I said.
“Greg,” he replied.
His eyes were roaming all over the place and he seemed a bit upset.
“Where is everyone else?” I asked.
“I’ve got a feeling it’s just us today.”
“Oh? Does that happen a lot?”
Greg shook his head.
I looked down at my watch. It was five to eight. Greg looked at his own watch and sighed.
“Well, I suppose we better get started then. If there are any latecomers, they can always catch us up.”
I hesitated. The idea of running alone with a strange man in the woods did not seem like the best decision I’d ever made, especially as he seemed so uneasy. I had seen enough horror movies to know what happens to gullible, polite women, especially in the woods.
Then I thought of how disappointing it would be to leave. I had hyped myself up for this all week. Could I really just go home, switch the TV on and wait for Monday to arrive? That seemed so pathetic.
“Okay,” I said. “Let’s run.”
It was a bit of a difficult start for me. My left ankle was stiff, I kept holding my breath for some odd reason and I had no idea what to do with my arms, but it got a bit easier once I started copying the way Greg was holding himself. He was clearly an experienced runner as he had on one of those vests that hold water with a tube to drink out of it, and he was skinny and wiry in that way that runners tend to be.
After a few minutes of running in silence, I remembered that I wasn’t going to be the quiet, passive one of the group. It might not have been the start to my running journey that I had anticipated, but I was going to make the most of it.
“So how long have you been in the Cherrywood Runners?” I asked.
Greg looked over his shoulder at me, his eyes wide in alarm and a little bloodshot. Perhaps he had been in the zone and had forgotten I was there. I wasn’t sure if you were supposed to talk during these runs or whether that was strictly reserved for the café.
“I’ve been in the club around seven years,” he said eventually.
“Wow, so you must have done this route a thousand times.”
“I usually do it at least twice on Sundays.”
He said it very matter-of-factly, but I gathered he had wanted to impress me. I tried to make a sort of amazed gasp, but it was lost in my heavy breathing.
I decided to focus on the run after that. It was a beautiful route. The trees were swaying in the breeze and everywhere smelt of warm, fresh earth. The birdsong gently lapped my ears like the ocean waves as I followed along behind Greg, my mind calm and present and serene.
Until I collided into the back of him.
My nose hit one of his shoulder blades, which brought tears to my ears. I dabbed my nostrils with my fingertips to check for blood.
When I looked back up, Greg had his hands on his hips and his eyes were narrowed.
“Everything okay, Greg?” I asked.
He slowly turned to face me.
“Yes,” he said quietly.
Then he carried on running.
I was so taken aback that it took me a second to get going. I had almost caught up when Greg stopped again. He scratched his head in a cartoonish display of confusion, and he was panting even louder than I was. As I was about to ask if he felt unwell, he staggered back until he was a few paces behind me.
“You should run in front,” he said.
Unease began to creep in then. It was a queasy, cold feeling. I think it was my body’s way of letting me know I should probably start panicking.
“Why?” I asked.
Greg rubbed one of his eyes with the heel of his hand.
“I forgot to mention it earlier, but the admins always run at the back for safety reasons. That’s why. For safety.”
I didn’t feel very safe, that’s for sure, but I had spotted a load of gumpf on the Facebook group about first aid and safeguarding. I hadn’t read it properly so I didn’t know if this was a normal rule, but it did make sense.
I wiped the sweat from my forehead with the back of my hand and starting running, and was soon distracted thinking about how fast Greg could run. Could he go ten miles an hour? Fifteen? Would adrenaline help me in any way against a seasoned athlete, or should I just give up now?
Shut up, I told myself. He wasn’t going to attack me. Why would he? He was probably just upset that no one else had shown up.
“Turn left here,” Greg called from behind me.
I hadn’t noticed there was a fork in the path until he had spoken. I turned left as instructed.
All of a sudden, I noticed how silent it was. There was no birdsong. I couldn’t even hear the trees. How deep into the woods were we?
I clicked the button on my watch.
3.4 miles. We were definitely not on the easy trail. Where the hell was he taking me?
“Your breathing is quite heavy,” Greg said, “you might want to slow down a bit.”
I ignored him and picked up the pace.
I began to sprint.
I slammed chest-first into a tree. It was as if I had blinked and the open path in front of had been replaced with dense woodland. I rubbed my sore collarbone and gulped air back into my lungs.
An element of sense came back to me and I started looking around. There was no path to be seen, just trees, trees and more trees.
Greg was standing very still, staring blankly into the distance. I marched up to him and shoved his shoulder.
“Where the hell are we?” I demanded.
He was blinking rapidly. His hands balled into fists.
“Where are we, Greg? Where have you taken me?”
“I wish you hadn’t come,” he said.
“You can’t leave.”
My heart was pounding so hard I could feel it in my legs. I thought I was going to be sick. Was there any point in trying to outrun him? Or fight him? Maybe if I looked for a sharp stick…
“It will hurt,” he said simply. “When it happened to me it hurt a lot, but only for a moment. Then it stopped.”
Despite the fact that my lungs felt like they were on fire, I knew I had to run. I noticed a small clearing in the trees up ahead and began to move towards it, but to give myself a fighting chance I needed to distract Greg.
“I don’t know what you mean, tell me what you mean,” I said.
“It will hurt,” he said.
Then Greg released his balled fists and a torrent of dark blood gushed from his open mouth. His eyes opened wider and wider in terror as a guttural screech ripped through the air. His tongue flopped out his mouth, which was half chewed off, only managing to stay attached by a single, stringy piece of meat. When he took a step forward, I hurled myself around and began sprinting as fast as I could.
Branches clawed at my face, but I forced my legs to keep going. I began pumping my arms to go faster, and it was working – his yells were getting quieter and quieter as I gained momentum.
Just as my lungs were starting to really burn, the clearing began to widen. I headed towards it, taking one quick glance over my shoulder to check I was safe.
Greg’s gruesome face loomed towards me and flecks of his warm blood splattered into my open mouth as he screamed.
“I never saw it coming.”
I half punched, half pushed his face away and turned back around. The light coming through the trees blinded me and I couldn’t see where I was going. I felt my foot become lodged under a thick tree root and sprawled face-first onto the ground.
Dazed, I closed my eyes for a second to gather myself. When I opened them again, the earth beneath me had turned into tarmac.
There were voices. Lots of them.
I lifted my head. Not far from me was a group of people gathered in a circle.
“Help me!” I yelled.
I got up and stumbled towards them. They had their backs to me, but one by one my shouts got their attention. There was one face that I recognised.
She had tears in her eyes and her lower lip was trembling
Sue stepped aside and I saw what everyone had been gathered around. A crumpled up, bloodied body, its face turned up towards the sky.
His mouth and eyes were wide open in the same panicked expression I had seen just moments before.
Then it dawned on me where we were. The entrance to the woods.
I looked at my watch.
It was five to eight.
“He was hit by a car,” Sue sobbed, hugging herself. “He never saw it coming.”