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Alli Harvey: My endless internal debate on whether to listen to music while running

Alli Harvey
One cost of listening to music while running outdoors may be missing out on such natural sounds as birds and flowing streams. Bill Roth

When it comes to whether or not to listen to music while running or hiking in Alaska, intellectually I know it’s not worth the risk of a surprise bear (or moose, or human) encounter.

What’s safe?  For me, sprinting along a single track in Anchorage’s Far North Bicentennial Park while blaring Kanye West for me and me alone is different than trotting along a crowded Tony Knowles Coastal Trail doing the same thing. Still, I live in an urban wilderness. It never hurts to keep my wits about me when I’m out there outdoorsing.

Unfortunately, what I know doesn’t always determine what I do. I am guilty of inventing rationale to justify decisions I make about my safety. Call it “homemade logic.”

Here are some of my greatest hits:

Homemade logic: Paved trails are urban. When I am in an urban area, there are no bears. Therefore, there are no bears along the paved Bird to Gird trail.

Fact: There are definitely bears along the Bird to Gird trail.

Homemade logic: I only run with music on when I really, really need it. Since I don’t run with music all that often, the odds are low that anything will happen to me when I do run with music.

Fact: I almost always run with music when I’m running alone.

Homemade logic: This trail is near a residential neighborhood; therefore there are not any bears around.

Fact: A 731-pound grizzly was killed in 2008 near the Cal Worthington Ford dealership on Gambell Street, not far from popular Chester Creek Trail. Welcome to Alaska.

Homemade logic (and the anthem of my teenage years): Nothing bad will happen to me.

Fact: I’m Alaskan, I read the paper, and I’ve encountered bears on the trail. They are BIG. They usually want to see me just about as much as I want to see them, which is to say we each go our separate ways. However, there has been the occasional bear that didn’t seem fazed by my presence and stared back while standing its ground. Some of these creatures are just as acclimated to our urban environment as I am, and those are the ones I should be watching (and listening) for.

So why is the allure of plugging in and listening so powerful? Why do I want to drown out my natural environment when I’m outside? And why do I invent stories to justify it in the face of my better judgment?

It’s not that I need to hear my running tunes for the umpteenth time. I sometimes feel nauseous when Pitbull’s “Timber” comes on because I am so utterly sick of hearing the song. Nausea is the opposite from feeling inspired, so you’d think I’d put the music away and just run free.

But habits are powerful. Part of my running experience has always been plugging in and listening to music. How many times on any given week do I get the luxury to do exactly what I want on my own time? Not many. So when I get to go running, I want to call all the shots. This includes music.

If I want to listen to terrible pop music on the trail, my mind somehow minimizes the risk of a bear encounter. This, folks, is how desire trumps judgment.

I know this is a dangerous and false rationale. Unfortunately, it gets reinforced every time I run and don’t have a bear encounter. With Alaska’s highways, strip malls, paved trails, and my own comfortable habits, I can easily forget that bears surround me. I go out and do what I would normally do, in Anytown USA, because in my mind, my presence and logic trumps the wild environs. I think I call the shots.

How sad would I be if I decided not to plug in? Will I reminisce from a rocking chair someday about how I wish I’d listened to “Timber” for the 78th time on the trail that one day I decided to leave my music home? Or, will I be ticked off at myself if I end up in a bear confrontation that I could have prevented?

If I’m actually listening, I can hear things out there, like birds, wind, or water. Or big, lumbering creatures. Or, I don’t know, the sound of my own endless clamor of ridiculous thoughts. I won’t get sick of hearing these sounds, unlike Pitbull. I should unplug and listen more often.

Ali Harvey lives, works and plays in Anchorage.