She was a runner, and like so many of her kindred spirits Chelsea King found freedom, joy, and life-affirming wisdom in the gritty hold of her sport. The wisdom didn’t come easy, it had to be mined most days of the week. Which is what 17 year-old Chelsea was doing when she was attacked and killed one benign afternoon near her home in Rancho Bernardo Community Park February 25th 2010.
The news, first of her disappearance, and later of the discovery of her body in a shallow grave on March 2nd spread virally, for this was not just another Missing White Woman, that modern-day media syndrome which separates the haves from the care-nots.
“If this was someone in National City or Oceanside, there wouldn’t have been the same reaction,” was one cynical reaction I heard.
Notwithstanding, Chelsea King’s innocence seemed to radiate from the picture of her competing in her Poway High School cross country team uniform. Never a threat, runners often delude themselves into thinking that neither are they a target. Yet fully half the running population is just that if they put themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time.
On mornings when my wife gets up before the sun to go training around our San Diego neighborhood she makes sure she wears two things: 1) her Road I.D. with our home telephone number, and 2) clothing that makes her look as much like a boy as possible.
“No bra top or anything,” she tells me. “A hat is major for women, because you can tuck all your hair up there. It makes you less conspicuous. More than likely people won’t even look twice. An easy target is what someone is looking for. But during the day you have to make sure you run in a public place, unless you are Super Woman or Bruce Lee with pepper spray.”
Sexual predators like John Gardner, the man who killed Chelsea King, exist. Gardner was registered as a sex offender in Escondido from January 2008 to January 2010. He also served five years of a six-year prison term for molesting a 13-year-old neighbor in San Diego in 2000 and completed parole in September 2008.
Whether Gardner is a monster or a sick man who deserves treatment or total sequestration is for another discussion – though in his own mind, Gardner – currently serving a life sentence for killing Chelsea and another California teen, Amber DuBois – calls himself “an animal” who shouldn’t ever be released. Is there a question of blame then, beyond the man himself? Remember that beginning in the 1980s many of the mentally ill of this nation were returned to the streets to fend for themselves as society chose to withdraw financial support from such institutions.
We’ve become a nation of fear, and perhaps with good reason. My wife and many of her female running friends simply will not run alone on the trails of Balboa Park or through the eucalyptus-lined trails alongside the track at UCSD. The risks aren’t worth the reward.
“Once you go down in there you are totally isolated. It’s sad because it is absolutely beautiful, but you have to use your head. So stay on top where everyone can see you. But it’s still one of my favorite places to warm up or cool down. Though you know you probably shouldn’t be down there.”
In the wake of Chelsea’s death, local coach and former Villanova and Athletics West star Kevin McCarey even brought out pepper spray which he handed out to his women runners.
“When you see someone you think is another runner coming at you from the opposite direction, and you think about waving hello, suddenly you wonder, “what if they grab me?”
In this hectic, hectored world freedom has become a precious commodity. The community of Poway, California = middle America. Safety is one reason people live there. As a Poway High School senior Chelsea King embraced life in all its joys and sorrows. The loss to family and friends continues to be incalculable, as the premature death of any child is. But the circumstances of Chelsea’s death and images of her shining life brought home not just the loss of one life, but a further loss we all share, the simple joy of running free.
As time passes, so will the fear, perhaps first experienced in April 1989 when Trisha Meili, then known only as the Central Park Jogger, was beaten, raped, and left for dead on the 102nd Street Transverse in the upper section of New York City’s Central Park. Men rarely consider the circumstances of their runs, heading out where ever they are, free of anxiety and fear. Women are not afforded such a luxury.
This past Saturday the First Annual Chelsea’s Run 5K attracted a gathering of more than 5000 runners to San Diego’s Balboa Park. The race celebrated the life and contributed to Chelsea’s Light Foundation, a legacy to the sadly iconic name. May her memory continue to inform us all, both of running’s beauty, and the need for vigilance in the pursuit of that beauty.