There are a many situations in life where we run into a sticky problem and have to decide whether to carry on regardless or to back track. At what point does reason tap on the shoulder of determination and suggest an honourable retreat? And will our ego allow common-sense a fair hearing?
I set off for a 12km run across a desolate area of open fields, woods and small dykes in Denmark. I had planned a route on google maps, stitching together a mix of official paths and unofficial paths only showing up on the photo view. Some parts of the route were familiar, but there was a web of paths in the middle which were unexplored. The pioneer in me decided this would be more exciting and assumed my mind and body would be up to the challenge.
I ran the route through my head and mentally photographed some landmarks and turns. And as a double insurance, I noted that my first uncertain turning was immediately after 3 kilometres. The magic voice in my head (I think it comes from my phone) announces every kilometre, along with the speed, so I would know exactly when to turn.
The hotel I stay in is 25 stories high, illuminated like a lighthouse. The area around is almost completely flat – we are in Denmark after all – so even with a few wrong turns, I can find always my way home.
I ran down the freeway to the fields, through the gate into the wilderness and onto a tar-maced path. I ran with energy – the delicious cool evening air gently massaging my body, replenishing my lungs and relaxing my mind.
There was a decent turning off to the right. The magic voice had noted 2km at least five minutes ago. I calculated that I had cut a few corners, so this would be the path I needed. It felt a little sharper than expected, but google maps can be a little wayward with its pencil.
I seemed to be running back towards the lighthouse. I needed the path to bend left, but it was not obeying orders. Reason tapped my shoulder and I stopped.
Stopping is not part of running of course. Anyone can run 12km if they stop enough times. The magic on my phone keeps an accurate record of my speed, but has a clever “auto-pause” which trips in when the satellite in space notices that it stopped moving. The trick is to stop suddenly, so the auto pause kicks in quickly and protects your statistics. It would be easy to lose a couple of seconds off the time by slowing down. That would never do.
Geese are territorial birds and are known to chase or attack humans who disturb their territory. While geese may chase people, an actual physical attack is fairly rare.
I consulted the map on my phone. I had turned too soon. I re-routed down some smaller paths into the woods. I restarted – accelerating as fast as I could before the satellite noticed, to steal a couple of free metres.
A few more kilometres and I was close to half way. Ahead was a group of walkers with dogs, not on leads. And one must be careful of walkers who are not on a leads. They can easily disrupt the run. I rather pointedly ran off the path around them, carefully watching for any over excited dog who might think it was a good game to chase my legs. I was safe.
I was heading in a straight line to the sea. The main path bent left ahead of me, but there was a smaller path straight ahead, leading into the woods. I went for this one, it seemed right. I knew there was a major road between me and the sea, but was confident it would be possible to go under or over it.
Geese don’t deliberately attack people — they react defensively to what they perceive as a threat, such as a person being too close when it’s breeding season or they have goslings to care for.
As I ran the path grew thinner, less distinct and more overgrown. It is hard to comprehend the concept of a disappearing path. Paths are created by feet repeatedly trampling the ground, destroying the vegetation and compacting the soil. For a good path to disappear suggests that most of the feet stopped and turned round. Reason insists that at least some feet must have come this way and arrived at some sort of destination.
And so I carried on regardless. The ground was wet and squelchy now under foot. To the right now there was a high wire fence preventing human access to the highway.
Now the path was, at best, flattened grass, at worst, puddles of standing water. I ran on picking out the best route through, until I realised that I needed to slow down if I were to avoid disappearing into mud and puddles. My shoes filled with cold water.
I stopped and waited for “autopause”. Reason persuaded determination to walk carefully rather than run carelessly. I hit “stop” on my magic phone. This part of the run would be excluded from my statistics.
You can stop a goose’s aggression by respectfully leaving its territory. Back away slowly, while remaining calm.
The wetter the ground became, the further off the path I walked, until the path faded into an optimistic figment of my imagination. Now I was striding through grass as tall as my head. I scanned for evidence of previous feet – maybe a broken reed or a flatter patch of grass. I selected clumps of grass as stepping stone through the marsh. One misplaced stride and I could disappear into a sink hole. I would phone for help as my legs disappeared into the quicksand – desperately trying to describe the route and the non-existent path, trying to remember my ” find my phone” password. Then a race against time as I was gradually sucked into the Danish outback.
In the failing light I could see no clear exit ahead – just a large field of tall grass and a few trees on the horizon. But still determination excluded all thought of turning back. So long as I followed the fence, eventually I would reach civilisation and dry land.
You may be able to get away before a goose becomes too aggressive if you see the warning signs of an attack. Pay attention to any potential signs of aggression when you’re near a goose.
I had drifted away from the fence, so I picked my way back. My feet were wet and my spirits waning. This was not the even paced run I had selected. I was fighting through marshland. But I would plough on. If we keep going forwards, and keep calm, we will get there. Slowly but surely. One step at a time. The tortoise beats the hare.
I was back at the fence, the ground was dryer, the path a little clearer. I could run again. I hit “start” on my magic phone and ran as fast as I could.
That’s when I saw the geese. I stopped abruptly.
At first, a goose will bend its head back slightly. This indicates aggression. If the goose then bends its neck out straight, this shows the aggression is increasing. If a goose is about to attack, it will pump its head up and down. Geese may hiss or honk as well if they are becoming aggressive.
I stopped suddenly. “Autopause”. Not to protect my time, but to protect my body. There were two big geese and four little geese. I believe they are called goslings. The big geese looked startled – as well they might. Nobody in their right minds would come this way. Startled big geese with little goslings to protect are a dangerous proposition. My mind raced through its information about geese.
My brain is no Wikipedia. I didn’t have load of information to race through. Just the two points really. One is that geese can get very violent if they feel their babies are under threat. Two is that violent geese can cause significant injury to human limbs. And I had four of those – largely uncovered.
I looked at them and they looked at me. Both geese had stretched out their necks and their heads were bobbing up and down. This felt a little defensive, possibly aggressive.
Do not do anything that may escalate the situation, like yelling. Do not yell at the goose. It’s better not to say anything, as to avoid provoking it. You should also not make any physical gestures towards the goose. Do not kick, swing your arms, or throw anything at the goose.
This was the moment for a choice. Turning back and retracing all of those steps was a hugely unattractive option. It would be 30 minutes of fighting through the same grassy swamp, and an admission of defeat. On the other hands, I quite like my arms and legs and I knew that these geese could outrun me in their natural environment. And I think they can fly?
I had visions of sprinting through the marsh pursued by angry geese attacking me like a Hitchcock mashup of The Birds and North-by-North-West. At best I would be Cary Grant hiding in a field of grain. At worse a badly injured, catatonic Tippi Hedren.
Leave before a goose begins to chase you. If the goose sees you’re backing away, it may decide you’re not a threat. Back away slowly until you’re a good distance from the goose and it’s stopped making aggressive gestures. Stay faced towards the goose and use your peripheral vision to guide your movements. It’s very important you face the goose until it stops pursuing you. Keep an eye on the goose at all times. Do not close your eyes or turn your back from the animal. Watch the goose carefully until it backs off.Make sure to avoid anything you may trip over, as this may give the goose reason to attack.
I backed away slowly and carefully without making a noise. In my head I was repeating in my head “I mean you know harm, I do not want to barbecue your children”.
Remain calm. If you appear frightened or upset, a goose could take this as a sign of aggression. It’s a good idea to maintain a calm, neutral demeanor when backing away from a goose. If you’re struggling to remain calm, take a few deep breaths as you back away. Keep in mind that, while geese can be territorial, an actual physical attack is very rare.
If a goose sees you running, this may encourage it to chase you more. Also, running may make you appear excited or agitated, which a goose may perceive as aggression. Even if a goose is gaining ground, remain calm and take slow, careful steps to get away.
I was very conscious that I was a long way from any help, and if I were attacked I would have no easy way of getting medical attention.
Seek medical attention if you’re injured. In the event a goose bites you or hits you with its wings, seek medical attention. Geese are strong, and can cause injury when provoked. You may require stitches or a cast if a goose attacks you. Go to the emergency room for assessment as soon as you get away.
I backed away further, keeping eye contact with the geese. I turned round and surveyed the enormous field I had just crossed searching for alternatives. My spirits fell. I had come for an invigorating run, not a hack through a wet jungle full of dangerous animals.
I considered the fence. Maybe there was an escape route out onto the highway. I looked for any damage or a hole. But this was Denmark. The fence was strong and intact, with a nice piece of barbed wire across the top. As a child I became very adept at scaling all sorts of fences – climbing into a garden to retrieve a football or breaking into a “rec” (recreation ground).
Barbed wire is a type of steel fencing wire, constructed with sharp edges or points arranged at intervals along the strand(s). A person or animal trying to pass through or over barbed wire will suffer discomfort and possibly injury. The limited mobility of someone climbing a fence makes passing conventional barbed wire more difficult. Movement against barbed wire can result in moderate to severe injuries to the skin and, depending on body area and barbed wire configuration, possibly to the underlying tissue.
I weighed it up. The six foot fence was in two horizontal parts, with just enough of a foothold for me to climb up. A minute later, there was a 50-something man in Lycra running top and shorts, precariously perched half-way up a fence, looking down to a grassy bank. At waist level there was the small challenge of a strip of barbed wire. The way the fence was constructed, there was no foothold on the other side. I would have to launch myself and half-vault over the top. I could either rip the skin off my bare legs or twist an ankle or break a leg on landing. And then – even if I landed safely, was there an escape across the road – a fast moving dual carriageway.
Reason was shouting at me now. “Get down you stupid boy”. This was not the time for sitting on the fence. My goose was cooked. I acted my age, not my shoe size. I grew up and I climbed down, backed down, turned around.
I identified a line of trees leading to what looked like drier ground. I found a route into the woods and a better path. So I had avoided a complete back track.
The second 6km of my run felt good. Firm ground under my feet, my limbs and flesh intact. The sun was setting through the trees. The marshland – and no doubt the goose family – basked in its warm orange glow.
Being adventurous and determined has its place. There is nothing as thrilling as taking a risk – conquering your inner geese, leaping the fences of fear.
But running on firm ground into the sunset feels pretty good too.