Monday, May 10, 2010

Jen Rhines on "Finishing Chelsea's Run"

Feature Story: Finishing Chelsea's Run
May 6, 2010
By Jen Rhines

I am a professional long distance runner and have been so for 14 years now. I have made three U.S. Olympic teams and it is my goal to make my fourth team in 2012. I run most every day and often twice a day. It is what one does when working to be one of the best in the world in my running events. Most often, I take my running for granted as just another part of who I am and what I do. I know that it shouldn’t always be that way, but it is what happens when I get into a daily routine of things. I run, I stretch, I lift, I run again - that is a normal day for me.

It is when a day like that doesn’t happen or when there is a certain outside shock going on in the world that I stop and think about what I do and how lucky I am to be doing it. It happens when a girl like Chelsea King comes into my life, albeit in an abstract way as I was watching television. I never had the opportunity to meet Chelsea and never will, but what has happened in her life has certainly changed mine and probably many just like me. As a member of the Mammoth Track Club, I spend most of my time training at altitude in the Eastern Sierra Nevada Mountains. Mammoth Lakes, California is about as pristine a place as there can be for a distance runner. The trails are endless, the air is clear, the water is clean and there is never too much to worry about in this small town.

However, to catch a break from the heavy snow and oftentimes just to breathe a little easier, I do some sea level training over the course of the year. I usually go down with our team to San Diego and train at the ARCO U.S. Olympic Training Center. I spent some time there this February and again in April to get in some quicker training on the track before some of my summer track races start. While down there, I became acquainted with the murder and sexual assault of local high school student Chelsea King. It is a story that I have followed non-stop since I felt that it related so closely to what I and so many take for granted on a daily basis.

For those of you who haven’t heard of her, Chelsea King was a 17-year-old high school student who disappeared while running in Rancho Bernardo Park, a suburban park in San Diego County, on February 25. Her body was found five days later in a shallow grave nearby. Although I have not personally run in that park, it is one very similar to the many parks that my fellow runners and I train in on a daily basis. What happened to Chelsea created one of those moments where I realize that it could have easily happened to me, or to one of my friends, or to one of the thousands of women runners that hit the trails for their daily jog - without a thought in the world that this may be the last run they ever do.

It is an incredible shock and in the San Diego area it has not gone unnoticed. The local authorities have arrested a suspect in the Chelsea case. It was 31-year-old John Albert Gardner III, who lived nearby. He was arrested because he had a past criminal record and was a person of interest in a case like this one. Subsequently, Gardner has now confessed to Chelsea’s murder and to that of another San Diego teen, Amber Dubois, who was murdered back in 2009. John Albert Gardner III was already a convicted sex offender prior to these two murders! He was a listed “red dot” on the family watchdog map.

I didn’t know about these watchdog websites that listed convicted sex offenders until late last year. It was last fall when I was selected for jury duty back in Mammoth Lakes. Upon reporting, I realized that it was a big trial as there had to have been a couple hundred potential jurors present at the first day. I was one of the first 12 called into the jury box for questioning. We were soon informed that it was a pedophile case – the defendant was charged with several counts of sexual assault against three minors. After three days of sitting in the jury box, I was dismissed by the defense so I didn’t serve on the jury.

It did, however, pique my interest into this whole world of sex offenders. How often does this happen? How many convicted sex offenders are living nearby? I found some answers on one of the watchdog websites. I typed in Mammoth Lakes into the map and only one dot popped up - that didn’t seem too bad, just one. Next, I entered Bishop, California; it is the valley floor town that’s about 40 miles south of Mammoth. There were several red dots there – a little creepier. Then I entered our address in San Diego and WHOA! The screen was filled with red dots! I zoomed in and saw that some were just up the street from us.

If you click on the “red dot” on the screen it will show you the offender’s picture and which crimes they were convicted of. A few of the faces looked vaguely familiar; they may even be people I passed on the street at some point or on a run. Naively, I had no idea how often sexual crimes against minors are committed. John Albert Gardner is a registered sex offender who served five years in prison after pleading guilty to attacking a 13-year-old neighborhood girl in 2000. Gardner served only five years despite a psychiatrist’s report that he showed no remorse and should get the maximum sentence of 30 years in prison. Next, once paroled, he was cited for seven violations between 2005 and 2008.

This man simply should not have had the opportunity to prey on more young women. With a little more research into all of this I have found that California Assemblyman Nathan Fletcher has proposed “Chelsea’s Law,” which the King family is adamantly supporting. The key components of this measure are a “one-strike” provision, parole reform and better GPS tracking of registered sex offenders. It would also prohibit a convicted offender from entering a public park without prior approval of a parole agent.

In a perfect world, we wouldn’t need theses provisions; but unfortunately we don’t live in a perfect world. As a professional runner it is part of my job to be out on the trails everyday. And I will be out there! I took up running as a teenager in rural upstate New York. The only thing I had to worry about running alone there were unleashed dogs - I sometimes even carried pepper spray with me for the sole purpose of warding off a nasty dog. Excelling at a sport as a young girl was very empowering for me and I want all young women to have the same opportunity.

When I am winding through the trails of Mammoth Lakes, the only thing on my mind is potentially running into some wildlife. I encounter the occasional local bear or coyote, and fortunately to date no mountain lions have crossed my path. However, it is a little different in an urban area such as San Diego. In these more metropolitan areas, I believe we need to be vigilant and aware of our surroundings yet not be not afraid to enjoy running in our local parks and trails.

Whether it is in the mountains of northern California or Balboa Park in downtown San Diego - nature needs to remain a safe place to run and play. We, as women cannot be afraid to take to the trails. Remembering back in March, I saw an event covered on the local news called “Finish Chelsea’s Run.” It was on a Saturday morning where people gathered to finish the three-mile run at Lake Hodges that Chelsea started that fateful February day. The organizers only expected about 250 people to show up whereas 3500 women, men and children arrived to run or walk Chelsea’s route.

It was great to see all of these people literally and symbolically “taking back the park.” In these times of unjustifiable violence that often leave me with the feeling that I should just stay indoors, I know that I need to be strong. I know that I, like many of my fellow women runners, need to express the importance of what it means to run free. Just as we cannot be afraid to fly on a commercial airline or ride public transportation after an act of terrorism, we can’t be afraid to take to the trails after these acts of violence. It is in this way we can all Finish Chelsea’s Run and the terrible death of a young runner will not go forgotten

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