Editor’s Note: This article contains content about sexual assault and harassment.
It’s the middle of the afternoon and the high school girls cross country team just ran past me on the bike path. I watch them as they pass the bridge, talking and laughing with each other. All I can think is how much I want to protect them and keep them away from that bridge. Two years ago, I had also run down this path…right before I was grabbed and had a knife held to my face. I remember that bridge, too. I was dragged under it, pinned on my back, and still don’t totally understand how I got away alive. It changed me forever, and apparently turned me into something of an overly protective helicopter parent. I don’t know any of these girls, so why I am almost crying watching them run? And it’s not just the bike path. I’m out on a local trail and see another solo female runner, headphones in her ears. I silently wish her well and hope she stays safe. I spot a woman running by herself in the early morning on my drive to work and want to stop my car, run with her, and make sure she gets home. Instead I drive away and wonder for the hundredth time why a woman running alone automatically has a giant target on her back.
The reality is that safety for women while running is NEVER guaranteed. It’s a hard and incredibly frustrating reality, and it’s something that I feel so much more intensely after having experienced it firsthand. I don’t believe that complete prevention of sexual harassment/assault is possible, but I have to believe that there is a way to respect this reality and still live your life. This risk is not fair, but it should never prevent you from going on your run. Just like any other risk you might encounter on your adventure (injury, weather, etc.), I think the best way forward is to acknowledge that the risk exists then make sure you are prepared as possible to deal with a situation should it arise.
So what can you do? Here are a few things that have worked for me and made me feel more confident in my ability to run alone again. This list is not meant to shame anyone for what you are or are not currently doing on your daily run, it’s meant to make you think and give you some ideas to try out (whichever ones feel right for you). I know that if I was given a list like this before I was attacked, I would have briefly skimmed it, then promptly forgot all about it and continued on with my life. I never thought that something like this would have happened to me and I didn’t fully appreciate the long term effects it would have on not only my running but my entire life. Had I realized that, I would have taken my personal safety a lot more seriously. I really encourage everyone to not make the same mistake I did and instead be proactive about your safety-you are worth it!
(1) If you are running early morning, late at night, or in a remote area, leave the headphones at home! Even if you have those fancy bone-conducting headphones, you won’t be fully focused on your surroundings if you have something else playing in your ears. And if you have headphones in, you automatically look like a more desirable target to a potential attacker.
(2) Carry your phone or some sort of personal alarm. There are lots of options, pick one that works for you. I have a birdie alarm that flashes a bright light and sounds a siren when activated. If you choose to run with your phone, familiarize yourself with how to use the emergency/SOS feature.
(3) Carry mace or another personal protective device. Just make sure that you have practiced using it in a low stress situation first. You don’t want to be trying to figure out how to use your mace for the first time when you actually need it! There are several mace products that are specifically designed for runners. I have one (wrist saver) that straps around my wrist and I barely notice it while running.
(4) Take a self-defense class. Many places offer women-specific defense classes that are tailored for people with no previous martial arts or fighting experience. You don’t need to know a ton, even just a few basic moves can be really effective. For example, understanding how to break a grip on your arm might allow you to stop an attack in its early stages before it escalates any further.
(5) Think through what you would do in different scenarios. What would you do if someone is holding your arms? If they have a weapon? If you are knocked to the ground? If someone is following you? Taking the time to consider these possibilities will help you feel more prepared and make it easier to respond appropriately should one of these scenarios ever arise.
(6) Practice confidence. Run with your head up, look people in the eye, and believe that you are strong (because you are). It seems like such a small thing, but projecting outward confidence will make someone think twice before trying to mess with you.
Lastly, I encourage everyone to take a few minutes and think about what you would do if this happened to you or someone you care about. Do you know what mental health resources are available in your community? Is it a subject that you are comfortable talking about with other people? Bottom line, do you know where to go to get the help and support you need?
Yes, the risk is there. But so are you. And you are so incredibly capable. You’ve got this!