Everyone Should Have the Privilege to Run without Fear. Until It’s Possible, How Can We Run Safely?

This post shouldn’t have to be written, ever. Workout rings with serrated edges shouldn’t have to exist, ever. People shouldn’t have to be scared to run outside, ever. Yet, this is being written, workout self-defense items are sold out, and people all over the place are canceling their morning runs. When will everybody be able to run safely out there?

Written & Edited by Pavlína Marek

Vanessa Marcotte. Mollie Tibbetts. Hundreds of others. And now, Eliza Fletcher. The epidemic of women and female-bodied runners being abducted and murdered didn’t start with Eliza. These women are only a few from a long list of victims, most of whose names we won’t ever hear.

Who is at Fault?

Victim blaming seems to take on a whole new dimension when it comes to female-bodied runners. What did they wear? What time of the day were they running? Did they run alone? Anything can be and, unfortunately, is used as a justification for their killers’ actions. But who is really responsible for everyone being able to run safely?

As Tonya Russel wrote in her article We can talk about how to run safely without victim blaming Eliza Fletcher, “After a runner dies, people show up in droves on social media to shake their fingers at the victim’s faulty efforts to stay safe.” Is this proverbial finger-shaking a way to absolve oneself of any last scrape of responsibility we all inherently hold for never doing anything to even remotely change things? Is it out of guilt, is it privilege speaking, or is it an utter and complete abandonment of basic humanity?

When terrible things happen, some manage to defend themselves, like runner Kelly Herron. Though she knows how to run safely, in 2017, she was assaulted when using a public bathroom during her run.

Kelly Herron and the Fight for her own Life

“My biggest running nightmare became reality—4 miles into my long run Sunday afternoon…” she wrote in a post on her Instagram. “I fought for my life screaming (“Not today, M**F**er!”), clawing his face, punching back, and desperately trying to escape his grip—never giving up.”

Herron managed to not only fight off the man who assaulted her but to lock him in the bathroom until the police arrived. She finished her run with a bruised body and stitches in her eyebrow—but she finished it. Herron got back home, got to see her friends and family again. But she shouldn’t have had to fight for her life in order to be able to do so.

Is it Bad Luck? Or is it our Inability to do Better?

Some may say Herron—and Fletcher—were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Others may say they were unlucky. More may even use more poetic words and call their runs ill-fated. All of these statements are plain wrong.

Being hit by a meteorite is bad luck. Being attacked on your run isn’t. If there weren’t people who prey on women, there wouldn’t be any ‘wrong place at the wrong time.’

If society didn’t constantly excuse and support perpetrators by blaming their victims, if there wasn’t a prevalent problem with the way women are perceived and treated, the bathroom wouldn’t have been a wrong place at the wrong time for Herron, just like that street in Memphis wouldn’t have been for Fletcher.

Saying it was a stroke of bad luck is the same as asking why Fletcher ran in the early morning. It’s like saying she was vulnerable. It’s like blaming her clothes. It takes the blame away from those whose shoulders it really sits on.

“Why are we uncomfortable with placing all of the blame on perpetrators for their crimes against women?” asks Dr. Jessica Taylor in her book Why Women Are Blamed For Everything: Exploring the Victim Blaming of Women Subjected to Violence and Trauma. (The fact that this book exists at all is clear evidence that there’s something inherently wrong with the way our society perceives and treats women.) In other words, why don’t we put the blame where it really belongs? Is it because it’s so much easier to blame a person who has been broken by an act so heinous we’d prefer to avoid talking about it at all? Is it because it’s easier to blame a person who’s dead and, therefore, can’t defend themselves anymore? Or is it because, in some minuscule way, we’re all at least partially responsible?

Indigenous Women, All the Disappearances Nobody Knows About, and how it Relates to the Safety of All Women Everywhere

As stated above, the women whose names we know make up only a tiny percentage of assault, abduction, and murder victims. Especially when it comes to communities of color, the numbers get scarier. For example, there are thousands of names on the list of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW) that we won’t ever hear.

“Indigenous women are more likely to go missing or be murdered than any other ethnicity,” wrote Madison Hunter. She’s the author of Missing and Murdered: Understanding Why Indigenous Women are Murdered and go Missing at Higher Rates than Other Populations. “Because the population of Indigenous people is small (making up 2% of the population), it is not reported on a lot.” There is much more nuisance to this issue, like the stripping of tribal authority in MMIW cases. However, the baseline is that Native women go missing or get murdered at higher rates with minimal to no coverage.

A report by the Urban Indian Health Institute reads: “The National Crime Information Center reports that, in 2016, there were 5,712 reports of missing American Indian and Alaska Native women and girls, though the US Department of Justice’s federal missing persons database, NamUs, only logged 116 cases.”

The Past & Patriarchy

A certain sad irony can be found in the fact that Native women, who are most at risk, once used to enjoy the freedoms and respect nearly no women get to enjoy today.

“Pre-colonization, Native societies traditionally revered and honored the sacredness of women,” reads a report by Native Hope. “Women held positions of authority and did a large portion of labor within their camps, but the European colonists with patriarchal views took the women as slaves to the men. Soon, Native women had been victims of rape, violence, and submission. This mistreatment can be traced throughout America’s history.”

As Dr. Martin Luther King said, albeit in a different context, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” The colonialist views of women are, inherently, what greatly contributes to the problem our society faces today. When the freedom to roam the land without the threat of being assaulted or murdered was taken away from Native women, it was a terrifying preview of how women (and particularly Native women) would be treated for generations to come.

Tips on Staying Safe When Running

Women shouldn’t be told what to do or what not to do in order to stay safe when running, hiking, car camping, or doing any of the hundreds of other activities our society enjoys nowadays. They should be able to enjoy a midnight run in their favorite shorts and sports bra without having to give it a second thought. However, there’s still some work to be done before women can enjoy the basic freedom of occupying public spaces without having to worry about their safety. Until we get to that point, below are a few tips on how to be more risk-averse and what to do should things go wrong.

While none of these things will guarantee 100% safe workouts, they’re a step toward making the time spent outside a bit less stressful. Unfortunately, nothing can guarantee total safety, however, being risk-averse will improve everyone’s chances.

Populated Areas & Daylight

A lone late-evening run can be the best thing for the mind. A quiet trail or a backcountry road at sunset can be a thing of beauty. However, running in densely populated areas in the daylight poses a smaller risk. Still, even though it’s safer, not even the presence of other people spares women from having to endure catcalling and heckling.

Mute the Music

There can be nothing better than listening to a great playlist or podcast when running. It helps the miles fly by faster and makes the uphills easier. It’s like having a personal soundtrack. Unfortunately, it lowers one’s ability to be aware of their surroundings. Especially when running on deserted trails and roads, it’s better to mute the music or have only one earbud in.

Share the Route

While sharing runs with the exact route on social media or Strava can make running outside riskier, sharing one’s location live with a trusted friend or a family member can help you run safely. It’ll ensure there’s help coming faster should something go wrong.

While some runners like leaving their phones at home, it might be preferable to carry a phone with certain safety features when working out. For example, nowadays, there are apps and built-in safety features that allow for a one-click dial to 911 or any other chosen number.

Run Safely: Run Protected

Even though it’s better if one has training on how to use personal protection items, carrying things like pepper spray or workout self-defense items can be a good idea. Wearing a workout ring with serrated edges can not only calm the anxiety but give one a few precious seconds to run to safety should things go south.

Shout Out Loud

Should the worst happen, use your voice. Call for help, scream, and make any loud noise you can. Some running packs also have safety whistles built in. Just like in Herron’s case, “Not today, m**f**er!” might be the thing that saves your life.

Take a Self-Defense Class

There are many articles on the internet about how to fight off an offender. However, the best thing one can do to be able to use these tactics more effectively (and at a lower risk to self) is to attend a self-defense class.

Sometimes, a self–defense class isn’t an option. If that’s your situation, here are a few tips. If attacked, it’s important to try to stay standing. Attack the offender’s soft areas; poke fingers in their eyes, hit their throat, or shove a knee in their groin. Try to block any incoming blows, and fight until there’s a way to escape the situation or until help comes.

Final Words

All this being said, even if women do everything right, their safety is, unfortunately, not guaranteed. How out of harm’s way one is doesn’t depend on any given individual; it depends on our society as a whole. Saying someone wouldn’t have gotten hurt had they followed these safety tips or taken more precautions is victim blaming. It’s everybody’s responsibility to ensure that everyone can run safely out there.

While we all, hopefully, work for a better and safer society in which everyone can enjoy the basic freedom of being present outside without having to worry about their safety being compromised by other people, let’s run together, run protected, and run smart.

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