[Listen to an audio version of this blog here.]
On September 2nd, Eliza Fletcher was killed while on a run. The running world reeled. Women especially felt a certain sense of dread. Can we ever really feel safe? This thing that serves as an outlet and a lifeline; a sport that has the power to both rescue and destroy our egos, a sport that seems, on the surface, an easy one to access. Anyone can run, so long as they have a pair of shoes and a half-descent sense of direction. Anyone should be able to access this freedom.
But, there's always a but. And more often that not, women are on the negative end of that "but." We're told to carry pepper spray. We watch men watch us. We turn our social media apps private. We vary our routes, take self-defense classes, carry mace, carry knives. Some of us carry guns, and yet, we're still seen as easy targets.
I was 12 when I caught the thrill of running between my teeth, like a dog playing tug of war. I didn't want to let go, not so much because I wanted the rope, more because I wanted to win the game. Back then, I ran along the edge of the cornfield behind my parent's house. It was a mile and half to the edge of the fence line and back. Eventually, I started running on the long, lonely country streets that crisscross Northwestern Wisconsin. When I went away to college, I started running through city streets, and now, I mostly run on quiet trails and through secluded mountains.
Seventeen years is a long time to spend on a sport like running, and the miles I've accumulated haven't come without incident.
When I was in high school, a bear ran across the road ahead of me, charging into thick brush. I turned on my heels and ran home in record time. I didn't know it then, but a well-fed bear is hardly dangerous, and he was fat and happy from a summer of eating.
In college, I was followed by a man in a car, who wouldn't leave me alone until I ducked into a gas station. I tried to act like nothing was wrong, but the man behind the counter noticed my dismay, and took down the license plate of the car that was following me.
Another time, I was running down a mountain road, heading from one trail to another, when another man in a car followed me, speeding ahead of me and waiting until I got close to speed ahead again. He didn't give up this cat and mouse game until we came upon a group of other hikers.
I've seen mountain lions and almost stepped on rattle snakes. I've stumbled across hunters, wound up in dodgy neighborhoods, hitched a ride home with a cop, and gotten lost in the mountains. I've fallen on the street and on the trail, bloodying my knees and leaving permanent scabs that grow deeper each time I fall on them. I've been cat called dozens of times and stalked online by men who claim to adore me. I grew more jaded with every encounter, and signed up for boxing lessons, not because they would help if something happened. Boxing made me feel stronger, which made me feel like less of an easy target.
Nothing about the world is safe, and nothing about running through the world is safe, either. The question is not about safety at it's core, though. Some things are not preventable, "acts of god" as my insurance provider said, when I hit a boulder on a winding mountain road that had recently fallen into my path. Some danger will always be there. But senseless danger like Eliza encountered is preventable in some sense, and not because she was up early running, but because the man who killed her had a history of perpetuating violence toward women. Nothing changes if nothing happens.
And although women are not at fault for the violence that befalls them, there are things we can do to be safer. Here's what I do, or have done, to stay safe while running:
Run with your phone or ID.
Tell someone where you're going and how long you'll be gone.
On the road, run against traffic, cross at intersections, and stay aware of traffic.
Keep your ears open and/or music low.
Be visible, especially at night.
Be smart on Strava: vary your route, hide the start/end point, or turn your account private.
In the mountains, respect nature and come prepared with offline maps, food, water, and the appropriate gear.
Learn some basic self-defense practices.