When Kamilah Journét, now 28, was training with her cross-country teammates at the University of California-San Diego in 2010, her coach instructed the women to run in pairs and to slow down, stop and wait if their partners were having a slow day or even needed to stop to tie a shoe. She later realized they’d been given these instructions because they were running at Lake Hodges, where 17-year-old Chelsea King went missing while out on a run months earlier, with her body later discovered buried by the shore.
“This wasn’t the first time I realized running as a woman came with added responsibility, but it was the most impactful,” Journét, who works as a marketing manager and is a member of the Hare Athletic Club at Tracksmith, says. “There’s a collective acknowledgement that this problem (of violent attacks) against women of all walks of life exists, but, ultimately, limited progress is made to change the world we live in. It should be as simple as ‘respect women, abide by their boundaries and don’t attack them,’ but it’s not. This problem isn’t new, and it’s something I’ve dealt with for years.”
Unfortunately, Journét’s sentiment is not uncommon. A sense of vulnerability and personal experiences with compromised safety is, unfortunately, something that virtually all women are well-acquainted with. According to a 2019 survey by Stop Street Harrassment and the University of California, San Diego Center on Gender Equity and Health, 68% of U.S. women have experienced sexual harassment or assault in public spaces such as streets, trails and parks. While murder is rare, harassment obviously is not, and actions such as catcalls and being followed are arguably not harmless, as the person on the receiving end can’t respond or react knowing that it won’t escalate to something more violent.
Stories like King’s murder pop up in the news all too frequently, leading female runners to be familiar with the names of those lost while doing what they loved, more recently with Mollie Tibbetts in Brooklyn, Iowa to Karina Vetrano in Queens, New York, Wendy Karina Martinez in Washington, D.C. and Sarmistha Sen in Plano, Texas. These stories coincided with the rise of the #MeToo movement that prompted women to publicly share if they’d ever experienced any form of sexual harassment in their lifetime. Most recently, media coverage of the murder of 25-year-old Sydney Sutherland in Jackson County, Arkansas, showcased that one of the core issues in talking about violence prevention is that it’s often framed as a “women’s issue” with advice leaning more toward victim-blaming rather than making real progress.
Education is crucial
After 27-year-old Vanessa Marcotte was killed in a random attack while running in Princeton, Massachusetts, in August 2016, her cousin Caroline Tocci and best friend Ashley McNiff created the Vanessa T. Marcotte Foundation, which works to educate and empower women through self-defense and safety tactics in the Central Massachusetts area. With the COVID-19 pandemic, they’ve been able to expand their sessions virtually to women across the country.
However, as they got going on the project, Tocci and McNiff realized that another big piece of the equation was addressing the root cause of violence against women. They included programs geared toward boys and men in their lineup in an effort to challenge existing gender stereotypes that often lead to violence against women. This month, the foundation introduced a webinar that discusses how society should be socializing and teaching boys and young men of all backgrounds to play a key role in reducing violence against women and how bystander approaches can empower men to confront abusive peers.
“We’re aiming to move away from victim-blaming as a prevention tactic, because women already have to think about so many things when they run alone,” McNiff said. “While our hope is that women can one day not have to worry about safety awareness and can live without fear of objectification and harassment, we really have a long way to go and there’s a lot of work to be done to recognize this as a humankind issue versus just a women’s issue.”
Similarly, the Sexual Violence Response program (which also serves as a New York City rape crisis center) at Columbia University in New York provides mandatory bystander intervention training to all university students. This programming aims to help participants understand the ways in which power and control manifests physically, mentally and emotionally, dynamics which come into play with running and utilizing public spaces comfortably, says Debjani Roy, assistant director of training and prevention for the SVR program.
“It’s important to recognize that it’s not necessarily an individual’s responsibility to protect themselves from an attack, but it is indeed the responsibility of communities to speak up and intervene in some shape or form,” Roy says.
Although Columbia’s SVR team offers similar programming to the public during awareness months like April, which is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, Roy noted that there are a number of ways people can promote community violence prevention education in their communities, such as by communicating and working with local organizations or elected officials, or even gathering a group of friends with an invited speaker.
Racial diversity and inclusion is a key component of safety
Although the conversation about runner safety has been going on for several years now, the aspect of racism got increased attention this year in light of the tragic shooting of Ahmaud Arbery, who was killed while out on a run in Satilla Shores, Georgia, in February. The story sparked outrage across America as more people recognized that minorities risk being profiled and discriminated against in every aspect of their lives, including when they’re out running.
While it’s true that the running industry has a lot of work to do to increase diversity, inclusion and representation, many would agree that it’s important to focus on making running safe and equitable for all groups in addition to being generally welcoming.
“Living in Ventura, California, a town where I rarely see another runner who looks like me, my routine runs often feel like acts of resistance. Black joggers stand out a little more since the death of Ahmaud Arbery, and female joggers have been instructed to do everything they can to blend in,” Journét says. “Running alone as a Black woman in a white town is activism in action and I run to show I live here too. But despite the fact that I’ve run in this town for years, I can’t help but wonder if I’m now in danger by simply doing what I love.”
Dinée Dorame, a Albuquerque, New Mexico-based runner and member of the Navajo Nation, spent time researching the missing and murdered indigenous women epidemic during her time as a student at Yale University, a topic that she says is still not appropriately addressed by local or federal government entities. According to the National Institute of Justice, 84% of Native women have experienced violence in their lifetime and the Center for Disease Control states that it’s the third leading cause of death for Native women.
“For me, safety in running is very much tied to my own experience as an Indigenous woman. I don’t always feel physically safe, which means I don’t get to feel mentally safe or comforted most of the time either. I love running, but when I say I can’t let my guard down, it means I never run alone and I’m very vocal with my family about my plans and whereabouts,” Dorame says. “I’m keenly aware of the fact that Indigenous women go missing or are murdered at increasing and alarming rates and can’t discuss my own feelings around safety on the run without thinking about my own Indigenous relatives and friends, and the risk we take by stepping outside to run, walk, hike the same land that our ancestors knew.”
Making self-defense more approachable and accessible
Hearing another tragic story about a woman killed or attacked while exercising outdoors often spurs a community response promoting self-defense education. But there are a number of reasons many women might feel too overwhelmed to seek it out on their own, such as the taught concepts not matching their fitness levels. Nicole Snell, a self-defense instructor and CEO of Girls Fight Back in West Hollywood, California, focuses on teaching women that it’s important to trust their intuition and trust a feeling that something feels off, whether it means cutting a run short, going a different route, or verbally saying something to someone saying inappropriate things to them if they feel comfortable enough to attempt to deescalate a situation.
“Research has shown when people have learned physical self-defense skills, they are less likely to have to use it because they carry themselves with more confidence and they’re more willing and more likely to speak up for themselves,” Snell says. “If the worst-case scenario happens and you are attacked unexpectedly while you’re out for a run, it’s empowering to know that you can defend yourself. Learning some basic self-defense strikes can help give you the confidence to know that you can fight if you need to and that you’re worth fighting for.”
Snell also noted that she would like to see self-defense become more accessible to communities, as it’s something that many people may choose not to pursue because of the cost and potential time commitment.
“I feel so strongly about self-defense just being a life skill that everyone should have and I wish we taught it in elementary schools, along with boundary setting, consent and speaking up and using your voice,” she says. “It’s awful that we have to even consider that self-defense should be something that we need as a society, but it’s realistic. We can’t avoid preparing for the possibility of violence by pretending it doesn’t exist.”
Strides in self-defense gear, public space accessibility
In today’s day and age, there are some important gear items runners can equip themselves with for an additional sense of security, whether it’s carrying SABRE pepper spray, toting a personal alarm, opting for open-ear headphones so they can hear people, traffic and other surroundings while also listening to music. GPS tracking apps like Garmin Connect, Strava Beacon and AllTrails also have built-in components that allow you to share your route and location with friends and family members, allowing them to be aware if you don’t return in time or venture off of your planned route. AllTrails CEO Ron Schneidermann got the idea to create the app’s Lifeline feature (which allows you to preload your route and expected return time and send to five safety contacts, along with the ability to virtually follow you if you have an active data signal) after seeing that his wife was too scared to run on remote trails by herself. The app also offers the ability for users to post ratings and reviews and share general experiences such as if they found certain trails to be safe or not.
“There’s a lot that I, as a white male, can take for granted when I go up and hit the trail, but having a wife and daughter who spend time on the trails and hearing and learning from their anecdotes, has been eye-opening,” Scheidermann said.
Ultimately, collective attitudes will be what makes a difference
Although there are a number of measures women can take to feel more secure empowered when they set out for a run, the general sentiment among runners and community leaders is that reframing the conversation and not putting the onus on women is what will effect true change.
“We will still go out and run and inhabit these spaces and it’s a right for us to be able to safely experience public spaces the way that we want to,” Roy says. “But the challenges in achieving those goals will remain until we see a cultural shift and the narrative and messaging toward women changes.”
“There is still so much that needs to be done to ensure we’re acknowledging that one person’s story viewpoints and personal experiences,” adds Schneidermann. “We need to continue to have these dialogues and hear from women or from underrepresented communities about challenges that they have and the emotions that they carry with them going into and off of the trails, and then figure out how we can better serve them.”