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Safety First (and second and third)

A few months ago I had an interesting discussion at a party. After an acceptable amount of time had passed, I felt comfortable enough to post this discussion to my Facebook page. I want to be clear that I am in no way damning the guy; his line of thinking is ‘normal.’ It just so happens that our ‘normal’ is problematic.  

April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. The events I describe below may be triggering for some of you to read. They are triggering for me to write. If the lessons I learned the hard way keep even one of you safer, it is worth it.

It’s time for a BIG heads-up about runner safety. The things we’ve been taught to do and think about our bodies and about safety won’t necessarily keep us safe.

Coach MK’s Rules About Running Solo Safely

Rule #1: Run in the busiest, most heavily trafficked streets you can find.

My first assault occurred my sophomore year of college. I was heading back to the Georgetown campus from my White House internship around 10 p.m. I realized that I could walk the 2 miles back to campus long before the next bus arrived.

Go ahead, wag your finger at a little girl walking by herself at night in the big bad city. DC’s noted violence was concentrated ten blocks in the other direction; it’s hard to argue that this walk was more dangerous than standing still in downtown DC for an hour.  

I completely understand not wanting to feel like you are putting your body on display. Women have been conditioned to avoid that type of behavior. You’re not showing off when you choose to run in public where you are likely to be seen, you’re choosing safety. Violence is a crime of opportunity, and we need to limit those opportunities.

Rule #2: Do not run with headphones

Pennsylvania to M Street, M to Wisconsin, Wisconsin to O Street, O street to campus. The first three are big, well-lit, major streets through business districts lined with bars. O Street is residential, one of the wealthiest zip codes in the country and half a mile from my dormitory. By the time I got there, I breathed a sigh of relief. I thought I was safe. I put my headphones in.   

I never heard him coming. Hands around my throat, a sharp blow to the left side of my head, and I haven’t heard much out of that ear since.  

If you can’t hear it coming, you can’t run away. If you run solo, if you run in the dark, if you run anywhere but busy urban streets, ditch the headphones.

You'd notice Coach MK in her running gear, right? That's the idea.

Rule #3: Be noticeable

I was a scholarship kid from rural Tennessee surrounded by people born and bred for office jobs. I wanted to blend in, so I dressed the way they did; my suit looked like every other suit on The Hill. Which explains why no one who saw me the night I was assaulted could describe what I was wearing.

Nearly all of my run clothes are painfully vivid day-glo shades. I also prefer to run in ‘short shorts,’ not because I think my legs are worth looking at but because we tend to notice outliers. You can’t help but stare at the shirtless person, the person with brightly colored (pink, green, purple) hair or facial jewelry, or the middle aged-woman with stretch marks and grey hair running through Denver in a bra and bun huggers at 6 a.m. with 6000 lumens streaming from her headlamp.

Invisible people are always targets. Deviate from the mean and make sure you are seen.  

Rule #4: Weapons are weapons

In the aftermath of my assault, I was determined to purchase a handgun. My boyfriend talked me into taking a self-defense class first. Long story short, I got to experience a new level of helplessness as the teacher showed me all the ways that my own gun could be used against me.

Weapons are weapons. They don’t provide safety just by having them. Weapons require specific training don’t preclude the need for self-defense classes.

Don’t believe me? Let’s start with mace. Is it always in your hand or do you have to dig for it? If someone snuck up on you, could you get to the mace, much less operate it with one hand? Even at close range you’ve gotta know the right angles to keep mace or pepper spray from going into your own eyes. Without training, without knowing exactly where to strike and lots and lots of practice, you are just going to piss your attacker off or worse, hurt yourself.  

When confronted, your best bet is to stun and RUN. Take enough self-defense classes to develop confidence as well as good instincts. Keep those instincts fresh with yearly tune-up classes. Then run like hell.

An obnoxious amount of lights.

Rule #5: Rich people hate streetlights and love security cameras

In the '90s, rich neighborhoods were not well-lit. Homeowners didn’t want street lamps or nice sidewalks that would encourage foot traffic and loitering.

Times have changed. Rich neighborhoods are still not particularly well-lit but they have cameras, and security guards, everywhere. If you’re running before dawn, be sure to carry lots of lights. (I favor Knuckle Lights.) Obnoxious amounts of lights. Light draws attention to you, which repels nocturnal animals and probable attackers. It also makes it easier to see an attacker’s faces in long-range security cameras.

When running solo, if you have the option, choose to run on major city streets, past banks and big-box retailers (who have cameras in their parking lots), and through/past wealthy neighborhoods.

Rule #6: Stay in call range

This is the safety item I carry. Notice that it can be heard up to 1000 feet. This is my call range. When I run alone, I make sure I am never more than 1000 feet away from humans.

There are SO MANY cool options for expanding your call range these days, especially if you are cooler than me and use an iphone. StravaBeacon, RunRaegis, Glympse, KiteString, ReactMobile, bSafe, and RoadID get high marks. Remember though, for any of these to be effective, someone has to be watching and/or waiting for you and in most cases get there immediately to do any good. Pick your person wisely.

Be aware of how large your call range is and stick well within it as well as within familiar surroundings. If you find yourself outside your call range or in unfamiliar territory, head back as quickly as possible.

MK's RBF. "I run things" Sweaty Band is optional but recommended.

Rule #7: Resting Bitchface

Nothing makes people more uncomfortable than Resting Bitchface, the face most of us make when focusing on a task (which explains why we don’t call it something benign like ‘neutral face’). Resting Bitchface is more than just your facial expression, it’s your body language. It’s good posture, a strong locked cage, and eye contact with people who pass you.

Resting bitchface is part of your self-defense routine. It says, “I am busy, I belong here, I am NOT vulnerable.” Self-defense experts will tell you that confidence is the strongest weapon in your arsenal and the one that comes least naturally. Work on your instincts as well as your resting bitchface. I practice mine in the mirror in between my yearly self-defense tune-ups.

You may not feel like you deserve to be running in public, in bright colors, or where people can see you or that you need to overcompensate with friendliness when you do. All of this works together to prevent attackers from viewing you as a potential target.

Running is dangerous. Running while female is unjustly dangerous. I don’t want you avoiding your favorite trails or feeling bound to a buddy’s schedule so that you are never alone; we don’t need to make this easy, accessible sport overly complicated in order to be safer.

We do, however, need to be honest with ourselves about what we are doing and why. Running half-naked down University Blvd in the middle of the day might not be the most modest thing you can do, but it’s one of the safest. Safety first, yo.

15 responses to “Safety First (and second and third)

  1. I’ve only had one run when I felt unsafe, but I can still tell you every single detail of that morning and I play it over again in my head very often. I was running a 6 mile park reserve loop, blissfully peaceful and alone. I just happened to be pondering my habit of running alone and thinking through what I would do if ever I was attacked. I could think of one particular type of male who would make me extra nervous. And at the most deserted place in the trail, the farthest from any homes or roads, I found myself running up behind the exact man I had been contemplating. He was in his 20s, extremely fit. And oddly, he was dressed in baggy sweats and sauntering. Extremely fit men in their 20s don’t saunter on running trails. At least in my years of running I had never encountered such. I got a pit in my stomach. I could turn around on the trail, but I was still in the middle of the loop and he could easily have turned around and caught up with me. And so I decided to keep going forward, even though every single hair on my body was standing up and I felt physically ill. I decided to catch him by surprise (instead of what I was imagining, may be his plan to turn and catch my arm by surprise when I passed him). And so when I got about 15 feet behind him, I cheerily said good morning and started babbling about what a great day it was. I clearly caught him off guard. My bad feelings remained as I passed him and finished my run. I’ve replayed that run a thousand times in my head and truly believe something bad may have happened to me that day had I not started talking to him. Clearly, I’ll never know. But it’s an option for an approach, if ever any of you find yourself in a similar situation. Thanks for the good conversation starter MK. I am very smart about my routes in the dark, but in daylight I yearn for remote nature. Sigh.

  2. While I keep safety in mind, I alter my route daily as well as my time of day. That way, if I am attacked, it won’t be by someone who’s been watching me, waiting for that defenseless moment. So, when my husband wanted me to curtail my 5 am runs (to beat the TX heat) because he was afraid for my safety, I thanked him for his concern and invited his 6’3″/245# burly bear to come with me if he was so concerned fory safety. Upon his lack of desire to pace one step at faster than a walking pace, I told him how I plan for aafwty. I run in places where there are many other runners. I alter my location and time….bu r moatl y I guess it’s BOTH ATTITUDE…I refuse to allow the thought that being female makes me weak and that’s wherever I go, I better beware of the “boogeyman” awaiting harm to me. So I befriend every face I see, I talk to them, introduce myself and then ask their name. I’ve even been complimented by some ‘stalkers” for how sexy I am. I say thank you and tell then I appreciate them noticing but I’m married and he is my one and only and keeps careful watch while I’m out running about life. Now, I no longer even look like a victim. I am not a victim and refuse to be.

    I am not saying that someone who has been deserved it. But I refuse to feel weak because I’m female. Then, they’ve already won…because they made me scared and to feel “less than…” I refuse to succumb to that metality.

  3. My husband is a safety awareness and education specialist. He is a retired LEO and is a chemical agent specialist. Check out michaelmercercmnsulting.com. He sells a great pepper spray for runners that straps to your hand. He also teaches how to use it correctly.

  4. Some good tips on being aware of your surroundings, being noticed and being well lit. That being said, I am not willing to confine my running to busy streets. Most of the year it is much too cold to wear skimpy outfits, and where would I carry my Gu and water? I DO deserve to run where I want, and I will continue to do so as safely as possible.

  5. A great article, but sad situation for women runners. It is SO important to be aware of your surroundings. At ALL times. If something seems “off” about a person or situation, it probably is. When I run solo, I often feel like I can’t relax or lose myself in my run like I want to, so when I’m alone I turn to my treadmill an awful lot. Sad, but safe.

  6. Thanks for the information MK. I read your words of wisdom this morning and I have been thinking about them all day. My son called me and asked if I would wear a hot pink running shirt, he got a resounding yes. I was talking with a friend, it was interesting we had both thought about where could we go on a run if we felt we were in danger. It is a sad that we have to plan, but our safety is much more important. Thanks MK you’re the best!

  7. I’m all about lighting my ass up like a Christmas tree, including my beloved Knuckle Lights, but I do run alone too often on far too many empty country roads. Great tips!

  8. I did the opposite of everything you suggest,this morning on my 4:30 a.m. run. By myself. No phone. No lights. Wore black. Only have the javelinas to deal with on occasion. All my “encounters” were in busy places, during the day light hours- guys exposing themselves, or jumping me and attempting who knows what until I bit the hell out of the guy, on a cross country path at a community college. Now no one knows when and where I run (except hubby) and I am quite the happy runner now.

  9. AMEN, sister! I’m sorry you went through this, but am grateful you’re sharing your experience and smarts.

  10. My clothes are so bright, it looks as if a running magazine threw up on me. I’m good with it. I’m also good with running the roads more often than the trails. There aren’t many people going to forget a white hair running down the road in a skirt.

  11. Awesome tips. I live in the DC area and we have an awesome paved trail system. That I never use unless I’m with at least one other person. I instead choose to run mid day on crowded streets when I have to run alone. (And I run in skirts and obnoxiously colored compression socks, so I’m hard to miss.) Sucks that it has to be that way, but it’s all about safety…

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