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.
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.
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.
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.