Tell Me Tuesday: Running While Female?

Sarah and her family. (From the Lexington Herald-Leader)

I wish I weren't rerunning this post, which I just wrote in January, but sadly, another mother runner was recently killed while running. On Thursday morning, Sarah Hart, a pregnant mother of three, was strangled as she returned from a morning run with her sister; she turned back early because she wasn't feeling well. Authorities found her body and her potential killer quickly--details are here--but...I have no words. Just ugh.

I don't think I can take another story about a mother runner meeting an untimely end, so here's a rerun of my attempt at keeping all of you lovelies safe. Rest in peace, Sarah; we will carry you in our hearts and through our miles.


A female runner was found dead in the North End of Central Park when I lived in New York City. I had recently started to think of myself as a runner, and when I didn't start my day with soothing, exhausting miles in Central Park, I was at loose ends. The news made me sad, rattled, and most of all angry; like many 24-year-olds, I thought of it on selfish terms. I couldn't accept the idea of running being taken away from me.

So I did something that was totally stupid: The morning after I heard the news, I left my apartment on the Upper West Side at 6 a.m. on a Saturday, blaring my Madonna mix on my Walkman. I had to own my route and feel strong and invincible; if I stopped running, living in NYC would not have been tolerable.

The death of Sherry Arnold shook me--and everybody else--to the core for so many reasons: We can all put ourselves in her mother runner shoes, and the idea of a motherless family is just too much to fathom. More importantly, now that my perspective has (thankfully) widened a bit, I don't want her story to deter mother runners to start or continue running. The idea of that makes me as angry as the situation in Central Park did about 15 years ago.

I do want you all to be as safe as possible, though, so I want to review some Running Safety 101:

  • Cover your tracks. Tell somebody where you are going: your exact route, when you expect to be home. If your husband has the groggy drools going on when you leave in the morning, write him a note to back up your verbal message. Or text somebody with the same info, and tell them if they don't get another text from you by xx:xx time to please call you. I always tell Grant if I'm not home without 10 minutes of when I should be, come look for me.
  • Get a running buddy. Seriously, safety comes in pairs.
  • Opt for boredom and safety over exotic routes. If you have to do tedious one-mile laps in your 'hood with street lights instead of an unlit park because it's pitch black at 5:30, so be it.
  • Be aware. Yes, blaring Beyonce's Run the World (Girls) gets you pumped up, but her voice takes away one of your vital senses: hearing. If you're a gotta-have-tunes girl, try to run with just one earbud in. Keep the volume low enough that you can hear yourself talk at a normal voice. Keep your head and eyes up; when you get all slumped and downward gazing, you look more like prey than predator.
  • Carry your phone and some form of ID, like a Road ID, and anything else that makes you feel safe, like pepper spray or mace. I don't carry any weapon-like things because I doubt my ability to use them if the situation would arise.  I'm just not that coordinated and bold.
  • Use your internal compass. We were talking about this over dinner the other night with three mother runners--Kathy, Laura, and Terzah--and Kathy mentioned she'd never approach a stopped car. I totally get where she's coming from, but if it's a woman behind a minivan wheel with two kids in the back, I feel okay helping her with directions. You may not; again, do what feels right to you.
  • Don't be shy. If you feel threatened, seek safety however you can.  Ask a fellow runner if you can run with them until you're in the clear. Knock on the door of a house you don't know. Yell for help; make a raucous.
  • Take a self-defense class and up your confidence.
  • If a car seems suspect--they're driving slowly by you or passing by you multiple times--make eye contact with the driver and let them see you're alert and paying attention. Memorize their license plate, then get to a safe place. (That's another Kathy tip.)
  • Say hi to everybody you pass; you wants them to remember her face and her hair color if the need arises.

Finally, an addition to this edition. Don't be dumb when it comes to traffic lights. A 60-year-old accomplished runner died on Saturday morning here in Denver at a busy intersection; he was crossing against the signal. Another ugh. I know I've done it--I've got this car beat, I tell myself--but the reality is, thousands of pounds of metal will always beat a human body.

Do everything you can to stay safe, then go and enjoy your run. You still run to feel good, to feel powerful, to feel alive, vibrant, and strong. You run because 99% of the world is good, and because you can't control everything.

Now you tell us: What do you do to stay safe on your run?

45 responses to “Tell Me Tuesday: Running While Female?

  1. I run with my own four legged attack squad- They probably would not be too intimidating if someone approached, but I figure they are a deterrent. I also carry my phone and have pledged to the Bia watch kickstart because of their alarm system. I keep trying to find a running partner, but it seems like things never work out.
    I also agree to varying your route and staying alert. This is one of the reasons (aside form laziness) that I prefer not to run in the wee hours of the morning- too deserted out there. It is ridiculous that we have to even think about this crap, but there it is.

  2. I get that having a gadget that sends a message in an emergency can feel like it’s adding to the safety of a run but….I can’t shake the feeling that it would be better to be prepared to deal with an attack. I used to rely on that fact that I carried my phone with me but now I realize if something happens, I would not have time to get it out of my spibelt, turn on the screen, do the security swipe to gain access to the phone, and then make a call for help.

    I took a self defense class last year and learned a little about a small and light defense tool called a kubaton. It’s a plastic rod about the length of a pen and is about 1/2 in diameter. It fits perfectly in my hand, in fact, my hand curls around it when I run so I forget I even have it with me. It can be used when striking an attacker to add a significant amount of pain to the blows. I think it was $5 through

    I am so sad for Sarah’s family and all her friends. Running is a beautiful sports and such a big part of all our lives. I am forever grateful when I make it back to my house after a run and always think of Sherry Arnold. I’ll now include Sarah Hart, too.

  3. My heart goes out to Sarah Hart’s family. Praying for all of them!
    I tend to run with a running group but will think twice if I want to cut my run short. Safety first indeed!

  4. I have a dog that looks part pitbull and she wears a gentle lead when we run that looks like a muzzle. People tend to step away from us when we run together since she looks scary, so that always makes me a little more comfortable. I also recommend pepper spray (for both crazy bums and loose dogs, both of which I have been chased by. I also REALLY REALLY stay away from lonely country roads or quiet side streets. A group of teenage boys once followed me on a country road and only passed me when I ran up a driveway to someone’s farm. After that I gave up running on country roads entirely.

  5. This is so sad, those little kids break my heart. Thanks for posting these excellent tips. It is all too easy to get comfortable and forget safety.

  6. Horrible news. Heart breaking for the children, husband, and her sister. I don’t even know how to say more. Just furious.

  7. My heart goes out to the Hart family. I agree with those who have said we need to get on board with Bia – my pledge went in over the weekend. But also – I never run with music. Period. The one scary incident I had occurred while I was running alone (my running partner was overseas for a week) and if I had been running with music I wouldn’t have noticed the truck that kept circling back to pass me. Long story (SBS has heard it) but I managed to escape. If you’re running alone PLEASE don’t run with any distractions. My incident occurred in an upscale neighborhood in broad daylight.

  8. Okay, Be aware, Be Visible, and NEVER LEAVE YOUR WINGMAN….
    Also, remember that assailants can have four legs too….A St.Bernard Chow mix and a Bull Mastiff recently made an interesting impression on me and tested my interval training. Nuff said…Cross training can save your bacon.

  9. Run like you own it! Especially if you are running an unfamiliar route. Don’t let your body language give away that you’re unsure of your surroundings. It will make you an easier target. Heads up, make eye contact, avoid distractions. Run with confidence.

    Also, vary up when and where you run. Don’t be predictable.

    I have a german shepherd that I run with. While she is terrified of her own shadow, she at least looks intimidating. If you don’t have a dog of your own, consider talking to a local animal shelter to see if they have any dogs that would benefit from regular runs and volunteer to run with them. It’s a win-win for both you and the dog. They get lots of exercise and attention and you get a body guard.

  10. So very sad. Some things I do is vary my route and not take the same one each say. Run against traffic so I see what’s coming. Wear lights when dark.

  11. this is truly heartbreaking, on so many levels. I took a self defense course years & years ago and one of my take aways is that if you ever are in need of help, don’t yell help – people often hesitate or don’t know how to respond. If you are in a sticky situation, yell, “call 9-1-1”. It tells people exactly what to do versus just asking for “help.”

    Blessings and safety on everyone. And prayers to Sarah’s family.

  12. Thoughts and prayers go out to the family. I have my roadID, tell people where I am going and on Saturday run with a group. Makes me want to stay on my treadmill more though.

  13. So sad. I cannot imagine what this family is going through. I no longer run alone before light. I really would like to find a BRF but until then I run in my neighborhood which is not very isolated. I carry my phone and don’t wear ear buds. I need to get a RoadID.

  14. This story broke my heart. I can’t imagine what my kids would experience if something happened to me. Prayers and comfort to Sarah’s family.

    I always tell someone where I am going…I take my german shepherd when she is feeling spry and if hiking or running in a strange place, I take a hiking pole with me. As much as I hate to carry anything when I run, strange surroundings or neighborhoods force me to sacrifice comfort for safety. I bartended just out of college so I took a self defense class…I can wield a baton, very powerful feeling!

  15. I’m so sad to hear of yet another life taken in such a dreadful and senseless way. Its heartbreaking.
    I live in the country and I have become increasingly nervous to run out here by myself. I’ve been driving into town and running with a friend or if I’m alone I only use one earbud and I only go on roads that I am familiar with…and I still find myself getting nervous sometimes. Be safe out there ladies. I’ll be adding Sarah’s beautiful family to my prayers tonight. 🙁

  16. Last year I was ‘stalked’ by a truck while running. It was a terrifying experience and I could not make myself run outside alone for almost a year. It NEVER occurred to me to get the license plates of the truck…all I could think about was trying to get away and find another person on the street. Brings bile to my mouth just writing about it.

    So sad for Sarah and her family.

  17. This is an EXCELLENT list of suggestions.

    I carry mace, have taken a self defense course, and have definitely used my voice* to stay safe more than once. (That last one is more likely to happen when I’m shouting at a car that’s about to blow a stop sign while I’m in the middle of the intersection.)

    * My voice carries. I’m loud. 😉

  18. Its scary!!! I run with a dog…my own little cujo who is very protective! I also carry pepper spray & i dont run in the dark…..i am now thinking twice of my trail runs and leave those for when i can find a partner. Love the idea of texting someone when you leave and return if no one is home! I’m adding that to my safety list!

  19. I can’t comment on what I do to be safe because I am so overwhelmed with sadness for Sarah’s children, husband and sister. My heart breaks for all of you.

  20. Thanks for the timely reminder that some routes are best left with friends/run groups.
    Not only do I write a note in the house and carry my cell (which enabled me to call an ambulance for an injured cyclist) I also snap a pic of myself before heading out the door and send it to my husband with my long run details.
    I am lucky to live in an urban and active waterfront running community! I need to make more of an effort to get out and connect with like minded mamas!

  21. I always say hi to everyone, mostly for that reason! My BRF’s husband is secret service and told me that he thinks a flashlight is the best defensive weapon. He showed me his, and I got one that is similar– small enough to carry easily in my palm, with a very bright– blinding– LED light. A few flashes to the eyes will disorient and give you a break to really run. But the end with the light has this sharp, jagged metal, I call it my face shredder. If it came to it, he showed me how to use it– drive into an attacker and then pull down. Somehow it gives me a little more confidence to take my face shredder with me.

  22. Runner’s World just published a post on Other Voices that’s almost as scary (except the runner, fortunately, was not physically harmed). A law enforcement officer weighed in on what the runner “should” have done; several commenters disagreed but offered tips of their own. So check it out and try not to boil over with rage:

  23. Thanks for the info. I especially like the one about saying hi to people so they remember you. I never thought of it that way because I prefer to be left alone when I’m running. Also, I’m pretty good about giving my route and carrying a phone on long runs, but I neglect the short runs.

  24. This is so sad! I admit, I might be paranoid, but I almost never run alone on the greenbelt trails near my house anymore. They’re beautiful, but it makes me too nervous to be a woman alone in the woods. I always stick to our (luckily nice and wide) sidewalks by the roads. If I go early or it’s dark, I just have one route that I’ll do generally, which is right along a fairly busy road that usually has good police coverage (again, great sidewalks!). I am also the girl who will hit the crossing button and then always wait until the indicator changes for me, even if I don’t see much traffic. Remember, those hybrid cars can be nearly silent! Also, I’m grateful for an excuse to stop for a few minutes, ha ha. 🙂 I try to make eye contact with cars stopped by red lights when I’m crossing too, just to make sure they see me.

    1. Haha, glad to see that I’m not the only one who waits for the walk signal no matter what. People mock me, but I don’t care.

  25. If you’re writing a note or texting someone about your run also take the time to tell them what you are wearing.

  26. I had been seeing a lot of posts on different sites about Bia, “the GPS sports watch for women that men will want too.” I just glossed over the details because I love my Garmin. But after reading this horrifying story yesterday about another woman runner killed, I read the details about Bia more closely. It has a safety alarm which will notify an emergency contact if you feel unsafe. Once I read that I immediately went to Kickstarter to make a small pledge. I have pepper spray but always forget to carry it, but I’d wear this watch. I think we should all go to Kickstarter and pledge a few bucks so this watch can get made. I don’t want to read any more of these posts about a woman dying.

  27. I second awareness. Always be aware of your surroundings. Use your ears and nose as well as your eyes.

    Instead of using RoadID, I wrote all my pertinent information on my hat.

    I always steer clear of cars and make them TAKE the right-of-way even if they try to be courteous.

    I try to run in open areas with lots of visibility, and I figure when in doubt, RUN AWAY. My attacker is probably not going to be in Ryan Hall shape.

  28. One more thing…
    Never, Never Never get into a car with an assailant. If you are threatened with a gun run. Most people are not that good marksman. You probably not be hit. If you are you will probably not be hit fatally. If you get into the care your chances are not so good.

  29. These stories make me sad and angry beyond words. I live in a very low crime city but of course that is no guarantee – it only takes one crazy.

    I have done judo for over 25 years. I will say that it gives me some confidence. I have also taught self defense and I have to admit that unless you are ready to dedicate real time to the study of martial arts a self defense class is of limited use. If you take one, focus on one or two techniques and learn them very well. Practice them on your husband. Try to break loose from him when he is holding your wrist tight – really tight. A good self defense class will be painful. You will need to break through that pain and fight anyway to be successful.

    If you choose to carry a weapon, train in weapon retention. If you are attacked, you do not want your assailant to end up armed with your gun. Don’t try to “wing” him. Shoot for center mass.

    My information from military police officers is that pepper spray is much more effective than mace. For some people, mace just makes them angry. If you use pepper spray be sure that you are up wind. Both pepper spray and mace are illegal to carry in some areas. Check local laws.

    There was a time when audible alarms were very popular. Push a button and an ear piercing alarm would sound. I set these off in many different locations – a meeting room, a dormitory, outside – not once did anyone from outside come to see if there was a problem.

    In self defense classes we teach 1. Awareness; 2. Awareness and 3. Awareness.

    Finally, you know that you would kill anyone that attacked your child with your bare hands. Bring that fight to your own defense. Remember that any attack on you is an attack on your child.

    Safe running, Mother Runners

    1. I’m a fellow martial artist and runner. Just wanted to second everything said by Jana, especially the bits about self defense classes and audible alarms.

      I personally recommend against carrying a gun or a knife – after 16 years of practicing, I’ve learned that a)unless you have a concealed carry permit, if you use your weapon the cops will arrest YOU too, and b) it’s way too easy for your attacker (despite weapon retention training) to get the gun/knife and use it against you.

      Also, I have reservations about the use of any self defense spray – who really has the time to think of the direction of the wind, if someone is attacking you? Especially if you’re tuckered out at the end of your run?

      Question for Jana – are you aware of any self defense programs that combine women’s self defense with weapon retention?

  30. Thanks for this post, Dimity. I admit that I take my safety for granted, living in a city of about 60,000 with a very low crime rate. Since Sherry Arnold’s death, however, I’ve been much more cautious. If I run alone, at least two people know my route and how long I should be gone. I also carry my cell phone with me. The biggest change I’ve made is to do most of my runs with either my husband or BRF. There are days when I miss my solo runs, but living to run another day is much more important.

  31. Following Sherry Arnold, my BRF and I took what might seem like extreme measure to some, but to us, its totally normal, and we all carry guns when we run. We have had the training, have Conceal & Carry licenses and running holsters. We all shot prior to starting to carry while running so it wasnt that unusual for us. We live and run in very VERY rural areas. One our my favorite routes for a 10 miler spends 1/2 of it without any cell phone coverage and very little traffic. Like, its a highway and MAYBE we will see 4 cars. Maybe. I know its controversial, but I feel safer when I have it. Still, I know its not an option for everyone, its just the one I feel most comfortable utilizing.

    1. I am a no guns kind of person, so I am very surprised I’ve been thinking about maybe getting something small (and of course training to go with it). Not just for my runs, but because like you, we live in a rural area and I had a creepy guy come to my door a few weeks ago. I’m no shrinking violet. I’m 5’9″ and carry a lot of muscle. I always say if someone is going to attack me, they better hope they’re having their best day. But if ever in the situation, I want the best chance possible. Sadly, it’s really something to think about.

  32. Last summer, as I trained for the Chicago Marathon, I did my long runs early on Sunday mornings, to avoid the heat. Sometimes it was at sunrise, and I always did these runs at a nearby 2 mile loop around a retention pond. I had a lot of company there, and even though it was boring circling around and around, I figured being safe and having a bathroom nearby outweighed scenery. I’ve had multiple creepy encounters running on the local fitness path, which is very isolated. I will admit that when we are out of town in Wisconsin, I run on the local roads, and I do a lot of looking over my shoulder. There are creeps everywhere. I wish they’d leave us alone.

    I always carry my phone in a little spibelt on my hips–I’ve gotten so used to it, it doesn’t bother me. I wear my watch with Road ID on it. I do listen to my iPod. I know….

    I can’t stop thinking about Sarah and that little guy sitting on her lap. No one should lose their mom. Not like that.

  33. All of these things except a buddy, (I still haven’t found anyone who runs between slow and glacial) and the self-defense class is on my to-do list.

    I usually drive to a town where there are a lot of houses and sidewalks because i live in the boonies.Even in this white bread town of upscale CT I find myself looking over my shoulder, a lot. I have also turned and run back early or cut short a run because I didn’t feel right.

    Sad and pissed off, wishing Sarah’s family some peace.

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