With the warm weather finally here, I’ve read multiple excellent posts about protecting oneself from sun and heat exposure as well as the importance of maintaining hydration while running in the hot summer months. While taking steps to prevent the harmful effects of running in the hot summer months is vitally important, I’d like to depart a bit and talk about safety. As the cold and rainy spring weather finally has broken in most parts of the country, people naturally are getting outdoors, and unfortunately, that also includes those with ill intent. Last May, while out running, I experienced what I will from hereon in call The Incident. Though I was not physically harmed, I had what I will call a near-miss, and for the first time ever, I was truly in fear for my life.
Briefly, I went out for a solo run on a beautiful Monday afternoon, the first nice day of what would become a hot and humid summer in the Chicago area. I headed to a usually well-traveled path around a local man-made lake, mere steps from my home. While I always pay close attention to my surroundings, I noticed immediately when I got onto the path that it was unusually quiet, which seemed odd for such a beautiful day. As I rounded the path, my Spidey-senses were particularly high, and I felt more uneasy the further along the path I went. Normally there would be plenty of people using the path, which encircles the lake where there usually are a number of boaters, kayakers, and fishermen. That day, the path, as well as the lake, were quiet. And by quiet, I mean no one was there. It was seriously creepy.
As I slowed my sprint to a brisk walk to catch my breath and sip some water, I noticed some movement in the brush immediately to my right. A young man was sitting in a chair about 15 or 20 feet from the path, and as soon as he saw me, he started taking care of business, so to speak. Still out of breath, I took off running as fast as I could. I turned back and saw him up on the path coming towards me. By this time, I was on the complete opposite side of the lake from where I entered, where there was a high fence blocking any exit routes. I kept moving forward as fast as I could, and praying out loud to make it to safety.
Eventually, I lost sight of the perp and saw a woman approaching me on a bike. I first decided to just keep moving since the immediate threat was gone, but I changed my mind and flagged her down. I asked if she saw anyone along the path, and she said there was no one there. I told her what happened, and she stayed with me on the path until I could safely exit. From there, I called 911 and reported the incident. Just then, the woman on the bike saw a police officer driving on the path, and rode back down to report what happened. He then drove to where I was standing and took my report.
I called my husband as I walked home to tell him what happened. Shortly after I got home, I went to my neighborhood website to share my experience and warn others about what had (or could have) happened to me. Within hours several people responded, saying they, too, had seen someone in the area in recent weeks, doing the exact same thing. None of them reported it—either to the police or to their neighbors.
I’m sorry, what??? I can’t tell you how shocked, dismayed, and frankly, angry I was to hear this. Several people (all women, no less) laughed it off as some sort of a joke. This is no joke, folks. In fact, it is a crime. People use this path for a variety of activities, several of whom are young children, often without adult supervision. I can only imagine what would have happened if this guy caught up with me. Could I have gotten away? Could I have fought him off? I didn’t stick around to find out. And I can’t imagine the guilt I would feel if I didn’t report him and then heard at some later date that he grabbed someone and did them some physical harm.
Several police officers happen to live in my subdivision. They took my report seriously, maybe especially because it was so close to home and they, too, have wives and children who use this path regularly. I had some additional communication with one of the officers that evening, who said they would put extra patrols on the path that night. He asked if I knew exactly where the person was hiding, but I could only give a vague description of where I was at the time. I’ve joked forever that I couldn’t run to save my life. Apparently, I can. I realized I could use my Garmin data to pinpoint the exact location where I went from walking a 12:52 mile to running a 6:53 mile. I screen-shot my Strava report and sent it to the officer. And lo and behold, the very next day, the offender was in the exact same spot, doing the exact same thing. This time, the police were waiting. He was immediately arrested, and because he admitted everything, I didn’t have to testify in court.
What happened after that, I don’t know. The laws vary by state in terms of what the punishments are for these sorts of crimes. You can find a list of statutes by state here. What I do know is that I’ve changed my behavior because of this incident. Fool me once.
For a while after this incident, I stopped running the path alone. And that pissed me off. This is a beautiful path, convenient to my home. It angers me that I cannot freely enjoy it. It took a while, but now I am back; armed with information, and a few other things. For one, since this incident occurred, there is a newly paved path leading down to the lake. From there, I can clearly see if there are people around the lake. If it seems particularly desolate, I choose another route for my run.
I also wear a SPIbelt, clipped to it what is purported to be the world’s loudest whistle and maximum strength pepper spray. In addition, for Christmas this past year, my youngest son bought me a set of kubatons, which I now carry on each of my runs. Conceal and carry? I like to think of it as reveal and scary. I don’t think I’m any more careful about my surroundings than I’ve ever been, but at least now I’m armed with a few items to help me defend myself should the need arise.
I’ve read many stories about women being attacked, and sometimes killed, while out running alone. Sadly, last summer within just over a one-week period, three women were murdered while out running in Michigan, New York, and Massachusetts. Such cases are rare, and it was quite unusual to have so many incidents occur in such a short period of time. And though it is extremely rare to be murdered while out on a run, it is not at all unusual to be harassed or otherwise intimidated.
In a recent online survey of more than 2500 women and more than 2100 men, Runners World Magazine found that at least 43% of women experience some kind of harassment while running alone, compared to only 4% of men. I encourage you to read the article here, and remain vigilant regarding your personal safety.
There are numerous tips, articles, and websites dedicated to informing people how they can stay safe on their runs, so I won’t go into them here, but here are a few places where you can get some ideas on how to stay safe on your run:
While some of the information is repetitive between sites, it’s definitely worth repeating.
The bottom line is this: Try to avoid distractions, and be aware of your surroundings at all times. And if you do find yourself in harm’s way, be sure to prioritize your actions:
1) Get yourself to safety. Yell or whistle for help along the way, but keep moving.
2) Call for help, but not until you are in a safe spot. Don’t stand still fumbling with your phone.
3) Report what happened to the authorities, even if you were not personally harmed. And be sure to let others in the area know what happened.
Do you run alone? How do you keep yourself safe? Have you ever been harmed while out for a run?