I’ve been running since I was 15 (not continuously, of course). I mean that it’s been my exercise of choice for many years, running outdoors, usually alone. And this week the story about Mollie Tibbetts, who was killed while on a run, reminded me of some past experiences.
While at UCLA, my roommates, classmates and a lot of other people ran the perimeter of campus regularly. Sometimes alone. And sometimes alone at night. (We weren’t very bright.) Occasionally you heard rumors of a threat or something, but at that age we had a sense of immortality, so we didn’t care.
And a few years earlier, when I was a teenager, I was running one afternoon through cotton fields in the farming community where I grew up, when a man in a pickup truck pulled up behind me and followed me slowly. There were no homes in sight at the time, so I got increasingly more afraid, until I saw a house in the distance and ran toward it until he drove away.
When I read about Mollie’s story, my thoughts didn’t go to the perpetrator. They went to her.
Female runners have been writing this week about the hassling and intimidation they experience, many carrying pepper spray in their shorts for protection. A Minnesota woman talked about a fundraising run where they now have to attend a self-defense class before the event.
I loved the headline of one article, “Running While Female,” where a runner/writer talked about staying vigilant the entire time she’s out there. I could relate to the irony she raised, that the restful freedom you feel while breezing down paseos or on trails in the country is offset by the constant concern for your safety.
Unfortunately, Mollie’s story has been used for political theater, which is something her family has rejected. Other recent stories involving murders (the Watts family, the gamers in Jacksonville) revealed the perpetrators to be Americans. And in an apples-to-apples comparison, you may remember when three separate female runners were killed in three separate states in nine days. Two of those cases are solved and both perps were Americans.
So, instead, we can look at a larger issue. What resonated with a lot of women I talked to and read about was a concern that I think we all have. While the loved ones of these victims grieve, we continue to grieve the lack of safety in our society. Violent crimes are up, and it’s a reminder to women who have experienced violence, domination or predatory behavior of some kind that they aren’t entirely free.
If you’re scratching your head and can’t relate to fears of being injured or killed while in a vulnerable position, it may be that you haven’t experienced that kind of powerlessness. But you, doubtless, have people in your life who have, since one in three women report being in an abusive relationship in their lives, according to the SCV Domestic Violence Program of the Child & Family Center. The CDC reports 10,000 female homicides between 2003 and 2014 and there are plenty of stats we could look at, including the rising rates of violent crime.
Women who are discouraged about these incidents aren’t trying to milk the sympathy – people who have been victimized can feel minimized, ignored and powerless. And it’s tiring to keep bearing the burden of making necessary changes to fend off further offenses.
Many move forward by banding together, such as runners who are “unleashing the S.H.E.” (Strength, Health, Empowerment), which is a set of 5K and 10K events raising money for the Minnesota Ovarian Cancer Alliance (MOCA). There are also “Women Rock” half-marathons that are held in various states and are designed for girls to experience racing surrounded by supportive women.
In fact, that may be the safest way forward – stepping out together instead of solo. It’s a way to take our Fitbits farther while, at the same time, adding mileage to Mollie’s message.
Martha Michael is a contributing writer for The Signal.