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Runners learn tips on how to stay safe from attackers

| Thursday, Feb. 21, 2013, 11:42 p.m.
Self-defense expert Craig Douglas gives women at Bakery Square on Thursday, February 21, 2013, tips on how to stay safe while running. Douglas is former police officer with 21 years of experience.

Julie Schwemm admits that she regularly leaves her cellphone behind when she goes out for a run.

But after attending a self-defense program on Thursday evening taught by former SWAT commander and Army veteran Craig Douglas, she's re-evaluating her routine.

“I never thought I could be a victim, but after tonight, I realize that I am vulnerable,” said Schwemm, 53, of Ross. “Not taking my cellphone with me is something I'm definitely going to change.”

Craig's Safe Strides program at Bakery Square in East Liberty was sponsored by the Pittsburgh Marathon and is designed to help runners — especially women — avoid becoming victims. The program drew more than 125 people.

“We got the idea for doing this program as a result of a conversation I had with the marathon director in Oklahoma City, who told me about a couple of women there who were sexually assaulted while out running,” said Patrice Matamoros, director of the Pittsburgh Marathon, which will be held May 5.

Leah Yingling, a Carnegie Mellon University senior studying biomedical engineering, helped illustrate how vulnerable female runners can be by sharing details of an attack she suffered in June 2010 while running along a riverside trail near her home in Johnstown.

“I did think about safety while running — my mom actually bought me pepper spray to take with me on runs — but I left it back in the car that particular day,” said Yingling, 21.

Yingling said a man she passed on the trail grabbed her, put a knife to her throat and attempted to drag her into woods to sexually assault her.

“Luckily, I brought my cellphone instead of my iPod that day, because he let me go after he realized it was in my hand and thought I already dialed 911,” she said.

Though an expert in a variety of martial arts, Craig focuses on teaching women how to “deselect yourself as a victim.”

He recounted experiences as an undercover officer to teach women “how bad guys do business” and detailed visual cues often present when an attack is imminent. Craig also provided ways to diffuse an encounter and showed how “creating distance (from an attacker) creates safety.”

“Tonight was really a rude awakening for me,” said Lisa Verdi, 27, of Fox Chapel. “I don't think we give much thought to how easily we can be victims. I'm definitely going to limit the times I run alone, always take my phone and really start focusing on being more aware of my surroundings.”

Tony LaRussa is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7987 or tlarussa@tribweb.com.

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