The hazards of ‘Running While Female’
The thrill of hitting the trail at full stride and the exhilaration of the fabled “runner’s high” is often replaced by fear and trepidation for female runners in the area, across the country and around the world.
Aug. 21 marks one year since the discovery of the body of 20-year-old Mollie Tibbetts. The Iowa runner was found five weeks after she was reported missing after failing to return home following a jog. Her alleged killer’s trial has been delayed several times and is now slated to begin Nov. 21.
Closer to home, a Cook Township man was charged with indecent exposure, harassment and stalking following an incident at Weller Field in Ligonier. His victim was running on the track on a Wednesday morning in April.
For some women, cat calls, lewd comments and rude behavior are just part of the routine.
The comments from the women here are carbon copies:
• “I’ve have had some encounters that have made me feel uneasy — like men yelling at me.”
• “I reported an incident to the police.”
• “I’m afraid.”
That fear and that vigilance is the new normal.
The words of Meg Ringler of Edgewood, reflect just that: “I’ve had my share of the normal encounters — cat calls and creepers — and two scarier incidents where teenage boys decided to run around me as a pack before, I presume, getting bored and/or tired.
“I don’t think there’s a female runner out there who doesn’t know the so-called shoulds and shouldn’ts of running while female. They don’t need more mental or physical items to add to their checklist. In fact, if they are attacked and hadn’t taken every precaution, they’re more likely to blame themselves,” she says.
Kristen Pegg of Penn Run, Indiana County, was on her way home after running along her sparsely traveled road when she had an encounter that shook her to her core.
“I noticed a car parked along a little gravel road that shoots off my road. It was a car that had come past me earlier. I quickly grabbed my phone to call my husband. As I got closer to the car, I could see the male had a hood on his head. He saw I was on the phone and he peeled out of the road. I kept my husband on the phone for the rest of the half mile as I sprinted home. I kept him on the phone as I searched my house to make sure I was alone and then I broke down crying,” Pegg says.
“From that time, which was two years ago, I have a fear of running on my road. I hate that people can strip our freedom to run because they are creepers,” Pegg said.
“I will say that at times I’ve been nervous, maybe too hyper-vigilant,” Cara Lincoln, a Road Runners Club of America certified coach and training director for Run Greensburg.
There’s the time earlier this summer the Greensburg resident was approached by a group of college-aged boys offering “to keep her company.” Or the time at Lynch Field (Greensburg) when a man seemed to be following too closely.
Lincoln, like many women, has changed her modus operandi because of incidents like this.
“I rarely run alone, in part because it’s always a risk. I never use headphones, so I can be more aware of my surroundings. I try to look every person I pass when I run in the eye and try to acknowledge them — in part so they know I’m paying attention, and so I can have a good look at their face in case anything would happen. I’m a capable runner, but after enough miles, I don’t trust that I could outrun someone who tried to grab me,” Lincoln says.
Wendy Eperesi of Hempfield ran off the Five Star Trail and right back to her car after a scary encounter. Since then, she tries to always run in a populated area. “When running, I like to listen to music but only out of one earbud, so that I am aware of sounds around me,” she says.
A member of Team RWB, Dianne Sarver of Center Township, Beaver County, typically won’t run alone when she’s training for a race. If she can’t find a buddy to run along with her, she says, “I won’t run after dark and I always carry pepper spray.”
Luke Snyder of Youngwood, a USATF certified coach and partner in the Gingerbread Man Running Co. in Hempfield, can certainly empathize with these women’s stories.
He recounts a terrifying day while a student at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. He was on his way out of Mack Park, headed back to campus, when a man in a car started following him, keeping pace. Snyder continued to pick up his pace to try to put some distance between him and the car. The driver made a lewd proposition. “I went from an easy 10-minute (mile) pace to a 5-minute to a full-on sprint through a busy intersection to get away,” he says.
Snyder is happy to offer advice to runners in his shop: “I’m an advocate for doing whatever makes you safe — whether it be carrying mace or a small key chain that doubles as a weapon. I want to help runners find a middle ground. I don’t want to instill fear, but runners must be aware of their surroundings.”
While she’s heard a few catcalls here and there, she’s been lucky to never have had any bad experiences in her 44 years of running, says Betsy Magovern, an O’Hara Township coach and advisory committee member with the Steel City Road Runners Club.
“It’s unfortunate we have to think about it, but we must be vigilant and we must be aware,” Magovern says. “We have the ‘it’ll never happen to me’ mentality, but you really just have to pay attention all of the time.”
Devices can add peace of mind
To that end, Rachel Bankaci of Latrobe switched to AfterShokz. The bone induction headphones have an open-ear design and allows the wearer to hear what’s happening around them while still listening to music.
“I know some women carry whistles. I always carry my phone. I’ve also heard of a product called run angel, which I considered getting after hearing about attacks last summer,” she says.
“Run angel is a personal safety wrist wearable that emits a 120dB alarm when activated, and pairs with smartphone devices over Bluetooth to send out emergency alerts by SMS and email to ‘guardians’ showing your location,” says David Caren, co-founder of the wearable technology company based in Cork, Ireland.
“When my wife and run angel co-founder, Ellen, took up running I guess my protective instinct kicked in and we researched what was available to a runner which could deter an attack and alert passerbys,” he adds. “The alarm can also be triggered directly from the app and silent alerts can be sent to your guardians without the alarm sounding on the device.”
What are some best practices and habits to get into before you head out?
“Definitely notify a friend or loved one of when you leave and let them know your anticipated return and route. There are many GPS apps for your loved ones to track your progress,” says Trooper Stephen Limani, public information officer for the PSP’s Greensburg barracks. “Always have pepper spray and know how to use it.”
Bill Viola, owner/instructor of Viola Karate in North Huntingdon, reminds women to “trust your gut. It’s your barometer. If you feel something is creepy or doesn’t feel right — get away.”
He adds women must let go of normal politeness and manners if they find themselves threatened.
“You have two God-given hammers — elbows and knees. All bets are off — jab a finger to the eye, go for the soft tissue — groin, nose, eyes,” Viola advises.
He recommends a few workshops to help women build mental and physical confidence, as well as a sense of empowerment. “A predator is looking for an easy victim. He’s not looking for a struggle,” Viola says.
Sarah Fullmer of Unity, a Road Runners Club of America certified coach and marketing and special events/race director for Gingerbread Man Running Co. in Hempfield, offers this advice: “Running with friends or a group, such as Run Greensburg, is the best scenario. I always advise runners to not run with music. Not only does it help you be more in tune with your breathing and pace, earbuds can pose a safety threat. Running with music is distracting and can make you more vulnerable to an attack. If you must run with music, invest in bone conduction earbuds.
“I encourage runners who are alone or who are running on remote roads or trails to carry pepper spray. Not only is this helpful to fend off an attack by a person but it also keeps bears or other wildlife at bay,” she says.
Fullmer’s final suggestion: Always, always run with your cellphone fully charged, with the location services turned on.
The harsh reality is, even when women do everything “right”— no headphones, running in daylight, carrying pepper spray, sticking to well-populated areas — they’re still attacked, assaulted and killed, Ringler says.
“While it is important that people know how pervasive harassment is for female runners, it is also critical that we tell women: you belong here and the chances of an attack are actually very small. So lace up, figure out what makes you comfortable and hit the pavement. There’s power there,” she says.
Jonna Miller is a Tribune-Review features editor. You can contact Jonna at 724-850-1270, [email protected] or via Twitter .