My dad made me wear it. It was neon orange and yellow with big reflective stripes on the front and back. It went over my head and attached on the sides with velcro. In the winter, I pulled it over my puffy Chicago Bears jacket and ran out the door in sweat pants and long underwear. If it was really cold and slushy, I wore plastic bags over my socks inside my shoes (sometimes I still do!).
I was 16 years old and a pretty serious runner. I grew up in the Chicago suburbs and the winters were rough, especially when the sun set early. But I was committed so even when I got home late from swim practice or a school activity, I still wanted to run. Sometimes it was so cold my nose hairs would freeze. Those are the days I remember most because they proved that running has always been my choice, regardless of the weather, my mood, or my schedule. No matter what, I always feel better after I run and sometimes that knowledge is all it takes to get out the door.
That vest was a security blanket. Even though I pretended to be annoyed to have to wear it, the vest made me feel safe. 30 years ago, feeling safe meant being seen because the biggest threat was being hit by a car that might not see me. Today feeling safe while running has taken on a whole new meaning.
Fear is an important emotion. It allows us to identify threats. Most fear is learned through our culture and environment. For instance, I wasn’t born afraid of snakes, but I scream bloody murder every time I see a snake (or a stick that looks like a snake) because I know that some snakes are venomous, even though I also know the odds of dying from a venomous snake bite are very low. But there’s just something about snakes that freaks me out.
Obviously fear doesn’t have to be rational to be real. As we grow up and read about random freaky things that happen, the seeds of fear are planted, potentially robbing us of the ability to enjoy beautiful activities like running that originally allowed us sweet freedom. In honor of National Running Safety month, I decided to survey a group of women runners to learn more about just how safe they feel while running.
Of the 241 women runners who I surveyed, 80% say that safety fears influence their decisions on where and when to run. This is significant. So I asked them what they’re most afraid of. Here’s how it broke down (they could answer all that applied):
Unleashed pets: 38%
Tripping or falling on rocks: 31%
The results don’t surprise me. While I want to believe that death by mountain lion or grizzly or a big ole Florida gator should be our greatest fear while running, the sad truth is that our fellow humans are the greatest threat. Many women shared stories of running encounters that have forever changed the way they approach the sport.
“Something very precious to me is my morning sunrise run. In order to keep myself safe, I’ve changed my work hours in the fall so it’s not so dark when I run, I carry pepper spray, I don’t wear headphones. I’m like a secret service agent with my head constantly on a swivel, scanning my environment for threats. My ears are tuned in for any sound that might be somebody coming up behind me. I can’t listen to motivating music or an inspirational podcast for fear that I might not hear something. I’ve had to make decisions when I see someone coming towards me on a trail. Are they just another sunrise lover who is out savoring the best part of the day like me and I keep running towards them or are they a threat and I turn and run the other way. I’ve rerouted runs and cut runs short due to circumstances I perceived as a threat to my safety. I don’t run alone in the woods or on secluded trails, which are some of the most beautiful places to run.
Heaven forbid I let myself fall into that lovely meditative zen like state that running gives me, for fear I will not hear or see something that is a threat to me. It kind of makes me angry.”
— Ellen B
“I run at 5 am in my neighborhood and to the local high school (1.5 miles away). I have done it for years without any issue. Two years ago I was stalked. I am always very aware and knew that a car was following me and turning around to come the other direction at me. My gut instinct told me to cross the street to avoid this car which I did. The car attempted to make contact with me two more times. I realized that my headlamp was making it very easy to find me. I no longer run with a headlamp and carry a flashlight bar instead. I have never had another incident. I did report it to police but it did not stop me from running alone at 5 am.”
— Kelley M
“I was attacked by a dog while running on a country road near my house when I was about 5 months pregnant. The dog owner watched me try to fend off this vicious dog while it tried biting me in the leg; I bopped it with my water bottle and eventually outran it. Luckily, it didn’t break the skin. This man watched and smirked, like I deserved it or something! I was so shaken up, I didn’t do anything else until I told my husband later, and he urged me to report it. I’ve had unleashed dogs approach me since, and since then I’ve carried pepper spray on every run.”
— Jennifer B
How do we keep running when most of us have a story about something that has made us feel uncomfortable out there? I believe that the foundation for safe and enjoyable running starts with listening to your natural instincts. As long time runner Samalee A says, “It’s important to pay attention to those moments when you get the “heebie-jeebies:” Women were designed with that innate sense of caution!” I agree with Samalee. I think that as runners, we have learned to listen to our bodies in a more intuitive way than people who don’t exercise at this level. Listening to your gut is both physical and psychological. When something in your head raises an alarm, you’ll often feel it in your body. Your hairs may raise, your heart rate may increase, you may simply feel more alert. Don’t ignore these feelings; they happen so that you can immediately assess how realistic the potential threat may be.
In addition to listening to your gut, we can also take practical precautions to be smarter, safer and more visible out there. Let’s start with what you’re wearing. We’ve come a long way since the reflective vest. When you’re running at night, grab some reflective clothing, LED lights, a headlamp or whatever else will help cars see you in the dark. Skirt Sports (the women’s athletic wear brand I founded in 2004) offers four styles made from fully reflective fabric that also keeps you warm and dry, two of those items are accessories that you can take off when the sun comes up and stash in your pockets. Carry something that will buy you some time if attacked: pepper spray, safety alarm, a whistle. Check out Newton Running’s awesome November Safety promo – they’re giving a free personal alarm with every woman’s shoe purchase. Take a self-defense class. Watch a TED talk on staying safe. Learn what to do when you see dangerous wildlife. Arm yourself with knowledge and skills. And above all else, be aware of your surroundings.
On my end, I’ve seen a naked man wearing only shoes and carrying a buck knife galloping down the Hall Ranch trail. I’ve stepped within an inch of a rattlesnake. I’ve seen fresh, blood-soaked deer limbs still steaming on the snow. I’ve felt the hairs on the back of my neck rise on sketchy bike paths in foreign towns with shadows in every corner. I’ve turned around in my tracks when mama bear saw me coming and her baby was in a tree. I’ve limped home on an ankle the size of a grapefruit after rolling it on the smallest stone on the trail.
Through it all, I have had close encounters, but I’ve never been attacked or injured by another person or animal (rocks don’t count as people or animals). I think back to my old security blanket, my trusty reflective vest, and the sense of safety it brought me. The joy of freedom and running can still be yours – the trick is to identify your security blanket and take it with you on every run.