Just over a week has passed since I read a blog post titled, “Talk to a Man About Rape” over at Plain Jane Activism, and I’ll be damned if I didn’t actually experience this kind of situation last night while I was doing my weekly Wednesday night run. Luckily, everything was fine; I was safe and smart, and I clearly didn’t end up dead in a ditch or at the bottom of the lake. So, I thought it might be a good time to discuss ways we can stay safe when we run. I’m still quite newb-ish as a runner, so many of these tips may reflect my inexperience. In that case, I welcome your own suggestions and what works for you. Many of these tips apply to anyone exercising outside, regardless of gender; but I will get to the gender discussion as we go along.
This first tip applies to all runners (and cyclists & other pedestrians, too!). Wear clothing that is retroreflective, meaning it shines light back instead of absorbing it. Jeans and dark colored clothing just don’t cut it when you’re goal is to be visible on the road. If you’re running or cycling especially, you can buy performance clothing that is both bright and retroreflective. Yes, I know it feels like you’re actually drawing more attention to yourself; you are, and you should be. The first couple of times I wore my running shirts, I felt ridiculous because they actually conform to OSHA highway work standards (not joking one bit). But I’d much rather be visible than end up in parts on the pavement because a vehicle couldn’t see me (which I’ve seen happen more than once in my day job). In addition to clothing, you can purchase lights that you can use to help you see the path ahead as well as lights that you can wear to make yourself even more visible. Making sure people can see you is a good first step in staying safe, regardless of your gender.
Be aware of your surroundings.
Just because you’re decked out like a Christmas tree doesn’t mean you can run in the middle of the road with headphones playing at full volume and still expect to be safe. If you’re running (or cycling/walking) around traffic at all, then you need to especially be aware of your surroundings. You should run facing traffic so if a vehicle does come up on you suddenly (usually without the time or distance to see you and stop), at least you’ll have the ability to perceive and react to the potential danger because you can see it coming.
A special note for the cyclists: It should go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: Cyclists are held to the same rules of the road as other motorists (i.e., you don’t get to run red lights or cut through traffic). In contrast with runners and pedestrians, cyclists need to travel with the flow of traffic and use hand signals well in advance to indicate turns. Always wear a helmet, and make sure your reflectors (and lights, if used) are operative and visible. Also, cyclists should never use headphones if they’re going to be in traffic. Cycle smart and stay alive!
Also, stay to the shoulder or edge of the road. It’d be great if we had more sidewalks here in East TN, but the topography makes pedestrian-friendly roadside accommodations both challenging and expensive. So when you’re out there enjoying the active life on roads without sidewalks, stay to the edge. Yes, it’s harder because the edges are more rounded than the lanes are; but this is a relatively small concession to make for the sake of safety.
Use the Greenways, safely.
Here in Knoxville we are quite lucky to have over 50 miles of paved greenway to use for walking, running, and cycling. Since adding running to my exercise regimen last spring, I have thoroughly enjoyed seeing Knoxville in a completely new way from all the different greenways I’ve used. However, sometimes removing the danger of traffic gives us a false sense of security, making runners and others more lax when it comes to safety.
If you’re running solely on the greenway, maybe you don’t need to wear the day-glow orange and yellow clothing with retro-reflective stripes and flashing LED lights. I still think it’s a good idea, but it’s certainly not as necessary. You may not have to worry about oncoming traffic, but that still doesn’t mean you have less concern for being aware of your surroundings. Some rules of the road actually do apply on the greenway. For example, slow pokes should stay to the right. If someone like me, a certified slow poke, were occupying the center of the greenway, I’d quickly and literally be overrun by the other runners. Staying to the right makes it easy for them to pass me.
The same applies with cyclists, but I’ll add that they certainly bring a rowdy element to the greenway environment. Enjoying the greenway as a pedestrian with cyclists requires that you be as alert and aware, as you should be when traveling on the road. Cyclists have the added danger of traveling much faster than other pedestrians travel, and without the protection offered from being enclosed in a vehicle, the potential for injury to both cyclists and pedestrians is quite high. Some of the most gruesome injuries (and even fatalities) that I’ve seen in my day job involve cyclists and pedestrians; so don’t throw caution to the wind just because you think you’re safe away from motor traffic.
Turn down that racket!
If you’re like me (and a lot of others), you like to listen to music while you exercise. This may get and keep you motivated to stay active, but it also makes it more challenging for you to notice when someone may be coming up behind you, be it another runner, cyclist, or a personal threat. I’d love to get to a point where I’m running without music, but until then I am safe about it. I use Yurbuds earphones primarily because they stay in when I’m running. But because they sit so snugly inside my ear canal, I don’t need to listen to my music loudly at all, and this allows me to still hear ambient sounds while running (aside from obviously protecting my ear drums). There are also many other products out there specifically designed to help you safely get your music fix while you exercise—from earmuffs and caps that accommodate your ear phones to personal speakers that don’t go in your ears at all. In fact, because so many of the races I want to do this year have very clear No Headphones policies, I’ll likely be investing in some of those speakers as I get closer to those races.
Women need rules & men need advice.
It’s certainly not fair, but women need to adhere to certain rules when exercising, and men could definitely benefit from knowing that women have to live this way. Mae from Plain Jane Activism identifies many of the things women have to consider when going anywhere alone. Men should know these things so they have a greater understanding of what we have to deal with and so they make sure they don’t take their own independence for granted. Men should also know these things so they understand how they can change their behavior to be less intimidating to women. Instead of constantly going out of our way to stay safe, men can recognize when women are exercising alone and be accommodating; I’m just not sure how to specifically identify those accommodations. I know it may be unrealistic to ask men to do this, but is it any more realistic to live this way just because I’m a woman?
Last Night’s Run
Now’s a good time to explain what happened last night. I was almost in the middle of my 5.5-mile run when I transitioned from the road to the greenway. As I’ve already run 8 miles this week, my shins were bothering me. Most of last night’s run ended up being a walk anyway, and I had just started walking again when I moved onto the greenway.
I passed a man going the other direction and thought nothing of it. I did notice he wasn’t wearing running gear and had on dark jeans, boot-type shoes, and a dark jacket. Still, knowing that the greenway is in a residential area, I just assumed he was out for an evening stroll. After picking up the pace to a light jog, I realized I needed to do some stretching, so I plopped down in the grass to stretch out my shins and tops of my feet; again, not an unusual thing for me to do. But I noticed movement in my peripheral vision, and it was this same man. He’d turned around and was coming back. Still, I thought nothing of it. He was just another person, of many, using the greenway last night, and he was only walking.
After stretching, I started running again. I’ve mentioned here and throughout my blog that I’m quite the slow poke, and at this stage of my newb status, I’m completely okay with that. But I’m not so slow that a person walking will gain on me while I’m running. I know I’m not that slow. So when I glanced back and saw this same man getting closer to me, though I was running and he appeared to be walking, it raised the hackles on the back of my neck. I picked up my pace; and in spite of the growing pain in my shins, I kept running.
Once I saw a couple walking up ahead of me (within hearing distance should I need to scream), I came to a stop. The man behind me was within 150 feet of me, and considering that he didn’t appear to have been running when I looked back, I know he had to have been because he should have been out of sight due to my having just run across several hills. I pulled out my cell phone and called my husband, telling him to stay on the phone with me while I made sure to get closer to the couple up ahead. My beloved knows my regular running route, and he knew exactly where I was on it, should something go awry. As soon as I was on the phone with him, the man quickly cut off to the nearest residential side street on his right. It was such an abrupt decision on his behalf that I told my husband to come and get me right then and there, and I’m grateful that he got to be my Batman, even if nothing really happened. Luckily, he was only about 10 minutes away, which isn’t usually the case on my mid-week runs. All danger was avoided, and it’s entirely possible that this man was completely harmless. But the man creeped me out. I was alone; it was cold and dark; and I just got a bad feeling.
Once we joined our friends and I’d had a beer, the adrenaline of the whole situation had worn off, and our friends were encouraging me to arm myself should I decide to go out on my own again. As a pacifist, I really do have an issue with relying on guns for personal safety, and I hardly know how to use a knife (or other weapon) well enough to keep from injuring myself much less to intentionally injure a would-be assailant. I might benefit from a personal safety course; but having grown up in a rough-and-tumble childhood, I’m not afraid of taking a punch or throwing one. With this strange type of physical confidence, I’ve generally disregarded such classes, but now I’m more seriously considering it.
In the meantime, I’ve decided to hold off on my mid-week run until my husband joins me, which is generally after the group has already started. Since I’m the last one in the group anyway, this won’t matter so much, and I’ll be guaranteed to have an awesome running buddy in my beloved. This plan doesn’t work so well for my weekend long-runs; though, those are daytime runs and generally less creepy all around.
What do you think?
This is where I could use some advice from the running community. Do you run armed (and with what/how?), or are you trained in personal safety? Do you exclusively run with partners to maintain safety? And men, what do you think I could have done differently? Do you think the man was a threat? Though I should add, it may not have been a threat to a man, but it definitely was to a woman. What do you (men) think you could do when you see women exercising outside alone to not seem threatening? I’ll say I’ve only been frightened like that once before, and it was only due to the location of the park and my being there once it got dark—not because I actually encountered a scary person.
I’m determined to not let my gender be a weakness; and it definitely won’t stop me from running alone, but last night’s run gave me a lot to consider as a woman and as a runner.