Running Safe: When You Don't Feel Safe

This is Part One of a Two-Part Series articles and the perspective of Pam Berg, a long-time runner:

I have been a runner my whole life, and have been doing serious distance training for almost a dozen years. Living in a quiet and relatively small community, I have almost always felt safe doing what I love. Running, for me, has always been a way to relieve stress.

Some people run because they love the thrill of competition and they race at every chance they get. Me? Sure, I pin on a race bib occasionally, but that isn’t really the point for me. For me, it’s something completely different. As I pound the pavement, the stress and worries of the world melt away.

My daughter did not inherit my innate love of running, but she has learned to enjoy it. A young mother of two, she started to run both for exercise and to escape her busy world for a short bit. We go in spurts of talking running and not, racing together and not signing up for anything.

Waukesha schools on lockout, Waukesha schools on lockout

Imagine my surprise when she said to me the other day, “I haven’t been running outside in a bit and I don’t know when I will go again.” I was half-listening and had to ask her to repeat herself when she said, “that woman burned in Waukesha  while walking her dog.”

Glacial Drumlin Trail

When my daughter moved to Waukesha I was thrilled to see the beautiful Drumlin Trail so near to her home. It was quiet, wide enough for a biker and a runner, and she could unwind with her dog. Heck, as her kids got older she bought a trailer for the hand-me-down bicycle I gave her and would take the kids on the trail.

Carolan Garceau
Photo Credit: Carolan Garceau

I was happy they could enjoy nature together and she felt safe with her kids, having no worries about battling traffic with the small people in tow. They bike through her little neighborhood and hop in the trail. Easy peasy. Safe. Quiet.

Violence in Waukesha

And then it happened. A woman was in her safe space with her dogs when a man approached her, doused her with an accelerant and set on fire before he fled. That idyllic, safe space was suddenly violated by violence.

Fortunately, the woman was not far from assistance. She quickly found someone to take control of her beloved pets and get her medical assistance. The suspect was caught a short few hours later.

If catching the person who committed the deed made all right in the world, it would be great. Except it doesn’t. How many people read that article and thought to themselves, “Am I safe here?”

Arkansas Jogger Found Murdered

Sydney Sutherland was a beautiful, full of life nurse who liked to run the quiet roads of Arkansas. A UPS driver saw her running alone between 2:30 and 3:00, a normal occurrence. When she failed to return home, her family grew concerned.

Arkansas jogger murdered, Arkansas jogger murdered

The search started in the evening on Wednesday, August 20th and continued until around 2:00 a.m., Thursday morning. After a few hours rest and some time to regroup and add volunteers, 170 people showed up to search for Sutherland. Her body was found on Friday.

“What Women Should Know” Headline

What captured my attention the most was a headline on ABC News, “Arkansas Woman Killed While Running: What Women Should Know To Stay Safe On a Run Outdoors.” Published in a national running forum I am part of, the woman sharing the post was horrified that the topic was swayed to women’s safety. Her point was that running should be a safe space.

The ABC article highlights recent women killed while running. The list goes on and on: Mollie Tibbetts who was found stabbed to death in Iowa. Vanessa Marcotte, killed while running in broad daylight in Massachusetts. Ally Brueger, shot in the back in Michigan.

As more people exercise outdoors, it seems the stories of violence continue to rise.

I understand the poster’s frustration: women shouldn’t have to think about violence when they exercise outside.

The Day it Hit Me…

Allow me to flashback to summer 2019. I was running at a local park, getting some trail work done. As a woman running alone down quiet trails, I always take precautions. In a city of roughly 11,000 people, I certainly don’t run in a huge metropolis. However, I have always been a cautious runner.

running with headphones

Knowing I was heading out to do trails I donned my brightest outfit so I would be visible through the trees. I put on my Hip Sister with my car key in it. When I added my phone to the second pouch, I spun it around so the phone rested at the small of my back and the key was in the front.

I only put in one cordless headphone, and left the second one in my car. I played music but it was very soft. I made sure I could hear everything going on around me. The trails loop around a park where kids come to play and people disc golf. Ready to go, I started to run, very aware of my surroundings.

A Man’s Perspective

I was roughly 4 miles into the trail looping when I cut back through the main section of the park. A young man was heading from his car to the first tee box. I was coming up behind him so I said, “coming on your left,” so as not to startle him. He did not respond and turned nearly into me.

He stopped quickly, said, “Oh sorry!” smiled, waived and continued his path to the tee box, It hit me: he could not hear me. He was wearing large, over the ear headphones. I could faintly hear music coming from them.

I smiled and continued but as I hammered through my 5th mile I got angry. I shouldn’t have; I mean, it wasn’t his fault. But I was angry nonetheless because he wasn’t worried. He put on his tank top and shorts grabbed his bag, turned on his music and headed outside to enjoy the day. Why? Because he was not worried for his own safety.

The Conversation We Should Not Have To Have

It hit me why I was upset that day, and the thought continues to resonate in me: this is a conversation we should not have to have. Like the poster in my running group, I was upset that as a female, I feel less safe in certain situations. I have a heightened awareness of my surroundings at all times.

My husband reminds me to wear bright colors, encourages me to run in groups, has purchased me light up and reflective safety gear and if I run with music, feels strongly that I only use one earbud.

reflective safety gear

Yesterday, we purchased pepper spray and shipped it directly to both our daughter and daughter-in-law as an added layer of protection when they walk or run in their cities.

I said to my husband, “We shouldn’t have to send our daughters pepper spray to feel safe.”

To which he responded, “We shouldn’t have to lock our doors or teach kids about shooters at school either. The world isn’t the same place we grew up in.”

Being Proactive

We agree that it isn’t fair that women need to follow a set of unwritten rules to ensure they are safe when running, walking or cycling outside. We agree that the world should be a safer place. However, we also understand that if people are proactive it could result in fewer people being hurt.

So when you see part two of our series which focuses on how to keep yourself safe when exercising outside know that we aren’t victim blaming, nor are we implying that running with headphones or alone on a trail means it’s okay for someone to hurt you or make you uncomfortable.

What we are saying is that we value you: each and every one of you. And if taking a few precautions helps our readers stay safe, the effort is worth it.

Please keep an eye out for part two: Safety Precautions Every Runner Should Know.

Woman Set on Fire in Waukesha
Arkansas Jogger Found Murdered Near Her Home

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