Another woman didn’t make it home from a run. The reality of being a runner and a woman can be disheartening and frightening, and that’s before the victim blaming starts. The brutal Tennessee murder of Eliza Fletcher has revived that odious practice, with the standard criticism flowing like predictive text on a phone. Why was she out at 4:30 a.m.? Not carrying mace? Running alone? Wearing just a sports bra?
Female runners need to be safe; they don’t need more shame. Especially when joggers running in daylight — male and female — are also subject to assault. According to data from the FBI, violent crime is often committed during the day and, in fact, tapers off in the early morning.
Not far from me in Philadelphia, runner Bennett Brookstein was stabbed at 8 a.m. this past Christmas while other runners were within eyeshot on a trail I’ve run on many times. Two years ago, Ahmaud Arbery, was murdered in Georgia while running through a neighborhood in broad daylight. In 2018, University of Iowa student Mollie Tibbetts left for her final run around 7:30 p.m., which still allowed for plenty of light in July.
I myself am a daytime runner, unless my friends drag me out before 5 a.m. But that hasn’t spared me from sketchy situations. Most alarmingly, a stranger once tracked me down on my town’s Nextdoor app to tell me how gorgeous I look on runs and how he’d like to join me. I have no idea how he was able to find my profile, since I’m always in a hat and sunglasses while exercising, but Fletcher’s death reminded me that people are watching us even when we don’t realize it.
Yet, after a runner dies, people show up in droves on social media to shake their fingers at the victim’s faulty efforts to stay safe. They seem to believe that thinking two steps ahead will keep them safe at all times, and look down on people who take calculated risks for the things they love. But sometimes there is no sound explanation outside of evil, and that can scare people who cling to the belief that they’re always in control — often overlooking the risks they themselves take every day in a dangerous world.
We can point out the flaws in Fletcher’s routine, and it can make us feel safer to think that she made herself a target. But in the process, we reduce someone like Fletcher, a kindergarten teacher and a mother of two, down to someone who ran at 4:30 a.m. in a sports bra.
At the same time, while it’s absolutely true that women shouldn’t need to worry about where and when we run — and have the right to a safe environment and support in pursuing our personal passions — we also need to acknowledge that that right doesn’t keep us safe. Our beliefs don’t prevent more murders, just as victim blaming doesn’t bring back runners who’ve been attacked such as Fletcher or Tibbetts or Arbery.
Too often with tragic cases such as these, there comes a rejection of any conversations about safety. However, there is space for us to vilify the criminals, not the victims, while also discussing how we can best try to stay safe. All of these things can co-exist.
We should make the time to learn how to defend ourselves and how to flee an attacker. We should purchase rings and keychains that can buy us more time. We should join a local group and find a jogging partner (side benefit: you’ll be less likely to oversleep). Or stick to the treadmill. We can take these extra steps to be able to run when it is most convenient for us.
After all, there’s no denying that even when we take these precautions, runners are at risk. Running is the ultimate solo sport, so a woman jogging is often in more danger to start with than someone participating in team sports. When runners repeat courses, people can take note of our routines. Certain apps will display your routes, and strangers can find out where you live and what time you run if you don’t have the proper privacy settings. Trails attract runners, but they often present more places for people to hide and attack.
Running is also time-consuming; you might need to be on the road for well over two hours to get to double-digit mileage. With constraints such as work and child care, the only time available to run can be before getting ready for work. These early morning routes can be repetitive, since unknown dark roads can put us at risk for injuries.
I personally vary my route almost every day. I keep my playlist on low and wear Shokz bone induction headphones that don’t go in the ear and therefore don’t block out the sounds of traffic or people around me. I use my treadmill or Peloton if it gets too late. I always run with my phone, which has an alert system, and my U.S. Marine husband makes sure I know how to protect myself if I’m attacked.
But I’m also human. There are times when I, like everyone, slightly veer off from my usual safety routine. Sometimes there’s construction, so I swap in my AirPods so I can hear my music better. Sometimes it’s rainy, so I repeat the route I took the day before because I know I will avoid flooding. Sometimes I’m angry and need a rage run through the fresh air, despite the sun being about to set. Sometimes, I make mistakes and tempt chance — but that shouldn’t be a death sentence.
Running is supposed to be freeing, but the rules for doing so safely force us to bow to the toxic parts of our society. While that might be essential for personal protection, it shouldn’t infect the responses to those who are preyed on by that toxicity. Onlookers should honor those we’ve lost like Fletcher instead of finding another way to blame a woman for her own demise. Let’s not let criminals off the hook because a good person fearlessly went out to perform an activity that she loved.