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I Was Groped While Running and Yes It's a Big Deal

Cynthia Steele

With the scent of steaks grilling, the sound of kids playing, and flowers coming into full bloom, it was a perfect spring evening in Germantown, Maryland. I couldn't think of a better way to enjoy it than with a run through my neighborhood, so I strapped my 2-year-old son into his jogger stroller, laced up, and headed out. Everything was lovely for the first 3 miles, but then something so ordinary—a kid on a bike—led to something so awful—me sitting at the police station with a sketch artist. And it changed how I run forever.

I barely even noticed the teenager as he whizzed past me on his bike. I had stopped on the sidewalk to help my son with his snack, and was in a rush to get home before it got dark. But rather than continuing on his way, the teen stopped and looked back at me—almost as if he were waiting for me. I'd never seen him before, so I didn't think much of it as I settled my son into his seat and started running again. But as I maneuvered around him, it happened.

He groped me. In broad daylight. With my toddler right there.

It wasn't just an accidental brush as I passed a stranger on a small sidewalk. It wasn't a swat or a pat or even a light smack on my butt. It was a full-on, two-handed grab. It happened so fast that, for a split second, I felt nothing but confusion. But it was so sexually aggressive and intentional that my confusion quickly segued into anger. I screamed at the boy and he was off like a shot, rounding the corner before I could even reach my phone to snap a picture of my assailant. (Here's the psychology on street harassment—and how you can stop it.)

Instinct took over and I bolted after him, pushing my son faster than he'd ever been pushed before. I yelled the whole way, asking other people if they'd seen which way he'd gone. In hindsight that wasn't the best idea, but I wasn't thinking clearly. I was just so angry. Eventually I realized I was never going to catch a teenager on a bike, especially not while pushing a stroller, so I gave up the search and took my son home.

Once the anger cleared, I realized just how shaken up I was. While I was really lucky that nothing worse happened, I still felt violated, vulnerable, and weak instead of confident and strong. I wasn't sure if I should call the police—I wasn't physically hurt and worried they would think I was making a big deal out of nothing. But then it occurred to me that he could do the same thing to another woman out running, which is sadly the harsh truth about running safety for women. I made the call and, sure enough, there were similar reports from other women in my area who'd been groped by a teen on a bike. The next day I went in to the police station to help a sketch artist create an accurate picture that could be posted around my neighborhood. (I made the right call—just because you're a woman and a runner doesn't mean it's OK to be harassed.)

Even though some might think that "nothing really happened," I remain affected by this—and it's been two years. They never caught the teen, which is a big source of my ongoing fear and frustration. Regardless of that, though, the fact is that I was physically and sexually violated by a stranger in a place where I should have felt safe. That isn't something you just "get over." It took me months to want to run at all, much less go outside to hit the trails. When I do go outside, I'm very careful about running alone or in the dark. I'm leery of strangers and go out of my way to avoid men as I run by. I've ditched my headphones, but never leave without my phone. And in case of an emergency, I wear a Road ID tag that identifies me and includes vital medical information. (Make sure you know what to do to prevent an attack—and what actions can help save your life.)

But the important part is this: I'm still running. I'm a triathlete and a mom of three, so I'm used to doing difficult, painful things. While this has been a new type of challenge, I am determined to conquer it. I am not going to let one horrible person stop me from doing what I love, even if he has changed how I do it.

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