Would you know what to do if you ended up in a scary situation on the trail or the road? A former Secret Service agent weighs in on how women can best exercise outdoors safely
It was noon on a bright, sunny day—the opposite of how most horror stories start—but as Jeanette Jones headed out for her daily run, she had no idea her life was about to turn into a nightmare. Jogging through her quiet neighborhood, the 39-year-old Austin woman barely noticed the young man parked on the other side of the road. But he noticed her, then moved ahead several blocks before hiding and waiting for her.
"He came running around the corner of a house and just tackled me in the street," she says. "I immediately fought back, kicking and screaming so loudly that people down the street heard me in their homes."
After a few minutes of wrestling, her attacker realized she wasn't going to be an easy target and ran away. Jones, never losing her head for a second, managed to memorize his license plate number. A woman who'd seen the attack helped her call the police, who quickly apprehended the man 20 minutes later. The already-upsetting encounter became downright chilling when detectives said he'd confessed to wanting to drag her into the nearby woods to rape her.
Jones' attacker got 10 months in jail, but he wasn't convicted of attempted rape or kidnapping. "Even though I just had some scrapes and bruises from the tackle on asphalt, I still feel like I lost about a year of my life to the mental stress and anxiety over the trial and incident," says Jones.
This type of physical attack is scarily starting to sound more like the norm, as several other recent high-profile attacks on female runners have made the news. In July, Mollie Tibbetts, a University of Iowa student, went missing after leaving for a run, and her body was discovered in a cornfield weeks later. Now, news is spreading about Wendy Karina Martinez, a 34-year-old from D.C. After leaving for a jog, she stumbled into a restaurant with stab wounds that ended up being fatal. These types of stories have left women feeling on edge. According to a survey from Wearsafe Labs, 34 percent of females feel afraid while exercising alone.
That feeling is warranted, as Rich Staropoli, a former Secret Service agent and security expert, says that while physical assaults are statistically rare, verbal assaults are much more common. "In my experience, I don't know a woman of any age who hasn't been catcalled, propositioned, or just made uncomfortable with inappropriate remarks, gestures, or sounds while just trying to get some outdoor exercise," he says. (Read next: I'm a Woman and a Runner: That Doesn't Give You Permission to Harass Me)
Staropoli is right—when SHAPE asked women for personal stories of their own dangerous encounters while out running, we were quickly inundated with messages. And just because verbal assaults happen more often doesn't mean they aren't upsetting in their own right. Amy Nelson, a 27-year-old from Lacey, Washington, recalls being chased by a drunk man yelling crude remarks at her while on a run. While he was too intoxicated to chase her more than half a block, Nelson says it scared her into rethinking her running strategies. Kathy Bellisle, a 44-year-old from Ontario, Canada, remembers a man following her on her daily runs until she made a public scene and threatened to call the police. He left her alone after that, but she remains nervous about running at night, regularly changes her route, and takes care to avoid strangers. And Lynda Benson, a 30-year-old from Sonoma, California, says she was stalked by a man in his car for weeks; even though he never spoke to her, it was enough to make her give up her favorite trails.
It's this type of everyday harassment that has women changing their regular routines. Case and point: 50 percent of women say they're too afraid to walk or run at night in their own neighborhoods, according to a Gallup poll, while a survey by Stop Street Harassment found that 11 percent of women prefer to exercise in a gym because they don't feel comfortable exercising outside.
While Staropoli understands that fear, he says women shouldn't be forced into changing their exercise habits because of it. "Statistically, you are very safe exercising outdoors," he says. "But just like any situation when you're on your own, staying aware of your environment and employing some simple strategies for your safety are the keys to continuing to enjoy outdoor activity all year long."
Next time you head out, follow Strapoli's top safety tips:
Listen to your intuition. If something doesn't feel right, do what you need to do in order to feel more comfortable—even if that means crossing the street to avoid someone, or skipping a trail you usually run because it's dark and seemingly empty. (If you can't break your night owl habits, then opt for reflective and bright workout gear that's made for running in the dark.)
Don't let a smartphone give you a false sense of security. If you routinely run alone, try wearing a discreet, easily accessible wearable device (like the Wearsafe Tag). Attackers are aware that most people have a cell phone on them, and it may be tough to access in a struggle, but a device like this may be the unexpected tool that alerts someone you need help.
Run where there are more light and noise. The type of character that's going to harass a woman exercising outdoors is most likely going to be put off by anything that would draw attention to his actions. Street lights are your friend, as are parks that are teeming with people as opposed to empty trails.
Always let someone know where you're going. Not to mention when you plan to be back. That way they'll know to come looking should something go awry.
If you do find yourself in a terrible situation like these other women, follow Jones' lead and fight back, making noise and drawing as much attention to yourself as possible. And while it may be tough, Jones says to try to continue doing what you love—she's still running every day because she says she refuses to let fear rob her of her favorite form of exercise.