A woman in San Antonio, Texas, was running in the wee hours of the morning when she noticed a car pass slowly by before coming to a stop a few feet in front of her, engine idling. It was still dark outside, and she was alone. Thinking quickly, she stopped in her tracks, grabbed her phone, and called the police while taking in the details of the car. When the driver realized what she was doing, he sped away. She was lucky. Other women have not been so fortunate. Recent headlines told the heartbreaking story of Eliza Fletcher, a school teacher and young mother who was abducted and killed while running in the early morning hours in Memphis, TN. The blurry video of Fletcher being hustled into an SUV by her attacker struck sadness, fear, and anger in the hearts of female runners everywhere, including me.
As a Memphis native, a mother of two boys, and an avid runner, Fletcher’s story hit especially close to home. I run to blow off steam. I run to clear my head. I run to let my mind wander and to problem-solve. There have been days I’ve run before dawn or in the early evening hours to “fit it in.” I try to run with a group, but I also run alone more than I should because, like so many other women, I never think it could happen to me. But the hard truth is, it can, and it does.
No woman (or man) deserves to be attacked, period. We should be able to run where we want, when we want, without worrying about the unthinkable. However, the world repeatedly reminds us that this is not the case. So what can we do to protect ourselves from would-be attackers? Detective Benjamin Garcia (who also happens to be an ultra-marathoner) says the best defense is a strong offense.
“Project confidence and self-awareness,” he advises. “That’s a big deterrent for someone who is seeking to do you harm.”
Other tips that Garcia says can deter an attacker and save your life include:
- Looking up! One of the biggest mistakes women make is looking down at their phones or feet while walking or running. Keep your head up and pay attention to your surroundings.
- Ditching the ponytail. Put your hair up in a bun while running. It is much harder for an attacker to grab than a ponytail.
- Running without music. You need to be able to hear if someone is running up behind you. If you must have music, use only one earphone.
- Double knotting your shoelaces. Stopping to tie your shoes puts you in a vulnerable position and makes you a sitting duck for an attacker.
- Taking your dog. If you can’t run with a buddy, a dog is the next best thing, especially if it looks like its bite is worse than its bark.
- Varying your path. If you take the same path every day and a would-be attacker is watching you make it very easy to know when you will be passing by. Change your route occasionally.
- Leaving a trail. Let people know where you will be running. Post your plans and your route on social media. Link your Garmin or Strava tracker, and always take your phone (just don’t stare at it—see #1). Consider purchasing a tracker that can slide into your pocket. If someone grabs your phone, you will still be traceable.
- Sticking to well-lit or highly populated areas. You are less likely to be attacked when there’s a good chance someone will see.
Fight Like A Girl
These are all excellent ways to protect yourself from would-be attackers, but nothing is foolproof. If the unthinkable happens, what can you do to maximize your chances of survival? This is where the best defense becomes self-defense. Jeremiah Koch specializes in this area, applying his 11 years of Mixed Martial Arts experience to help women overcome their fears and become more comfortable in their ability to fight back. He explains that the purpose of the training is not to overpower or take down the attacker but to throw the attacker off-guard in order to break away and get help.
“You’ve got to learn to react just as fast as the attack,” he says. “You can’t be a deer in the headlights.”
Through his classes, Koch teaches women to attack the “soft spots” of the attacker, i.e., the eyes, ears, nose, mouth, throat, solar plexus/stomach, and groin. A good knee to the groin, finger to the eye, or fist to the throat can buy you precious seconds that can be the difference between life and death.
Women also have a couple of unique advantages when fending off an attacker. The first is their voices.
“When a woman yells or shouts, no matter what anyone else is doing, they will always stop to see why she’s making so much noise,” says Garcia.
The second is the set of ten weapons every woman carries with her at all times: her fingernails. Garcia says that scratching and clawing at the attacker should be an immediate reaction.
As for real weapons such as mace, tasers, knives, or even guns, both Garcia and Koch say that unless you are properly trained and have practiced repeatedly, they can do more harm than good.
“The key point I must get across with weapons is practice, practice, practice,” cautions Garcia. “If you are not practicing and becoming proficient with that particular weapon, you may as well be handing it over to your attacker.”
The Finish Line
The bottom line is that fear should not keep you from living your life. Whether you are running the trails or walking to your car after work, move confidently and with a purposeful stride. Keep your head up, your shoulders back, and your eyes moving. If you encounter someone who makes you uncomfortable or you find yourself in a situation that feels “off,” don’t be afraid to speak up, go the other way, or call for help. If you are wrong, you will only be embarrassed for a moment. If you are right, you may have just saved your own life.