Runners across the country are speaking up on social media in the wake of the death of Tennessee runner and mom Eliza Fletcher. The 34-year-old was kidnapped and killed during an early morning run on Sept. 2.
Several runners have shared their own terrifying stories of near-abductions, along with outrage that women can’t feel safe while running outside alone.
Marathoner Emily Abbate revealed that she’s “hyper aware” of her safety when she runs after a man stole her purse when she was walking alone late at night. Abbate, who wrote that she no longer runs before 6 a.m. and avoids going down side streets, shared her frustration that what brings her “so much peace” — running — also feels “dangerous at times” because she’s a woman.
Ali Feller, host of the Ali on the Run Show podcast, spoke out about the “horrifying” victim-blaming taking place in the wake of Fletcher’s death and said she’s “finally too scared” to do an early morning run because of Fletcher’s death.
News reporter Simone de Alba reacted to Fletcher’s killing on Facebook, writing: “This is a horrific reminder that women STILL cannot take their safety for granted.” She also expressed outrage over reactions from some people who say that Fletcher shouldn’t have been running at 4:30 a.m. “The correct question is WHY can’t women go for a run without fear of being ABDUCTED or KILLED?” she wrote. “Until then, all we can do is protect ourselves and minimize risk.”
Many have shared fears that this could have been them or someone they know who simply tries to squeeze in a run before work or before their children wake up. “Situations like these are absolute tragedies and remind us that the world is not a safe place,” Lyndsay Volpe-Bertram, section chief of psychology at Spectrum Health West Michigan, tells Yahoo Life. “We often go through our daily lives not thinking that bad things can or will happen to us. When we see and hear about losses like Eliza, it reminds us that the world can, in fact, be a bad place, and we are not infallible.”
The news can also cause what’s known as vicarious trauma, which is “trauma sustained through witnessing or being exposed to a traumatic event involving another person, particularly one with shared interests or values,” Joshua Norman, clinical assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral health at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, tells Yahoo Life. Meaning, fellow runners and moms may actually be traumatized by the news of Fletcher’s death.
“We recognize our vulnerability — if this can happen to her, then it can happen to us,” Volpe-Bertram says.
Some people try to dismiss those feelings by telling themselves that “if we say or do the right things, we will be fine” or that “someone else ‘did something wrong,’ which led a trauma to happen to them,” Volpe-Bertram says. But, she adds, these are simply coping mechanisms. “Unfortunately, these terrible situations often happen for no good reason and are no ‘fault’ to the person that they happened to,” she says. “This shakes our sense of wellbeing and sense of safety in our environment and activities.”
Volpe-Bertram says that it’s important to be aware of risk and “stay vigilant” to potential threats. However, she says, “we also cannot allow the possibility of risk to prevent us from living and enjoying our lives. If we did, we would never leave our homes.”
If you feel that you’re experiencing vicarious trauma in the wake of Fletcher’s death — you’re scared to run, even in the daylight, you’re having trouble leaving your house alone or you can’t stop thinking about what happened — Volpe-Bertram recommends reminding yourself that, while bad things are possible, they are not always likely to happen. “We can take steps to keep ourselves and others safe and still run or take part in the things that we love,” she says. “It is important to think about our safety and how we would want to react in a dangerous situation — this could help better prepare us if something might happen.”
But, Volpe-Bertram says, it’s about “finding that balance of being prepared, but not being hypervigilant or ruminating.” She also recommends allowing yourself some grace. “Give yourself at least some time to adjust and process what has happened and how it affects you, then slowly start to push yourself to pick your routine back up again,” she says. If you’re still struggling, talking to a licensed mental health professional can help.
It can also be comforting to take additional safety precautions, Norman says, even though experts recognize this isn’t fair for women. “It’s important to note that experiencing dangerous situations and/or criminal activity while running are never the fault of the runner,” Doug Sklar, founder of New York City’s PhilanthroFit and head coach of the varsity cross country and track and field programs at New York City’s Dwight School, tells Yahoo Life. “In a perfect world, we’d all be able to run, travel, walk and simply live without the fear of being attacked or assaulted.”
Sklar also adds that it’s “highly unfortunate” that women may need to take any extra safety measures. “However, in reality, we all need to take precautions to minimize risk factors and preserve our own safety and well-being,” he says.
Again, you can do everything right and still be a victim, and attacks on runners are never their fault. But if you want to try to take extra precautions, Sklar recommends doing the following “whenever possible and practical”:
Run in groups
Pay attention to your surroundings, and give yourself the best chance to do so. “This may mean running without headphones or, at a minimum, one open ear to hear what’s happening around you,” he says.
Start and finish your run in daylight.
Inform others exactly where you are running and when you expect to return.
Run in familiar areas and neighborhoods, but mix up your route to make it hard for someone to track your patterns.
Make every effort to avoid isolated areas.
Consider a small, personal keychain alarm. “Be aware that while these may help in reasonably populated areas, they will be largely ineffective in isolated, secluded locations,” Sklar says.
Sklar also suggests listening to your gut. “If it doesn’t feel right to run in an area, avoid it,” he says. “The extra mile is not worth sacrificing your personal safety.”
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