Women, Running and the Threat of Assault – Heidi MacDonald

So, who remembers this photograph?

The woman in the photo wearing bib number 261, is Kathrine Switzer, and she was the first woman to run the Boston Marathon in 1967. When this photograph was being taken, race official Jock Semple was attempting to physically remove her from the race. Women were just seen as simply “too fragile” to complete a full marathon.

It wasn’t until 1972 that women were officially invited to participate in the Boston Marathon. This was 49 years ago. So what’s changed since then?

Well, if we judge by a photograph, a lot. Check out the September 2016 cover of Runner’s World magazine:

Big difference in less than 50 years, no?

I ran a Google Search on Runner’s World magazine covers, and I was struck by how often a woman graced its cover.  Our buying power in the marketplace, especially with regards to sporting goods, has certainly exploded since that infamous photo of 1967’s Boston Marathon. Forbes has reported that women make up for 85% of consumer buying power in the US.


All of this sounds great, and it certainly can be used as a rallying cry of girl power. I, myself, am an avid runner. I ran my first marathon two years ago and earlier this year tried out a 50k race. There are pics on my FB page of me in Spartan races in Spandex, with smudges of dirt on my face, shoes caked in mud. Challenges that push me mentally and physically are a siren call to me wanting to test my true grit. Most people think I’m crazy to put myself through such an uncomfortable experience. I’m ok with people not understanding that.

But there is another side to running that women must grapple with – and that is our safety.

I’m often told by my adoptive mom, “you need to be careful when you go running alone!” To which of course, I roll my eyes and say, sure. My self defense and MA background is kind of forgotten in those conversations. But she does have valid reason to worry. And not only because of my gender. I am deaf with a cochlear implant. I sometimes go running in silence on the back country roads of northern Vermont and Quebec’s Eastern Townships. It’s peaceful, and it’s often the part of my day where I’m not getting pulled in a dozen different directions by my 3 jobs, my writing, my grad school applications, my races, and so on.

I go running alone because I usually don’t know anyone who’s willing to go running with me early in the morning. I can’t simply wait around to go run until I find someone who will go with me. To me, that’s a time-waster.  My life and my brain tend to run at warp speed. Only natural that my feet do too.

My mom has some basis to be concerned. Running in quiet – I am not going to hear a car come up behind me, slowing down, following me. If I trip and fall, there will not be a fellow runner to help me up. If i get injured on a run, I can’t call for help, as I don’t carry a cell phone. There are issues and prospective dangers for me, and it does cross my mind every time I lace up my beloved Asics Gel.

But I also have this irritating thought…”I never hear someone telling a man to be careful and safe when he goes out for a run…”

It’s true though, right? How often have you ever heard someone saying that to a guy?

The fact of the matter is that women are still seen as the more vulnerable population, even in this 21st century age of smartphones and never-ending Twitter tweets and Facebook selfie postings.

And the media likes to focus on those discrepancies, big time. Especially if they’re of a violent, sensational nature.

A few that stood out to me recently: This summer, Google employee, Vanessa Marcotte died this summer when she went out for a morning jog. She was found murdered in the woods, a half-mile from her home.


Another woman this summer was sexually assaulted and murdered not far from her home as well.


These women were beautiful, vivacious, and should not have met the ends of their lives in such violent manners.

There are a few other cases in the news that caught my attention while researching for this article, but the one case I kept thinking about, wasn’t a new case or murder, but a rather old one:

The Central Park Jogger.

I was very young when this was reported on the major news network, but I do remember the constant stream of Dan Rather’s voice and face on our small television set, ominous and frightening. I didn’t understand rape, or sexual violence at the time. But I understood that something very bad happened to a woman.

If you don’t remember the details, here they are: In April of 1989, a young woman who was later identified as Trisha Meili, was assaulted on her evening jog through New York City’s famed Central Park. The details of her assault are horrifying. She was raped, sodomized and beaten to near death. She was found naked, gagged and covered in dirt and blood. She was comatose for 12 days, and not expected to live, due to the extensive nature of her injuries and severe head trauma. However, she did. But she has no memory of the assault itself. Which may be a blessing.


Five men were convicted of the assault. Several years later, their convictions were vacated, when a serial rapist confessed to being the lone assailant, and DNA evidence confirmed his account.

As gruesome and heartbreaking as the cases I list above are, I have to ask:

Are female runners honestly a higher risk group for sexual assaults and murder, or is it just focused and more sensationalized by the media?

It could be both.

There’s not that much out there on statistics involving female runners and violence, and there should be. However, I did find this article from 2013, that asked the same questions currently percolating in my mind.


In 2012, there were 12,765 murders in the US. Only 2,834 were women. But…only 1,557 of those murders were committed by a stranger. So that means that the overwhelming number of murders, were committed by someone the murder victim knew personally. So that could be interpreted to mean that the random sexual assault and murders of female joggers is a rare occurrence, right?

Maybe not. These statistics are from four years ago. Have these numbers changed? Because I am noticing an increase of intense discussion and reporting on social media of sexual assault, like the Stanford rape case. I’m not certain if it’s because of the media’s laser-like focus on violence, or if it’s because women are choosing to no longer be quiet about traumatic events.

And in turn, this is challenging the conversations we’re having about sexual assault. About the root issues of power, control, ego, male privilege.

I feel like this is a conversation that got started in April 1989, but we have neglected to finish the conversation. 27 years have passed, and we are overdue to finish this conversation. Or at the very least, get even more vocal in the debate. The magazine covers of Runner’s world that depicts women in sleek sports bras and tight little shorts, promotes the idea of a world where women can run without fear of harm, of being free to show off her muscles and body. Honestly, if I dressed like that on one of my morning runs, I fear that I would be a target for catcalls and roving male eyes. Talk about uncomfortable. My skin crawls at the thought of such unwanted attention.

Yes, almost 50 years have passed since Kathrine Switzer’s famed run in the Boston marathon, and I do realize that the late 80’s was a different climate for women with regards to the Central Park Jogger case when compared to now, and the Stanford Brock Turner case.

But has it? A Canadian judge in 2014 while presiding over a rape case, scolded the victim in court and asked, “why couldn’t you just keep your knees together?”

I honestly want to know, what the hell, if anything, has changed? Have things improved for the better, or worse? And I want to see statistics that back it up, not just read heartbreaking stories of beautiful young women found mutilated and raped in woods near their homes. These women had families and left behind grief-stricken parents, spouses, partners, small children.

I don’t want these stories to make me pause while lacing up my shoes for a morning run, and wonder if that will ever be me. If somebody will one day find my body in a ditch on a back country road, and someone will call my father with the worst news of his life.

Just because I’m a woman running alone, and that makes me a vulnerable target.

I want answers and concrete statistics to tell me, do I have something to worry about? Or is the media just sensationalizing the few female runners who become both victims and headlines?

I don’t want my voice to be the lone voice in the sea, crying for answers, or demanding for changes to the gender perceptions that seem to be at the root cause of male privilege and violence. But I don’t want a discussion to escalate into the gender wars, though. I want a passionate, constructive discussion among those in the running community, as well as a push for new research to either support or dispute what we see, hear, and read in our daily news feed.

So tell me: Am I safe?


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