running into danger

At a couple of points, the running seminar at Fleet Feet Sports on Monday was downright nauseating—not because of thoughts of a hard workout but because some us realized we had been making potentially deadly mistakes in our personal safety routine while running. About 50 runners attended the seminar, meant solely for women, at the running specialty store. Laurie McKeel was the speaker, a 10-year police officer who is a homicide detective for Allegheny County, and a veteran of more than 30 marathons (she’s lost count!)

McKeel’s topic wasn’t as much about self-defense as it was about risk reduction. Her goal was to keep us from doing the stupid things that would put us in trouble to begin with. Men were not included because as she says “When do men ever get scared running? They don’t.”

At issue, she says, is a woman’s nature to be suspicious, only to dismiss our fears as silly right when we shouldn’t. Our nature is to help someone who asks for it, even if that person is Ted Bundy, ready to shove us in the back of a van. (Chilling moment No. 1 in the seminar).

Most importantly, she said, listen to your intuition. If something doesn’t look right, it probably isn’t. At the very worst, you worried for nothing, but better to worry than to ignore the obvious.

She gave clear tips. Run with other gals if you can, as attacks on groups are rare. Fleet Feet has a running group; find friends on Facebook who want to go with you. Run in daylight if you can, with mornings tending to be the safest time. Wear bright colors. If something happens to you, people will remember seeing you if you were wearing dayglo shorts.

Be especially careful in parking lots. Park under lights and never park next to suspicious vehicles, especially vans, where someone could be waiting for you.

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This is obviously exaggerated. But give away too much information and you could be issuing a similar invitation.

Vary your routine. Do not announce on Facebook where you are running. Wait until you get back to share. (Panic moment No. 2 for me. I had posted a picture of a very remote but pretty spot during a recent run giving potential attackers my exact location.) She reminded people who have 700 friends on Facebook that they probably didn’t know them ALL very well. Most attackers are not strangers. (Panic moment No. 3).

Single women who just ended a relationship are at the biggest risk. It is MOST important for those women to mix up their schedules and go to different places at different times.

Once you’re out there on the run, don’t make yourself appear to be a “soft target,” she says. People who want to harm random women are looking for the easy hit—someone who is not aware of her surroundings. For those of us who like to “check out, mentally” on our runs, that message hit home. Ditch the iPod, or at the very least, use only one earbud. Look around you constantly. Check over your shoulders. And run against traffic so drivers can see you. Don’t overload your flashy gadgets—letting someone see your iPod and juicy phone can signal you’re an easy theft target.

Always carry some form of ID. (I use the RoadID——a bracelet with room for emergency contact information and a little medical info. I also gave one to my kid—perfect for when he’s at Kennywood or at the park with his friends.)

Always carry your cell phone and do NOT put it in airplane mode. If something happens to you, police can pinpoint your exact location using the phone’s GPS. If you dial 9-1-1, even if you don’t say a word, dispatchers will send help to you.

I asked her about saying “Hi” to people you encounter while running, something I always do unless the runner is in the zone. Does that make me look like I’m an easy target or does that let them know “I see you and I’m aware of you?” She said most people in that case are out there doing the same thing I’m doing. They’re running. They’re not likely to be the ones looking to cause trouble. She said to keep eyes open for loiterers—people who look like they shouldn’t be where they are, just standing around. On the trail, she tends to avoid people who sit on the benches and smoke. With those people, make eye contact but ignore them.

When choosing your location, be smart. You can tell from news reports where the dangerous areas are in Pittsburgh. Wide trails are usually safe, she said, because you can see people approaching you and you can turn around if things don’t look right. If you’re out of town on business, ask the hotel front desk staff for a safe place to run or call a local running store.

Runners’ pepper spray comes with a strap and a safety catch.

If someone does approach you, your first tool is to run away. Always use your flight response instead fight response when you can. But if you are simply exhausted or can’t outrun him, use your voice. Yell “No” or “Get away from me!” Don’t just scream, because bystanders could think it’s just people horsing around. If he does put a hand on you, fight back. Never, never let someone take you to a second location because you won’t make it back alive. The room fell silent when she said that.

As for fighting techniques, women are often taught to use their legs but runners may have pretty tired gams. After a 16-mile training run last week, she said she could barely step up to the curb. So kicking an attacker in the ‘nads as we are often told to do would not have been effective and puts you at risk for being caught off balance. The best place to hit an attacker is in the face. Scratch his eye, poke him, and when he goes to cover his eyes, he has let go of you. Run away. Or use the heel of your hand, punch him in the nose in an upward strike. Run away. If you do have to use your legs, kick him in the knees (they’re lower than the family jewels and you won’t be as likely to fall.) Run away. Biting is also helpful. If an attacker is behind you, use your elbow. It is very strong and causes a lot of pain. Then run away. Bottom line: do not stay and exchange punches.

Carry pepper spray, which also can be used against aggressive animals. I was bitten by a dog on a run once and while I probably wouldn’t have sprayed him, it’s likely his owner would have taken action to pull her dog back had she seen I had Mace. As it was, she thought it was kind of cute that he used my arm as a chew toy.

McKeel’s last word was that you have the same chance of being attacked as winning the lottery. Even though it is rare, it’s too big a chance to take if you can avoid it.

The Post-Gazette’s Gretchen McKay wrote a story on the Pittsburgh Marathon’s safety program. Read it here.


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