I remember how I felt when I heard about the disappearance and death of Mollie Tibbets, a 20-year-old college student out running in Brooklyn, Iowa who was killed by a man who pursued and threatened her. This man has since been charged with murder in the first degree.
After the news of Mollie’s death broke, women runners were galvanized to support one another and listen to each other’s stories of harassment and fear while running. Women started using the hashtag #MilesforMollie as a rallying cry and a way to remember Mollie Tibbets. Women of the running community came together to share their experiences, their fury, and their fears.
I felt what I’m sure many other women runners felt at the news of her discovery. Actually, what any woman must have felt. A melting pot of sadness, fear, and anger.
All of these emotions came back again after I heard about the fatal stabbing of Wendy Martinez, a Washington, D.C. resident who was running in the evening in Logan Circle.
This hit particularly close to home, as I live in D.C. and run there often. I love to run, and having that enjoyment marred by the norms of a patriarchal world provoked a flurry of emotions.
I felt scared, thinking of my best friends who still live and run there, and how it could have been any one of us.
I felt sad, thinking of this woman who had her whole life ahead of her.
Then, I felt angry that this fear is a reality for women runners— day or night.
There seems to be this misconception that women are free to be outside whenever they want. That is a lie we tell ourselves, while the unwritten rule— which tells us when, where, and how women are permitted to leave their homes— pervades.
Women runners have to contend with plenty of “what-ifs” whenever going out for a run. According to a Runner’s World survey “Running While Female,” 43 percent of women at least sometimes experience harassment on the run, compared to 4 percent of male runners. Many women responded with their own experiences.
While there are no statistics tracking female jogger deaths specifically, these experiences—as well as stories about girls like Mollie Tibbets— stokes fear in women runners. Even if we don’t let it hinder our running and continue to run outside, the mental burden is heavy.
Women runners are given all sorts of advice to heed off harassment, pursuit, assaults, and attacks.
“Not too late.”
“Don’t go alone.”
“Tell someone where you’ll be.”
“Just run on a treadmill.”
“Change up your running route.”
All of this usually comes from a place of love and concern in the world we live in. I know I take this advice seriously. The idea behind it is that you can’t control the actions of others, but you can avoid danger yourself— if you take certain expected precautions.
However, we all have to reckon with the fact that these statements are usually gendered, and try to change the world that makes them feel like necessary prerequisites to women and girls leaving the house. I remember being out on a night run— not alone, I was with my best friend and a bunch of people knew where we were. While running, we passed plenty of other people enjoying the clear starry night.
Running through the crowd was a man, running alone, with headphones in and his sweatshirt hood up. Somehow, I doubted the warnings issued to every woman runner applied to him.
The tragedies that women runners— and women in general— contend with every day are outrageous. The idea that there are some people who loudly argue that we have reached full equality when, let’s be honest, women can't even go for a jog in their neighborhood without fear of attack, rape, or what happened to Molly Tibbets happening to them. I stiffen up with fear whenever anyone catcalls me or another woman because as women, we know how words can become violent action.
This phenomenon of harassment and violence is not a reality of day versus night— Mollie was running during the day. This is not a situation of alone versus with others— Wendy was in a well-populated area. No matter how many precautions women take, running alone is risky for us.
I believe that this is a matter of misogyny, and generations of programming that is creating the circumstances for women to be harassed and attacked left and right. The sooner we realize that, the sooner we can fully participate in the public sphere.
Since we can’t change the state of the world overnight, however, it’s important for us girls to stick together and watch out for each other. Even though there is only so much you can do to keep yourself safe, listening to certain safety tips is a good idea.
So if you are running alone, tell someone where you’ll be and how long you’ll be gone (and be there when someone needs to tell you where they’ll be). Carry your phone if possible. Run in well-populated and well-lit areas. (Click here for more detailed safety tips).
We need to take this advice now because this is the world we live in. But it doesn’t have to be. And we women need to come together and challenge it, because everyone deserves to feel safe— no matter when or where they are running.