Voices: The shocking precautions female runners like me are being forced to take after Eliza Fletcher’s death

·5-min read

Over the weekend I had that slightly sicky feeling in the pit of my stomach every time I opened my social media apps. I even checked them more often than normal for any news of missing US heiress and kindergarten teacher Eliza Fletcher. The running community on Instagram and Facebook is pretty big. I can’t compare it directly to other sports or activities on social media, but I’d hazard a guess that the running community is one of the biggest global cohorts of active users on there.

I follow fellow runners from all around the globe – from South Africa to Japan, to the US. I’ve never met most of them, but I oddly feel like they’re good friends. Runners are big sharers – from race reports to serious injuries, to fitness tips and major life events. Runners, in fact, seem to me to be one of the most “open” group of users on social media.

So when the news hit that a female jogger had been abducted from a Tennessee street early last Friday morning (we now know that it was Fletcher, a 34-year-old mother of two, and we also know that she was tragically killed) it spread like wildfire amongst the running community on social media. But not purely because this was such shocking and disturbing news. Most people just simply couldn’t believe it had happened – again. Another female runner abducted or assaulted as she went about doing the thing she loved. Sadly, I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve seen news reports of women being attacked while out running in the last few years.

And soon enough, the warnings – and safety precautions – started pouring in. I followed them all on sites like Facebook and Instagram and saw women from around the world (and it was only women) sharing what they’ll be taking with them the next time they go running: from a bellyband with room for a licensed gun, to training with a “personal protection-trained dog”. “I typically run in daylight – if I ran in the dark I would also take pepper spray,” one female runner wrote.

Another woman said she lives and runs in fields and woods – and shared her experiences of being stalked by trucks and vans, even when out running with her daughter. “I run with pepper gel spray in my hand and a gun in my pocket,” she wrote. “Stay safe, everyone.”

Someone shared a link for a “rechargeable stun gun” – and one woman gave a comprehensive list including a “tactical knife bracelet”, “clip-on pepper spray”, a “Taser in a sports bra” and picking up “rocks to throw” while running along a trail. “There are lots of lightweight options if you’re not into guns,” she added.

And another woman, who had already been the target of two attacks by multiple men while out training on remote trail locations, said: “I have live-tracking at all times from my watch to my husband. I always take dogs, Mace or a friend – ideally, all three. I never go without at least one of them. When I have a stroller, I also have a small, concrete-filled fibre pipe – it’s more for a dog than a person, but I’d use it if I needed it.” The woman, who said she had training in martial arts, added: “I don’t listen to music on headphones – ever!”

As for me? Most of these tips don’t apply when you live in the UK – we don’t have guns or pepper spray and I’d never consider a knife. Plus, we have laws against carrying weapons.

But I do worry about my personal safety because more often than not I run alone. I always used to have my keys in my hand in London when running in the dark. I currently live in the countryside, so most of the routes I run are away from roads and built-up areas, but most of my life I’ve run in cities, towns, along canal towpaths and through housing estates. And even though I now run through woodland and across fields – the feeling never leaves me: I always find myself looking back over my shoulder.

What makes me feel safer? Running without my earphones in. Which is frustrating – because I love listening to the beat of good music to motivate me on a tempo run, or tuning in to a favourite podcast. But wearing earphones also means I can’t hear someone coming up behind me.

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Having my phone with me also makes me feel less at risk. I don’t know why. If someone’s going to grab me, it would take me ages to fumble my phone out of the waistbelt I tuck it into. But at least if I was bundled into the back of a van I’d be able to phone for help.

Running in daylight. This one seems obvious, but come winter it’s hard to fit in a run outdoors in daylight hours. So I often turn to the treadmill to get some miles in. Just to avoid the fear. Because if this can happen to women in broad daylight, you can multiply my fear levels by 100 in the dark.

Don’t worry, I’ve thought about it. Worried about it. Planned for it. And once I even thought it was happening when I ran past a man sitting by the side of a riverside towpath. He got up right as I ran past him. My heart leapt into my throat and I think I probably put in my best time over a single mile in those few minutes just to get away from him. When I eventually had the guts to look over my shoulder, it turned out he wasn’t following me. But I’ll never forget that feeling. Ever. And hearing the terrible news about Eliza Fletcher immediately brings it back to me. I can’t bear to think how she must have felt last Friday morning.

Nobody has the answer to why this has happened. But seeing my fellow runners in the US sharing photos of which kind of weapon they suggest taking out with them when they next go for a run cannot be the answer. Is this really what it has to come to for women to feel safe?

Gemma Abbott is a trail and ultra-marathon runner and also works in PR