When I started running, in my early-30s and with a small group of new friends who’d been running far longer than me, we ran early. We all had little kids—Alex, my youngest, was not quite one, nursing, and still waking up a couple times a night—so meeting at 5:15 a.m. was how we squeezed in exercise before work and caring for our families became our focus. I set out my running clothes the night before and under starry skies tip-toed out the front door, careful not to wake my sleeping family.
Three of us lived in the same neighborhood a few miles outside town and we took turns driving bleary-eyed and sleep-deprived to meet our friends downtown, where we could count on city lamp posts (and city plows come winter) to guide our miles. Sometimes it was four or five of us, other times only a couple who could make it work on any particular morning. A few times we had a larger number show up at our meeting spot on a well-lit stretch of street alongside the hospital, but more often than not it was a small core group that relied on this sacred time to lace up and do something just for ourselves—to remember, as the miles ticked by, who we were, still, in the midst of early mothering. I can still taste the new-to-me sweet satisfaction of having finished an especially tough run, my face flushed and sweaty, my mind cleared and in awe of what my legs and lungs could do as these Monday, Wednesday, and Friday o’dark thirty runs continued and became as necessary as breathing to me.
I’m grateful for these friends who introduced me to a regular running routine (and to reflective and wicking clothing), and I realize how lucky I am to have had women to run with, year-round in all kinds of northern Michigan weather, and especially on chilly, dark mornings when running in a pack led not only to some really great conversations and laughs but also to the knowing that we were safe in numbers on deserted, shadowed streets.
Over the years, as kids got older and my running (and life) took different twists and turns—starting a new work schedule, discovering a love of trail running, and training for my first marathon being big ones—I began running more often on my own. I treasured these solo runs and how they gifted me with time to think and get to know myself in an entirely new way. For a time, I found a rhythm in heading to nearby dirt paths after the school bus shuttled my kids off for the day—fitting in miles not nearly as early as I once did—before returning home to start my work day as a freelance writer and editor. Runs on those winding, hilly trails built my confidence, leaving me feeling I could handle just about anything that came my way.
Those not-too-early runs took place during that glorious time when the day is fresh and bright. I felt safer on the trails and roads than I would if I’d run alone any earlier. I never took this time for granted, and in fact this is when my running kicked into high gear. I upped my weekly mileage, signed up for and finished my first half marathon, and began wondering if I possibly had 26.2 miles in me. I met more people in the running community—in my own city and also across the state and country through online communities and forums. I read Runner’s World religiously. During one memorable run near our house, I was inspired to launch this site, Michigan Runner Girl, a travel-lifestyle blog that would eventually turn into a far-reaching online community and side business/passion project that remains an important part of my life. I became obsessed in the most wonderful way with this sport, with this lifestyle of pushing and powering through and figuring out what I could do, mentally and physically. Each mile logged felt like another step closer to my true self. Running—and taking care of myself in mind and body—was a puzzle piece I didn’t know I had been missing, clicking firmly into place.
When we fall in love with running, we run whenever we can. We find windows of time in our busy, full lives: at dawn (or earlier) as our partners and kids sleep, over lunch or in between meetings if we can somehow make that happen, or at the end of the work day. Some days we intentionally carve out the time; other days, the moment shows up when it wants and we jump so as not to miss the opportunity. I recall a period in my earlier running journey when I uncharacteristically ran pretty regularly at the end of the day, during the golden hour or at dusk, the sun dipping low in the sky as I sweated out the day’s stress and breathed in the cool evening air, because that’s when Joe was home from work and could be with our kids. It was what worked best, at that time. Those runs felt short and jammed into a tiny window. But I found the beauty in them and was thankful for that slice of peace.
This is what I think about—that slice of peace we all look forward to when we head out for our run, whenever it may be—as I continue to process the heartbreaking news of yet more violence against women. Violence against one female runner in particular, Eliza “Liza” Fletcher, a 34-year-old kindergarten teacher and mother of two, who was abducted during an early morning run in Memphis. Her body was found last week, Sept. 6, and police have charged a 38-year-old man in her disappearance. It’s a horrific incident that’s led to a lot of conversation online about violence all women repeatedly face, and importantly, how women of color specifically experience violence that doesn’t get reported nearly as often or as extensively. (I don’t feel I have the right to speak with any kind of authority about this last point, as a white woman, but I am committed to learning and understanding. A post by Carolyn—@irunfortheglory on Instagram—is especially thoughtful, insightful, and important. Carolyn is the creator of Diverse We Run, a community building racial representation through storytelling, advocacy and community. If you’re on Instagram, I highly suggest following her.)
This past week, and especially during a longer run on the trails Sunday morning, I’ve been heartbroken and teary thinking about Eliza and each and every other woman, harmed and harassed, abducted and killed. I’ve wanted to share something but have struggled to put into words what I’ve been feeling.
I’ve read the comments, for better or for worse (the comment section of any social media platform can be both enlightening and infuriating; blaming women, of course, came up in numerous threads I came across). But I tried to focus on the thoughtful, helpful, and heartfelt posts by fellow writers and runner friends who’ve shared their anger and frustration and worry and love. I’ve also read about women of color who were harmed or killed— stories that haven’t received widespread news coverage—and I’m outraged. I’m also overwhelmed. I wonder what I can do, what I can add, what more I can say in this conversation. I’m sad, so sad. “That could have been me. Or one of my friends.” And then, this thought that haunts me most: “That could have been my daughter.” My strong and smart 22-year-old daughter who just moved to a new city, a new place whose streets I don’t know all that well. Will she be safe there? Have I done all that I can to help protect her? Are any of us safe, anywhere?
As I began writing this piece, yet another disturbing story surfaced: a 19-year-old man was charged with sexual assault after a 33-year-old Canadian woman was attached the evening of Friday, Sept. 9 while running in a park in Regina, Saskatchewan.
News of a runner being assaulted, or worse, abducted and killed, is devastating and hits home hard for those of us who run. And as I’ve sifted through my feelings around all of this, I realize part of why I’ve struggled to string sentences together around this is that it’s so much bigger and heavier. It’s the threat of violence that follows women everywhere, down every path and around every corner, whether we are running or not. Violence that can occur no matter what we do to try to prevent it.
As women, we’ve all experienced that prickly feeling on the backs of our neck as we cross paths with a man who seems friendly enough but still something feels off and we pick up our pace. Or the instances of a car slowing down, then speeding away, leaving us anxious and cutting our runs short. Even off the roads and trails, we find ourselves in (too many) everyday situations where being on guard is embedded into our psyche, informing how we go about our lives.
I believe in taking precautions when we run alone. Being aware—hyper-aware. Sharing your location with your people. Acquiring self-defense skills. Doing what feels right to you, whether that’s staying off the trails or opting not to listen to music or simply never running alone. We’re told to run during the day. Don’t wear headphones. Mix up the routes, so as not to be too predictable. Run with a dog.
And yet. Just how much do we have to alter our lives? Must we make major adjustments to prevent the unimaginable? And… What if we do all of these right things and still…and still, bad things happen.
I don’t have answers, but talking about this and sharing our stories—all of our stories—feels like a small but important step forward.
We must keep moving. One foot in front of the other. Running is our passion, our strength and sanity, and our right. And we should feel safe doing this, wherever we may go and whenever we choose to keep moving.