My younger sister, Elana, had called to tell me about Mollie Tibbetts, who went for a run on July 18 and never came home. “They found her body,” she said.
We both paused.
Elana and I have been runners since we were little kids chasing cars in our St. Paul neighborhood, screaming, “How fast are we going?” to anyone watching. We loved running the mile in gym class with a level of enthusiasm equal to everyone else’s dread. Our parents fostered this newfound joy of running, signing us up for a local track club. We went on to run in high school and college, and my sister now coaches collegiate track and cross-country. I still run almost every day whether I’m in New York or traveling, having traded my spikes and track meets for road shoes and marathons.
Like other girls and women who run, my sister and I have found strength, confidence and independence in the repetitive motion of driving our feet forward. We women know that running is good for us, and we know we’re pretty good at it, too. Data from this year’s Boston Marathon showed that men were far more likely to be quitters than women.
At the same time, we have also adapted to the realities — and risks — of running while female.
Just as our bodies learned how to sprint around the curve of a track, our muscles learned to tense up when men honked their horns as they passed us. And just as we learned to use that nervous feeling in our gut before a race to propel us across the finish line, we also recognized the gut feeling that told us a trail wasn’t safe to run on alone.
We know that we can never totally zone out on a run, to enter that magical out-of-body Zen space fueled by endorphins, without keeping at least part of our mind firmly on Earth. We know we have a set of rules about personal safety of which our male runner friends are, for the most part, unaware.
And that’s why the death of Iowan Mollie Tibbetts has rattled so many women in the running community. On Twitter and Facebook, in running magazines and on Instagram, the hashtag #MilesforMollie has become a rallying cry for girls and women who want to shift the national conversation to focus on keeping women safe in all situations, including when they run. Women are sharing stories of harassment when they run, and their frustration that women are expected to go to extremes to protect themselves from predators when they run.
“Any woman who calls herself a runner knows just how terrifying the Mollie Tibbetts story is,” Alanna Vagianos, a reporter at HuffPost, wrote in a Twitter thread that went viral. “The lengths that women have to go to protect themselves from being alone in public spaces,” she wrote, are restrictive, exhausting and terrifying.
A runner named Lauren Smith tweeted, “I get harassed weekly while running — yelled at, lewd gestures, demeaning comments. It’s not flattering. It’s not a compliment. It’s not welcome. It needs to stop.”
“I won’t let cowards stop me from getting up early before the sun or knocking out my workout late at night,” Angelisa Arocha wrote on Instagram.
“Today, and every day, I’m running for you, Mollie,” Maria Scherer shared along with a running photo.
The same sentiment was expressed during the summer of 2016, when within nine days, three female runners were killed while running alone in daylight: 27-year-old Vanessa Marcotte in Massachusetts, 31-year-old Alexandra Brueger in Michigan and 30-year-old Karina Vetrano in New York.
But for female runners, nothing has changed. Instead, in news reports and online discussions, the response to Tibbetts’ death has seemed to put the onus back on women to be more careful while running, rather than addressing the real issue of violence against women.
Here’s which pepper sprays are small enough to fit in your running shorts. No, you can’t run with headphones. You are taking a risk when you run alone, in the dark.
We know that. And we can venture a guess that as a female runner, Tibbetts knew that, too. She had her phone with her while running in her rural neighborhood of Brooklyn, Iowa. The former high school track runner was followed by a man first in his car and then on foot. She threatened to call the police. And she never came home.
When my sister and I talked about Tibbetts on the phone, everything we needed to say was in our silence. And then, now living states and time zones apart, we hung up the phone and we each went running, alone.