By Gretchen McKay


Female runners self-defense: Stay aware

Categories : Features

It was a beautiful, sunny day when Leah Yingling set out on June 15, 2010, for what she thought was going to be a routine three-miler on one of Johnstown’s most popular running trails.

If only.

As she recounted at Pittsburgh Marathon’s inaugural Safe Strides self-defense course for female runners at Bakery Square on Feb. 21, the experience instead was a chilling reminder of the danger women can face when they run solo.

Even when they jog on familiar turf.

Even when the workout’s in broad daylight.

Back home after her freshman year at Carnegie Mellon University, Ms. Yingling had just finished lunch with her twin sister, Kelsi, when she decided to go for a quick run. Tying on her Brooks PureFlows, she headed to James Mayer Riverwalk Trail, a secluded hiking and biking trail that follows the abandoned Johnstown and Stony Creek Railroad built by the Johnson Steel Co. in 1891.

It was a route the 19-year-old had run dozens, if not hundreds, of times during high school without incident. So this time, too, Ms. Yingling didn’t take any special precautions as she headed into the woods, and in fact left a small container of pepper spray on the seat of her car in favor of her cell phone.

A mile into the out-and-back run, her luck changed. Standing ahead on the deserted trail was a man wearing a hooded sweatshirt. As she veered to the left to step around him, he pulled out a knife, stepped into her path and grabbed her. When she screamed, he put the knife to her throat and tried to drag her into the bushes to sexually assault her.

During the struggle, Ms. Yingling somehow managed to find her cellphone in her pocket and dial 911. When her attacker realized it, he ripped the phone from her hand and fled. He was caught a few hours later and sentenced last year to eight to 16 years in state prison for the assault.

Others have not been so lucky.

While running is a relatively safe sport statistically, there are people out there who mean to do runners harm. Realistically, females are bigger targets for assault than males for obvious reasons. Ignoring that fact will not make them less of a target.

Just last month, a woman was raped on the Provo River Trail in Provo, Utah, while running after dark. Female joggers also were attacked on trails in Lewisville, Texas, in January; on Katy Trail in Dallas in November; on Capital Crescent Trail in Bethesda, Md., in October; and on Northern Virginia’s Four Mile Run Trail in July.

“It’s a growing problem,” said Road Runners Club of America executive director Jean Knaack, in part because more females than ever are running — some 7.6 million females finished U.S. road races in 2011 — and for longer distances. “But women really don’t want to hear it.”

According to Running USA, women now account for the majority of entrants (59 percent) in the 13.1-mile half-marathon, a distance that can require 30 or more miles a week at the height of training. Because so many work, many of those miles are logged when women are alone, in isolated areas, at off hours — with the birds before dawn or after work at dusk.

Pittsburgh Marathon race director Patrice Matamoros’ approach to the annual footrace, which this year will be May 5, always has been to focus on the athlete as much as the race. So when a friend told her about a runners’ self-defense course women’s safety expert Jennifer Gray developed for RunHERS of Oklahoma City, she decided she, too, should offer a program here in Pittsburgh, “because one of the most important things we can do is take care of you while you run.”

Turns out, her husband knew the perfect man to teach it: Self-defense expert/ex-Navy SEAL Craig Douglas of Mississippi, who spent 21 years working as a cop, nine of them in narcotics.

Leah Yingling talks during Safe Strides, a free personal self-defense program designed specifically for female runners, hosted by Pittsburgh Marathon. Ms. Yingling had been assaulted along a trail near Johnstown. Post-Gazette

Because assaults on runners can and do happen anywhere — small towns, big cities, downtown parks, suburban trails — Mr. Douglas’ main message was that women need to be totally aware of their environment. The earlier you can spot a potential problem developing, the more you can do to avoid or manage it.

The ultimate opportunists, “bad guys are looking for easy victims,” he told the crowd. “They’re the ultimate opportunists. They attack when conditions favor them the most and you the least.”

One obvious — but often ignored — way to increase awareness is to lose the music if you’re running alone in an isolated area, even if it means your run will be more boring. Runners get attacked from behind because the assailant knows you can’t see them; wearing headphone means you can’t hear them, either.

“You cannot put headphones on and tune out because that really does increase the possibility of you being a victim, ” Ms. Knaack said. The vast majority of reported attacks, in fact, are on women wearing headphones, she said, although newspapers often are reluctant to report it for fear of placing blame on the victim. That’s why safety tips included in those stories invariably include “don’t run with headphones.”

“It’s a veiled message.”

Runners also need to avoid activities that distract or make you oblivious to your surroundings, such as talking on a cell phone or fumbling too long with your shoelaces.

“Task fixation is like a moth to the flame for bad guys,” Mr. Douglas said.

Once on the trail, stay alert so you can assess strangers coming toward you for any potential threat. While you never know for certain what’s going on in a person’s head, there is body language that strongly relates to criminal behavior. For instance, Mr. Douglas said, a criminal often makes a “grooming” gesture before he attacks: He might rub the back of his head or neck, touch this face or cover his mouth.

Other pre-attack indicators are target glancing (looking to the left or right or behind you as you approach) and a discernible weight shift. If someone is going to pull a knife or attack you, he’s going to shift his weight from one foot to another so he has a base to move explosively.

Bad guys tend to telegraph their intentions, so furtive movements of the hands around the waist should also raise your hackles.

“That knife or gun doesn’t just magically appear,” Mr. Douglas noted. “It has to come from somewhere.”

Predators also might try to engage you in conversation, knowing it will cause you to lose your focus.

For someone to assault you, they have to get their hands on you. So always maintain distance when you pass someone you don’t know or who makes you uncomfortable and keep your hands close to your body and relatively high; it will reduce the amount of time it takes to cover your head with your hands if you’re attacked. If you have to pass closely, square your hips so it’s harder for them to bump you. If you have to shout for them to get out of your way, that’s OK, too.

“If you have space, you have time,” he said.

And what if the unspeakable happens?

If you can get away, that’s the best outcome. If you can’t, drop your weight to a level change like a wrestler (it will help you stay upright) and put your hands up to your head.

“You can’t fight semi-conscious,” Mr. Douglas said. “You need to protect your ‘computer’ so you can keep thinking.”

If you can get a shot in, go for the eyes.

Jennifer Gray, in an article in RRCA’s newsletter, recommends staying calm and going to the ground in a “false surrender.” If the attacker thinks you’ve given up, he’ll stop fighting to hold you down; that makes it easier to execute an escape.

Ms. Knaack of RRCA hopes courses like the one offered by Pittsburgh Marathon will become part of a growing trend. Already, one big name has embraced the idea. In January, Olympic runner Todd Williams launched RUNSAFER, an array of seminars and workshops to teach self-defense techniques to runners. It will be offered at specialty stores and gyms that teach martial arts and self-defense. (To date, the closest one to Pittsburgh will be offered at Mojo Running in West Chester, Ohio, in October; for more information, visit

The goal of the program, Mr. Williams said, who in 2012 earned a black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, a martial art that focuses on grappling and ground fighting, isn’t to scare runners off running alone but rather to put one more tool into their runners’ toolbox.

“It’s for ‘just in case,’ ” he said. “So you feel more empowered.”

Which brings us back to the beginning of the story. Ms. Yingling said it took her about a month to feel comfortable running again after her attack, “and when I say ‘comfortable,’ I mean able to leave my house … absolutely everything made me anxious.” Learning not think about the “what-ifs” took even longer.

With each step forward, though, she became stronger. In May, she’s running the Pittsburgh Marathon on behalf of Girls on the Run SoleMates, a nonprofit character development program for girls that combines running activities with lessons in nutrition, body image and social issues.

“People always think, ‘It’s not going to happen to me,’ or that you only get attacked at night time,” said Ms. Yingling, 21, who will graduate from CMU with a degree in material sciences and engineering two weeks after the race. “But the truth is, runners often aren’t as lucky as I was. You need to be alert.”

For safety tips, see: