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A trail we all run

10 Sep 2018

Writer Amanda Morris competing in her first sprint triathlon

 

There is a running trail two miles out from my cookie-cutter house with the red door in Farmington, Connecticut.

 

It stretches for miles, flanked by picturesque wooden fences and shaded by a canopy of trees. On a perfect day you can look up in the middle of the trail and see the sunlight leaking through the leaves in an interplay of light and bright green swaths, like a god light. It is my favorite color.  

 

If I go far enough, I revisit towns that I lived in and moved away from throughout my teenage years: sleepy, small-town Canton and sleepier rural Burlington. If I were to go further still, the Farmington Canal Heritage trail can take me all the way up to Maine, and if I turn around, all the way back down to Florida. The possibilities seem endless.

 

“Don’t go on that trail alone,” my father ordered me three years ago.

 

That summer, a woman was attacked on the trail. She was dragged off of her jogging route in Avon and brutally raped. She survived, but the trail has not seemed as beautiful since.

 

Amanda on the Farmington Canal Heritage trail with my brother and father at the age of 13

 

When I tried to search for the incident on Google, numerous other cases came up:

 

An elderly lady was killed.

A sex offender has been exposing himself along the trail.

A 70-year old lady was sexually assaulted by a 20-year old man.

Another woman was raped, this time in Canton.

A woman was attacked in Vernon.

A 50 year old woman was stabbed and killed in Simsbury.

 

I closed the search tab.

 

These incidents had all occurred within distance of my house, within the past five or so years, as if the trail could be marked by incidents of violence and assault against women rather than by mileage. I trafficked the same spots throughout my adolescence, as a varsity athlete and eventual captain of the girl’s track and field team. I loved to run alone, to feel my legs rubber banding back and forth as I settled into a quiet breathing rhythm.

 

Amanda completing a 100 meter race at the age of 17

 

Sometimes my nothing-thoughts would be interrupted by a twig snap, a catcall, an uncomfortable stare, or simply an eerie feeling. I ran faster, as if I could outrun being a vulnerable female.

 

When I read about Mollie Tibbetts, I cried. It could have been me. It could have been any of us.

 

“Stories like that are so disconcerting, to think that you could be the one that some psycho decides to prey upon...it’s scary,” remarked a fellow female runner from Southington, Connecticut, Tracy Zagata. She has used the Farmington Canal Heritage Trail, but never alone.

 

“I don’t feel safe as a woman going on a trail by myself,” she told me. “The rail trail’s gotten a bad reputation, especially if it’s later in the day.”

 

Instead of running solo, Zagata sometimes runs with her friend, Vanessa Russo, on the trail. However, despite the dangers of running by herself, Russo often prefers to run alone.

 

“Running by myself is my me time. That’s the time I destress and think about things,” she explained.

 

On the Mollie Tibbets incident, Russo said, “It’s disconcerting but you can’t stop your life because of an attack. You just have to continue your vigilance and make the best choices that you can.”

 

To mitigate the dangers of being a woman running alone, Russo sticks to her neighborhood streets, and uses an app called Road iD, which tracks you via GPS, allows selected contacts to track your location, and can be enabled to send out alerts to those contacts if you stop moving for more than five minutes.

 

“I started using this app two or three years ago because there were a couple of incidents in Connecticut at that point, women were getting attacked on the rails to trails in broad daylight, not just early or late at night,” she said.

 

Both Russo and Zagata told me that they have been catcalled, stared at, or otherwise harassed while running many times, but that they ignore it. I am not surprised. The trail and our shared love of running connects us, but so do our experiences of running while female.

 

Not one woman is safe from this experience, not even professional athletes. Deena Kastor is an Olympic medalist who set the American record for the marathon in 2006 by completing the 26.2 mile race in 2 hours, 19 minutes and 36 seconds. Despite her lightning speed, she also cannot outrun the harrassment.

 

“It’s about respect,” she told me. “It’s innocent but still insulting because it sets a precedent for others to continue to build on that.”

 

Kastor said catcalls, whistles, and other types of comments are a gateway for assault and violence against women that leads to tragedies like that of Mollie Tibbetts.  

 

“It affects the whole community. They can feel vulnerable when they’re just going out to do what they enjoy,” she said.

 

 

When she runs, Kastor never wears headphones, changes her route often, and always runs with others. But at the height of her running career, going with others was not always an option. She said she often had to squeeze in runs early in the morning or late at night, since she was traveling a lot.

 

During one of those runs in Thousand Oaks California, ranked by the FBI as one of the top-ten safest cities to live in, she had an unsettling experience.

 

It was early morning by a well-lit park. A van passed her on the other side of the road then made a U-turn and came up on her side of the street. As she continued to run, the van passed her again, on the same side of the road, and parked a short 50 meters ahead. She told me it seemed like someone was waiting for her to run alongside of the parked van.  

 

“I immediately crossed over four lanes to get to the other side of the street and then the van just instantly sped off,” she recounted. “I got an eerie feeling out of it.”

 

Maybe it was nothing, but maybe not. But as female runners, we constantly have to be vigilant about our safety: snapping our heads sideways when someone enters our peripheral, carefully assessing every man we see for signs of sociopathy, or sticking our keys between our fingers when we hear someone running close behind us, even though we have read that is actually not a great strategy for self-defense. But without anything else to do instead, we brandish our keys.

 

Faced with these scenarios, I finally took a self-defense course. I wanted to feel safer. I learned how to get out of chokeholds and wrist grabs — how to escape from people twice my size using tricks of Gracie jiu-jitsu. This is similar to what Todd Williams teaches in his Run Safer program.

 

Williams is a retired professional runner who started getting into jiu-jitsu and eventually realized the importance of safety among runners. Since he founded Run Safer in 2012, he has travelled across the country to do over 500 workshops and presentations teaching runners self-defense techniques.

 

 

95% of the people who come are females even though I encourage everyone, man or woman to come,” he said. “Bad things happen, I just want runners to be more prepared and have more tools to escape and not end up as a headline.”

 

His number one safety tip? “Try to be within a scream of help,” he told me.  

 

This simple fact is what saved Sheri Ball-Garcia. Ball-Garcia was a 1996 Olympic-hopeful. At age 28, she ranked third in the nation as an age-group runner in the mile in 1992. That same year, she set out on a jog in Kaanapali, Maui, Hawaii, which quickly turned into the fight of her life.

 

 

Ball-Garcia, three weeks after her attack (there are no photos from the day of her attack)

 

I called her at 5:30 in the morning last week to hear her survival story.

 

“Sorry about the growliness of my voice, it’s early,” I said.

 

“Yeah. We run on a treadmill at this hour.” She responded in a voice filled with resignation.

 

Ball-Garcia loved to run outside, alone. On that fateful day in Hawaii, she was enjoying what she loved, running along the Honoapiilani Highway, waiting for the sun to catch up with her.

 

“The sun was just about to come up over the mountains in Maui. I was in awe at the time,” she said.

 

Then a man grabbed her by the arm. A man who had been hiding in the bushes by the guardrail quickly punched her in the nose, causing disorientation. Then he flung her over the guardrail onto a lava rock beach, ten feet down from the road, where no one would see her.

 

She knew self defense moves but could not do anything before he gripped the pressure points in her elbow to make her arms numb, then used her ponytail as a grip to bash her face into the rocks. This went on for several minutes without stopping.

 

Ball-Garcia tried to maneuver her face as he did so. “I was trying not to lose my eye,” she told me. She came close. Her attacker fractured bones in her eye socket.

 

He then fisted her vaginally until she bled. He continued to beat her, telling her to shut up or else he would kill her. She kept screaming.

 

“I said to myself, 'Don’t stop screaming because he’s not going to stop beating me,'” she said. “He kept saying, 'I’m going to fuck you, I’m going to fuck you in the ass bitch,' and I screamed, 'You can do anything you want but I have two boys, just don’t kill me,' but he didn’t care. An animal came out. It wasn’t about sex. It was about the kill, the control.”

 

Eventually her attacker dropped his pants, releasing his grip on her and Ball-Garcia saw an opportunity to escape. Through sheer will-power and adrenaline, she mustered the strength to get up and run for the water. She swam out as far as she could, intending originally to swim for the next closest island.

 

“I could see the bone sticking out of my nose and I thought, who is going to help me?” she said.

 

Luckily, a boy in the area heard her screams and immediately called 911. By the time police showed up, Ball-Garcia’s attacker had vanished, along with the adrenaline that had enabled her to ignore her severe injuries and escape.  

 

“Once I heard the police sirens, I felt pain,” she said.

 

She was unrecognizable to police. Police removed bloody rocks out of her face and hair before she was sent to the hospital. In total, she had 13 skull fractures. With a few more blows, she would have died. She also lost her front teeth.

 

Her timer, intended to clock her mileage, never stopped ticking throughout her attack. Though the attack only lasted about 20 minutes, the ramifications have haunted Ball-Garcia in the 20 years since. She now suffers from short-term memory problems and has struggled for years with anxiety, nightmares, PTSD, and feelings of being unsafe.

 

“I didn’t know how to separate innocent looks from threatening ones. If a male looked at me, I felt threatened,” she said.

 

After her attack, doctors told Ball-Garcia that she would not be able to run for a year. But four weeks later, she snuck out to do a race.

 

“Running was an empowering thing for me,” she said. “He took so much from me, this animal, but he was not going to take running away from me.”

 

She was not the same, though. Her injuries prevented her from performing at her maximum speed, and her coach kept telling her that she needed to get back to training on the pavement, rather than running on the treadmill as the footing and pacing is different.

 

“I can’t,” she states simply. “I will never run alone again. There’s no way to be safe.”

 

She struggles to do anything on her own, things as simple as walking a dog for 20 yards out of the house in the dark or going to the grocery store. She said she is constantly looking over her shoulder, living in fear.

 

Ball-Garcia’s attacker was never caught. She has never returned to Hawaii.

 

Now, she is a staunch advocate for women’s safety while running. In 2010, when 17-year-old Chelsea King was raped and killed by a repeated sex offender while jogging in San Diego, Ball-Garcia was one of the activists who helped get Chelsea’s Law passed. The California law sentences convicted offenders of one forcible sex crime against a minor to life in prison without parole. Currently, Chelsea King’s family and their foundation are working to spread the law to other states.

 

When Ball-Garcia heard about Mollie Tibbets, she instantly suspected the tragic ending that came to light five weeks later.  

 

“I was worked up and anxious that whole month,” she said.

 

I have never been assaulted while running, nor gone through anything as traumatic as Ball-Garcia’s ordeal, but I felt uneasy the whole month, too. So did other women I interviewed and friends of mine who like to run.

 

We will not stop running. The running community has banded together, using the hashtags #MilesforMollie and #RunningWhileFemale to raise awareness about women’s safety and the harassment that we can face the second we step out of our homes.

 

I still cannot stop thinking about Mollie. I was 20 when my father first told me not to run alone, the same age Mollie was, and always will be frozen at in her “missing" photos.

 

 

When I go jogging, my first mile will be for Mollie. Women everywhere are marking miles for her. I hope we are running towards something better.

 

I’ll run as fast as I can; pray I won’t be caught.

Amanda is a journalist currently working at CNN, but previously worked at the Hartford Courant, MSNBC, the Republican-American, WNYU 89.1 FM, Prague.tv, The PragueCast, and Scholastic News. She holds a B.A. in Journalism and a B.S. in Media, Culture & Communications from NYU. When she is not chasing down a story, Amanda is an avid traveler, a dancer, and a lover of all things outdoors. Visit her website for more.

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