Thursday, June 28, 2012

Safety Dance

So, I've read a lot recently about safety while running, especially for women.  It's a topic that re-emerges with each news of an assault.   Everyone agrees that women should be cautious and use "common sense" when running.  And there's a ton of standard recommendations that get trotted out.

I think a lot of those recommendations are wrong.  For one thing, I think that exactly what comprises "common sense" depends on the environment that you're running in.  Additionally, many recommendations are focused on responding to a bad situation once you're in it; while your focus really should be avoidance.

Below are some of the "common sense" recommendations, followed by my thoughts.

  • Carrying a phone.  Everyone spits this recommendation out reflexively.  But, depending on your running environment, it may be a poor one.  If you're running in a more rural environment, where your greatest risks come from getting lost, getting injured far from home, or a disastrous wildlife encounter, then yes, this may make sense.

    However, for those of us in an urban environment, a phone or PDA isn't such a hot idea.  The risks we face are different.  It's very unlikely that we'll get truly lost (i.e. without being able to ask someone how to get back), and if you get injured, simply hail a cab (carry a bit of concealed cash for this option).  In the city, you can always duck into a nearby 24 hour market if you need. 

    And in the city, carrying an expensive bit of electronics in your hand just marks you as a target, IMHO.  Some people would suggest wearing a small running backpack, fanny pack, or similar, but that also places you at risk, as someone carrying something potentially of value.

    I occasionally (very rarely) run around my urban neighborhood in the evening, after dusk.  I believe I am much safer running unencumbered around my neighborhood than I am walking around my neighborhood with a purse at that same time.  It's safer to appear to be carrying nothing of value, and so that's how I prefer to run.

  • Pepper Spray/Weapons.  There's a big industry based on sales of pepper spray, and obviously an even bigger one dedicated to firearms. you really know how to use the weapon in an actual fight or flight situation?  And are you truly capable of doing so without hesitation?  I honestly think that most people who answer yes to the above are deluding themselves.
    So very intimidating.

    Furthermore, if you're going to carry it, you need to be able to use it instantly.  It's not like your assailant will walk up to you and give you 10 seconds notice to get prepared.  So, no carrying it in a holster, fannypack, backpack, or pocket.  It needs to be immediately at hand.  And that's not really practical.

    I think that, for the vast majority of people, any weapon that they carry is far more likely to be used against them.  It increases the risk.  Additionally, people let the fact that they're packing something color their judgment about where and when to run.  Again, the priority needs to be situation avoidance, not response.

    That being said, I do carry one "weapon" with me.  My keys.  I have a loop that attaches the keys to my wrist, and then I hold them in my hand.  Shift the keys so they stick out between your knuckles, and congratulations, you've got a weapon.  To be used only if you get into the situation that you're going to do anything to avoid.

  • Self-defense.  People crow about how great it is to have taken a self-defense class. And sure, in some ways it is.  But only if it doesn't color your judgment about which situations to get into.  And thing is, I think self-defense training, like weapons, give a false sense of confidence. 
    Self-defense guru.

    Self-defense classes do NOT make you an effective fighter.  At best, they maybe give you some slight hope if you are trapped.  But best not to be trapped.  If you wouldn't run somewhere or at some time but for the fact that you've taken a self-defense class, don't run there or then after you've taken a self-defense class.

    I'm not opposed to self-defense classes, just to the bad judgment calls that may result.  And, IMHO the best self-defense training is 200m sprint repeats.  Something to think about.

  • Go with your gut.  And also beyond your gut.  The first part of this is pretty simple -- if you've got a hunch that something's a bit sketchy, heed that hunch.  Don't go down the alley that gives you that funny feeling.  Give an extra berth to the guy that gives you the creeps.

    You should be uncomfortable
    running alone here.
    But also, ignore your instincts sometimes.  The most dangerous people are those that set you at ease.  If you see a person hurt on the bike path and you're by yourself, don't give into your sympathies and approach him to help.  Ask him from a safe distance if he's OK.  If he needs help, run to your nearest coffee shop/gas station and call for help from there.

    On this same note, while our instincts are to avoid the dangers that we see (the sketchy looking guy), we need to focus on the dangers we may not see -- the person lurking in the bushes on the side of the trail or in the shadowy doorway.  A large part of my focus when running is on areas just ahead of me, and potential hiding places.

  • Your reaction.  So many times, I've heard someone say that the best way to react to someone that does give you a bad feeling is to ignore.  I disagree.   Ignore someone and stiffen, and you remain an anonymous "it" to that person.  Make eye contact and smile or say something, and you're a person. A sister, mother, daughter, friend.  You're safer in the latter category.

  • Headphones.  OK.  On this one, I agree with the majority.  Running with headphones is a bad idea, and puts you at risk.  And yes, I understand the standard retort - "I keep the music turned low" or "I only wear one bud."  But, neither of those address the underlying risks.

    First of all, if you wear headphones, you appear to be less aware of your surroundings.  Maybe you're not.  But you look like you are, and that makes you an appealing target.

    Secondly, it's not just that you can't hear dangers with your headphones, but that you're not focused on avoiding bad situations. Runners who run with headphones do it to disassociate - it distracts them from discomfort and tedium.  But, it also distracts you from your surroundings, by diverting your attention.  Making it more likely to get into the bad situations that you need to avoid.

  • Others' knowledge of your route.  There are certain people that you want to know of your route:  loved ones, friends, etc.  For this reason, in the past I would email my boyfriend when I was going running and returning -- a habit I've gotten out of, but want to restart.  To that point, I've also invested in the Garmin GTU 10.  It's the same size as my asthma inhaler, and so fits easily in a pocket.  I carry it with me, and my boyfriend can access my account on the Garmin website.

    There are also people who you DON'T want to know your route.  And that includes both people you know and people you don't.  It's a really bad idea to give too much detail about your normal running routes on line.  Some stuff is pretty safe -- for example, I sometimes run on the C&O Towpath in DC.  Just like 20 million other people.  I have no concerns about posting that.  But you don't want to give enough information that people can track you down.
    My GTU - ain't it cute?

    To this same point, if you do get a Garmin GTU or similar, it should go without saying that your account on the tracker's website needs to be secure.  That means no password of "password" or "changeme" or "garmin."  Also, no password of "password1" or "changeme1234" or "3gar5min."  It's truly amazing how many people think that a password is secure if they take a word and append a number or two to the end.  Or the number of people who are sure no one knows their mother's maiden name.  If someone gets your password to a tracking site, then they can track you with ease.   Here's some basic info about secure passwords.
There's probably a lot of people who think I'm paranoid.  And a lot of them are probably guys.  That's OK with me - I prefer to err on the side of caution and common sense.  Ultimately, the balance between safety and convenience is individual to each of us, but I'm hoping this post is food for thought for others.


  1. Great recommendations.
    I wholeheartedly agree with the advice to resist your instincts -- someone stopping you to ask for directions is the first thing that comes to mind. STAY BACK a good distance from anyone.

  2. Great post. Very true about pepper spray-- I think it would be difficult to use it quickly enough.

  3. I took a self-defense class and the bulk of class was spent discussing how to avoid bad situations. We did practice some moves, but the instructor stressed how unless we constantly practiced them, they probably wouldn't be much help. The key, she said, was avoiding the situation in the first place, just like you wrote. Also, great point about pepper spray. The instructor said if you wanted to use it, you should practice once in a wide open space so you knew exactly how to operate it.