The three young women were found murdered in separate incidents in Michigan, New York City, and Massachusetts, and though the type of crime is very rare and police have said the events are unrelated, the shared scenarios—young, athletic women out logging miles—have inextricably linked their stories.
The New York Times reported women training for marathons in New York City were changing routes and routines out of fear, and the New York Post declared that sales of a sports bra with a secret pocket for a knife or pepper spray surged (its creator was attacked while jogging last year). One runner blogged about how the killings were “making her question every run.”
I wanted to think more deeply about the string of events and the impact they were having on runners, so naturally, I put on my sneakers and hit the pavement in Queens, where I live a little more than 10 miles away from where Vetrano was killed.
As I headed toward a less-developed area of my neighborhood, I got into a mental fight with myself about taking out one headphone. “It makes them slip out of my ears so that I have to constantly adjust and drives me crazy!” “I really should be able to hear what’s going on around me…” Then, I started to think about the fact that I had no ID or money on me, which is not the safest way to be out alone, but it’s something that had never occurred to me before. The fear-feedback loop led me to a thought.
Running makes me—makes women—feel free and powerful. These attacks remind us that there are people everywhere who want us to be neither of those things. Which is why we need to keep running. Running harder, faster, stronger, without forgetting about those women who no longer have that option.
You may think I’m being dramatic and that the fact that the three women were running when they were attacked is just a coincidence. It is, sure, but it created a moment ripe for reflection on the many ways threats of violence prevent women from realizing their potential. (To be clear, I’m no feminist scholar. I’m just a runner, a woman, and someone who’s spent a hell of a lot of time over the last several years investigating and thinking about how fitness affects modern women’s lives.)
Title IX passed in 1972; this month we learned the US Olympic team has more female athletes than male. According to a May 2016 State of the Sport report from Running USA, 9.8 million women made up 57 percent of race finishers in 2015, compared to 7.4 million men (43 percent).
Still, a 2004 article in the Journal of Sport & Social Issues on “Femininity, Sports, and Feminism” argues that “women’s displays of physical power are often prevented or undermined, typically in ways centering on the concept of femininity. Increasing numbers of female athletes have not led to a true physical feminist liberation, one which would increase women’s confidence, power, respect, wealth, enjoyment of physicality, and escape from rape and the fear of rape.”
Women have always been running, really. Running away from threats to protect themselves and their children, running from one low-wage job to another to pick up the kids, running to prove themselves at the office against male counterparts who get paid more for the same work.
Women have been running to keep up; increasingly, we’re also running to get ahead. We’re running for physical strength where and when we want to, for the stress release and mental space needed to be CEOs and innovators. We’re running for president.
And the faster and stronger we get, the more we show that we can run past the barriers that have limited us, the more danger there is, in some ways. So I say we stay vigilant, both physically and philosophically. Of course we should be able to run free, but it’s also practical to carry pepper spray and take out one headphone and avoid the most deserted areas. The most important thing is to reject the “feminine” ideal body meant to keep you weak and just. keep. running.
That’s what I was thinking when I took a break on my run, in a sculpture park on the banks of the East River. I stopped to contemplate and found myself directly facing a fence wrapped with yellow tape. Instead of “CAUTION” it read, “UNTIL WE FEARLESS.”