I was in Chicago when I learned that the body of Mollie Tibbits had been found in a cornfield. It was a jarring thing to read while I was on a peaceful little getaway to the city, especially as I spent breakfast watching runners go past me on the Riverfront Path that snakes through downtown. Though it was jarring, part of me had been expecting the news from the day they announced she’d gone missing. Things like that rarely turn out well.
Mollie Tibbits was the college student who disappeared while on her regular run through her small Iowa town. But what happened to her on that summer night was anything but regular. From what law enforcement has been able to piece together, Tibbits was approached by a man while running. A man who wanted her attention. Who wanted her. When she rebuffed his advances, he got violent and the next thing he said he remembered was finding the runner’s lifeless body in his trunk.
I’ve been a runner for most of my life. I’ve been fast. I’ve been slow. I’ve been a half-miler. I’ve been a marathoner. But one thing I’ve never been is afraid. And now some jerk is trying to change that. Well, here’s what I have to say to him: “Good luck.”
History has not been kind to female runners. We’ve been forbidden from entering running events. We’ve been told we couldn’t handle doing the same distance as the men. We’ve had to make do with poorly fitting apparel because the industry for years thought that “pink it and shrink it” was the answer to women’s needs. And on at least one occasion, we’ve been violently pushed in an attempt to get us out of a race. But we’ve made it through all that. And we’ll make through this too.
In the weeks since the Tibbits case started making headlines, there has been a lot of discussion about ‘solutions’ to the issue of female runner safety. Discussions that have included topics like where and when women run, if they run alone or what they were wearing while they were running. Suggestions are made to carry a weapon and to not listen to music. One article I read even alluded to a discussion where someone suggested to “just run on a treadmill.”
I reject the notion that the onus of our safety needs to land solely with women. Stop telling us what to do. Don’t tell me when I should be able to run. Instead teach your sons that women are not a prize to be won – or worse – something they are owed. Don’t tell me to run inside. Tell boys that women have a right to be out in public without being harassed or bothered. And make a point of telling them that if a female shuns their attempts to interact, then that’s where the interaction stops. Period. Don’t tell me what to wear. Instruct young men that how a woman is dressed is her choice and that a woman is most likely running in a sports bra and a pair of short shorts because it gets darn hot in the Midwest and she is working hard. And for goodness sake, don’t tell me I need to carry a weapon. I’m not adept at handling a knife or a gun, or honestly, even mace, in the best of circumstances. In a situation where I’m tired, frightened and have sweaty hands, that is not going to end well for me. Instead tell young men that if they see something to say something.
Unless you’re a runner, you can’t quite understand the freedom that comes with a good run. While you’re running you’re not a mom, a student, an employee, or a host of other roles with responsibilities. You’re simply a being in sync with your body in the most divine and intimate way. And unless you’ve experienced this, you could never understand how devastating it would be to have that taken from you. I, for one, am not about to let anyone do that to me.
I will not be deterred from running. I will be vigilant, to be sure. I choose my running routes carefully. I am always scanning the horizon to be on the lookout for danger – for the person whose glance lingers just a bit too long or the person who seems really out of place. I run with friends when I can. But sometimes I need a solitary run too – and I won’t feel bad about that. While my female friends and I have sadly lost the luxury of being able to lose ourselves in our thoughts during a run, I am not going to let anyone take away my runs.
I can’t do much for Mollie. But I can do that.