by Ines Madrid
Brooklyn Track Club's Leeat Shnaider got separated from her running group because of a cramp in her leg for only a moment. That’s all it took for someone to assault her. Shnaider was on a training run for her first marathon, running with her Nike Project Moonshot teammates in October 2017, on a section of the running path near Manhattan's FDR Drive, known to be heavily trafficked by runners and cyclists. It appeared to be a safe environment. But in that split second when she felt the cramp and told her pacer she would catch up, she was blindsided as to what happened next.
“I started to walk towards the meeting point where the group would be, and I noticed a guy on a bike riding in my direction,” said Shnaider, who is now training for her second New York City marathon. “As he passed me, he turned, doubled back and smacked me on my ass, and then sped off.”
Filled with anger, a sense of being violated and holding back tears, Shnaider wanted to go chase after him and hurt him. Instead, she kept walking, then running towards the group with tears in her eyes.
“What was I going to do? He was on a bike and had sped off because he knew that what he did was wrong,” she added.
As runners of all paces lace up on June 5, 2019, to celebrate Global Running Day, the discussion on runner safety is never far behind. With training season for fall marathons just around the corner, plus more people enjoying the extra hours of daylight to run, the number of women and young girls taking up the sport is expected to continue its upward trajectory.
In 1971 for the first New York City marathon that allowed female runners, five women entered the race. For the 2017 marathon, 21,277 women entered the race, according to New York Road Runners' most recent figures.
Making new runners — and especially women runners — feel safe on the run is one of the founding blocks for Mile Stylers, a Bronx, New York-based running group launched in July 2017 by Miguel Hernandez.
To combat harassment or unwanted attention from onlookers, the new runners — AKA “sexy pace runners” — have a male member stay with them from beginning to end.
“Our women runners are the most consistent members, who have bonded as a group within the group," Hernandez said. “Their presence in the streets and with us motivates people who see us, and we want to keep them safe. Plus there is always some guy saying something embarrassing to the women, so we want to make sure they feel protected.”
For runners unable to make the meeting time for their local run group, Hernandez suggests that they stay in high visibility areas, and go during daylight hours.
“And I know we all hate them, but if you must run alone, go to the gym and use a treadmill,” Hernandez said.
Additional safety tips include: running with pepper spray, running without music, avoiding isolated areas and carrying a cell phone, Metrocard and cash.
When talking to runners of Lean.Strong.Fast. about safety, coach Marlon Jude will be upfront with his members to never place running above safety, and to skip the run if they can’t be in a safe space.
“You should be able to run anytime that you want, but unfortunately that is not the case,” Jude said. “In the summer, for example, tons of people try to run early to avoid the heat, but sometimes that’s not always possible.”
LSF hosts weekly runs in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, where winter runs are often in the dark due to shorter hours of daylight. In a group that has various pace levels, Jude has a built in safety net.
“We all start together, but I stay in the meeting spot at the Grand Army Plaza entrance in charge of bag check. When the first person gets back from running a loop of the park, they then become bag check as I run clockwise to check on every runner,” Jude added.
In the dynamics of a group setting, there is a larger safety net and a broader awareness of surroundings that gets passed on from runner to runner, he said. Those running alone, including men, should be on double alert as to what is going on around them.
Jude suggests that if women must run alone in the park they should: not run with music, stay in the middle of the road and run against traffic. If they are harassed, they should be loud to attract attention from others who are walking or running by.
“Another safety tip is to find someone who can run at the same time as you, and if you need to run a bit slower, that’s fine,” Jude said. “The point is to stay safe.”
Kim Rodrigues managed to stay safe when a man threatened her life as she made her way to a morning run in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park.
On a weekday morning around 11 a.m. in early February, Rodrigues decided to go for a run after dropping off her grandson at daycare. Rodrigues headed to the park from Parkside Avenue, a route she had taken countless times.
A runner who never listens to music as she exercises, Rodrigues noticed a man on the street as she approached the park, and attempted to go around him. But before she knew it, he was in front of her face.
“Before I know what’s happening, he tells me, ‘I’m going to kill you bitch’ and I say okay,” Rodrigues recalled. “I didn’t know what to say and I just continued running to the park.”
Once inside the park, Rodrigues took a few moments to compose herself, and realized she had not checked if he had followed her. She continued her run to loop the park, but her mood had changed.
“After that, every man I saw I looked at him as a potential attacker, so I put on a really hard look on my face,” Rodrigues said. “When I finally got home, I took my shoes off and sat for about 10 minutes to process what happened. I wondered how often this happens to women, and why we only hear about it when someone is raped or murdered.”
After her ordeal, Rodrigues is thinking about taking action by staging a protest near Prospect Park’s Grand Army Plaza. She hopes to have a placard that will say “Stop Harassing Women Who are Running.”
Her determination to stay healthy and safe is what kept her focused to continue her run that morning, and every run after that, including her first Boston Marathon in 2019.
“I still ran because I told myself, ‘This is not going to stop me,’” Rodrigues said. “I have too much to live for, and you can’t give into the fear.”
It’s that sense of empowerment and determination that coach Jesse Zapotechne taps into when discussing runners’ safety with the members of Girls Run NYC. The group was not only created to give women a safe and non-judgmental space to work out, but also to empower runners.
“Sadly, running alone and in a group (of women) often attracts the kind of attention that a person doesn't want, i.e: harassment,” Zapotechne said. “To take that a step further, we are well aware that some women have been assaulted and murdered while running, and so it has come to be that we've had to have very serious conversations about physical safety.”
In sharing her own personal experiences, Zapotechne admits to changing her own workouts to make sure she was safe. She recently ran a long workout on a track, because she didn’t feel that the alternative was safe.
“I know what it feels like to run scared, and it's awful. I encourage women to come together and have workout buddies if you can,” she added.”
Although runners’ safety is an issue that seems to be mostly discussed around women, she said it is an issue that men and the entire running community need to be vocal about and support.