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Runners: How to Avoid Being Robbed, Beaten, and Raped

Posted by on Jul 2, 2013 | 8 Comments

Are you a runner? Do you run outside? There’s a decent chance you could be attacked at some point. You could be robbed, beaten, raped, or even killed.

It happens.

Shelly and I were having a discussion about the NJ home invasion case, which led to a discussion on runner safety. We came to the conclusion that most runners a) made really, really stupid decisions that put themselves at unnecessary risk, and b) dramatically overestimated their ability to fight off potential attackers.

Somewhere in our travels, we engaged a group of runners in a discussion about safety. Most took some precautions some of the time, but very few took precautions all the time. Their confidence in their self-defense abilities was even more troubling. When confronted with a particular situation, almost everyone had a plan in place (gouge their eyes, kick them in the groin, etc.) and were extremely confident their crappy-ass methods would be effective. In fact, they were so confident, they were will into forgo measures to avoid bad situations in the first place.

I discussed this matter briefly in the Squirrel Wipe book, but a more in-depth discussion is probably warranted. So… what can runners to to increase safety? Here’s a few tips:

1. Understand what makes people a good victim, then do the opposite. Spend some time sitting on a park bench. Watch runners pass. Imagine you’re gong to attack one of them. Pick out the one that seems like the best “victim.”

What qualities did that ideal victim possess?

They were probably alone. I bet they were wearing headphones. Maybe they were chatting on a cell phone. They probably didn’t acknowledge your presence. In short, they were blissfully unaware they were in the presence of a potential attacker. Their body language makes this readily apparent. 

You know that joke about the two runners running down a trail? They see a bear; it sees them. It begins barreling towards the runner. One takes off while the other reties his shoes. The one runner yells out “Why are you retying your shoes?!? You can’t outrun a bear!” The other responds “I don’t have to outrun the bear. I just have to outrun YOU!”

This is the basic mindset you need to adopt. Attackers will always attack the weakest perceived target. Avoid appearing to be the weakest target.

2. Be aware of your surroundings. A potential attacker could be hiding behind some sort of obstruction, like a blind corner, bush, tree, shadows… whatever. If you’re passing an obstacle people could hide behind, get as much distance between you and the obstacle as you can. The more space you can create the more time you’ll have to react to a potential attacker.

Distance is safety. In the fight world, there are a variety of “ranges” that span a spectrum going from ground fighting (you’re both on the ground) to clinching (standing, but holding each other), to punching/stabbing range, then kicking range (which also happens to by a typical distance we keep with strangers when we’re conversing), then a variety of weapon ranges. The safest spot is beyond their longest available range.  In other words, keep as much distance between yourself and others as possible.

Also consider potential escape routes. As I’ll discuss shortly, running is your best possible option. It’s only effective if an escape route exists.

3. Not all attackers look like crazy sociopaths. The ability to blend in and put people at ease is a major reason WHY they’re sociopaths. Be wary of ALL other people. Not all attackers will be wearing hoodies and dark glasses. Don’t discriminate because someone looks “safe.” Treat every person you encounter as a potential threat.

4. Never run alone. Yeah, I know this is a tough one… running partners aren’t always available. However, you dramatically reduce the risk of being attacked if you have a numerical advantage over potential attackers. The bigger the group, the better. If another person isn’t available, dogs can be an effective deterrent. As I mentioned earlier, a potential attacker is going to look for the easiest possible target. A dog will be a decent solution if the dog looks like it has at least some potential to be menacing. A wiener dog or 15 year old toothless lab covered in gray hair is NOT going to be a deterrent.

5. If you are attacked, escape should be the only goal. You’re a runner, which is a good thing. Escaping the situation by running away is always the best possible option. If you’re in a threatening situation, immediately run. If the attacker gives chase and catches you, only fight back until you can run again. Screaming while running away can be effective, also. It’ll attract attention. THIS IS ESPECIALLY TRUE IF THEY HAVE A WEAPON. You aren’t going to win a knife fight. If they have a handgun, distance is your best safety net. Contrary to what tv and movies depicts, it’s almost impossible to hit a moving target more than a few feet away with a handgun.

6. If you stick around to fight, understand you’ll lose. Your attacker will probably be bigger, stronger, and quicker than you. They will probably attack with extreme aggression. A single punch to the head can completely derail the most well-thought-out self-defense plans. This is the reason it’s best to avoid the danger through smart decisions and awareness, then running away as your primary reaction.

I’ve talked to a lot of female runners that took a single self-defense class, watched a video, or maybe do some weight training. They’re extremely confident in their ability to fight off an attacker- and the false confidence is ludicrous. If you’re attacked and you stick around to fight, you’re going to get your ass beaten. Badly.

One of the people Shelly and I talked to awhile back had been involved in karate for about a year. She was convinced this experience made her invincible even though she had never sparred live with an opponent that wasn’t restrained by the rules of her gym. Her response- “If I were attacked, I’d just kick their ass. I can break boards.”

Yeah. Good luck with that. 

Learning self-defense is a good thing, but it should be thought of as an absolute last resort methodology to buy a fraction of a second to escape. Even people that train for years using full-speed self-defense scenarios will escape the situation as soon as the opportunity arises.

I always thought it would be fun to burst this “I could fight off an attacker” bubble by gathering a few friends for an experiment/drill. Have a person (attacker) go somewhere along a predetermined route. Hide. Have the rest of the group run, one at a time, along the route. Have the attacker attack each runner as they pass. It would give people a sense of just how unprepared they would be if attacked.

Any volunteers? 😉

7. Ambiguity is a consideration. We like to think all emergency situations will be very clear-cut. Unfortunately, that’s rarely the case. The bystander effect is a psychological phenomenon where people fail to act in an emergency in the presence of a crowd. Why? Nobody makes the first move because nobody else is making the first move. We rely on the social cues of others to clear up ambiguity. At the heart of it, we don’t want to look foolish by reacting if there isn’t a real emergency.

This same sort of paralysis can happen if we’re confronted with a situation that seems somewhat dangerous, but there’s a degree of ambiguity. Let’s say you’re running along a road. A dude pulls up and asks for directions. This person could very well be an attacker and they’re scoping you out to assess your viability as a target. Or they could be a tourist hopelessly lost.

How do you react?

Most of us wouldn’t immediately run away. There’s a potential for danger, but it’s not readily apparent. It’s probably prudent to take a “better safe than sorry” approach in ambiguous situations. Better to look like a fool than be dead.

8. What about weapons? Weapons are an interesting case. First, the weapon has to be ready with little or no warning. A handgun in your hydration pack is of little use.

Second, you have to be trained well enough to know how to use the weapon under the stress of actually being attacked. Think you can operate that mace canister when someone jumps out from behind an overpass pillar and throws a haymaker at your noggin?

Third, many attack situations start out with a degree of ambiguity. Would you pepper spray the dude asking for directions? What if he got out of the vehicle? When do you commit to using the weapon? What if you incorrectly mistake the person as a threat and injure (or kill) them?

Fourth, any weapon you’re carrying can be taken away and used against you. This is especially true if you haven’t received extensive training in a live setting.

Carrying a weapon of some sort isn’t necessarily bad. It’s much like self-defense training. It works great as long as it doesn’t cause you to take unnecessary risks. Remember the activity where you observe other runners to pick out the best victim? I bet you didn’t pick the one that was obviously carrying a can of pepper spray.

Hopefully these eight points will help you make safer decisions when running. While it’s impossible to completely eliminate all potential dangers, simple measures can be taken to dramatically reduce the risk.

What do you think? Share your thoughts in the comments!


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  1. Jeff
    July 9, 2013

    I do run with a dog and have been attacked by a pitbull recently. My dog and I made it away. I thought my dog was going to be killed by this pitbull (an owner was walking it off leash of all things!). I kicked the pitbull behind on it’s neck until my dog could get up from being pinned by the other dog. My dog then broke her leash and got away and outran the pitbull. I found her later looking scared to death until she recognized me. I couldn’t believe she was okay. It all happened so fast. Now I carry a stun gun and pepper spray. After doing a bunch of research pepper spray will not stop a dog attacking, especially not a pit. Stun guns will. I live in Arizona and was running on a desert trail near my house when this happened.

  2. Matt
    July 3, 2013

    Great article Jason. The article reminds me of a quote from Gen. “Maddog” Mattis (USMC), “Be polite, be professional, but have a plan to kill everybody you meet.” I’m not saying that you go on the attack but, as you mention, what you need is a plan to get out of every situation.

  3. Mike
    July 3, 2013

    Thanks Jason for a sobering piece. Here in the DC metro area, we’ve had several recent high-profile attacks on runners and bicyclists on our local trails.

    I share forest trails with people who are so plugged into their headphones that no amount of “Good morning!” or “On your left!” can get their attention. Then they’re seriously startled when I finally pass…for these folks, simply being aware might be a big help.

    Another hint I might suggest would be to try to be especially aware during early mornings and evenings–out of necessity, times when many runners hit the road, path or trail. –Mike

  4. Cris
    July 2, 2013

    @Thomas: you’re close to the best answer, which is “live in a civilised country”. Jason’s article is shot through with the US cultural background, which assumes violence as a natural and expected backdrop to life. That’s entirely reasonable, given where he lives. But it just doesn’t apply to most of us in the mainstream West. The US is an outlier.

    • Jason
      July 2, 2013

      We have an interesting dynamic here in the US. We don’t have nearly as much violence as our media suggests. However, our populous also is ill-prepared for any sort of violence.

      • Cris
        July 2, 2013

        Point about the media well-taken. Exaggeration scares and sells. That’s true in my country (Australia) too, despite our (objectively) amazingly peaceful and safe state.

        But, although I don’t have the stats to hand, I’ve read plenty over the years, and it’s objectively true that the US is in a separate category as regards violence levels from the mainstream West. New York, for example, is held up *within* the States a a great success story for its reduction of violent crime since the ’70’s, yet its murder rates are still more than double the worst our cities have to offer.

        Why the US is much more violent than comparatively rich countries is a huge question (guns? founding myths? culture?). But *that* its so is firmly established.

  5. Thomas
    July 2, 2013

    Living in Sweden, I have a hard time to relate to the problem. The numbers are on my side, running is probably the safest way to spend your time. It is more dangerous to stay at home, especially in the kitchen. There is by far more violence in the kitchens than in the running trails. Also, since there is a very strong correlation between alcohol and violence, both for victims and offenders. While running we are not influenced by alcohol, which makes us by far safer.
    Once again, this is from a Swedish perspective, but I think the statistics are similar in the US. If you are afraid of violence, stay away from the kitchen and stay away from alcohol.

  6. Margaret
    July 2, 2013

    As a small 20-something female, this definitely is something I keep in mind when running. My mom is also paranoid on my behalf, so when she ask me to do/not do something (e.g., there’s a park near my apt with sidewalks on the side near the road, and trails on the other side by the river, hidden by trees from any highly-populated areas – she doesn’t like me running on the trails), I do so even when it seems like overkill.

    I think the two biggest considerations I make are location and eye contact. Although I’d like to run on pretty trails, I try to stick near residential neighborhoods where there will likely be people home to hear screams (there are a lot of park/trail-type areas that border on residential neighborhoods, so I can kind of get the best of both worlds if I plan right). I also try to make eye contact and say hi to people I pass. I figure if they’re a potential attacker then that will make me look like less of a passive potential victim, and if they’re not a potential attacker then they’re more likely to remember me and where I was heading if I do turn up missing.

    If I were attacked I would definitely try to run – I don’t have any delusions that I would be able to fight an attacker! It concerns me that would I have any energy to run fast enough if I’d already been running, but I hope adrenaline would kick in.