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Running to Heal

Renee Despres
Friday, February 10, 2012 - 11:24

On Saturday, January 7, 2012, 43-year-old Sherry Arnold left her home in the town of Sidney, Montana (population 5,191) at 6:30 a.m. for her morning run. About a mile away, she was assaulted and killed.

As I learned more about Arnold, I was struck by how much she was an "everywoman" among women runners. She was, undoubtedly, her own, unique, beautiful self. The tragedy of the loss for her family, friends, students, and coworkers is indescribable. Yet she was also typical of women runners, making running part of a full and rich life, getting up early to squeeze in a few miles -- and perhaps a few minutes of precious "alone time."

Arnold was a math teacher at Sidney High School and a mother of two. She and her husband Gary often went on walks together, according to her cousin, Beth Risdon of Colorado. Gary had gone for his own walk at 5:30 a.m. that morning, Risdon wrote in her blog, “and when he returned home he could tell that Sherry had already left for her run because of the toothpaste splatters in the sink and a light that was on in the kitchen.”

While the details are still fuzzy, two men have been accused of kidnapping and killing Arnold. On February 6, Governor Brian Schweitzer signed extradition requests for Michael Spell and Lester Waters, Jr.

Running to Heal

In a beautiful tribute, Risdon is sponsoring a “virtual run” to honor Arnold. Details of the event, which will be held on Saturday, February 11th, at 9 am (MT time), are available on her blog: http://www.shutupandrun.net/2012/01/virtual-run-for-sherry-arnold-february.html.

Group events will take place in Sidney and in Boulder, Colorado. But anyone anywhere can participate simply by wearing the race bib that can be downloaded from Risdon’s blog. Risdon asks everyone who can to join in by running, walking, or cycling in Arnold’s honor.

To participate in the virtual run, follow these steps, says Risdon:

  • Print out a running bib and pin it to your shirt
  • Gather your friends, your running club members, your families
  • If it's wet where you are, "laminate" your bib with postage tape and punch holes in it
  • If that time doesn't work, go when you can
  • GO. Run as far and as long as you want. Walk, hike, cycle, rollerblade if you don't want to or can't run.
  • Keep it simple. Just run with Sherry on your minds and hearts.

Running for All Women Runners

Risdon's virtual run is a wonderful way to honor a sister runner, and I'll be joining in myself. As I run, I'll be thinking not only of Sherry, but of all women runners. I'll run because I am outraged by Arnold's murder -- and incensed that more than half of our population needs to worry about being attacked, raped, or murdered when we run simply because we happen to be female.

“As mothers, runners, and teachers,  we fear it could have been us,” Risdon writes. Those words resonate with women runners everywhere. Every woman runner knows that feeling of anxiety and uncertainty. Should I run? Is it safe? Should I carry mace? Pepper spray? Are those footsteps behind me friend, foe, or neutral?

Since Arnold’s murder, at least 4 other women have been attacked while running. The latest and most violent was the Feb 6 rape and knifing of a woman in her early 20s in Provo Canyon, Utah.

Ask experts about women’s running safety, and you’ll get a range of stock and generally useless advice, usually accompanied by placating comments about "female joggers."

  • Never run alone. Hello? What woman hasn’t had to either skip a run or go it solo? And a run may be the only time you have in the day for a few minutes peaceful alone time, especially if you're a mu;ti-tasking mom.
  • Never run with headphones. I confess I am an advocate of this one. But that's less for protection from would-be assailants than from itinerant vehicles. My take: If you enjoy running, run. If you enjoy listening to music, listen to music. But make them two separate activities.
  • Carry a cell phone. One of the reasons I run is to get away from the cell phone. And honestly, if someone attacks me, how likely am I going to be to have the time to call 911, and how long is it going to take for police to respond?
  • Vary your route and time of day. So how many people can realistically do this? Most of us have routines and schedules. We have places we need to be at certain times, and often there are only so many routes from our homes or workplaces where we can run.
  • Run in well-lit places. Great advice. Many attacks happen during daylight hours. And I can't control whether there are streetlights outside my home or not.
  • Never run in isolated places. Do you mean I can't enjoy a run on a beautiful footpath through a park? Isn't that what footpaths in parks are for?

This well-intended but banal advice about women’s running safety misses the point: Women should be able to run or walk in their communities without fearing for our lives. Women should be able to run alone, in quiet places, in parks, on city streets, in rural and urban communities, without fear. Women's safety should not be reactive and defensive, but proactive. Our communities, our governments, our educational institutions, our churches, our public safety systems need to step up and change the paradigm. 

Fear: Killing us Softly

Fear has huge implications for women's health. A study published in the November issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine confirms that fear is an obstacle to women getting adequate exercise. For the study, a research team from Purdue University assessed responses from almost 69,000 women ages 40 to 60 years who participated in  the Nurses’ Health Study II in 2005.

Researchers asked the women whether they had shopping and free recreational facilities within walking distance, whether they had sidewalks, and about their perception of crime in the area. They also asked how much time they spent walking, running or biking outdoors. To determine whether women were meeting the federally recommended weekly activity level, researchers calculated the time spent and pace used for walking, jogging, running or bicycling, or combinations of those.

Fewer than one out of four (24 percent) of the women met the weekly recommended activity level.
Not surprisingly, women who lived in a more recreation-friendly environments were more likely to be active. And women who lived in high crime areas were also less likely to meet exercise guidelines.

Toward Real Safety

The changes we really need have nothing to do with whether we run alone, carry a cell phone, or confine ourselves to treadmills. It is not so much an individual woman's responsibility to always take safety precautions as it is a community's responsibility to respect women's safety. We need policies to help build safe environments where women can run, walk, and play. We need to change they way we think about what it means to be safe -- and what true safety precautions really are.

On February 11, please join Risdon's event. Run, walk, or cycle for Sherry Arnold. And run, walk, or cycle for all the women who have ever been attacked or felt threatened when they are running. Run for the women who will choose not to lace up their shoes this morning or tonight because it was too dark, or there was no one to run with them, or they just weren’t sure. Run for my sister who has spent most of the last three months training for her first half-marathon indoors, on a treadmill, instead of running on the beautiful beachside path near to her house. She arrives home from work after dark, and leaves for work well before daybreak each morning.

Run for Sherry. Run for all of us. And when you get home, write a letter to your your mayor, city councilors, county commissioners, state and federal elected officials. Tell them that we need safe places to run. Tell them we need sidewalks, well-lit streets, recreational facilities, and more. Tell them we need to change the way we educate our children, so we can lay the groundwork for a truce between men and women. Tell them we need policies that will stop the assaults on women's safety, on women's psyches, and on women's health.