Women reconsider running gear, safety after Eliza Fletcher’s death

Ali Feller, 38, knows what it’s like to be a working mom running alone in the early morning hours. She sets her alarm at 4 a.m. so she has time to run before her daughter wakes up.

But when she heard about the death of runner Eliza Fletcher, a Memphis schoolteacher abducted and killed on a morning run Sept. 2, Feller was so devastated and scared, she switched to the safety of running later in the day. Feller, who hosts a podcast Fletcher used to listen to, said this was the first time in 14 years that she couldn’t brave the morning darkness.

“I woke up to run today — at 4:30, in the dark, on familiar roads that I know and could probably run blindfolded by now, wearing bright, reflective gear and a headlamp, always bringing my phone ‘just in case’ — but I couldn’t do it. I was finally too scared,” Feller said in an Instagram post.

Exercising outside before dawn isn’t unusual for runners, who have found that a long run while most people are still asleep is often the best way to balance the demands of work, family and fitness.

But around the country, women runners now say they are feeling frightened and vulnerable after the death of yet another female runner. They tell stories of constant vigilance and extra precautions, including changing their running time and even purchasing self-defense rings and stun guns.

Police identify body of abducted jogger Eliza Fletcher

Staying aware and taking precautions

Becky Croft, a running coach in Tulsa, said she is always on guard when she’s running. If a slowly passing car makes her feel uncomfortable, she makes a mental note of the tag number, color, make and model in case she’s catcalled or needs to report it. “As a woman, I have to be concerned about my safety at all times,” she said.

Austin Morthland, 31, in Richmond said the precautions she takes before running now are second nature, including making sure the sound is low on her headphones so she can stay aware of her surroundings.

“I don’t take the same route all the time,” she said. “Whenever I leave by myself, I make sure I bring pepper spray. All these things are ingrained behaviors at a certain point, just because that’s the safest way to do what you love.”

When Dani Iannone, 27, goes for a run in Marlton, N.J., she shares her location with her friends and family. She also has an emergency alert on her watch, and carries pepper spray and a personal pull alarm.

Fletcher’s death reminded Iannone of the many women runners killed in recent years. Mollie Tibbetts was a University of Iowa student when she was murdered in 2018 by a farmworker while out for a run. In 2019, runner Wendy Martinez was fatally stabbed in D.C., just days after celebrating her engagement.

Some runners said they were looking into self-defense jewelry, including items from Go Guarded, which sells heavy duty, serrated edge self-defense rings to wear while working out. The company recently announced on its website that orders might be delayed and items sold out “due to a large increase in demand” because of the news about Fletcher.

“The Go Guarded Instagram account, which focuses on runner safety and female empowerment, has become inundated with direct messages, posts, and Reels from female runners expressing their heartbreak and outrage from yet another murder of a female runner,” wrote Go Guarded founder Jodi Fisher in an email. “I am a runner myself, so I understand all the concern and grief. We just want to run in peace.”

Claire Pagan in Longwood, Fla., said that what happened to Fletcher prompted her to buy the self-defense rings and mace for herself and friends.

“Ninety percent of the time, I’m running by myself,” Pagan said. “I’m running super early, so I can totally relate to her.”

A lot of the fears for women runners stem from personal experience. A driver swore at Keller and threatened to kill her while she was on a midday run. Jenn Cronin, Pagan’s running partner, was part of a group that started running with stun guns after women in the area were followed by a man on a bike.

Several runners said they’ve been upset by social media posts that questioned why Fletcher chose to run when it’s dark outside.

As Carmel, Ind., stay-at-home mom Kelly Halstead pointed out, early morning could have been the only time that didn’t interfere with Fletcher’s responsibilities as a mother and schoolteacher.

“When I was training for the Boston Marathon, I started training in November, December, and I was waking up at 4 o’clock in the morning, and I would go out and run at 4:30 in the morning,” Halstead said. “It really tore at my heart thinking, ‘That was me. Eliza is me.’ That’s a lot of other runners out there.”

Others scrutinized Fletcher’s outfit — a sports bra and running shorts. But it can get hot running in the summertime, Cronin said, and men aren’t reprimanded for working out shirtless.

“What happened to Eliza was not her fault,” said Barb Byrum, a former state legislator in Onondaga, Mich. “And the blame shifting on her only serves to hinder us from addressing crime and its social-economic underpinnings.”

Women runners said they hope the tragedy will spread more awareness of how women runners are regularly targeted and harassed during their workouts. Morthland said she has spoken with her husband and other men about being aware how their presence may feel threatening to women running by themselves. They discussed how men can avoid startling hyperaware women runners, and how women run in groups to feel safer.

Croft, who is Native American, noted that Indigenous women and women of color often don’t receive as much media coverage as White women when they go missing, despite a higher risk of being abducted and killed. She wants people to mourn Fletcher and also show support for the thousands of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, or MMIW, attacked every year.

What to know about Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons Awareness Day

Most of all, women just want to keep running.

They say it’s a way to relieve stress and make lifelong friends. Pagan and Cronin discovered they went to the same college and shared many mutual friends after they met through a local runners group. Ever since then, the two haven’t run apart for more than three weeks.

What invigorates Lindsey Eaton, Halstead’s sister in Indianapolis, is how runners are united. Signs held up by strangers have often been her source of strength during marathons, for example. Thousands gathered in Memphis, Nashville and Chattanooga, Tenn., last Friday to “Finish Eliza’s Run” in her honor.

Ultimately, Eaton said she doesn’t want worries about safety to spoil the passion of women runners. Stock up on defensive gear, join running groups or workout inside, she says, but nobody should be too scared to exercise their right to run.

“We can’t live in constant fear,” Byrum said. “We need to stand together and demand to be able to go for a run without having to worry.”

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