Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.
– Margaret Atwood
Police in Michigan, New York, and Massachusetts are investigating three deaths of female runners over the course of nine days, all of which have garnered national media coverage and the attention of fellow runners on social media. None of the cases have been solved, though officials have said they believe the killings are unrelated. As reported by The Detroit News, 31-year-old Alexandra Nicolette Brueger was shot four times in the back at around 2:30 p.m. on July 30 while running on a dirt road in Rose Township, 50 miles northwest of Detroit. Three days later, on August 2 at about 5 p.m. in Queens, New York, 30-year-old Karina Vetrano was raped and killed on a trail in Spring Creek Park. The latest incident occurred on Sunday, August 7, when the body of 27-year-old Vanessa Marcotte was recovered in the woods near Princeton, Massachusetts, after she went missing during an afternoon run.
– Runner’s World
I read of your brutal murders three months after a stranger tried to kill me on my morning run. One of my favorite spots to run was an abandoned trailer park lot. The large asphalt ring was left there after all of the trailers were moved to who knows where. The remains of the trailers are surrounded with trees and tall grass. The land has been for sale for as long as I can remember and is rarely mowed, which I liked because when I was there running, I felt as if I was running somewhere other than central Missouri. As if I was running somewhere magical. That’s what this place became to me, a time to rest, refresh, get away, and be surrounded with my private thoughts. I’m sure you had your own sanctuary, somewhere where the golden light made love to the strands of hair that stuck to the crevices of your mouth as your legs pumped freely. The air was unusually crisp for the Ozarks in April (I love to run when the air is like that) and the dirt and leaves were crunching under foot. My town is innocent and quiet, like yours, so we can bask in the stillness of absolute nothingness as our minds go empty on the run. It was undoubtedly one of those runner’s high days, headphones left at home because the run is enough on its own, the kind of day where you disappear in plain sight. You are taller—a warrior hovering behind the tangles of the jungle, crouching and observing the world move around you. You are free to move about in your own, invisible world; you are immortal for those five miles. Heaven. Is this where you reside now, hovering in time, bodiless, unaware of your detachment from body and forever invisible?
There’s usually no disturbance in the abandoned lot, maybe the occasional elderly man walking his dog, forcing me to casually wave or stop for small talk. Sometimes I’ll see a panicking mother flailing her arms towards her permit-driving teenager, circling, reversing, and swerving around the lot. This day, not unlike most days, I received a “catcall” from a passing truck off the main road.
“Nice piece of ass, bab-ay!”
I wonder if he called out to you before invading your space, your personal sanctuary, and your body. Some days I give perpetrators a nice wave of my favorite finger. If I’m in a place of solitude where the no-name-bastard can pull over and react, I’ll ignore him. Did you blow him off like all the others and try to avoid eye contact? Did you give him a half-smile as your pulse raced? Maybe he smelled your fear. Maybe you made him angry. Maybe he slid into that light-colored sedan that allegedly sped along the same road, after leaving bullet shells, and smiled in his rearview mirror at your dirt-covered body because you told him to get lost.
As women, especially as women runners, we are constantly aware of our surroundings. The “Don’t run alone” mantra is drilled into us, just as “Don’t go out at night” is for all women. Most days the vehicle carries on, the harasser giving me one last victory smirk as he goes on his way, unscathed, and leaves me shaken up the remainder of the run. That day was not most days. Were you going a different path that day, or did you go along your normal route, basking in the normalcy and consistency of the run? I see you waving at the runner that passes you every Thursday at three just past the oak tree with the curve in its trunk. I imagine you half-smiling at the mother of two who crosses you at the mile one marker. That day for you was like all the rest until it wasn’t, and then there would be no more most days.
That day, he didn’t keep driving. His truck pulled into my haven and parked. His windows were tinted to the point that I couldn’t make out physical features, not even a shape of his head—Is he wearing a hat, sunglasses? Does he have facial hair, anything that I can recognize if I need to? The trailer park route goes in half mile loops, so I was forced to run past his truck multiple times, each time moving farther to the edge of the grass and failing, on multiple occasions, to get a glimpse of his face or license plate. I made a point to let him know I was staring at him, that I saw him. Act like you know where you’re going. Don’t act afraid. I’ve been told to stay out of a man’s way if he actually threatens you, but to stare him right in the eyes if you only feel threatened. I’ve been told men can smell fear and they feed off of it.
You were probably conflicted on how to react. Maybe you glanced down the dirt trail and thought of running back to your car, but the distance was over half your run. Maybe you smiled nervously and hoped your politeness would satisfy him. Maybe you ran, or maybe you froze. Maybe you didn’t remember to get out of his way while pretending to be brave. It’s hard to be brave when you think a man is about to kill you. I chose to stare, to make him feel vulnerable and his presence known, as he had done to me.
After a few laps, the driver cracked his window enough to show me his watching eyes. They were brown. Hair: dark brown. Race: Caucasian. Facial hair: none. These are the things I remember because I am a woman and I have to. Did you see his face as it hovered over you as you took your last breaths, the color of his hair, the smell of it, as he hid you in the brush? Did you take mental notes about his physicality because you had hoped your body wouldn’t be plastered on the 10 o’clock news? I can hear your thoughts that day, noting every hair on his face, because they are my thoughts and I hear them as I sleep.
When in a situation like this one, we try to rationalize why this middle-aged man is sitting alone in an abandoned lot watching a female in her mid-twenties run. He’s probably on a lunch break and just wants to get some peace. Maybe he’s reading. Maybe this is his favorite spot too and I’m also an intruder of his space. Maybe he wants to kill me. A man can see a stranger sitting in a strange spot and go about his day; a woman must completely reevaluate her surroundings—as if she no longer has the right to this space. I guess you were the intruder that day, so he removed you like an unwanted stain. Your powerful form bothered him; it fed his hunger for domination. He lit a match to remove evidence of your existence.
Male, 5′ 10″ gets out of his truck and walks casually behind intruding female, hands in pocket, and eyes darting between her ass and the main road. Female begins to pick up the pace and her eyes lock onto her car across the field, her mind on what she has on her person that could become a weapon.He picks up the pace.
“Hey, honey, where you goin’? I just wanna talk. Ha-ha, come bring that ass a little closer.”
“You gonna be like that, little bitch? Come on you cunt, don’t be like that.”
“Aw come on now, we’re gonna have a good ol’ time. Oh yeah, I got real nice plans. Don’t run away, fighting just makes me angry, okay? Hey, bitch! You hear me? I’m going to cut your throat, so nobody hears you scream! Ha-Ha!”
Female reaches vehicle, hands shaking so violently she fails the first two attempts to unlock her car. She manages to throw herself into the driver’s seat and immediately locks the door, seconds before male reaches female’s car window and repeatedly tries at the handle. Female punches gas pedal and escapes, leaving male to curse at her rearview mirror.
This could have been my statement to the authorities, to my husband, to anyone, if I had reported the incident. I have suffered both fear and guilt from not reporting what happened that day. I suffer because I see your faces in my dreams—I see the photo displayed on the news of you smiling cheek-to-cheek with your father, with a race medal around your neck, your victorious smile, your mother’s arm around your shoulder. You were a great kid, witty, thoughtful, serious-minded, a force to be reckoned with. When I saw the wanted posters for your murderers, I wanted to tell you that I had been brave, that I had brought my voice, your voice, our voices from a muffled whimper in the dirt to a scream. I suffer because a part of me thinks my silence that day killed you.
I play that day on repeat for every run in which I’m alone. I wonder where he is, if he still goes to the spot with the tall grass, if he waits for me, for you. I can see him lurking in the light-colored sedan, the pickup truck, planning to not let her get away this time, but to finish the job. He knows the number of loops to tire her, the spot where her breathing seems to shallow, the perfect moment to muffle her cry and her not to have the energy to fight back. We become weakened in the same act that makes us powerful, and he is waiting for his moment.
At the time, silence seemed the most logical reaction. I pictured myself stumbling into the local police station, only to be met with Mmhhmm and What were you wearing? and routine checks for marks, paperwork, becoming placed into another “Probably wants attention” file in a back room. Sometimes, as a woman, silencing myself hurts less than not being believed. If I told the truth, would I be seen as oversensitive, as crazy, as all of those other labels tacked onto women who speak up? So, I said nothing. I said nothing because I am a woman and I have been socialized to think a lady never argues; in fact, a lady side-steps conflict and confrontation at all costs. I silently stepped out of the way for the man who could have killed me. I cut my eyes to the ground as he passed, victorious. I failed you that day; I remained hidden in the tall grass.
I never went back to my sanctuary again. How dare we think of going somewhere for peace and quiet, knowing good and well there could be someone there wanting to rip running tights down to our ankles, dethroning us from our own bodies, because we dare to have a body and take it for a run on his territory? You ran by him as he hid like a coward behind a tree, a pile of brush, a rearview mirror, and you were powerful and threatening. You ran by him and were the things he was not, so he eliminated you.
This is a man’s world and women should take up the least amount of space possible. If you don’t follow the rules, you might just get killed by a brown-eyed stranger. I remember everything about him, the flush of his cheeks as he drew out the word bitch, how his spit spattered onto my car window, that his fingernails had oil remnants, thinking that maybe he was a mechanic, maybe he had a wife, that his one large brow reminded me of my dead grandfather, that I had never seen someone look at me so angrily. I remember because I live with the fear that they won’t believe me.
We remember because we have to, because we are women.
An elderly man once asked me if getting catcalled was actually a compliment. I wanted to breathe fire. Catcalling is not a compliment; it’s not cute; it’s a threat. It is the reminder that as a woman you are not your own, that even when you are out on a run and it’s a beautiful day, there will always be brown eyes peering over tinted truck windows. Now I only carry a pocket knife while running in the early morning hours instead of in the middle of the day, only keep 911 pre-dialed on my phone 50% of the time instead of 98%, only circle back to my car occasionally. I now look at every passerby as a threat, a man who wants to kill me if I slow my pace or stop for water.
Running is not simply a physical act for a woman; it is a claim of power. We run because we know our strength and aren’t fearful of putting it on display. We run because we are warriors, calf muscles gleaming in the sunlight, dirt flying behind our heels, running both to and from who we are, pounding our adversaries into the asphalt. On a run we assert that only we have the right to our bodies, only we own its good and unkind qualities. The run gives us power over our thoughts and control over the usual confused feelings about our bodies. On a run we are no longer the property of anyone. We have no name or face except the one we choose. We are completely our own for just that hour. We are the owners of that space, that forcefield around our pumping thunder thighs, the blades of grass that sweep across our running shoes, the noise the tops of trees make as they wrestle one another above our heads. The run is the only space we own, the only time we are less aware of how much space we, as women, take up. We don’t feel like women on our runs; we don’t feel like anyone.
On a day full of interactions and probing from stranger’s eyes, we can fall back into the invisibility that running can give, disappearing into the tall blades and wiping our minds clean, circling, circling, circling. Brown-eyed stranger set himself out to remind me that he saw me. Now, instead of soaking in the beauty of the leaves or basking in how wonderful the sunshine feels on my skin, I will spend the entirety of my run asking, Did I see that car before? Didn’t it just circle around me once before?
My mind wanders to your slain bodies sprawled in the grass, the dirt, shoes untied, the crime scene techs walking around your dirty fingernails. I imagine you fought back, and hard. When I read of your murders, I still couldn’t stomach running alone so close to dark. When it was too early, too late, or I simply was having a panic attack tying my running shoes, I would opt to stay home and run on my basement treadmill. I flipped through articles in Runner’s World magazine to pass the time and cover the torturous treadmill timer. My thumb flipped carelessly as I scanned for an article worth reading. That’s when I saw your headline, bold letters that made a sentence but didn’t tell your real story, our story of absolute terror. I pulled the red emergency stop and sat against the wall, shaking, and holding the print of your names against my chest.
“Police Investigating Three Recent Deaths of Female Runners”
Officials say the killings in different states are likely unrelated, and they are still searching for suspects.
Watching as she became hidden down the dirt trail, as she leapt into the beautiful green woods, as she lost herself in her ten-mile run, as she circled the lot, different men who are all one man saw her and hunted her. I ran so hard the day I thought I would be killed, I lost one of my running shoes. I was upset about it, picturing him picking it up, tossing it into the driver’s seat to remind him of the girl running in circles. The other shoe sits in my closet alone, spewing out advice collected over the years from peers, my mother, my husband, social media friends:
You should carry pepper spray.
Why are you out running alone? There are creeps out there.
You’re going to get kidnapped.
You’re just asking to get raped or killed.
Do you have a gun on you for night runs?
Here, get one of these rape whistles.
Only a few months later would I read your headline, realizing that losing a shoe was probably the best outcome I could have hoped for. Instead of seeing my shoe on the asphalt, in his truck with the tainted windows, I now saw my body, limp within his possession, fully deserving because I should have known better not to run alone. Did your running shoes remain a part of you, or did they fade into ash as he tried to set your body ablaze? Did he remove the shoestrings, wrapping them around your neck to silence you, or do they lie in the grips of your grieving mother? When I see my lone shoe, I think of how the shoes that glided you through miles of roads and woods couldn’t get you away in the moment you needed them most.
After news of your murders, social media began to slam your choice of running attire, as if wearing spandex was a cry to be shot four times in the back, to be left alone on a dirt path, to be hidden amongst the trees forever. I was wearing a baggy t-shirt and shorts in an area in which I planned to never see another human, much less be chased by a stranger. Peeling out of the abandoned lot, seeing his face, his wide-open mouth, his hair sticking to his sweaty brow in my rearview mirror, I thought it was over. When I pulled into my driveway, I fell out of my car onto hands and knees, throwing up between terrified sobs. I undressed to shower with my hands shaking, falling over multiple times trying to remove my socks. I stared at my body in a new way and I could see it fully. I turned to observe my own backside in the fogged mirror, trying to find evidence that it was my body’s fault, that something about the way my hips swayed could make someone angry, that my waistline was the true perpetrator. My body was now in plain sight for every he to do with what he pleased. My clothes littered the tiled bathroom floor and when I saw them lying there, I wished my skin had come off with them. As I’d picked out my running attire earlier that morning, the thought of but what if a man sees me and wants to kill me wasn’t involved in my decision.
This morning, as my fingers flipped through hangers in my closet, I thought of nothing but him. I didn’t leave him in my rearview mirror and the incident wasn’t isolated; he is there on every run, right on my trail and in my closet.
Did you run to escape life’s expectations as I do? Did you feel nameless, faceless as the sunlight dripped through the trees mid-run? Did you find inspiration in your footsteps as I many times have? You are yourself and you are me. I try to find the same solace in the run as before. I am fully aware of my body, its visibility to the catcaller. I am aware of his desire—often disguised in “good fun”—to steal away the agency that running gives me. The feeling of complete freedom immediately turns into shackles each time a stranger with peering eyes yells out his window and reminds me that I am an imposter. I can shove off all batons of identity, responsibility, race, gender, names, but when you are already the prey, you run. I hold onto the fear like my life depends on it, because it does.
My community of running women, we are ourselves and we are the same. We are separated by mileage, age, lifestyles, names, lineage, but we are all the she who is running amongst the tall weeds in the abandoned lot. We receive four bullets to the back, basking in the stillness only seconds before. We are found with our running tights around our ankles, exposed, our powerful legs stilled. We are no longer recognizable, our bodies melted into ash. We are lost in the woods, hair matted with dirt, our bodies strong no longer. We are running, fleeing, screaming, fighting back. We are running for her life.
Rumpus original art by Aubrey Nolan.