In recent weeks, as 44-year-old Cheryl Shaw was preparing for the Chicago Marathon, she made a vow to herself.
It wasn’t to finish in a certain amount of time. The Fort Wayne woman decided she would no longer run alone.
We run in packs, she says of a group of about a half-dozen area women who competed with her in the 26.2-mile race last month. Personally, I just find that I don’t run by myself anymore.
The change in Shaw’s running habits is just part of the reaction to an incident along the Rivergreenway reported to police Sept. 22. A female runner told police she was sexually assaulted around 11 a.m. under the bridge that carries Lower Huntington Road over the trail near Tillman Road.
Area women runners say that, while they consider such incidents rare, this one has changed the way some view their personal safety.
I think people are a lot more conscious and people are a lot more mindful, which I think is very important, says Judy Tillapaugh, coordinator of fitness and wellness at IPFW, who helped organize a group that trained women to participate in last month’s Fort4Fitness running and walking festival.
A lot of times we just go for a walk or run, and we’re in our own little world and not thinking that we might be putting ourselves in a risky situation, Tillapaugh says. I’m hearing a lot of healthy conversations and dialogues about (safety) now, and I’m hearing that we should carry on and not let this situation stop us but make this situation help us be more aware.
Since the incident, about 60 people participated in a 20-minute silent vigil on the trail at the site of the alleged attack, and about a dozen women runners attended a self-defense session at the Three Rivers Running Co. fitness store in Fort Wayne.
Dave Hernandez, owner of Sud’n Impact Gym in Fort Wayne, who taught the session and plans more, says the biggest thing any runners can do to stay safe is to be alert to their surroundings.
Watch where you’re running, that it’s populated and well lit, he says. Don’t run at night or in a desolate area. And when you run, know your route.
If grabbed while running, he says, runners should ignore their first instinct – to try to pull away.
That’s honestly not the best thing to do, he says. The first thing is not to get them to let you go but to think, How can I hurt this person so they’ll have let me go?’
He says he teaches pressure points and weak points on the body such as the stomach, knees, instep, groin, nose, neck and eyes – places where a blow will do enough damage so they’ll have to let you go and you’ll have time to get away. You want to hurt them fast, he says.
Hernandez says that a runner should never ignore a gut feeling that something isn’t right.
If you see something that makes you go Hmmm,’ turn and go back or get away, he says.
Melissa Renner of Fort Wayne, vigil organizer, says some women, including herself, are now packing items to assist them in an emergency.
I’m running with my (cell) phone now, and I carry pepper spray and made sure it works, she says. I have a couple of friends who have bought devices – one is an arm band with mace-type spray that unclips and a very loud siren goes off when you unclip it.
Renner, 46, says she also makes sure her husband knows where she is and when she’s expected back before heading out.
She says she’ll still run the Rivergreenway because she considers the incident the kind of thing that almost never happens. An attack could happen anywhere, she says, and the vigil was not to draw attention to problems with the trail but to take a stand against violence against women in general.
But she says the incident kind of woke me up a bit and she’d probably avoid the section of trail where it was reported because it is somewhat isolated. She pointed out that there are several stretches like that along the trail.
Renner says she’s noticed that since the incident, more women have been showing up for a group run that leaves from the running store at 5:30 p.m. Wednesdays.
I think joining a group is the best thing you can do, she says.
Dawn Ritchie, Rivergreenway manager for Fort Wayne’s Division of Public Works, says a survey of 1,400 trail users last year found that most felt very safe. Although they said they wanted more restrooms and drinking fountains and more connectivity of trails to neighborhoods, personal safety was not an issue, she said.
Ritchie, who says she’s heard of no previous attacks, points out that since 2005, the trails have been patrolled by a group of more than 80 volunteers known as Greenway Rangers trained to spot suspicious activity. Other volunteers recently cleared low-hanging brush along the greenway near downtown to make for better sight lines, she says.
Ritchie says there are no plans to install emergency call boxes along the trail, which has about 59,000 users in peak months.
When she researched the question, officials in other communities with trails told her the boxes are prone to vandalism and prank phone calls that tie up police.
So much of the public has a cellphone nowadays, and we encourage trail users to carry and use their cellphone, she says.
Officer Raquel Foster, a Fort Wayne Police Department spokeswoman, says police have made no arrest in the case, which is an open and continuing investigation.
She says the man was described as a black male, age 18 to 23, with a light complexion and short Afro hair style. About 5 foot 10 inches tall, he was wearing a long-sleeved, gray Ohio State sweatshirt and baggy, red, knee-length shorts. He was last seen running north on the trail after the attack was interrupted by another male trail user.
Police say anyone with information should call 422-1222.
Shaw, who says she ran by herself along the stretch of trail where the attack happened the week before it occurred, thinks call boxes like the ones on the IPFW campus might be a good idea – although, she adds, I don’t know how cost-effective they would be.
For now, she trains with a group of about a dozen women who stay together by pace. Members on bicycles ride along the route – with their headlights on – for added security. But she’s not about to give up her sport – or the Rivergreenway.
The greenway is so awesome, Shaw says. It has some of the best trails around.
Running safetyBe alert to your surroundings. Don’t run to the point where you are so tired your awareness slips or you can’t act on an emergency. Don’t wear headphones in both ears.
Avoid isolated areas where it may be more difficult to get help. Run where there are other people.
Avoid dusk and post-dawn hours when it is darker than at other times of day.
Run with purpose. Project confidence and act like you know where you are and what you’re doing even if you don’t.
Trust your instincts. If a situation or place makes you uncomfortable, get away.
Carry a well-charged cellphone, some money and an ID.
Run with a friend, group or dog.
Tell someone where you’re going and how long you’ll be out, and check in when you’re finished.
If you’re approached, be authoritative. Yell loudly; tell the person to back off.
Change routes or times of day when you run so your routine is harder to track.
Take a self-defense class to gain confidence in what to do if attacked.
Consider carrying pepper spray or a whistle, weapon or bright flashlight on your keychain when you run to scare off an attacker.
Running groupsAmong area groups:
Run Clubbers – 5:30 p.m. Wednesdays; leaves from Three Rivers Running Co., 4039 N. Clinton St.; 496-8000
Rats in Training – 6 p.m. Mondays; leaves from Central Branch YMCA, 1020 Barr St.
Saturdays at 7 – 7 a.m. Saturdays; leaves from Central Branch YMCA
Underground Training Group – 8 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays; leaves from Three Rivers Running Co. with 7-minute pace for five to eight miles; 496-8000
Self-defense classWomen’s Self-Defense Seminar, 1 to 3 p.m. Nov. 17 at Sud’n Impact Gym, 6316 Covington Road, Fort Wayne; $15 or $10 with donation of women’s or children’s hygiene products for YWCA women’s shelter; to register, call Dave Hernandez at 602-7039.