In Defense of Self Defense

I run alone a lot.  Most of the time, in fact.  Being alone with my thoughts or fun music or a good podcast is one of the things that I most cherish about running.  I need that space and time to myself.

But unfortunately, there are people in the world that could see that as an opportunity to strike.  A woman alone, lost in thought in the woods or an empty park seems like an easy target to victimize.

Nevermind that the drive to the trail is far more dangerous that running it alone, the fear that evil is hiding out waiting to pounce keeps many runners, more often women, from even attempting a solo run.

(There are no great statistics of how many runners get assaulted every year, but the risk of getting attacked by a stranger in general is very low.)

When the rare attack does occur, women are bombarded with all sorts of advice on modifying our behavior to keep ourselves safe:  never run alone, always carry pepper spray, take a self-defense class.

We need to do something, right?

This advice is well meant, despite the fact the only behavior that needs modifying is the perpetrators’, not their targets.  Which is just maddening.

I will not give up running alone and I will not carry pepper spray in my hand every day.

But taking a self-defense class seemed like a great idea.

Especially after the recent attack on the Seattle runner who successfully fought back with techniques she had learned in a self-defense class.

So when a group of runners in my area organized a class, I signed up.

I first want to make it clear that self-defense is a last resort tactic.  I’m not going to use my newly-acquired techniques to fight off a person who stole my parking spot or gouge out the eyes of a redneck that catcalls as I run by.

These are skills to be done when you have no other choice.

Avoiding the altercation is the best defense.  But by avoiding, I do not mean avoid running alone all together.  Any time you are alone doing any activity–getting in an elevator, walking to your car at night after work, looking for your keys to unlock your front door–your guard is let down and you could be a potential target.

So to those who repeat the mantra “be aware of your surroundings” as the end-all-be-all response, remember that there will be constant moments of vulnerability.  Being aware of your surroundings is wise and great in theory, but we also cannot live every second of our lives hyper-vigilant of a tiny, but scary risk.

Lessons to remember!

Our class was taught by Richard Howell, an 8th-degree black belt instructor at Double Edge Defense.  Richard made it clear that in a three-hour class, we would not suddenly become master Jedi fighters, able to withstand any attack in any situation, but we would be armed with some simple tools that could potentially save our lives, no matter how big our attacker was.

I’m not going to go into all the details of what we learned because you truly need to practice and learn from an expert in person.

But there are a few concepts that really made an impression on me.

Richard showed us how when humans are attacked at certain vulnerable spots, we react not with brain power, but with a spinal reflex.  Just like your hand will instinctively drop a burning-hot pot handle, you will also involuntarily move your hands to your injured eyes, throat, or groin to protect yourself.

Being able to predict where your attacker’s hands will move when injured could allow you enough precious seconds to escape.

Another key point is using your bodyweight to your advantage.  As a small woman, my attacker could potentially weigh three times as I do.  How in the world could I escape that?

Well, not many people can stay upright when hit with a 115 pound wrecking ball, no matter how big they are.  The trick is you have to be close enough to the person to use your body as leverage and not just your arms.

After his hands react to his injured eyes, I have an opportunity to use my weight to push him off his heels to the floor and escape
And down he goes!

Shortly after I took this class I mentioned how empowered I felt afterwards, being armed with a few simple tricks that I could use to defend myself if necessary.  I was surprised to get some pushback from some normally very supportive men who cautioned me about overconfidence.

Taking one class does not make me a master of martial arts, they warned, or prepared to win any altercation with any assailant.  Practicing in the safety of a classroom atmosphere does not prepare you for the unpredictability of the real world.

They are absolutely right.  These techniques need to be practiced regularly to become automatic.

And there are no guarantees.  If someone high on drugs ambushes me with a gun and has no problem taking my life for the fun of it, there’s probably not a whole lot I can do.

But I disagree with the overconfidence part.  There is no way that just because I know a good way to hit someone in the groin that I suddenly feel like Superwoman.  I’m still going to ignore and  run away from the catcallers and I’m still going to take a proactive look in the backseat of my car at night before getting in.

The confidence that I have gained will help me stand taller and project a message that I am not an easy target.

I hope to never, ever use a single technique that we learned that night.

But I know I could if I had to.


“I’m Too Slow” and Other Lies We Tell Ourselves

I’m a member of several local running social media groups where people often post upcoming running adventures looking for others to join in.  Pace is almost always mentioned in the post or in the comments, typically with one or two respondents adding that they’d love to join, but they’re too slow.  Most often these comments come from women.

I get that it can be fun to run with someone who is a similar pace.  You don’t have to wait for slower people or struggle keeping up with faster ones.  If you’re on an easy run, you can talk.  If you are running a workout or climbing a tough trail, a similarly-paced partner can keep you accountable.

But when someone says “I’m too slow,” it somehow feels like “I’m not good enough.”

Unless you make your living from running fast, pace matters to no one except yourself. There will always be people slower than me and there will always be people faster than me.  Don’t get me wrong, my ego loves it when people tell me I’m fast.  But I’m a solid mid-packer at my Tuesday track practice and barely on the same planet as the pros.  I want to become faster, no question about it, but my ability to get there is only important to me.  My friends and family don’t care if I can run a sub-20 (or 19?) 5K.  They are proud of me when I reach my goals, but ultimately my speed matters very little to anyone else.

So why the guilt and sheepishness around pace, especially from women?  Perhaps it stems from a culture where we are taught to downplay our strengths and apologize for just about anything that could be construed as weakness.  I think that apologizing for our pace is similar to being afraid to show your runner’s belly when it’s hot out:  we don’t want others to think we’re not good enough.

So here’s the real truth. We are all runners.  Speed is relative.  Marathons are hard for everyone.  Racing doesn’t get easier; you just get better at it.  By all means, organize your group runs by pace if you prefer, but please don’t apologize for it.

The Belly is the Real Window to the Soul

If you are a runner with kids and are looking for inspiration, check out Stephanie Bruce.  She is an elite distance runner who has had two kids in less than two years and ran the Olympic standard in the 10K six months after giving birth.  That alone is an awe-worthy feat, but what has forever endeared her to me is this photo.  In a world of carefully curated Instagram pics, Bruce decided to bare her post-baby belly and a bit of her soul.  “The postpartum body is a complicated and hot mess,” she wrote, “but also one that brought life into this world…it’s the most natural part of existence.”  Bruce feels most comfortable training and racing without a top over her sports bra so she does, no matter what anyone thinks.  It says a lot about our society that simply baring her natural body is an act of bravery, but it is.

A couple months after Bruce’s post, I downloaded my race photos from Boston.  It was a hot day and I raced in a sports bra and shorts for the first time ever.  Some photos looked fantastic.  At a few points during the race I noticed the camera and purposefully smiled, opened up my stride, and raised my arms triumphantly in the air.  Those are the ones I’m going to love when I’m 90. But other photos showed the extra skin on my stomach from my pregnancies strangely twisting across my middle like ropes of floppy bread dough. What was that?  Is that really me?  I think I look pretty good (and not just “good for my age,” but good period) and those photos said something else to me. “Is that how the world sees me?” I wondered.

So I started editing the worst offenders.  I smoothed out the striped shadows across my stomach and blurred my belly lines away.  That was much better!  It was magical how the retouch button created the illusion of the perfectly toned tummy. I worked so hard to run that race and I wanted my pictures to show the lean, strong, badass woman that I am.  I don’t want people to think that I look “great for a mom.”  I want people to think I simply look great.  Doesn’t everyone? I smoothed and blended and blurred the images until all signs that I carried two children in my body were eliminated.

Then I thought about Stephanie Bruce.

I started to feel guilty.  And inauthentic.  A bit of a fraud.

I am lucky enough to have been spared some of the harsher physical side effects of pregnancy and I am generally happy with the way I look.  Standing up. Sucking in.  Flexing my abs.  If I lean over or God forbid do a downward dog in a crop top, the lie that I’m a childless twenty-something exposes itself.  Even though I’m fit and thin and have 15% body fat, I have inches of extra skin on my middle, my arms, my legs, and probably even my earlobes.  My thighs gap, then meet, then gap, then meet like a pair of passionate tango dancers.  That is simply who I am right now.  With time and training and life, my body will change to reflect my journey. My choice is either to wish that weren’t the case or to let go and embrace it.

I wear a sports bra without a top when it’s hot.  Not because I want to show off.  It’s because it’s hot!  Will I still try to flex when someone takes my picture or cringe a little when I see the extra skin happily waving to the camera?  Of course.  My self-confidence is not always perfect and neither am I.  But I’m not going to hide who I am out of fear of judgment that is probably more from myself than from others.

And I’m not going to Photoshop either.