For women runners, a trail of constant harassment

Alicia Kropelnicki runs on the Cedar Lake Trail with her two dogs.
Alicia Kropelnicki, who's racing in the Twin Cities Marathon Sunday, runs with her dogs, Aspen, left, and Bates, right, for added protection. Last summer on the North Cedar Lake Regional Trail, a man jumped out of the woods and grabbed her around the waist.
Tony Saunders | MPR News

Don't tell Alicia Kropelnicki that women are just being paranoid when they worry about their safety while running.

Last summer, the six-days-a-week runner was logging miles on the North Cedar Lake Regional Trail in the west metro when a man came out of the woods and grabbed her around the waist from behind. It was broad daylight.

"Thankfully, I had my dog with, and he turned at the person and got them to back off," said Kropelnicki of St. Louis Park, who is racing in this Sunday's Twin Cities Marathon.

Kropelnicki's story is terrifying. But for women who deal with harassment daily on the trail, it's no surprise.

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Recent high-profile slayings of female runners have reinforced the fears faced by women on the trails. They're not unfounded.

A 2016 Runner's World survey found that 43 percent of women at least sometimes experience harassment while on a run, compared to just 4 percent of men. That number jumps to 58 percent for women under 30.

Thirty percent of female runners say they've been followed by another person either in a vehicle, bicycle or on foot; 18 percent have been sexually propositioned during a run.

Of the women who reported being harassed in the Runner's World survey, 94 percent said men were the perpetrators.

Angie Norvitch  trains for the New York City Marathon.
Angie Norvitch trains for the New York City Marathon on the Stone Arch Bridge in Minneapolis. She recently bought a pair of headphones that don't cover her ears. Instead, they transmit sound through her cheekbones, allowing her to hear everything going on around her.
Tony Saunders | MPR News

"Typically, it's just a situation where they try to laugh it off," said Kropelnicki, who has endured catcalls, leers and sexual comments from men when she runs by.

"That's not acceptable behavior," she said. "I am not your plaything. I am not here for your entertainment while I'm out running."

College student Mollie Tibbetts was kidnapped and killed while running alone in her small Iowa hometown in July. A 24-year-old man has been charged with first-degree murder in her death. Last month, Wendy Martinez was fatally stabbed while jogging in Washington, D.C. Authorities have charged a 23-year-old man with murder in the slaying.

Meanwhile, a registered sex offender in Connecticut has been charged with murder after confessing to killing Melissa Millan, who was stabbed in 2014 while out jogging.

Forced to prepare

While the chances of being a homicide victim are small — Minnesota's 2016 homicide rate was 2.4 people per 100,000 — that does little to settle the anxieties of women who feel they can't even live their lives without constantly looking over their shoulders.

"We hear over and over again about women being attacked just going about their business, whether it's midnight or 2 o'clock in the afternoon," said Jessi Eaton of Duluth, who recently completed a 5K race.

Minnesota does have an anti-stalking law, which prohibits the harassment of another person in a way that causes the victim to feel frightened or threatened, regardless of the relationship between the people involved. This includes following or pursuing another person.

Kropelnicki, the runner who was grabbed by the waist, said that she considered reporting the incident to police but in the end, didn't feel like it was worth it.

"It felt minor enough that it wasn't worth the officers' time to investigate, and I honestly don't know where they could even start," she said in an email.

She also felt that the issue was complicated because she didn't know whether she was on the Minneapolis or St. Louis Park portion of the trail. "My previous experiences with city officials has led me to believe they wouldn't do much if I couldn't pinpoint exactly what city I was in at the time."

She said she generally chooses to ignore any lewd comments and keep going because engaging could potentially be more dangerous.

Harassment on the run is such a problem that more women are taking their safety into their own hands, even though they say it's frustrating they're the ones who need to change their behavior and not their attackers.

And the conversation about safety precautions is largely one that men don't have to deal with, as evidenced by a Facebook post that went viral last week.

"It's sad that we have to go to that measure. It feels a little bit unfair," said Angie Norvitch of Minneapolis, about the onus placed on women. "It's other people's behaviors that's the problem."

Norvitch, who's training for the New York City Marathon in November, recently bought a new pair of headphones that don't cover her ears. Instead, they transmit sound through her cheekbones, allowing her to still hear everything going on around her and be more situationally aware.

Brady Gervais runs around Lake Harriet.
Brady Gervais trains for the TC 10 Mile on Lake Harriet in Minneapolis. Gervais said she likes to run at dusk and feels safer with her dog Chloe there.
Tony Saunders | MPR News

Other women report always running with their phones, with safety apps or in a group — never alone. Some change their routes altogether, only train at the gym where there are cameras or limit their runs to daylight hours. Others still bring along added protection in the form of their four-legged friends.

"(Chloe) has a presence where I don't think anyone would dare to mess with or harass me when she's with me," said Brady Gervais of her 45-pound dog.

An avid runner, Gervais has been training the last several weeks in preparation for this Sunday's TC 10 Mile race. "That presence gives me peace of mind. She's this extra shield or layer that protects me."

Won't stop running

In August, ahead of the Women Rock race, Team Ortho brought in a self-defense instructor to teach a safety course tailored to runners. Among the skills taught: how to defend against surprise attacks — like someone pulling you by your ponytail — handling being stalked while alone on a trail and how to use weapons of opportunity, like fingernails, to escape an assault.

Angie Norvitch runs on the Stone Arch Bridge.
A 2016 Runner's World survey found that 43 percent of women at least sometimes experience harassment while on a run, compared to just 4 percent of men. That number jumps to 58 percent for women under 30.
Tony Saunders | MPR News

"There just seemed to be a lot more attacks on women and runners and joggers and so I thought I can absolutely teach women how to fight through fatigue," said trainer Suzanne Dougherty of New Jersey-based Haven Defense.

"Women can't stop running and we're not going to stay indoors, but we're just going to be a little more aware and if a bad guy is going to attack, it's going to be a bad day for him," she said.

Team Ortho says it's possible Dougherty will be back to teach more self-defense classes at its races in the future. "We care about runners," said HR business consultant Tammie Osodo in an email. "We are looking forward to collaborating with Suzanne on future events."

Of the women surveyed by Runner's World, 79 percent said the unsolicited attention bothers them "a lot" or "somewhat." And there's growing evidence that constant harassment can have long-term health repercussions for women, including high blood pressure, insomnia, depression, anxiety — and even post-traumatic stress disorder.

The catcalls and lewd remarks definitely trouble Kropelnicki, the St. Louis Park runner. But she isn't about to stop lacing up her running shoes anytime soon.

Even though it took a few weeks before she felt comfortable going back out on the same trail where she was accosted, she refuses to let the bad guys win.

"I know that my mental health is best served by me continuing to run," she said. "I'm a more engaged wife and colleague and mom and I'm frankly not willing to give that up and give that power over to someone else."