Fight, and Live to Run Another Day

By Halle Shilling
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, April 15, 2002

Aman in a padded rubber suit changed my life.

I was a student in a self-defense class at the Maret School seven years ago. He was the instructor's helper who, with the aid of heavily quilted body armor, let us beat up on him at the end of class so we would know what it feels like to hit another human being.

It was that unfamiliar sense of violent physical contact that came flooding back into my brain as I realized on a warm afternoon last May that I had to defend myself from the man grappling at my neck on a running trail in Rock Creek Park.

I had been running for about 10 minutes on the Broad Branch Trail when I noticed someone behind me. I assumed it was another runner. But I felt uneasy enough to let him pass. I slowed my pace as I came down a small hill. That's when he jumped me.

As soon as I felt him trying to get his arms around my neck, it was as if an internal switch flipped. I realized two things at once: first, that the loud traffic from Beach Drive across the creek was drowning out my screams, and second, that there was no way I was going to let this guy get me without a fight. A huge fight.

I went berserk. I began screaming "No" and twisting around. I saw the flash of a knife. I was wearing a Walkman, but I could hear him trying to shush me and that infuriated me. We struggled on the ground, and somehow I got my hand into his mouth and dug my fingernails into the soft part under the tongue. I must have hurt him, because he bit down on my fingers and then let go of me. To my shock, he ran off in the same direction he had come.

I made my way to the Rock Creek Park Police station with the help of two other runners whom I met a few minutes later. I walked in wild-haired and the officers responded immediately -- a phalanx of them rushed out to the trail to search for my attacker. As a remaining officer interviewed me, he gave pertinent information to the others via radio. While it was a very professional operation, I remember being annoyed that he kept referring to me on the airwaves as "the victim."

A few hours later, I was asked to re-create the attack on the trail for a U.S. Park Police detective. Afterward he took me aside. He asked me where I'd grown up. When I told him, he said: "You don't live in Ohio anymore. You live in Washington, D.C." And then he gave me a lecture on how dangerous this city was. He told me that criminals like the guy who attacked me waited for opportunities -- and I was responsible for not providing those opportunities.

But I had a problem with that explanation. Sure, I grew up in a small Ohio town. But I had lived in the District on and off for four years. I had also lived in other big cities. I had traveled alone in Third World countries. I knew enough to take the self-defense class. I was athletic, 5 feet 10 inches tall, and had been a runner for nearly 20 years. I was wary of strangers. I didn't take stupid risks. How in the world could I have ended up an assault victim?

The answer to that question took me several months to work out, and still makes me uneasy: Even though I had been worried enough to have completed a self-defense class, I never thought such a thing could happen to me.

It's a naive assumption.

"It could happen to anybody, anywhere," said Carol Middleton, who has been running self-defense programs in the Washington area for 26 years. People "don't want to think that because it's not comfortable," she said. "Some people don't want to take the time and energy to take a course. Other people don't want to face the fear. It's the ostrich effect: 'If I don't think about it, maybe it won't happen.' "

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