Erin Kelly, 34, has been running since she was in the fifth grade. Over the years, the teacher from New Hampshire has logged miles on streets and sometimes trails in France, Morocco and all over the United States. She is devoted to a sport that keeps her mentally and physically fit, and she will run wherever and whenever she has the opportunity.
But like many female runners these days, she also runs with caution in mind. High-profile stories of women who have been assaulted or even murdered while running can make the sport feel risky. Expecially for those like Kelly, who have no choice but to get out before the sun has fully risen and their workday begins.
These days, women slightly outnumber men in the sport, making up just over 50 percent of the 43 million runners in the United States, according to the National Sporting Goods Association. Statistics on assaults of runners are hard to come by — crime statistics focus more on basic factors such as gender and age — which can make the anecdotal evidence feel more weighty.
There’s plenty of advice about staying safe, including running with a partner and avoiding sparsely populated areas. (See sidebar.) But these days, many women are also turning to technology to improve their sense of security.
Kelly is a case in point. Her high-tech tool of choice is the smartphone app Road ID, specifically its “e-crumb” feature. “Users can pick up to five emergency contacts to enter,” says P.J. Rabice, director of marketing at the app’s company, which is based in Erlanger, Ky. “The contacts can then follow their runner via text or email as she heads out the door and along her route.”
“I’ve never carried my phone with me until lately with the news of three runner murders” in Massachusetts, Michigan and New York City, Kelly says. “I still run in the dark, but I’ve decided it’s smart to have someone know that I arrive safely back home.”
Runners can set up how long they want their contacts to follow them and/or establish an alert system that reveals any stops of five minutes or more. Users can zero in on their runner’s location and take action if they are concerned. “It makes me feel safer because at least someone knows where I am and if I made it back,” Kelly says.
Michele Gonzalez of Staten Island has similarly grown more concerned about her running security. The senior analyst for J.P. Morgan is often up and running as early as 4 a.m. while training for marathons. She sometimes stays indoors to feel safe but prefers the outdoors. “It kills me to be indoors,” she says. “But the news lately has scared me onto the treadmill more than I like.”
When she does run outdoors, it’s typically on a road that is well lit and well populated, offering her a sense of comfort. She has also recently ditched her habit of running with headphones, reasoning that they lower her ability to pick up on potential dangers. “I was feeling fairly safe with my running routine, but the news has given me a reality check,” she says. “Whenever I can, I also meet a friend to run, even if we’re not doing the same workout.”
In addition to those steps, Gonzalez has added the Strava Beacon app to her phone, which she now carries on runs. Like the Road ID app, the Beacon allows Gonzalez to enter up to three contacts to receive her whereabouts while she runs. “The app refreshes every 30 seconds, so it communicates in real time,” she says. “It can tell my husband if I’ve stopped in the middle of the run and where, when I’ve finished, and whether or not my phone battery is low. It’s a way for him to have eyes on my status even if I can’t communicate to him.”
Ray Maker, author of the popular Washington-based running technology blog DC Rainmaker, says that there’s been a surge in safety-related apps for runners in the past couple of years. “What type of tool a runner chooses really comes down to what they are willing to carry,” he says. “A few years ago, runners were limited by big, bulky devices, but technology has greatly evolved.”
Now there are not only several phone-based apps but also GPS devices worn on the wrist. “Timex recently added a feature to its GPS watch that broadcasts a runner’s position, which eliminates the need to carry a phone, too,” Maker says. “In one device, you get pace, distance and personal tracking.”
Maker anticipates more of this type of technology down the road. “I’m sure that Android and Apple watches will be coming out before long that allow users to have it all on their wrists, too,” he says. “It all makes it easier for end-users.”
Prices aren’t cheap, however. The Timex One, for instance, retails at more than $400 for all its bells and whistles.
There’s also the question of how much good these devices can do: Do they provide a false sense of security? “The reality is that these apps and watches only tell someone where you are,” Maker says. “Someone has to know how to get to you and in most cases be able to get there immediately if they are going to do you any good.”
Reston-based Cheryl Young, 47, says she likes tried-and-true safety methods when she runs solo. “My husband always knows when I left, where I’m headed and how long I expect to be out,” she said. “I’ll also carry Mace or bring my dog along.”
Likewise, Kelly says she is not going to let safety concerns drive her off the roads — running is too important to her. “I’ve made adjustments for my safety,” she says, “I’m not willing to let fear change my life.”