Mollie Tibbetts was also a rural runner, a college student spending her summer back in her tiny hometown of Brooklyn, Iowa. On July 18, 2018, she went for an evening jog. At some point during her run, according to police reports, a man circled her several times in his car. He later admitted to investigators that he got out of his car and ran after her, became angry when she threatened to call the police — and then blacked out, awakening and finding Tibbetts’s body in the trunk of his car. He drove to a nearby cornfield, police said, and left her body covered with corn stalks. She had been stabbed to death.
Sydney Sutherland, 25, was running on a rural road in Arkansas last year when she was abducted, raped and murdered, police said. Attacks can happen anywhere that a solitary woman is jogging: Wendy Martinez, 35, stabbed to death on a D.C. street in 2019; Karina Vetrano, 30, sexually assaulted and choked to death in a park near her home in Queens in 2016; Vanessa Marcotte, 27, found strangled in the woods near a rural road in Massachusetts where she had been running in 2016. The list goes on and on. In March, a 22-year-old woman jogging near a Nashville park eluded two men who tried to pull her into a minivan, police said.
This is my greatest fear as a woman who runs. Out here, it isn’t the black bears or the rumored cougars or even the occasional aggressive farm dog (I’ve negotiated a few). It’s the moment a single truck I don’t know turns down the dirt road where I’m running.
On May 28, the man arrested in Tibbetts’s killing was found guilty of first-degree murder. For many, his brief trial was a reminder of a tragic case from what seems like a lifetime ago, well before the pandemic. But I’ve been thinking of Mollie for nearly three years now. Long stretches of woods and fields loll between the farmhouses here, and any time a vehicle I don’t recognize turns toward me, I think of Mollie.
One time while I was running, a truck slowed to a crawl right next to me. I stopped and turned to face the vehicle. It was a rusty red Ford, and I remember immediately telling myself to get ready to read the license plate. A blond man of about 30 rolled down his window. He smiled and hinted that he wanted my number. He was smoking; I watched his ash land near my shoes.
Would he get out? And if so, what then?
I run with my big dog and carry pepper spray, and I’d like to believe both would make a difference. In the Sutherland case, police said the attacker first hit her with his pickup truck.
Each of the incidents above could have sparked a national conversation about this brand of predation on women, which includes not only lethal cases, but widespread nonlethal harassment. But they didn’t. Mollie’s murder, for one, occurred during the Trump administration, and instead the president focused on the immigration status of her killer — even though illegal immigrants are far less likely to commit crimes than U.S.-born citizens.
I am still waiting for that conversation about why simply seeking outdoor exercise is a mortal danger for women. And I am still running these dirt roads, because this is where I live — one of the most beautiful parts of America — and I enjoy that morning run far too much to give it up.
Sometimes, when I come back from a run, my 7-year-old daughter is on the porch, wearing her “fast shoes.” “Race me,” she says, and we do, all the way down to the barn. My daughter loves to run. Like me, she was born with strong, short legs. Occasionally I find her outside, hollering “Ready, set, go!” to herself and sprinting off, focused and joyful.
Watching her makes me smile, but it also makes me wonder when she’ll discover the fear every woman who runs — every woman, period — endures on a daily basis. And how and when to weigh it against doing the things we love.