We all can agree that running makes us feel limitless...but it's hard to feel limitless in the face of tragedy. Of course, we are referring to the murder of teacher, mother, and runner, Eliza Fletcher. An incident which rocked the the running community as a whole, the mix of anger and sadness brought on by this event has spurred conversation and spotlighted the ongoing issue of women's safety while running. The conversation and questions (a lot from those outside the running community) has brought up a lot of questions, some like: Should Eliza have done anything differently? She was running in the dark, was it her fault? The answer we can equivocally say is no. Eliza did nothing wrong by choosing to do what she loved, run. A heinous act of violence is never the fault of the victim. As we #runforeliza, we ask ourselves: how can we feel safe doing what we love? We turned to Gwen Riley for some perspective,
Gwen Riley is a limitless Zensah ambassador, psychologist, and runner: (psychedtorun on Instagram). Since Eliza's murder, she's been sharing her extremely important point of view on the safety issue for women runners (of course, Gwen produces plenty of other awesome running content too). Read on to get to know more about Gwen, and get her insights to on running, her journey with running, and her unique psychologist's take on the tragedy of Eliza Fletcher and what it means for all of us as runners.
ZS: How would you describe yourself in two sentences:
GR: When I think about all the roles and identities that make up who I am, I see a common thread. And that thread is curiosity and a desire to open others' minds-- whether that shows up in my running, my social media platform, my professional life, or the personal relationships in my life.
ZS: What is one thing you'd like people to know about you?
GR:Since I was young, I've been a relatively reserved and quiet person. For awhile, I thought that defined me in a negative way, but as I've gotten older, I've also grown into myself and realized being different from other louder, less reserved people doesn't have to be a bad thing. I may be an introvert at heart and not always the most expressive person, but the most important thing to me in relating to other people is that they see I'm genuine-- genuine in how I speak, act, and even write.
ZS: How did you get into running? Why do you run?
GR: In 7th grade I was trying to decide if could try out for the soccer team. 7th grade me was too scared though and I ended up signing up for the cross-country team even though I didn't know much, if anything about XC. I quickly fell in love with the sport-- the camaraderie, the tough-love from our coaches, the silly t-shirts sold at meets, and the runner's high of course. I ran competitively through college and ended up getting incredibly burnt out from the sport because (I realize now) I was too focused on outcomes, and wasn't appreciating the process. I picked running back up in grad school and fell in love with the process and how even when I have a not-so-great run, I can string together a series of runs and see progress, no matter where my fitness is. Running keeps me grounded, humble, and striving for a new challenge every day.
ZS: As a woman runner, what is your POV on the terrifying kidnap and murder of Eliza? And, as a psychologist?
GR: The murder of Eliza Fletcher was a shock to the running community, and yet simultaneously-- and unfortunately-- it also wasn't. Her story is all too familiar to us as runners and as women. My emotions ran the gamut from the moment I saw the first post about her abduction-- fear, sadness, fury. And then, on top of an already horrific event, there's been a lot of victim blaming and people asserting their opinions, all before her body was even recovered. It makes me sad for the family--not only did they lose her, but they have to see and likely hear peoples' comments. As if saying what she should/shouldn't have been doing makes any difference to her now.
There are so many layers to unpack, but the more I've thought about it, I keep coming back to the word, "empowerment". The definition of empowerment is "becoming stronger and more confident, especially in controlling one's life [through decisions] and claiming one's rights". So many of the responses to Eliza's murder have demonstrated how women are disempowered again, and again, and again. We live in a world where women are harassed, victimized, assaulted, and killed for just being a woman. On a run. Our ability to make decisions for ourselves is robbed from us before we even step out the door. Instead, those decisions are dictated by fear-based rules out of necessity (e.g., don't run with both headphones, run with a friend, carry your phone, etc.). Yet none of those precautions-- even the most extreme, like carrying a gun-- are foolproof. Then there's also the fact that some of the precautions people suggest (e.g., don't run early in the morning!) aren't even backed by objective evidence (re: abductions still happen in broad daylight).
So that's also the sad part. It seems no matter what we do--unless we just stop running-- the woman's decision is "wrong" despite the lack of foolproof solutions to violence against female runners and women in general. It's upsetting to hear how many people seem to believe that nothing will ever get better, that there will never be accountability, or a reality where women can feel 100% comfortable running alone in a sports bra. I sit back, look at all the comments and arguments, and think, "Wow, this is incredibly discouraging". I don't have an answer to any of it really. But I do believe starting small is a step and one of those small steps is creating space where women are allowed to have opinions without being told they're "wrong". Some women believe they need to carry a weapon on runs. Others believe they don't. Some women are comfortable wearing just a sports bra and others aren't. Neither are factually right or wrong. But the blaming and judging needs to stop. A solution is not going to come from people shaming each other or themselves.
ZS: We saw the community of runners come together to #runforeliza or #finishtherunforeliza, how do you think community plays a role during these tragedies?
GR: Seeing the running community band together for Eliza has been really cool to see. Connecting on this I hope makes people feel less alone and less afraid in the wake of her murder. I also like to hope that the fire ignited in many runners will lead to change, whether that's law, justice, and even cultural mindset shifts. I worry though that we stand in an echo chamber and I hope the community's outrage is enough to have an impact on those who don't feel as directly impacted.
ZS: What is your ultimate piece of advice for women runners?
GR: It's not my place to tell any woman what she should/shouldn't be doing to keep herself safe. I think if anything, the most practical is to hide your Strava GPS or at least make it private. But above all of that, my advice is to not let the fear take running from you. Fear can protect us, but it can also become a beast that holds us back from doing things we love with the people we love. If that fear has gotten to the point where your life feels limited and you aren't functioning the way you used to, I encourage you to ask for help from a mental health professional. That's what we're here for.
ZS: How to ensure runners safety, is there anything in particular that you do? Do you wear or carry anything specific?
GR: Though I'm sure many women take more precautions than me, this is what I'm comfortable with-- I carry my phone and make sure it's charged; my location is also always shared with my husband. My Strava is private and I hide my map visibility no matter where I start 3/4 of a mile out. I pretty much never wear in-ear headphones if I am listening to music. I try to change up my routes so they're less predictable.
ZS: Zensah’s motto is #withoutlimitz meaning we want you to feel limitless in everything you do. We’re launching a campaign called “Limitless Looks Like This” because limitlessness can look different for every person. Limitless might look like finding balance, reaching goals, acing the race you have coming up, or manifesting your future. What does limitless look like for you?
GR: It looks like pursuing my dreams and passions unapologetically, while living my values out for the world to see. If the unapologetic part is missing, I risk getting hung up on others' opinion and self-doubt. If I forget my values and what's important to me outside of finish-lines and success, I would lose myself. And I couldn't be genuine at that point.
ZS: What are your Zensah must-have products? Why?
GR: I love the compression sleeves and mini crew socks! Compression sleeves help me feel secure on race days and definitely help with blood flow and swelling especially on longer races. The mini crew socks are the perfect length and thickness, plus they kinda make me feel bad ass!!!!!
ZS: What is one quote you live by? Or a personal mantra?
GR: "Bloom where you're planted" or in other words, take control of your life by choosing what you do with whatever situation you're thrown in.