Friday, February 22

Safe Strides: Self Defense for Women Runners (by Pittsburgh Marathon)

Last night women packed into Bakery Square to hear self-defense expert Craig Douglas discuss a topic we all know about, but frequently want to ignore... because it's uncomfortable and makes us uneasy... and it's scary. Douglas talked about women being attacked while running.

Pittsburgh Marathon has held some really stellar sessions for participants over the past few weeks. I attended the injury prevention clinic in January and the nutrition clinic earlier this month. (I didn't get to blog it in a timely fashion because of life events that came up.) There is an excellent blog post over at InsideUPMC covering the main topics from the nutrition clinic.

The self-defense event launched into the tough stuff right away with a real victim and her very, very real story.

After learning her story, we couldn't help but feel.

Feel angry or sad that it happened.
Feel angry or sad that women have to worry about these things.
Feel angry or sad that every woman--mother, grandmother, sister, friend, aunt, cousin, daughter, granddaughter--could feel threatened or be attacked at some point in her life.

The good thing is that anger and sadness can motivate us. We can feel compelled to act, to do something. As long as we don't allow ourselves to feel helpless, we can learn from what has happened and, hopefully, learn how to protect ourselves.

That's what Douglas was there to help with. Awareness, he said, is a state of flux. When we're running, we're often paying attention to multiple things--our bodies, breathing, music, worries, temperature, people we might be talking to... But we need to be aware of what's going on around us.

He gave an example of a situation an attacker would exploit: Some people get hyper focused on things like, say, their cell phones. Nose-to-glass checking emails or tweeting, maybe, it's unlikely they're aware of much else occurring in the world outside. (Admit it. Even if you think you're aware in this example, it is BETTER to admit that you are NOT aware and just learn what you can.) An attacker would be "like a moth to the flame," as Douglas put it, with this person so entranced with the minutiae of whatever it is they're doing. Their awareness is so narrow that their reaction time to an attack will be very limited.

Reaction time depends on awareness because, "if you have space, you have time. You will see problems earlier and you can react," Douglas said. He conducted a role-play with two volunteers from the audience: one was to poke the other and, and this woman was block the poke. When they were only an arms' length apart, it was nearly impossible to block the pokes. When Douglas had the woman trying to defend herself move back merely the distance of her shoe size, suddenly she was able to block nearly every single poke.

In short: Distance is time to react.

Next, he provided a variety of tips about what to look for in shady characters. In the case of running in public, there are two kinds of people--those you know and those you don't.

There are body language cues that he learned to pay attention to as an under cover police officer:

  • Grooming cues: a hand gesture around the head or face. Touching the chin, beard, nose, ear, neck, mouth. He said this is a common deception indicator. 
  • Target glancing: hard darting glances left or right while the attacker is assessing the situation (or you).
  • Definitive weight shift: from one foot to another. Usually this is an effort to get a strong physical base to move from. (Think like bearing down and pushing off to start a hard dash.)
  • Furtive movement around the waist: the attacker will "pick" at that area. Hands on hips, in pockets. This may indicate where a weapon is. 
Then there are language elements to be aware of.

  • Some criminals will rouse their victims and try to develop a rapport. 
  • Do you engage in conversation while running? It's a form of distraction and will affect reaction time.
  • The more thought that goes into your speech, the slower your physical reaction time.
So what do you do if someone is approaching you directly while you're running? Douglas did another role-play to give us food for thought. Here are some verbal strategies:

  • Make a request first (e.g., Can you let me pass?). Something to ask them to respect your space.
  • If the request isn't effective, move to a command. (E.g., Move! Out of my way!)
  • If the the command isn't effective, UP the VOLUME with the command. GET LOUD.
Like anything else in life, it's best to practice this so that--God forbid the moment arises that you need to use these tools--they come to you right away, second nature, and you use them effectively.

We had a brief discussion about the use of profanity in the commands... The fact is, none of these methods are 100% effective in every single situation. Some things work in some situations, some things don't. Profanity is the same way. I've included here a couple of my tweets with a few strategies on profanity. First, Douglas recommended that if you don't normally use profanity that in an emergency, potential attack situation is NOT the time to try it. (It could sound weak, forced, and ineffective.) Second, if you're going to use it, it's got to be used effectively.

How, then, does one use profanity effectively? Oh goodness, I never thought I'd give advice on this. Douglas recommended using the F-bomb as an adjective vs. using it as a noun to describe the attacker (basically calling the attacker a name, which could be threatening and might egg them on....). See tweet image above.

Towards the end of the class, some women in the audience asked questions about physical things we can do to give ourselves a fighting chance, so to speak. While Douglas wasn't really there to give specific physical strategies, he gave a few keys to maintaining 1) consciousness and 2) mobility. He said those are the two things attackers look to do (make you unconscious or immobile).

  • Keep your hands relatively high. This is nonverbal language that is a "fence" between you and the attacker.
  • If the person closes in, pass the person not with your back to them (running by). Instead, pass them by squaring towards them. Basically, turn your hips towards them and slow a little so they're in your line of sight when you pass. 
  • Eye contact... it can be good (suggest that you're not afraid), but it can be bad (too much in gang culture, for example, got one woman killed, Douglas said).
  • Headphones... if you feel uneasy, hit pause on your music. The attacker sees your headphones in and thinks you're distracted, but you're not. This may be a small advantage.
  • Stay on your feet, but drop your weight into your hips--like a ready stance in wrestling.
  • If you are ill or hurt, do everything possible to increase your awareness. (Take out headphones.)
Douglas's sound byte for the night was "Drop, cover, eyes." As in, drop your weight into your hips. Bring your hands up to your face for cover. And go for the attacker's eyes, if you can, to disable the person but maintain your mobility.

The reality is that even if we run in what we think is a "safe" neighborhood or trail that attacks can happen anywhere, at any time, to anyone. The best thing we can do is stay vigilant and stay prepared to react if a situation arises. In sum, 1) Maintain range, 2) Keep awareness, and 3) Deselect yourself with strategies that make you less appealing to attackers. 

Be safe out there, ladies. I send you my love.

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