Each season we are reminded of safety tips while running: always carry your cell phone, run with a partner or group whenever possible, avoid using headphones and if you do, keep the volume low and one ear free, make eye contact with anyone you encounter. But how many of us remember and follow these easy tips each time we lace up our sneakers and head out the door for a run? How many times do you need to squeeze in a long run and cannot find a teammate to hit the path with you? And, let’s face it, running is easier when you are distracted by something like music. So, those safety tips get easily forgotten. What we don’t see are the faces of the women who have headed out to the streets, a path or trail only to face the most horrific experience of their life and, sometimes, to never return.
We all know the story of the Central Park Jogger, where in 1989, 28 year old Trisha Meili was violently assaulted, raped and nearly beaten to death. One of 3,254 rapes reported in New York City that year, this crime incited public outrage because of the violent nature of the crime, the severity of the injuries which were expected to result in her death or at a minimum–coma and the publicity the attack received. Linda Yalem, a sophomore at the University of Buffalo, was jogging on a bike path in 1990 when she was attacked, raped and strangled to death. Her murderer, who became known as the Bike Path Rapist, was not found until 2006 after he beat and murdered Joan Diver, a nurse, mother of four, and wife of a chemistry professor at UB. He is known to have murdered and/or raped at least four women and is believed to have raped 9-15 women and girls over a span of 25 years. Stories like these touch us, stirring feelings of anger and sadness, but they are often not close enough to home to change the way we think.
Twenty-one years ago, I was a graduate student and lived in a small studio apartment in a quiet residential neighborhood in White Plains, New York. At the end of my street was an entrance to a bike path, which was widely used by walkers, runners, and bikers. One beautiful autumn day, I arrived home from work, quickly changed and headed to the path for a walk before an evening of writing papers and completing projects. I would be back in an hour. One hour. Thirty minutes out and thirty minutes back. That’s what it was supposed to be.
The bike path ran alongside the Bronx River Parkway, and at many points along the way, the space between was open and the road visible. The sky was so clear and blue, and as I quickly walked, I soaked in the warmth of the sun against my cool cheeks. I headed in the direction of the Westchester County Center, occasionally passing runners, walkers, and bikers. Most were alone, smiling or saying hello as they passed. About a mile and half away from where I entered the path, I passed someone wearing a red baseball cap. He, unlike the other people I had encountered, was dressed in street clothes and walked along casually, clearly not there for exercise. I felt slightly uneasy but continued along for about a quarter of a mile or so, then decided to turn and go home.
Rounding a bend in the path, I saw it again–the red baseball cap. Staying on my side of the path, I trudged forward picking up my pace, fully expecting him to stay on the other side. He did not. Within seconds he was in front of me, grabbing hold of my arm and holding a knife. Everything was suddenly wrong. I was not in a part of the path where it was clear; instead there was a dense area of 7-8 foot, thick reeds to my left. There was no way to tell how far the road was from this point. No one was nearby. The man’s grip was tight, and the knife was close, as he forced me deep into the reeds. The only thing that came to my mind was “this is it.” For nearly an hour, I did whatever I could to endure a series of brutal sexual assaults and multiple occurrences of rape. I fully expected my parents’ phone to ring days later only for them to receive news that my body was found.
Finally, my first opportunity to attempt to escape came when my attacker rested the knife on the ground behind him. My eyes were fixed upon it. Without hesitation, I reached for it, screamed as loud as possible and tried to jam the knife into his stomach and run. Yet it didn’t happen as I had hoped. He grabbed me, and I struggled to hold onto the knife, still yelling for help. Someone called back. A voice from the path. But by then, his hand was over my mouth, the knife was against my throat, and he threatened to kill me if I made a sound. The person called out a few more times; then, it was silent again. What happened next left me with no hope at all. He pulled out rope and tied my wrists and ankles then covered my mouth with duct tape and left me lying on the ground, broken, bruised and violated.
Luckily my story did not end the way many others have. He told me not to move and said he would be right back then headed toward the direction of the voice I had heard only minutes earlier. The path. When I couldn’t see him through the tall reeds any longer, I reached down and managed to loosen the rope on my legs, yanked up my clothes, peeled off the tape and tried to run in the opposite direction, hoping to make it to the street. It seemed like an eternity as I stumbled every few feet not able to take a full stride. As the brush grew less dense, I caught a glimpse of the street and heard cars ahead of me. With only a few feet to freedom, I got tangled in thorn bushes, which tore the skin on my hands and face. But nothing stopped me from getting out to the shoulder, and there I stood, terrified and still bound, as three cars passed me without even slowing down. Then, in desperation, I moved to the center of the road, knowing the next car would either stop or kill me.
My plan worked. The next three cars pulled into the shoulder, and strangers jumped out of their cars to help. I shook uncontrollably, as they untied me and called 911. Shortly after, the police arrived, took a description of my assailant, and searched for the tape and other evidence. No more than twenty minutes passed when another patrol car picked him up less than a mile away and brought him back to the scene of the crime to be identified. My one hour walk turned into a 10 hour ordeal, involving police cars, the hospital, an examination to collect more evidence for the rape kit, and hours at the police station where I detailed the events in a 14 page statement. Within days, I had to recount this nightmare at a grand jury hearing.
My assailant was prosecuted, plead guilty and received the maximum sentence of 12-18 years in prison. All 18 years were served. He was never granted parole, and upon his release, he was deported. I was one of the lucky ones. My attacker was caught and locked up. This should have brought a sense of relief, and in some ways, it did. But there is no way to describe how debilitating sexual assault is. It changes absolutely everything about how you think, feel and live. You become a statistic–the “one” in four women who is the victim of rape.
For eighteen years, I found a way to cope and manage it all. I didn’t want this event to become my identity. I wanted to protect myself and those close to me. I disconnected and buried what I could. I pretended I wasn’t different. Then three years ago, a friend asked me to join her new running team. It was laughable really because first, I didn’t run, and second, I had no idea if I could mentally and emotionally handle being on the Ridgewood Duck Pond path. After weeks of making excuses and saying no, I reluctantly said, “Fine, but I don’t run.” I doubted I would make it through the first week, much less the first season. But I did. And little by little, I got stronger. There have been many times on the path, where I have felt panicked by a sound, a movement, or someone too close. Often, I’ve wanted to give up and retreat to the comfort of the gym. But, without knowing it, my teammates kept me grounded and moving forward. More importantly, by challenging myself to do what once seemed impossible, my perception of who I am has changed from that of a victim to a survivor. My life will never be the same as it was before October 11, 1993. But it is mine, and I am taking it back.
Dana White, our head coach, religiously reminds the group of safe practices for runners, and I am grateful that she does. Yet, I still feel an incredible sense of responsibility when one of my teammates runs alone. It has taken me three years (actually two decades) to gather enough courage to share my story and help everyone understand that one in four is a pretty big number, and although this particular type of attack may be less common, it happens. My attacker didn’t listen when I begged him to stop or pleaded with him to let me go. My voice was silenced. But this is my chance to make a difference in another woman’s life…and to be heard.
One in four. Don’t risk becoming the “one.” Each time you head out the door, hear my voice, see my face, remember my story–and always run safely.