Runners hit the pavement in Memphis early last month for the second “Finish Eliza’s Run,” a community effort that honors Eliza Fletcher, the 34-year-old teacher and mother who was abducted while out on a run and later found dead in September 2022. It was revealed on Sept. 29, 2022, that she died of a gunshot wound.
The event keeps Fletcher’s memory alive by running the same route she did while providing an opportunity to continue to heal, but it also seemingly signals another message: To keep running.
But for many women-led groups and organizations across the country, they never stopped.
The killing of Fletcher, as well as other female runners like Sydney Sutherland (2020), Wendy Martinez (2018) and Mollie Tibbetts (2018), serve as reminders of the street harassment and violence that women face in the U.S.
Adidas released a study in March 2023 that surveyed 9,000 runners across nine countries on running safety, and the study found 38% of those who identify as women have experienced physical or verbal abuse while out on a run, which includes being followed, receiving unwanted attention and sexist comments and being honked at.
Almost half, 46%, of those who'd been harassed while running have reported a loss of interest in the sport.
Groups and organizations in the movement space spoke to TODAY.com on factors that contribute to street harassment and violence toward women and nonbinary runners and how they are combatting these issues.
Hours after Fletcher was killed, people flocked to social media to point the finger at Fletcher for her own death, questioning her choices to go on a run at 4:30 a.m., wear a sports bra and not carry mace with her, among other things. In response, women runners were swift to defend Fletcher.
Jordan Daniel, founder of Rising Hearts, an Indigenous-led group that elevates Native voices and fights racism with running, was one of them. She spoke out about the victim-blaming in a post shared on Sept. 7, 2022, a day after Fletcher’s body was identified.
“(Victim-blaming) dehumanizes women," Daniel tells TODAY.com. "It objectifies us and then perpetuates this issue of violence and assault and stalking, and (it) really hinders our sense of safety and how we have to address that ourselves and can’t rely on the rest of the world to keep us safe.”
Daniel prioritizes discussing safety tips with Native women runners — bring your phone, share your location, send a picture of what you’re wearing to loved ones — and any individual concerns she can address before they embark on a run. But to achieve a long-term solution to street harassment and violence, Daniel says more conversations on women's safety need to start happening in communities, running brands and the running industry at large.
She leads by example in her advocacy work: She is part of Runner’s World Runners Alliance ambassador program; she has raised awareness for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women in Trail Runner magazine; she ran the Boston Marathon this year with a red handprint on her face to bring attention to 26 missing and murdered Indigenous people.
“One of the things that I think can really be healing, and work towards (addressing issues in the running industry) is really fostering that intersectional community where we can be able to sit, listen and learn from each other from each other’s experiences, to gain new perspectives and have new insight and put that into practice and be a good relative to each other,” Daniel says.
Liz Rock, co-founder of the Boston-based women’s running group TrailblazHers, which aims to empower “women of all shapes, colors and backgrounds to celebrate all bodies, and every body,” according to its website, says when women runners are victim-blamed for the street violence and harassment, it makes her “blood boil.”
“You hear a lot of, ‘She shouldn’t have worn that. She shouldn’t have gone out at night. She shouldn’t have gone out in the morning. She should have stayed at her house,’” Rock tells TODAY.com.
Removing that stigma is one of the many reasons Rock, Frances Ramirez and Abeo Powder created TrailblazHers, an accessible, inclusive running group where women, especially those who are aren't white, can feel safe running in their neighborhood.
“We have that repertoire with each other where it’s like … ‘I’m going out for a run at 10 o’clock at night, who wants to join?’” Rock continues. “We formed that community where girls are, for the most part, always running together. And we believe in power in numbers.”
Powder says those numbers, which range from 50 to 200 people at each event the group holds, aim to take the responsibility off women by creating “more noise to inspire preventative measures that need to be taken” in their community.
Rock says that TrailblazHers is “removing the narrative of blaming women for existing” through their events, like weekly Thursday runs, bimonthly Self-Care Sundays (a walk or run followed by a wellness activity that ranges from meditation to self-defense classes) and their annual events: Take Back the Night, a night run that highlights women’s safety in numbers, and the Bra Run, an event that invites women across New England to run in a sports bra.
“The Bra Run is giving the middle finger to society about what a woman’s body should look like,” Rock says. “We have all girls from all backgrounds, all colors, all ages come out in their sports bras … 200-plus deep taking on the streets of Boston. It’s like a protest.”
Rock explains it’s more than “winning in a sports bra,” though: It’s about “uplifting and uniting each other” — as seen in this year’s massive turnout, which also included members of other running clubs, like New England-based Liberty Athletic Club.
Improving neighborhood layouts
Several studies suggest that there’s a direct correlation between neighborhood layouts and outdoor safety.
A 2019 study by the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health found that having green spaces in a community can reduce crime, including assault. A 2019 report by the National Bureau of Economic Research concluded that adding street lighting can reduce crime at night in urban areas. A 2018 study by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reported that restoring vacant lots can reduce street violence and improve perceptions of fear and safety.
GirlTREK, a national movement that encourages Black women to walk in their communities, uses walking and running as a way for their members to identify and address these issues in their own neighborhoods, which can prevent street harassment and violence as a result.
“If you’re walking in an area together, you can say, ‘Oh, there’s a space where ... that looks unsafe, where people could be hiding,'” Marcie Thomas, director of digital engagement at GirlTREK, tells TODAY.com. “Let’s see what we can do, as women walking through this community to clean that up, so we don’t feel unsafe when we walk past that sort of thing.”
Cynthia Thompson is the national field director of churches for GirlTREK, and her job is to encourage church communities to step outside and contribute to making their outdoor spaces safer.
“When you’re out there and you’re walking, running or just being in the community, you see the street light is out, you see that there’s a pothole, you see the leaves are growing, and it’s overtaking a pathway where someone can hide in there and harm to someone, so let’s cut it down,” Thompson says.
“We become our change agents in our own communities, but you’re not going to do it (if) you’re not out there seeing it, and you’re not out there seeing it if you’re just driving by,” Thompson adds. "(When you) walk the streets, you can see, feel, hear, smell and experience what’s happening in your community.”
Pamela Jiner is GirlTREK’s walkability expert. She visits chapters across the country and fills out neighborhood report cards, which rank safety, accessibility and inclusivity in communities.
Jiner then starts to train leaders on how to identify areas of improvement in their own neighborhood, and finally, to get in front of local officials and take action — from contacting the local park system to add more street lighting to asking politicians at a town hall meeting for more wheelchair ramps.
Creating a welcoming space for women of color and nonbinary runners
Caroyln Su, founder of Diverse We Run, an Instagram community that profiles runners of color to help expand racial representation in the sport, was born and raised in a predominantly white community in Texas, and as an Asian American runner, she recalls feeling “additional layers of concern” for the majority of her life.
For Su, a child of Taiwanese immigrants, she didn’t see her story reflected as a runner in mainstream online media. But once she started searching hashtags like #AsianRunners, #BlackRunners and #LatinoRunners, she saw runners of color and understood their shared desire to be seen.
In 2019, she created Diverse We Run to create a space where those stories can live.
“We learn to deal with (the discrimination), and then you keep it inside and you don’t realize how much it was hurting you until you actually acknowledge it,” Su says, “When people put it out there … the responses from others in the running community, saying, ‘That’s exactly how I felt,’ is affirming their presence within the community and within the sport.”
Similarly, Verna Volker, founder of Native Women Running, an Instagram account that uplifts Native women runners, noticed there was a lack of representation for her community in the sport as she became more involved on social media.
Since beginning the account in 2018, Native Women Running now has over 30K followers, which Verna calls “a community of sisterhood.”
That sisterhood creates a space of healing for the Indigenous community as the epidemic of missing and murdered Native women rages on.
“A lot of our women have been running in honor of people they’ve lost, and that has drawn a lot of our women together, because we understand all the generational and historical trauma (that exists in the Indigenous community),” she says.
Daniel talks of the advocacy work Rising Hearts does to increase Indigenous visibility in the running industry: Running on Native Lands, a program educates others on how to respect Native land while running, and No More Stolen Relatives, an initiative that raises awareness for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women while supporting their families.
“Ranging from working with race directors, outdoor brands, companies, to talking about indigenous visibility and inclusion when we talk about running with the lands, and organizing on them and talking about those histories — it’s a lot of the work that we do,” Daniel says.
New York Road Runners started the Non-Binary Equity and Inclusion Initiative in 2021 to support nonbinary runners. Through the initiative, most NYRR programs and community events now have a nonbinary category for races, which “provides runners of all gender identities with the ability to run in a safe, competitive and friendly environment," according to the NBEI landing page.
“(NBEI) was born out of the desire to allow more people to feel included and safer,” Erica Edwards-O’Neal, NYRR’s senior vice president of culture, diversity, equity and social responsibility, tells TODAY.com.
Edwards-O’Neal says the nonbinary category allows "people to see themselves" through "not having to choose between a box that they did not connect with."
Nikki Hiltz, an AFAB professional middle distance runner who identifies as transgender nonbinary and the first openly nonbinary athlete to earn a USA Track & Field national title, has raced in the NYRR nonbinary category. They say that adding the third category may seem like a small change to some, but to the LGBTQ+ community, it is a major act of inclusivity with the potential to cause a ripple effect.
“It’s such a bare minimum thing, but the impact that (the nonbinary division) has made is huge,” Hiltz, who ran in the nonbinary category at the 5th Avenue Mile race organized by NYRR on Sept. 10, tells TODAY.com. “So many people are given hope … they’re like, 'Oh wow, Nikki can get affirmed in their gender, maybe I can come out and start using they/them pronouns.’”
Together, running groups and organizations can make a difference
While women-led groups are open to working with officials to improve their neighborhoods, they are more focused on working together to make change.
TrailblazHers and Liberty Athletic Club share members and efforts in making cities like Boston a more inclusive place for all runners; Su has been in touch with New York Road Runners on how they can support Su and the Asian American running community; Daniel brings attention to the work of other Native women runners, like Volker.
“We can uplift each other, and you can’t put a can’t put a price tag on that,” Nora Mann, who runs with TrailblazHers and Liberty Athletic Club, tells TODAY.com. “It then feeds into everything else that makes us better friends, that are professionals, that are parents, that are runners, that are advocates, that are activists."
Daniel says working together is an important part of building inclusive running communities, making it "our responsibility to just be a good relative, a good human to each other, and just keeping an eye out for each other."
And for these women-led organizations and groups, there’s no signs of slowing down or stopping.