(WASHINGTON) -- The viral hashtags #MilesforMollie and #dcrunners4wendy are reflecting an all-too-scary reality for women today.
Runners in the Washington, D.C., area started #dcrunners4wendy after Wendy Martinez, 35 and newly-engaged, was stabbed to death Tuesday while jogging around 8 p.m. in a busy, well-lit area of the nation’s capital.
Mollie Tibbetts, the inspiration behind #MilesforMollie, was found dead on Aug. 21, more than a month after she went missing during an evening jog in Brooklyn, Iowa.
The killings of two young women while doing something as innocent as running outdoors have sparked fear and outrage.
"It's the unfortunate reality of being a woman," said Alex Morris, a 24-year-old runner in Washington, D.C., and member of the Georgetown Running Club, a competitive running club. "You always have to think extra carefully and it's not even just running."
The deaths of Tibbetts and Martinez came on the heels of two killings last year that also rocked women.
Karina Vetrano, 30, was killed while on an evening jog in Queens, New York, in August 2016.
Five days later, Vanessa Marcotte, a 27-year-old Google employee who lived in New York City, was killed after she left her mother’s home in Princeton, Massachusetts, for a run in broad daylight, officials said.
It's not just women runners who are in danger. Just this week, a 22-year-old collegiate golf player was killed while she was golfing alone on a course in Ames, Iowa.
A conversation that men don't have
And lost among those high-profile, tragic killings are the countless instances the mass public rarely hears about of women who escape attacks, who are cat-called, who are scared, who have to run with pepper spray or alter their routes or skip an activity altogether just because they are trying to exist in this world as a woman on her own.
"We have a big group chat and we’re always talking about how people can be safe and that we should be meeting up more often to go on runs because strength in numbers just makes everyone feel safer," Morris said of her running club. "It's just a topic of conversation that the men’s team doesn’t have to talk about."
A survey last year by Runner's World found more than half of women who run said they are concerned that they could be physically assaulted or receive unwanted physical contact during a run.
In addition to the fear they face, women also face pressure from society to do something ("Don't wear headphones!" "Change your route!" "Never run at night!"), as though the behaviors of often-male perpetrators are their fault.
"I’ve felt frustrated when the media coverage after these incidents focuses on what women should be doing differently with the subtext that they did something wrong, or that they shouldn’t have been running at that time," said Kerry Allen, a 30-year-old elite marathoner and Georgetown Running Club member. "At the end of the day, we have to get to a place that every woman feels safe while moving about the city, whether it’s walking, running, biking, anything."
Allen, who also works full-time on Capitol Hill, said she often has to run early in the morning or late at night, a reality of many women who have to squeeze in workouts wherever and whenever they can.
"I think the unfortunate answer is you can’t always prevent attacks," she said. "I love running. I’m going to keep doing that."
A self-defense expert's advice for women
It is impossible to prevent every attack, experts say, and women should not feel the pressure to do so.
What women can do is empower themselves so they feel stronger and more confident out in the world, says Jennifer Cassetta, a self-defense expert and creator of the Stilettos and Self Defense DVDs.
"I’m personally not going to wait around for men to stop raping," Cassetta told "Good Morning America." "That’s not going to happen in our lifetime so how can we get ahead of that and be empowered to do what we want to do and live our lives."
"It’s about knowing that you have that power," she said.
Cassetta stays away from the stereotypical advice for women like not running alone and not wearing headphones, she adds.
"A man would say that," she said.
Instead, she gives women self-defense advice that doesn't "punish" them.
"For me, teaching is about giving as many choices as possible in these horrible situations," said Cassetta, who notes that even taking one self-defense class can make a huge difference. "There are so many examples of women fighting back and getting away. It does work. Not all the time, but it can."
Cassetta's top 3 empowering tips for women
1. Know the weapons you have on your body and how to use them
Run or walk powerfully with your shoulders back and head up, making eye contact with every person in your path, Cassetta recommends.
If you are attacked, dropping down to a squat or a lunge will drop your center of gravity and make you harder to the throw to the ground, according to Cassetta.
To fight back, Cassetta says to "acquire and fire."
"The eyes, throat and groin are most effective targets because they are all soft targets where you can do the most amount of damage with the least amount of effort," she said. "Scratch or gouge the eyes, give a punch to the throat to disrupt breathing and give a punch or a knee or an elbow to the groin."
2. Be aware of your surroundings
Women should be "alert but calm" when they're out and about, scanning for red flags and not getting too deep into thought, Cassetta says.
"When we’re being alert, our intuition is our inner GPS, it gives us signals and sends us messages," she said. "If we’re too caught up in our to-do list or what we’re stressed about, we can’t hear it."
When it comes to hearing, Cassetta also says don't forgo headphones, but do have the volume low enough so that you can hear the sounds around you.
Also, let other people know of your surroundings too. Designate a friend or family member as your "safety buddy," the person you text to let know when and where you are running and when you will return.
3. Arm yourself
The types of "non-lethal weapons" Cassetta recommends women arm themselves with include pepper spray, a personal alarm, and a sharp object worn as a piece of jewelry, what she calls "weapon jewelry."
"They make you that much more aware because you’re holding onto it and aware of it," she said. "But you need to make sure you know how to use them. If you have pepper spray, make sure you know how to use it and have it accessible."
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