Trail and ultrarunners often run long distances alone, sometimes in the dark. Certain safety precautions are a must depending on the circumstances, such as headlamps and reflective vests, or knowing what to do in the event of a wildlife encounter if they run in bear or cougar country.

But what about the unthinkable — getting attacked by another person?

It is this safety concern that leads many trail runners, particularly women, to carry personal safety tools, such as pepper spray and safety alarms that emit loud noises. Some also take self-defense workshops, whether they’re geared toward runners or the general public.

This is where run specialty retailers can be a part of the effort. With their expertise in product and their reach into the trail running community, therse stores are in an ideal position to provide access to both the gear and the training that might help a runner avoid or fend off an attack.


A Concern for Women

Anyone running alone rightfully may have concerns about being attacked, but these concerns may be heightened among women, especially women of color.

Some women of color who are trail runners have raised concerns about safety, says Nancy Hobbs, executive director of the American Trail Running Association. 

Take, for example, the fact that indigenous women face disproportionately high rates of violence and murder and that the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW) crisis hits close to home for many. Verna Volker is a Navajo trail runner who created the online community Native Women Running.

Because Volker often runs alone in the dark and has been followed before, she takes precautions: Before she leaves, she takes a picture of what she’s wearing and sends it to her husband and she tells him where she’s going and what time she should be back. Then, if the unthinkable happens and she doesn’t come home, he will know where she was and what clothes and shoes she had on. She also carries self-defense tools.

Volker has organized events to raise awareness of the MMIW crisis and to raise money to fight it.

“Due to the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women crisis, I felt like everybody was talking about awareness and no one was talking about preventive measures,” she says.

So she started encouraging other Native Women Running members to take preventive measures. She partnered with the company Go Guarded, which makes self-defense products such as a safety alarm and a self-defense ring knife, to offer a discount for members. Volker also partnered with Train Your Roar, which has provided two virtual self-defense workshops for Native Women Running members.

Train Your Roar has already conducted workshops at women's running retreats, camps and running stores around the country, both in person and virtually, particularly during the pandemic.

“What we train, first and foremost, is to be aware. Second is to avoid danger and that you can only do that if you're using all your senses,” explains Rebecca Tolkoff, co-founder of Train Your Roar. “Three is to employ your voice and then the last possible thing would be to fight.” And make no mistake about it, they teach when it’s appropriate to fight.

The workshops have been well received, Tolkoff says. “My favorite part is when you see someone realize that they have power within themselves. People aren't socialized to have that,” especially women over 40, she says. 

The Train Your Roar sessions teach skills along with mindset, including reminding people to trust their gut and to be aware, Tolkoff says. “I think, in the age of cell phones and distraction and all these noise-cancelling headphones, we have lost that.”


The Retail ‘Roar’

Running stores can help connect trail runners with safety training, but it’s important “to make sure you're inclusive and welcoming,” Hobbs emphasizes. For example, women might be more comfortable asking questions in a women-only group.

New Balance’s global flagship store in Boston hosted a Train Your Roar workshop as one of the weekly fitness events it hosted in early 2020. These events were “aimed at partnering with local community leaders with whom we worked to bring free fitness and fitness education events to our neighborhood in Brighton,” says store manager Ben Khouri. “Running parallel to our evening yoga classes and Sunday group 5Ks, the Train Your Roar seminar felt like a great way to round out our programming.”

The workshop focused on women runners. “Everyone deserves to feel safe while running,” Khouri says.

And even better, the workshop actually drew some new faces to the store.

“Many of the customers we hosted were first-time shoppers in our location — many were new to the brand,” Khouri says. “Customers are looking for brands that are larger than product assortment and create a social or cultural value for the community. People are happy to support a store that supports the running community.”


Training for Safety on the Trail

Other training on how to use safety gear such as pepper spray and self-defense knives might also be helpful.

“Gear can range from many different items, but if you don't know how to use it, or you are unaware of your surroundings and unprepared to defend yourself, that is a bigger problem,” Hobbs says.

Tolkoff echoes that sentiment. “What we teach is, if you choose to run with a product or some sort of safety tool, be trained in how to use that tool and make sure it's accessible. If you're carrying some pepper spray in your water pack, it's not going to help you,” she says.

Also, “if you carry some sort of a weapon, are you prepared to hurt someone? Are you prepared for what that's going to feel like?”

Volker points out that training on how to properly use GPS watches so that someone else can track your whereabouts is also helpful. Many trail runners may own watches and phones with such safety features, but not know how to use them.


Building a Safe Community

Although the purpose of training sessions is the training itself, an additional benefit is creating community, Tolkoff says. 

“When we teach a group, the group becomes cohesive. They're going through something together. Whether they came with people they knew or they didn't, they remember the other ones in their class,” she says. “I think that's part of the running community — it’s making those connections.”

Running stores are certainly well positioned to create and build this kind of safe community.

“Host myriad events that speak to different demographics. Make them accessible, welcoming and fun,” Khouri says. “At its best, a running store is a support system for those looking to achieve health and happiness.”