As It Happens

'The fault doesn't lie with us': Women shouldn't bear burden of preventing attacks, says runner

Women shouldn't be afraid to go for a run and the onus isn't on them to avoid being a target, said American runner Melissa Sullivan.

Female runners are speaking out in wake of killing of runner Eliza Fletcher in Tennessee

Sullivan after she finished the 2018 Marine Corps Marathon. She pushed back against the idea that the burden is women to prevent themselves from being attacked while running. (Submitted by Melissa A. Sullivan)

Story Transcript

Women shouldn't be afraid to go for a run and the onus isn't on them to avoid being a target, said American runner Melissa A. Sullivan.

Many women who run are speaking out about the risks they face from men while exercising, after 34-year-old Tennessee school teacher Eliza Fletcher was abducted on an early morning run in Memphis on Sept. 2.

Her body was discovered a few days later. A 38-year-old man has been charged with first degree murder in connection with her kidnapping and death.

Fletcher's death has, yet again, brought the safety issues women face while running to the forefront.

"The first thing that comes to mind is anger, and the second is grief, and I wish I could say shock, but unfortunately, given the experiences that I've had and in speaking to fellow female runners, I know that being a female runner is, in and of itself, a dangerous thing to do,"  Sullivan told As It Happens host Nil Köksal.

A week after Fletcher's death, thousands of runners held early morning events in cities across the U.S. to "Finish Eliza's Run." Some wore pink tank tops and purple shorts in Fletcher's honour.

An obituary described Fletcher as a "born athlete" who loved being outside with her husband and children. 

Sullivan wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post in which she describes feeling triumphant after the completion of the 2018 Marine Corps Marathon, only to be chased by a group of men a few days later while on a run in the early evening.

Sullivan was wearing knee high compression socks, she recalled to As It Happens, when she ran by a group of men outside a convenience store in the Dupont Circle neighbourhood of Washington, D.C.

One of the men asked if her she was a soccer player, because of the socks, and Sullivan said she didn't want to engage with him, so she looked straight ahead, and held herself "high and confidently."

At the end of the day, if someone wants to do us harm ... the fault doesn't lie with us.- Melissa A. Sullivan

But her efforts had the opposite effect.

"He was with about three or four other men, and I could overhear them starting to speak negatively about me and escalate the situation," she said. 

"Some expletives were thrown my way because I did not respond, and I initially felt all of the hairs on the back of my neck go up and I knew I needed to get out of there as quickly as I could." 

Sullivan saw them following behind her through a park, so she ran toward a police station a couple of blocks away, screaming for help. She said that her strategy worked and the men stopped pursing her.

More than one incident

Sullivan recalled another incident, also on an evening run, when a man exposed himself and tried to corner her against some construction equipment, but she was able to evade him.

"I should be able to go for a run and have my peace instead of being accosted, instead of feeling threatened, instead of being chased," she said. 

Melissa A. Sullivan, around the 17-mile marker in the 2019 Marine Corps Marathon. 'I locked eyes with the camera and I just felt so alive,' she told As It Happens. 'With every foot stroke, I felt in control, I felt powerful, I felt strong.' (Submitted by Melissa A. Sullivan)

Sullivan has taken a self-defence class, and has heeded advice to run with pepper spray, a flashlight and a whistle. But she says the onus shouldn't fall on women to avoid being harassed, threatened and attacked while running.

"At the end of the day, if someone wants to do us harm ... the fault doesn't lie with us," she said. 

Sullivan said she "made the mistake of reading the comments" on her Washington Post article. While she read comments from many women who shared her feelings, other commenters dismissed the issue, engaged in victim-blaming or suggested she run with a male companion for protection — a solution she pushed back against.

Sullivan understands the pleasure of being outside and of feeling powerful in what your body can do.

"Running is a sacred practice to me," said Sullivan. "It's something that brings me peace, it's grounding, it's my hour of the day to disconnect from the busyness of the world and the hectic nature of my work and the city, and really dedicate time to being in tune with my body.

"I can be pretty defiant. And so I refuse to believe that I should have to put up my running shoes because of this type of behaviour," she said.

With files from Associated Press. Interview with Melissa A. Sullivan produced by Kate Swoger.


Andrea Bellemare is a reporter and producer with CBC Radio. She helped launch the new CBC Kitchener-Waterloo radio station in 2013 and worked as a producer there for half a decade, reported for CBC Montreal, produced radio documentaries for CBC Radio and covered disinformation for CBC News. She has also reported for the wire service Agence France-Presse.

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