Todd Williams, two-time U.S. Olympian, has created RunSafer safety and self-defense workshops for runners.
On a weekday morning in June 2012, Sarah Hart, a 31-year-old pharmacist and mother of three, was out for one of her frequent runs with her sister, Elizabeth Roberts. The two were running alongside Highway 127 in Jamestown, Ky. It was early, 5:30 a.m., and Sarah was feeling dehydrated and struggling with a headache. She told her sister to go on without her, then turned back toward her car, which she’d left in a restaurant parking lot.
When Elizabeth finished her run at the parking lot, she saw that her sister’s car was still parked in the lot, but Sarah was nowhere in sight. Panic ensued. After a massive search effort, Sarah’s body was found in a nearby field. Although few details emerged, an autopsy report determined she had been strangled.
Sarah’s memory continues to be honored via a 4-mile road race in her name, held in Jamestown every August, and the Sarah Roberts Hart Fund, which provides scholarships for students pursuing medical careers.
Sarah’s story and many others like it each year are the driving force for Todd Williams, a two-time Olympian in the 10,000-meter run for the U.S. in the 1990s, who is now teaching runners to be prepared for the unthinkable. After retiring, Williams diverted his energy to the martial art of Brazilian jiu jitsu.
He earned his black belt in 2011, after eight years of training, and has since focused his twin passions for running and martial arts into RunSafer workshops, held at running stores around the country. The 70-minute clinics, supported by ASICS, are designed to teach runners how to improve their chances of survival in the event of an attack.
“An hour-long workshop is not going to turn you into an expert,” Williams says. “These are techniques to help you buy time in the case of an attack.”
The idea of buying time is a critical mantra for Williams. Once an attacker has pushed you down or grabbed your arm, anything and everything you can do to keep the clock running will increase your odds of survival, he says. “You have to win.”
At a RunSafer workshop, Williams underscores this psychological commitment in the event of an attack—you have to win—as the critical energy that powers the survival techniques. Having the presence of mind to fight back by way of throwing rocks, swinging elbows, gouging the attacker’s eyes, punching the throat or kicking the groin is crucial to survival, he says.
“You want to immediately do things to frustrate the attacker,” he explains. “You can buy time on the clock by surprising him with the fact that you’re going to fight with whatever is available to you.”
Williams can’t guarantee safety, but he says he can give runners a fighting chance.
“Everyone who leaves the workshop should have some tools to take with them and continue their education,” he says. “And they can share what they’ve learned with other runners. Safety can become viral.”
To build safety into your daily run, the best defense is a tactical offense. Here are some key safety points from RunSafer.
1. DON’T BE PREDICTABLE. Don’t run alone every day at the same place and the same time.
2. AVOID ISOLATED AREAS. Peril ratchets up in secluded areas, but Williams warns: “An attack can happen anywhere.”
3. SAFETY IN NUMBERS. This is another common-sense tactic and one that encourages the social aspect of running.
4. BE SMART ABOUT MUSIC. Williams teaches runners to always be aware of their surroundings. Sacrificing your ability to hear for the sake of wearing headphones can increase the danger factor. If listening to music is a must while you run, take additional precautions to lessen the hazard.