You’re deep into a run by yourself when a menacing-looking stranger barrels toward you. You have a split-second to decide: What do you do?
Any runner who ventures out alone could wind up in this situation. Solo runners provide easy prey for criminals looking to steal a smartphone or wallet, or even rape. In August, a woman running in Bolton Hill was forced into a vehicle and raped by a man with a handgun, according Baltimore police, who have since arrested a suspect. And when daylight saving time ends this weekend, more people may end up running in the dark, even more vulnerable to crime.
It is a timely concern among runners. This month, Charm City Run held self-defenses classes at its Annapolis and Timonium stores that attracted dozens of runners, mostly women, who wanted to learn how to protect themselves.
Even though most runners know going it alone isn't the safest, sometimes it's hard to coordinate with a group or buddy.
"We don't like people running alone," said Josh Levinson, who founded Charm City Run with his wife, Kara. "The problem is when runners want to go, they want to go, and they don't necessarily want or have time to call a friend or make arrangements with a group."
So what exactly should a runner do if attacked? There's no one answer, but police and safety experts say runners should prepare for a dangerous situation before one occurs.
One reliable tactic to try to save yourself is to make a scene, police and experts said. Scream, blow a whistle, run into the middle of the street — do whatever you can to draw attention to what is happening. Either the attacker will run off, or someone in the vicinity may hear the ruckus and call police or come to your aid.
"The object is to be as visible as possible," said Donny Moses, a detective with the Baltimore Police Department. "Get as loud as you can."
The best way to protect yourself depends on the situation, police and safety experts said.
If there is a gun or knife involved, don't try to be a hero. "We understand if there is an urge to run or fight, but if they have you at gunpoint, there is not much you can do," Moses said. "We would say just comply with their demands. The object there is to walk away with your life."
What if the attacker isn't armed? Moses still advises runners not to fight because there's no way to know the strength of the attacker, and you risk making the person angry and likelier to hurt you.
Others say size up the situation. Get a very quick sense of the intent of the assailant, said Lt. Jennifer Reidy-Hall, commander of community outreach for the Howard County Police Department. If the person is asking for a wallet, money, cellphone or fancy headphones, give it up, she said.
"They are likely after the property and not you, and if you comply, your chances of you leaving the incident uninjured go up," she said. "Don't fight back, be a good witness and call 911 as soon as possible. Provide a good description of the suspect, their direction of travel and what car you saw them in, if any. This is true if they have a weapon or not. Your life isn't worth a credit card, some cash or your iPhone."
When faced with a person whose intent is to harm you, you'll have to decide whether to flee or fight, Reidy-Hall said. That will depend on your comfort level, your training and myriad other factors that only you can assess.
At the Charm City Run clinic, Todd Williams, a two-time Olympic distance runner and black belt in Brazilian jujitsu, instructed runners on how to fight back if attacked.
Clinic participants said they had thought about what would happen if they got attacked, particularly when they heard about incidents on the news. But they didn't really know what they would do if it happened to them.
"It's always in the back of your mind, but you can't always find somebody to run with you," said 50-year-old Cindy Brush, who lives in Baltimore.
Williams told the runners to use a cupped hand to hit an attacker in the ear, creating a vacuum effect — and a lot of pain and noise for the assailant. He also suggested striking the assailant in the throat to create a choking effect or ramming the palm of the hand upward into the assailant's nose. Runners could even catch the attacker off guard, he said, by poking him in the eye.
"I know it sounds gory and you don't want to have to do that, but it works," he told the women as some grimaced.
Williams threw his partner, Lindsey Collins, on the ground and demonstrated how she could free herself. He instructed Collins to use her feet as a weapon to kick him in the face, groin or wherever she could aim. Collins drove her hips into the air to gain leverage to escape his grip. Williams also suggested elbowing the attacker in the stomach and biting.
"It's just not any bite," Williams said. "It's a bite where the person starts to worry about their personal safety."
Brush and other runners said the workshop made them think more about how they should react if attacked.
"It's easy to take it for granted that it won't happen to you," Brush said.
Amy Anderson, a 42-year-old wildlife biologist from Baltimore, said she learned some valuable strategies to protect herself.
"I think safety is so important," she said. "Now, I've got some tips for if I ever end up in a bad situation."
In the end, the best protection is prevention, Williams and other safety experts said. In other words, keep yourself out of dangerous situations. That means running in groups, looking confident and being aware of your surroundings.
Trust your gut, they said. If something looks suspicious, cross the street or take another route. Don't carry valuables that may attract a crook's attention, and run on streets with lots of people, especially if training by yourself. Vary your routine, because you never know who is watching. An attacker may target a runner they know will be in the same spot each day.
"Let's prepare you for what to do in the worst situation," Charm City Run's Levinson said. "But let's also figure out how to prevent it from happening in the first place."
Just as you'd create a fire escape plan for your home, mentally prepare for what you might do if you are ever attacked, the safety experts said.
"Anyone can be vulnerable, whether its due to gender, age, size or simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time," said Reidy-Hall of the Howard County police. "Don't think you can't be a victim because you're a big guy or trained in martial arts."