It was a beautiful, sunny day when Leah Yingling set out on June 15, 2010, for what she thought was going to be a routine three-miler on one of the most popular running trails in Johnstown, Pa.
As she recounted at Pittsburgh Marathon's inaugural Safe Strides self-defense course for female runners last month, the experience instead was a chilling reminder of the danger women can face when they run solo.
Yingling didn't take any special precautions as she headed into the woods, and in fact left a small container of pepper spray on the seat of her car in favor of her cellphone.
A mile into the out-and-back run, her luck changed. Standing ahead on the deserted trail was a man wearing a hooded sweatshirt. As she veered to the left to step around him, he pulled out a knife, stepped into her path and grabbed her. When she screamed, he put the knife to her throat and tried to drag her into the bushes to sexually assault her.
During the struggle, Yingling somehow managed to find her cellphone in her pocket and dial 911. When her attacker realized it, he ripped the phone from her hand and fled. He was caught a few hours later and sentenced last year to eight to 16 years in state prison for the assault.
Others have not been so lucky.
While running is a relatively safe sport statistically, there are people out there who mean to do runners harm. Realistically, females are bigger targets for assault than males for obvious reasons. Ignoring that fact will not make them less of a target.
Just last month, a woman was raped on the Provo River Trail in Provo, Utah, while running after dark. Female joggers also were attacked on trails in Lewisville, Texas, in January; on Katy Trail in Dallas in November; on Capital Crescent Trail in Bethesda, Md., in October; and on Northern Virginia's Four Mile Run Trail in July.
"It's a growing problem," said Road Runners Club of America executive director Jean Knaack, in part because more females are running -- some 7.6 million females finished U.S. road races in 2011 -- and for longer distances. "But women really don't want to hear it."
According to Running USA, women now account for the majority of entrants (59 percent) in the 13.1-mile half-marathon, a distance that can require 30 or more miles a week at the height of training. Because so many work, many of those miles are logged when women are alone, in isolated areas, at off hours.
In Pittsburgh, self-defense expert/ex-Navy SEAL Craig Douglas of Mississippi, who spent 21 years working as a cop, is teaching runners a course in self-defense.
Because assaults on runners can and do happen anywhere -- small towns, big cities, downtown parks, suburban trails -- Douglas' main message was that women need to be totally aware of their environment. The earlier you can spot a potential problem developing, the more you can do to avoid or manage it.
The ultimate opportunists, "bad guys are looking for easy victims," he told the crowd. "They're the ultimate opportunists. They attack when conditions favor them the most and you the least."
One obvious way to increase awareness is to lose the music if you're running alone in an isolated area, even if it means your run will be more boring. Runners get attacked from behind because the assailant knows you can't see them; wearing headphone means you can't hear them, either.
Runners also need to avoid activities that distract or make you oblivious to your surroundings, such as talking on a phone or fumbling too long with your shoelaces.
Once on the trail, stay alert so you can assess strangers coming toward you for any potential threat. While you never know for certain what's going on in a person's head, there is body language that strongly relates to criminal behavior. For instance, Douglas said, a criminal often makes a "grooming" gesture before he attacks: He might rub the back of his head or neck, touch this face or cover his mouth.
Other pre-attack indicators are target glancing (looking to the left or right or behind you as you approach) and a discernible weight shift. If someone is going to pull a knife or attack you, he's going to shift his weight from one foot to another so he has a base to move explosively.
Bad guys tend to telegraph their intentions, so furtive movements of the hands around the waist should also raise your hackles.
"That knife or gun doesn't just magically appear," Douglas noted. "It has to come from somewhere."
For someone to assault you, they have to get their hands on you. So always maintain distance when you pass someone you don't know or who makes you uncomfortable and keep your hands close to your body and relatively high; it will reduce the amount of time it takes to cover your head with your hands if you're attacked. If you have to pass closely, square your hips so it's harder for them to bump you. If you have to shout for them to get out of your way, that's OK, too.
"If you have space, you have time," he said.
For safety tips, see: http://www.rrca.org/education-advocacy/rrca-general-running-safety-tips