Every outdoor activity carries inherent risk. As a running community, we are certainly not unaware of the dangers presented by technical terrain, rapid weather changes, unclear paths or exposed climbs. Sadly, a rolled ankle, hidden puffadder or heat stroke are not our primary dangers any more. The threat of personal attack is on the rise, and the buzz on every trail group or forum is centred on safety precautions and solutions.
This situation flies in the face of some of our fundamental reasons for running; freedom, solitude, and the flexibility to enjoy our sport at any time of the day or night. Reality is, we all need to apply some practical thinking to our training patterns and work as a community to protect each other and our sport.
The first step in empowering our running community is to better understand the risks. The news reports on the most recent attacks on Table Mountain have been sorely lacking in both fact and detail, leaving many of us guessing when it comes to where we should run, and what we should look out for. Some very brave victims from across South Africa have shared their stories here in an effort to put the missing pieces together.
We must advise anyone currently working through the trauma of violence or personal attack that there are many triggers within the following stories.
The small surf town of J-Bay in the Eastern Cape became a runner’s nightmare for visitor, Charlotte Noble.
“I’ve run for thirty years all over this country, and in way remote places abroad and never felt threatened or had an incident. So I’m lucky. In June this year we went to J-Bay for a family surfing holiday, staying on the beach at Point near Supertubes. Busy town with a lot happening at that time of year.
I trotted off on my long run -planning to run to St Francis and call my husband when I got there. Stopped a couple times to take some sunrise pics, have a snack. Then at 11km decided stupidly that I’d run back, save Andy the drive and run to St Francis another time. 2km from the town on a long stretch fishermen 800m ahead, I looked up to see a man 50m ahead, walking towards me. Then suddenly, to my left running at me was another guy.
I’ve always thought if attacked on a beach I’d run into the sea and out-swim any guy. The sea was rough and so I stopped waist deep and they fell onto me, dunking my pack, phone etc. ‘Phone, phone’ he kept saying. ‘I’m giving you my phone’ I replied trying to get it out the drenched pocket. Mr A then produced a huge knife and proceeded to cut my Salomon racing pack off me, he grabbed it and the two ran off seemingly arguing about who should get what.
I was physically fine, scratch wound on my chest from the blade. But psychologically stuffed. Initially ecstatic to be alive, to get back to my kids and family. But for weeks I was jumpy and I did not run for days after.
Don’t run without seeing where poorer areas are in relation to your route. Out and back routes are problematic because you risk being ambushed. Pepper spray/taser useless if attacked by more than 1 assailant. Why carry an expensive phone?
I’m training up my Ridgeback pup as I believe trail dogs to be the best deterrent and alarm system.”
Two months ago, Claire-Louise Worby and a friend were accosted on the contour path above Cape Town’s beautiful Newlands Forest, close to the turnstile.
“Whilst running along the single track we came across two men who were dressed in smart and appropriate walking gear. They looked very much like two walkers enjoying the trail. Upon approach, the first man passed us as we stood aside to let them walk past on the single track. We greeted each other politely as he walked past first myself and then my friend. When the second man came up, they closed in on us. They calmly said 'Ok, we will kill you. Give us what you have. My friend and I froze as they searched not only our pockets but our sports bras, and our underwear. They groped and grabbed every inch of our bodies. In what I now know as a survival instinct that can happen other than 'fight or flight', my friend and I stood frozen. We only had our car keys, I had my cell phone. I also had mace in my pocket. At one point I had my hand on it, but in better judgement gave it over rather than aggravate one or both of them. When they took the keys and my phone, they insisted we must have more; they couldn't accept that my friend didn't have her phone. The one man was holding me by the back of my running vest as the one who had been searching my friend suggested 'let's just rape them'. In a haze, I recall my friend saying to them that they had everything whilst I peeled myself out of the zip-up running vest that the man was holding and we ran. I still don't understand how it all happened and am grateful we got away safely. On our way down the mountain, we came across other women, running on their own. The first had a running belt with her phone and she called a contact who worked for mountain rescue to alert them. We told the other woman to turn around. The SANParks ranger was already there when we got down and was incredibly proactive.”
This devastating experience has taken Claire off the trails she loves, but she hopes to return in time. When she does, it will be with large groups only. She has found the trauma counselling at the Rondebosch police station to be of huge help. And her advice centres on the small, practical choices we can all make.
“Don't run with anything that will attract someone, like headphones. I'm still on the fence about self-defence things like pepper spray. When I run on my own on the road now, I arm myself with pepper spray but I think there is a time and place for defending yourself. I know that giving up your personal belongings is far less of a sacrifice then getting into a heavy altercation. In my situation, an aggressive move from myself could have jeopardised my own and my friend's safety.”
It is vital to have the correct emergency numbers saved to your phone. In so doing, you position yourself as a potential rescuer. Research the numbers for your specific area. The general numbers are as follows:
Flying Squad 10111
Cape Town City Emergency 021-480 7700
Table Mountain Rescue 021-937 0300
SANParks Visitor Safety 086 110 6417
Johannesburg Central 011 375 5911
Roodepoort 011 375 5911
Sandton 011 375 5911
Durban Metro Police Control Room 031 306 4422
Durban Metro Ambulance 031 307 7744
Saskia Marlow, SANParks Hospitality Services, Film and Events Manager of Table Mountain National Park says, “We actively encourage people to run in a group, leave their valuables at home and ensure they have let someone know where they are going and when to expect them home.” As the TMNP is primarily an open access Park from time to time there is criminal activity in some of the urban edge areas of the Park. In answer to these challenges, the TMNP recruited and deployed Visitor Safety Officers (VSO’s) to patrol popular use zones in the Park. The VSO’s give advice to mountain users, as well as act as a deterrent to criminals.
Table Mountain is not the only zone to have seen some harrowing experiences lately. Kent Venish was covering the 8km of road on the way to his much-loved trail playground in Gonubie in March this year, when he mistook his assailant for a late night reveller making his way home in the early light of morning.
“In the next second he was on me and pulled me off my feet by my pack which snapped the plastic clips across my chest …he shouted he wants money, I had none, and it was at this point I saw the knife. They say fight or flight…well …maybe in hindsight I shoulda flighted… Anyhow I attacked him by closing the distance so he could not use the knife, I parried with my left arm which took 3 stabs and then locked his arm and proceeded to bend it backwards and it broke. He screamed blue murder and kicked me to the ground. He stumbled off WITH my bag and kit in it and I then got up and started shouting at him and chasing him down. I had taken a few running steps and suddenly realised I was breathing through the side of my chest and instantly knew I had a more serious problem than my kit being stolen. I stopped and realised I had been stabbed in the side of my chest.”
Kent was rescued by a gentleman on his way to work, who piled him and his dramatic wounds into his car, taking Kent to his wife who transported him to hospital. He has since fully recovered and vows not to let this incident rob him of his love of trail running. Although his wife no longer allows him to run in that particular area!
Road runners are not exempt from the threat of attack, which has seen a rapid rise in the number of social running groups springing up on both tar and trail. Cape Town runner, Susan O’Connor changed her running plans and approach after an attack on a popular running route.
“I was attacked on a beautiful summer’s morning running over the bridge from Bishopscourt to Wynberg at the top of Edinburgh drive. It was the same route I ran every Sunday at 6.30 am if I didn’t have a race on.
After the attack, I was petrified to run on my own. My training dwindled down to nothing as I used to run on my own to have some peace and quiet in my life and a time to reflect in general. I hardly ran for the first 6 months after the attack as I kept on looking over my shoulder when I left the safety of my front door and only managed about 1 km down the road. I eventually joined a group of girls who used to run in the area and they got me back into the swing of things. The positive side of this was I made new friends.
I was furious in the beginning that this person had chosen me that day to attack but as most of us who survive these attacks and come out in one piece always say “It could have been a lot worse” I fought back and realised how strong I actually was in the fight or flight mode.
It is not really safe to run on your own unfortunately due to the many attacks which have been taking place but if you decide to, take mace with you and let somebody know the route you are running. I sometimes run with two little mace containers, one in each hand and I am on the ready.”
Seasoned multi-sport athlete, Kim van Kets has a rather refreshing take on the issue.
“I have run for 30 years on every beach, Jeep track and path I can find. Often alone. Not once in all this time have I experienced anything other than kindness, humanity, goodwill from everyone I have met. Until a year ago. I was just finishing my last long run with a heavy pack in preparation for the KAEM. I was running alone on deserted farm roads early in the morning. As I was approaching a crossroads, a guy approached from the opposite direction and we both turned and started running down the same road. We were moving at a similar pace. I greeted him, commented on the weather and overtook him. A while later he overtook me and this happened a couple of times before he pulled off the road about 2 km after I met him. Every time we passed each other I engaged with him. I found him non-threatening, I registered that he had a pleasant face, I felt no fear or anxiety at his presence. As I approached him for the final time he came towards me and said, “Give me your cell phone!” I thought I must have misheard him, maybe he was asking for the time? I went right up to him and only then did I register that he was brandishing a huge rock in the direction of my head. Something happened in my head. I roared at him repeatedly that I would kill him if he took one step closer, I think I did something similar to the Haka. I’m not sure exactly how long this went on for but I roared so hard that my throat hurt for days. He kept coming at me and I kept roaring/Haka-ing and there was eventually a weird Mexican standoff. At some point, I also picked up a rock (wasn’t sure how long I could maintain the upper hand with just my voice). I sort of registered through my rage that if he was going to crush my skull he would have done so by now. So I started to back away (while roaring/haka-ing/brandishing) and eventually I turned and started jogging away. I was lucky, but so was he. I don’t know what would have happened if he had tried to hurt me. I think he would have come off second best. I don’t think he was a hardened criminal and I felt rather a lot of compassion for him afterwards. I think he was quite young, not more than 18. I bumped into my husband about 2km down the road and we went to look for him. I had a strong sense that he needed someone to tell him that he had crossed a line and that day and that he needed some guidance. I didn’t find him though and I regret it. Anyway, from now on he will hopefully realize that not all nice middle aged ladies are necessarily easy targets.
I realised after that incident that having a spray or a taser in your bag is a total waste of time. If you have a weapon it must be in your hand. Also, cross the road, smile and wave. Don’t engage or go up to someone. I have not changed my running habits at all. But I do have a plan now in case I need it and it involves speed, aggression and surprise.”
Ian Hendry from Johannesburg is a regular work commuter, either with his running pack or on his bike. One of his favourite routes is The Spruit.
“This day, because I was running, I decided to follow the river under the road bridge and then come up the other side so as to not have to cross the road. As I was coming up, I saw a man in blue overalls coming towards me, on his way commuting to work, I suspected. I was on a 70cm wide section of the concrete ledge so I moved to the open side to allow him to pass me on the side of the wall. I greeted him with a hearty 'Good morning!'
As we crossed over, he grabbed my Camelbak chest-strap with his left hand, pushed me slightly back towards the edge of the ledge and pulled out a knife with his right hand. He wanted money, my cellphone and my Camelbak. He put the knife against my throat.”
What followed was a surprisingly calm negotiation between the men, as Ian was adamant about keeping his running pack. They settled on him handing over his cellphone and the R30 that was in its cover, and the man retreated under the bridge.
“On insistence from my boss, I went to see an ICAS psychologist for a few sessions. I thought I was okay, but a number of things surfaced in the sessions. For one, I kept replaying in my mind what I 'should have done' ranging from smashing his head into the concrete wall, grabbing the knife and jabbing him, pulling him back over the edge into the river, etc. In the end, the way I handled it was the best - my only thought at the time was to negotiate to get out of there!
South African men, in particular, are tough and don't need to talk to people about these things - we are okay and it's the women who need to talk about their feelings - or so we are conditioned to think. That's utter rubbish!! I thought I was okay, but I needed to talk to someone!! Now, whenever I speak to someone who has been hijacked, had a home robbery or been mugged (I was involved in my suburb security com for a while), I strongly advise that the men see someone and use my experience as a reference.”
It is not all doom and gloom in the world of running, although these accounts leave us utterly cold. It is simply time for all of us to work on making it better. So, other than taking some of the experiences and advice from these victims on board, what can we do?
A Cape Town based security company, Mountain Men, is offering courses to improve mountain users’ situational awareness. Spokesman, Andre, cautions all relevant organisations from over-sharing their crime prevention strategies, which only serves to pre-warn the criminals. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org to find out more.
There are a few proactive, protective items and devices we should consider carrying. Mace, the world’s most popular brand of pepper spray is available through Cape Union Mart. Consider a pocket size stun gun, available through Takealot.
Running within the safety of well-organised events is also a great way to get to experience new routes and venues where marshals, trackers and race organisers maintain your security.
Group runs remain a key first line of defence in training, and it is worth remembering that if we all stay away from our favourite playgrounds, we only serve to make them more isolated, dangerous zones. Kerry Red from Cape Town describes the power of having a running crew.
“It was a pretty typical Monday morning in March last year, I woke up, put on my running shoes and headed out the door on my usual pre-work morning run from Muizenberg to Kalk Bay and back. I had been doing this same run most mornings for approximately 3.5 years without incident. From Muizenberg to St James, I ran along what is better known as 'the catwalk' it's a great pathway between the train tracks and the ocean. I love running there. While I was on the pathway I noticed a guy with a bicycle who I had seen earlier (on my way to Kalk Bay). I got a bad feeling about him (lesson: trust your instincts), but there were other people about. There was a girl on the bench tying her shoe, and there was another runner up ahead (about to disappear on the path), so I thought 'it must be safe'. As I passed the guy, and then the girl, a man with a hoodie stepped out from the tunnel that runs underneath the train tracks to the road. I tried to pass but he blocked me and in that split second I knew. I immediately started to scream as loud as possible (so much so that I didn't have a voice for a week). He pulled a gun out and held it to my stomach. With the other hand, he started grabbing at me. I fought back, all the while screaming. When I looked to the side, I noticed that the others (the 'lookout' and the girl tying her shoe were involved in this). Eventually, be had me pinned down on my haunches against the wall, but I was still fighting back and screaming as loud as I possibly could. The thing that saved me, was that two people close by heard me screaming. They shouted back from the tunnel then came to investigate the screaming and witnessed the scene. This startled my attacker and gave me the slightest gap to get away. I climbed over the train tracks and started running in the direction of the Muizenberg Police Station (which was about 1.5km away) that felt like the longest, toughest run of my life. My legs felt like lead. I got to the police station and eventually (after much pleading) managed to get them to come with me as I knew the attackers would've still been in the area. It's a massive relief that we managed to catch them and get the gun (which was fully loaded and ready for use). It is a complete miracle that I walked away unharmed, I thank God for that. In the words of the policeman taking my statement "lady, do you know how lucky you are to be alive?" The 3 already had warrants out on them for other crimes. It took a full year for the court case, with me constantly having to follow-up with the police (they are so understaffed and service such a large area that it felt like a losing battle at times).
After the incident, and a range of every kind of emotion one can imagine in the days after (I did go for trauma counselling). I went on to the community Facebook page, to alert the locals of what had happened and request that if anyone had experienced something similar to please go to the police station (as their attackers may have been the same guys that attacked me), it's so important to report these things, I cannot emphasise that enough.
As I hit the post button, I noticed the post directly under mine. Incredibly it read "we are a newly formed group of trail runners in the area. If you are keen to join us for a run, get in touch".
Well, this was just heaven sent! Up until that point I had been running on my own on the road as I didn't really have any other options. After my incident, the amount of loved ones begging me to quit running, or saying 'please don't run on your own' was overwhelming (I strapped on my shoes and went for a run the day after my attack). I do not want to live in fear.
I got into contact with the guys and joined the group and it has been so incredible. We have all become such great friends and the group (Muizenberg Trail Dawgs) has grown so much over the past year and a half. I am (in some strange way) so very grateful that everything happened the way that it did, as something so awesome came out of such a horrible incident. We've built such strong friendships as a result. A group of the 'Dawgs' even accompanied me to court when I was asked to testify and they have been such a great support.”
In short, the wisest advice seems to be to get out there in your numbers; take back the spaces that make us all feel most alive.
Words: Kim Stephens