When does running the Boston Marathon become an act of defiance? For Ashley McNiff, it was when her best friend, Vanessa Marcotte, went out for a run and never came back.
Last August, Marcotte was murdered while running in rural Princeton. Her body was found in the woods off a two-lane road, a half-mile from her mother’s home. Marcotte, 27, who worked for Google in New York City, grew up in Leominster and graduated from Boston University. She had been visiting family in Central Massachusetts.
McNiff and Marcotte had been best friends since the fourth grade, when McNiff was the new kid at school and Marcotte invited her to play hopscotch. They quickly became inseparable. They bonded over lip gloss, basketball, and trips to Cape Cod, and as they got older, it was yoga, cooking, and podcasts.
After college, McNiff and Marcotte roomed together in Brighton and motivated each other to head out for early-morning runs. And they always talked about doing a marathon together.
Now, McNiff is running the Boston Marathon because, she says, “I’m not going to let what happened dictate my life.”
She is determined not to let other women give in to their fears, either. Marcotte’s murder has led McNiff to raise awareness about the dangers women face while running and to organize self-defense classes. She wants something good to come from Marcotte’s death.
And there is a definite need for such advocacy and activism.
Ask any female runner you know: Odds are, she can tell you a story of suggestive shouts taking a menacing turn, unsettling stares from drivers on lightly trafficked roads, or bicyclists tailing her for uncomfortably long stretches.
While neither the State Police nor the Boston FBI office collect crime statistics specifically related to female runners, more than a dozen horrifying attacks against female runners in Massachusetts have made headlines over the last couple of decades, and that number doesn’t include the verbal harassment that they regularly experience.
Before Marcotte, physical attacks on female runners were reported from around the state, from Duxbury to Braintree to Somerville to Newton to Boston to Stoneham to Lowell to Ipswich to Ayer to Westborough to Gardner. The incidents ranged from non-sexual assaults to groping to rape.
Creating further concern, many of the attacks happened during daylight hours. The most recent headline-making assault occurred in late March in Revere. Around 6 a.m., state police said, a man verbally accosted a woman running along the ocean, then grabbed her chest and buttocks.
“You hear about these things, but you don’t realize it can happen to you or someone you know,” says McNiff.
Marcotte’s murder happened during a nine-day period last summer that saw at least two other female runners killed: Ally Brueger in Michigan and Karina Vetrano in New York City. All three were out during daylight on routes they knew well. The murders prompted Runner’s World to conduct a survey as part of the magazine’s coverage of “Running While Female.”
According to the survey results, a majority of female runners have safety concerns: 63 percent choose routes where they figure it’s unlikely they’ll be harmed and 60 percent limit their runs to daylight hours. Also, more than 70 percent carry a phone with them and let someone know their route and when they’ll be back. And 54 percent (compared with 7 percent of male runners) said they always, often, or sometimes headed out the door concerned that they “could be physically assaulted or receive unwanted physical contact during a run.”
The survey results aren’t surprising, at least not to this female runner.
Surprising or not, the risks of “running while female” should be talked about more often. When female runners have the courage to share what happens to them on a daily basis, when McNiff runs Boston in Marcotte’s memory, that can start a larger conversation about how to make runs and other activities safer.
It’s unacceptable that women who run either to train for marathons or just for fun often expect some form of harassment on roads and trails. Running should be an empowering, stress-relieving escape, not 5 or 10 miles in which you need to be on alert.
Women should feel the same freedom choosing training routes and training times as men. We shouldn’t head out the door worried about being harassed or assaulted, or view pepper spray as a running essential (21 percent of women runners carry it, at least sometimes, according to Runner’s World).
McNiff says she’s “not in this bubble anymore where nothing bad will ever happen to me.” She carries pepper spray, avoids long runs alone in her rural hometown of Shirley, and trains with a running group when she can.
“I think all the time about how Vanessa was doing something she loved when it happened,” says McNiff. “I want to get to a place where women can live free from the fear of violence. I want to go for a run at 5 in the morning and not worry about anything bad happening to me.
“That’s my dream, but I know that’s not the reality. But I’m not going to stop running. I’m not going to stop doing the things that I love.”
That will be McNiff’s lifelong tribute to Marcotte.
Running the Boston Marathon represents the start, not the culmination, of McNiff’s mission. McNiff and Marcotte’s cousin Caroline Tocci recently established the Vanessa Marcotte Foundation, which is focused on helping reduce violence against women. The foundation’s first big event will be a 5K race held at Wachusett Mountain on June 17, what would have been Marcotte’s 28th birthday.
The 5K will be another act of defiance, a bittersweet event where Marcotte’s family and friends will gather and show that fear won’t stop them from doing what Marcotte loved.
During long training runs on the Boston course, McNiff thinks often about Marcotte, especially when she goes through Cleveland Circle or passes the Citgo sign. Both places were on the running routes that McNiff and Marcotte once covered together. McNiff recalls the pair’s skiing misadventures at Wachusett and laughs. Then, McNiff remembers when Marcotte would return to their apartment blissfully exhausted after mentoring young students at Tutoring Plus, a Cambridge-based educational nonprofit.
“We always talked about all these things we were going to do with our lives and about making an impact,” says McNiff, who made Tutoring Plus her charity of choice for the Boston Marathon.
Growing up, Marcotte was always McNiff’s biggest supporter, cheering her on and encouraging her to take on new challenges.
Marcotte pushed McNiff to work overseas, to ski steeper slopes, to run farther. And Marcotte is still pushing McNiff toward new challenges.
Fair Play is a regular column that explores the challenges girls and women face in today’s sports world, as well as their athletic accomplishments. Shira Springer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.