Women on the run or biking or skating should exercise caution against attackers

Credit: Gray Mortimore/Allsport
A Bay Area woman disappeared recently while on a bike ride. In June in suburban Sacramento, a woman was sexually assaulted after a man stopped her on a bike trail near Lake Natoma.

Both cases remain unsolved.

Almost every time a woman goes out alone for recreation or exercise to ride, to run, to skate, to hike she is forced to think about her personal safety.

"You're constantly aware of what's going on around you. You have to be aware," said LeAnn Nienow, who runs and rides a bike along the American River Parkway.

She is a triathlete and strong enough to have just completed a half-Ironman event, but cautious enough to do most of her training with a group.

"Five days a week, we are out there either running or biking," she said.

The women go in numbers. In part, it's because working out is easier with a buddy, Nienow said, but mostly it's for safety.

Local athletes and recreationists say going with a friend is just one way to stay safe.

They also point out that, while it's important to be conscious of potential attacks, it's also important not to be paralyzed by fear or to exaggerate risks.

The county Department of Parks, Recreation and Open Space reports one assault and one incident of indecent exposure so far this year in the parkway.

By contrast, there were five robberies, six assaults, five assaults with a deadly weapon and six indecent exposures in 2000.

The risks are real for women, though, wherever they go. Henley Gabeau knows this all too well.

Gabeau, executive director of the Road Runners Club of America in Virginia, was attacked 20 years ago while on her regular run.

"I was running in not a very smart fashion," she said.

By having an extremely regular route and time, she became vulnerable to an attacker who knew just when she would be alone.

She later learned the attacker was known to police, but they had not alerted running-trail users.

As a result of Gabeau's experience, the national club now has a set of women's running safety tips (available at www.rrca.org/ women/) and a safety video and seminar.

Though the tips are aimed at runners, they apply to and are followed by other outdoorswomen.

One recommendation is to trust your intuition in questionable situations.

That's something Gail Bailey does when she's out riding her bike and sees a suspicious group ahead near the bike trail.

"I send up a red flag," said Bailey, a former fund-raiser at WEAVE, Women Escaping a Violent Environment. "I either turn around and go the other way or I put it up in a big gear and fly by."

Among the other safety tips: Don't wear headphones; take a cell phone; avoid unlighted areas; tell someone where you're going; and pay attention to what's around you.

"I try not to go out by myself," said Eve Blumenfeld, president of the Ophir Milan women's cycling group. "If I go out by myself, I always tell somebody ... I make sure I'm off the bike trail by dusk."

Sacramento inline skater Natalie Chernich repeatedly glances ahead and behind as she skates in the parkway and she avoids night and less busy times of day.

"I generally wait until the next morning, because I'd rather not go alone," she said.

Safety awareness is "as inherent or as basic as just breathing," Bailey said.

Still, it is frustrating to many athletes who would rather be focusing on their sport.

"It's unfortunate to me that there's always that safety issue," said Cynthia Young, a Rocklin triathlete.

She likes the almost other-worldly focus of being in tune with her breathing, her footfalls and how her body feels. "There's a definite pleasure to being in that zone," Young said. "When you have to constantly be aware of someone lurking in the bushes ... it distracts from all that."

Although women must be aware, Bailey, formerly of WEAVE, points out that sexual assaults by strangers are relatively rare.

When they happen, though, they create a buzz and can scare women off the roads and trails, out of parks and into health clubs.

For cyclists, Blumenfeld said, the real danger may be the risk of being hit by autos on the road.

"I'm definitely more afraid of cars than (attackers) on the bike trail," she said.

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