Tuesday, January 10, 2012

When Runners Disappear

On July 24th, 1997, a young woman named Amy Bechtel went for her daily run:
She was last seen in Lander, the central Wyoming town where she had moved with Steven Bechtel, her husband of 13 months, to join a community of ardent high- country athletes. Wearing black shorts and running shoes, she stopped at an art gallery about 2:30 p.m. to discuss matting one of her photographs.
And then the 24-year-old, petite, blond Olympic marathon hopeful vanished. http://www.charleyproject.org/cases/b/bechtel_amy.html
Now fast forward to January 7th, 2012:
There is a massive search effort underway in Sidney, Montana for a missing teacher. Over 1,000 people are scouring the town of Sidney, Montana for any signs of a missing teacher, Sherry Arnold. The 43-year-old woman has been missing since 6:30 am Saturday, when she left her house to go for a jog. On Saturday, authorities recovered her shoe in the northeast part of town.

Sidney, Montana is a very rural area in Eastern Montana near the Bakken Oil Field. This kind of thing is unheard of, and the tiny quiet town is in a panic. http://ireport.cnn.com/docs/DOC-728093
Amy Bechtel has never been found. Her husband was a suspect, but the fact remains that in many places a person can go missing and never be found. If you've spent anytime in the west, you've probably found yourself miles from from anything and anyone at some point. Anyone could snatch you up. 

Should this be a cautionary tale? Should women be concerned for their safety to the extent that they never run alone in remote areas again? Are these sorts of things happening with more regularity then they did 20 or 30 years ago? How should we, as runners, respond to such horrendous events?

Shortly following Amy Bechtel's disappearance I found myself just outside of Lander, Wyoming, for a long weekend climbing trip to the sun drench limestone cliffs of Wild Iris. My then boyfriend and I were enjoying the 'undeveloped' camping option that was both extremely remote and incredibly peaceful. I knew about Amy, and I also knew that I wanted to run while I was there. The whole situation did leave me fairly unnerved.

I've run through Harlem, and Queens, and down through Battery Park in the wee hours of a cold, dark morning, with grey clad men huddled over burning trashcans. I've run through cities abroad that I was probably too unfamiliar with.  I've run through remote areas of the Utah Hills outside of LasVegas while images of Flannery O'Connon's "Misfit" pranced through my head or the banjo music from "Deliverance" wormed it's way into my brain. Over all my years of running I've found myself in a lot of sketchy situations. But I continue to run - and I try to be smart about it - but the fact remains, that everyday that I venture out on my own I'm putting myself at risk. Is this stupid? Is this foolhardy? Should I be packing heat?

On that trip to Lander I did run, several times, with my then 2 year-old Aussie mix dog. I felt somehow safer with her by my side, but the truth of the matter, which I was all too well aware of, is that she could have done little to help me evade a nefarious character determined to do me harm. Should I have just stayed at camp? If something had happened would I be to blame? Would it be said that I had made a poor decision?

I hear many women express reservations about venturing out alone. Some think I'm foolish and/or stupid. We judge women and men differently on this. Many are quick to jump to the judgement that a woman should know better than to put herself in a vulnerable situation. While we may not 'blame' a woman for being the victim of violence, we do have this idea, at least in the back of our minds, that her choices might have been unwise. When something bad happens to a man, that judgement rarely surfaces.

There are bad, mean, twisted people out there, no doubt about it. But I don't think that it's really any worse than it's ever been (I'll have to do some research on this), but we are certainly more likely to hear about it when it does happen. All that said, I refuse to let those twisted individuals rule my life. Running, and freedom it represent and allows, is too important to me.

We make many choices that put us at risk. Most of us don't freakout about driving a car, though the statistics concerning highway fatalities should be sobering. But we don't say, well highway fatalities are going up, and so it would be foolhardy for me to drive to work. No, we accept those risks - and who would say, after someone gets into a crash - "Well they put themselves in that vulnerable situation. What did they expect?".

I'm not saying that people are making these judgements in either the case of Amy Bechtel or Sherry Arnold, but it does cause women runners to be just a little more afraid to go out on their own. But it's important that we not read too much into these cases. Of course it could happen to me. But do I want to live my entire life with that fear?

I know that I don't. It seems that Amy and Sherry would probably agree.

Now, go to the link below, scroll down to the bottom of the page and click on "This belongs on CNN".   http://ireport.cnn.com/docs/DOC-728093


  1. I must admit- running through my rural Utah town often has me on edge- the high way runs very close to town and we often get transients that bum their way through town.
    My husband is always telling me to run with my pepper spray, and my cell phone. Both of which I often forget.
    I say a prayer before every run- hoping that brings me safety. Will I stop running, no. I agree with you. I can not live my life in fear of something that "could happen". Life is too short to allow the "coulda's" to scare me and stop me from doing something I love!

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  3. Stories like these are unfortunate, but I agree with you, they should not stop people from running. I suppose if something horrible is going to happen to me, it might as well be while I'm doing something that brings me peace. I run through the city (suburb of KC) usually in the dark, and I sometimes think about all the things that could happen to me (I'm a pretty small guy really). But still I run.

  4. It's interesting though, because there's a discussion going on right now in the FB group "facebook runners" where many of the women are saying that they do worry a fair amount, and that dictates some of their actions: where they run, when they run, and they always carry pepper spray/mace/cell phones. I can't imagine running always worrying about my safety. Perhaps I truly am a fool. I go out and I run. Sometimes I'm not even sure where I'm going to go so I can't tell anyone. Lots of my male running friends feel perfectly free to go off with their GPSs and run to their heart's content and follow whim. But women, it seems,must plan and protect and guard and worry. I hate this.

  5. Sometimes I get nervous when I run - I try to remember my phone but never considered pepper spray - I might have to slip some in my running pouch - I too refuse to live in fear yet, we are all vulnerable at some point, I guess.

    I must admit, this whole situation has me a little unnerved tho. I'm praying for her safe return.

  6. Thanks for posting your two cents. The stories are unnerving but yes, I will still run. I already opt for "safer" routes but there are no guarantees in life. You bring up a good point though that if something happens to a woman you get the "she shouldn't have been doing that" but if it were a man the same judgment probably would not be made. I think this only adds to women doubting themselves and guilt arising if the woman is a mom. I get people asking how could I run with my daughter? Because it makes me a better mom. Because it promotes a healthy life style. Because I am modeling how to do what I love as safe as I can. I still hope for a happy ending though for the teacher....

  7. I just heard the news that Sherry Arnold's body has been found and 2 suspects are being questioned. This makes me terribly sad but it will NOT stop me from running.

  8. Yes, Kim. I saw the story this morning. I am so angry, so sad, so...so...ugh.


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