AUSTIN (KXAN) — Tuesday marked the fifth anniversary of The Morning Jo’s, an Austin running club established as a safe refuge for women looking to go for a jog in the early morning hours. Its founding in September 2017 came amid a string of attacks on female runners.

Rachel Wimberley, founder and running leader of The Morning Jo’s, said Tuesday’s run was a somber celebration, as news of Memphis teacher and Baylor graduate Eliza Fletcher’s abduction and death spread across the country. Fletcher went for a run last Friday when surveillance footage captured a man abducting her; her body was found Monday evening.

Her death renewed all too familiar conversations among women’s running clubs, Wimberley said.

“This is, sadly, not a new story,” she said. “I’ve never lived in a city that didn’t have incidents of assault of female runners.”

The Morning Jo’s was founded as a club that promoted safe running for people of all paces and skillsets. Wimberley offers pace groups for people of all speeds — from 7-minute to nearly 15-minute mile paces —so no one runs alone.

In the wake of Fletcher’s death, some people have zeroed in on the time of day she was running at, and the clothing she was wearing when she was abducted. These arguments detract from the greater picture of violence against women and put the onus on the victims, Wimberley said.

“People should be able to run anytime, in anything they want, and not fear for their safety,” she said.

A 2019 study from the nonprofit Stop Street Harassment found 68% of women have reported being harassed in public spaces like streets, trails and parks. A 2021 survey conducted by Runners World and Women’s Health found safety fears have prompted some women to alter their running habits, including:

  • 47% of respondents surveyed now run with a phone
  • 39% of respondents surveyed changed their route
  • 15% of respondents surveyed wear more or baggier clothes
  • 40% of respondents surveyed now communicate their route to someone
  • 37% of respondents surveyed now limit runs to daylight hours
  • 11% of respondents surveyed stopped running for a while due to fears

As a mom herself, Wimberley said she and many of her group runners are familiar with the balancing act of work, families and squeezing in a pre-dawn workout. Living in a warmer climate like Texas’, she said the early morning hours often offer the most reprieve from the summer heat.

There’s also the concern of running clothing and optimal safety: Baggier clothes can make it easier to grab someone, along with ponytails. Headphones can help deter people from approaching women runners, but you don’t want the volume too loud as a safety precaution.

Wimberley said these are an added layer of concern women, non-white and other runners often have to consider, on top of their training plans, nutrition, sleep schedules and other runners’ checklist items.

On Tuesday morning, one of The Morning Jo’s female members arrived early for a warm-up mile. Typically, she’d do that first mile solo; this time, she asked a few male members to keep her company instead.

“These are things that a lot of our male counterparts just don’t think about and many of them are very compassionate when we do talk to them about it,” she said. “But they go run at 10 p.m. and they don’t ever have to think about it.”

Most women already apply best practices on their runs to keep themselves safe. But as these conversations circulate, she said people need to take a greater look at the violence against women and the steps they can take to help make women runners feel safe and supported.

“People always will find a reason why [someone was attacked],” Wimberley said. “And it just makes me sad that that’s the conversation, and not a conversation about what other people can do, or the society in which we’re running.”

Runners across the country have launched Finish Eliza’s Run, a virtual running event to honor Fletcher. For more information on the event and how to participate, click here.