Running fever has hit India like never before. But how safe are runners on roads and in parks?
A month ago, I got a frantic call from a patient who is a very passionate runner. On a beautiful Sunday morning in Delhi, while running inside the Jahanpanah City Forest, Greater Kailash-II, he had been attacked by two men. He suffered multiple stab wounds, but was fortunately able to fight off the robbers. He called me to ask if he would be able to run again.
This man had run in the Jahanpanah City Forest area hundreds of times before and had never felt any threat. He says: “It seemed the attackers were lying in wait for any random person to walk by—they had masks and a foot-long knife. This was a planned street crime.”
After the unfortunate incident, this runner has some tips for other runners. “The man with the knife thought he would surprise me from behind since I was running with headphones on my ears. But I am very conscious of maintaining situational awareness when I run. I keep the volume at a minimum. It’s probably this habit that saved my life. So, keep music turned as low as possible while running.”
Shantanu Singh, a runner from Bangalore, adds: “Your ears play the role of rear-view mirrors. Never block them by listening to music.” The runner from Delhi goes on to say: “Don’t expect help from bystanders. We all hate to say this, but we know it’s true. Although I was bleeding profusely, two old gentlemen who I saw right after the assault refused to let me even use their phone. Surprisingly the police were prompt and polite, and drove me to the hospital. Know first-aid and be ready to take care of yourself.”
Another thing that helps is to know the area you run in well. The Delhi runner adds: “I know just about every trail and corner of that forest. I knew which exit was closer, I knew which path was most direct, and I knew which route would offer the chance to meet other walkers. Accrue this knowledge every time you run, and be alert for changes.”
Singh from Bangalore has had his share of random tiffs while running. One day, he was running on the edge of the road in Bangalore at a place where the footpath was non-existent. Suddenly a biker came right in front of him and wouldn’t move. Singh stayed on track thinking the biker would just go by. They got into a fist fight. He was told by the biker that “roads are for driving, gyms are for running”.
"Runners, especially women, should always make eye contact with the people coming towards them rather than looking away. Don’t let them feel that you are intimidated."
Meghana Sudarshan, another runner from Bangalore who is part of a group called Runner’s High, believes the runner’s body language is very important. “Runners should always run in the opposite direction of traffic so they are more aware of their surroundings. The cars or taxis purposely come very close to you and there have been instances where lady runners have been slapped on their back sides by auto drivers or guys in cars.”
Sudarshan has been running for over eight years in India, and before that, in the US. “Runners, especially women, should always make eye contact with the people coming towards them rather than looking away. Don’t let them feel that you are intimidated. Give them a strong look. Even though I do that, I am never going to confront them or use pepper spray. The weirdo could be very vindictive and catch up with me in another kilometre or so, either alone or with a few friends. I would rather suggest lady runners who are either slow, or feel insecure running alone, carry a plastic whistle with them.”
Avid runners in India don’t just have to contend with human harassment. A common problem is monkeys and stray dogs. Contrary to the “eye-contact” advice recommended for passers-by, when it comes to monkeys it’s best not to make eye contact—they take it as confrontational. Again, your body language plays an important role. Don’t let them know that you are scared. Don’t change your gait and your running speed. Also, avoid carrying fruits in your hand; the monkeys are likely to grab them. Remember, monkeys prefer to be ignored.
With dogs, it’s an entirely different story. A dog lover who is also a passionate long-distance runner suggests: “It’s critical to understand the body language of dogs and their behaviour to deal with them safely. If you aren’t food, a prospective rival or sexual partner, dogs have no incentive to engage you in a fight. If you treat every dog like a threat, you are creating a problem, not avoiding one.”
When a dog is simply standing to the side, it’s best to slow down or walk, and avert your gaze from the dog, while moving confidently past. Effectively, you’ve shown respect for their territory. If the dog happens to be in full attack mode (which is rare without any prior provocation)— teeth bared, ears down, fur up, growling—it is advisable to back away slowly while averting your eyes but keeping a close sense of where the dog is. Don’t run, only food runs away from dog, or at least that’s what they think.
Running starts to make you appreciate and respect your body better soon enough, followed by more awareness about your environment. Only this will make you respect other people around you. And in my opinion, more than anything else, that’s what our society needs to do today.
Rajat Chauhan is an ultra marathon runner and a doctor specializing in sports and exercise medicine and musculoskeletal medicine, and founder of Back 2 Fitness.