Running with Mace in the Woods: On Running Safety

A spice lesson, for anyone wondering about mace: It’s nutmeg, only meaner. (No offense to the Nutmeg of Salty, who can definitely hold her own in combat, whether verbal or physical!)

Mace, vaguely remincent of Darth Maul.

I knew nothing about mace, the spice, until last week, and since they don’t stock it at my usual grocery store, I had to do some sleuthing. Turns out, both mace and nutmeg come from the seed of the nutmeg tree in Indonesia. But nutmeg comes from the seed itself, and mace from the waxy red coating that surrounds it. It’s protective and it’s peppery, which leads us to … Mace, capital M, the debilitating spray weapon.

I bring this up because, with my new, vaguely threatening identity, it seems a good time to talk again about safety on the run. When you put in the miles like good Salties do, many of them are alone, and precautions are critically important as Salty told us so movingly here, and Ginger starkly reminded us here. “People need to be reminded more often than instructed,” the writer C.S. Lewis said, and I got one of those alarming reminders last week, while running a trail alone (or so I thought), with my iPod at full blast. Please know I never do this on the road–got to listen out for hostile sedentary people in cars, after all–but in the woods it always seems safe to crank up the volume. That is, it did until I was startled out of my Black Eyed Peas reverie by a man suddenly passing on my left, and I did my best Lolo Jones impression, nearly jumping out of my skin.

Nobody ever passes me out in the woods. I see only a few other people out there in a month, and they’re usually walking dogs and coming toward me. This guy was friendly, and he was clearly a runner, not some stocking-capped bank robber eluding the police. But still, it scared the endorphins right out of me, that I hadn’t known a stranger was with me in the woods until he was a Saucony away from me. Scary stuff, and it demands a review of my safety measures, or more appropriately, the lack thereof.

In the past, on the rare occasion I felt threatened, I would pick up a rock or a sharp-edged stick. Of course, this would be useful only if I found myself under attack by sparrows. Better than nothing, but not by much.

In my state (Massachusetts), you have to get a permit to carry pepper spray. In keeping with my new identity, I’m thinking of applying. Also, I’m thinking of ordering this, a Road ID; you know, for when sparrows attack.

As a card-carrying endomorph, I don’t look like a runner, even after running for 20 years. But when I first started, I looked even less like a runner than I do now, so much so that people would sometimes stop and ask if I needed a ride. And let me tell you, there’s no easier way to exceed your maximum heart rate than to be running alone on a rural road at nightfall when a car pulls up.

As much as I don’t want to carry a vial of chemicals when I run, I also would prefer not to be murdered. So, here’s what I’m thinking:

Screw gels; how do I carry this when I run?
  • Always leave a note, saying where I’m running, and when I expect to return.
  • When possible, carry my cell. (This looks like a great arm band.)
  • Write my phone number, and an emergency contact, on my shoes in Sharpie.
  • Lower the volume, or use only one earbud.
  • Never enter the woods alone and spent; take a minute to recover so I can sprint if necessary, time be damned.
  • When all else fails, bigger rocks.

What am I forgetting, readers? What else, or who else, should we add to the list?  Maybe a burly man or two, like the ones Kathrine Switzer had with her when Jock Semple tried to push her off the road? Guardian Angels? Rottweilers?

Suggestions welcome, because that damned rock is really going to slow me down.


I'm a single mother of four who has been running injury-free for 27 years, astonishingly without ever losing any weight. I'm a writer and editor near Boston, and author of "Honey, Do You Need a Ride? Confessions of a Fat Runner."

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  1. I suspect you already know what to do, but I’ll go ahead and say it anyway. Ditch the music, regardless of the venue. Yeah, I know, it helps to “rock out” during the run, but in the situation above you had a MUCH better chance of hearing that coming up behind you with nothing in your ears. It just isn’t worth it. Whether it is a person or an animal, you need warning, and a small sound behind you may be all you get. I personally only knew a dog was chasing me down several months ago because I happened to hear his claws on the pavement. That gave me the time I needed to spin around, pull out the pepper spray, and send him back to his yard. I would have been bit if I had music going…no question in my mind.

    I would get the permit, and clip it to the outside of a running belt (if you wear one…and you really should. You can carry your phone with you in the pouch and it is easier to get used to than you might think), so you aren’t digging for the pepper spray when you need it.

    Items one and three above won’t keep you safe, but might help them locate you in the event of, well, an incident. And being able to sprint will only work if (a) you can see or hear either the person or the animal coming in time to accelerate (or turn and accelerate) and (b) you can outrun the person or animal. True, you “might” be able to outrun a person (outrunning an animal would be unlikely)…but you might not.

    Please be safe out there. It isn’t right or fair, but a female is MUCH more likely to be attacked than a male. You need to take more precautions therefore.

    1. Michael, I always love your comments. You always have a way of getting the gears churning 🙂 Thank you! I am going to preface my reply to your comment with the fact that I’m not disagreeing with you exactly, but maybe trying to expand on all of our general ideas of women’s running safety 🙂 Ok here goes!

      I am no proponent of running with music: I wrote this, after all

      However, if a woman LOVES to jam to her Black Eyed Peas on the trails and that’s what brings her immense joy, then I really don’t think she should quit doing that for the remote chance of violence against her. As I wrote in the post Mace linked above ( women need to balance safety precautions with continuing to live the life they want to lead. When we stop doing what we love, then we let the bad guys win and we stop living our lives to the fullest. And when we say women need to do x, y and z to protect themselves, the next logical step is to blame them for not doing x, y and z if something bad happens to them, even when we could never determine whether x, y or z would have prevented it.

      All that being said, we owe it to ourselves to take whatever precautions are reasonable to each of us to continue to do what we love. I also love running on trails alone (sans music) and I love it so much I’m not going to quit doing it even though I’m less likely to get murdered on a treadmill. The fact is, even though we may be more likely to be attacked then men, it’s still very very unlikely I’ll get murdered on the trail as it is. However, I run familiar trails during the day light. I switch up my routes. I now bring my phone and stay alert and always know where to exit if something doesn’t feel right. That’s all reasonable to me, so I do it.

      Maybe Mace thinks it’s reasonable to give up the music, but maybe not. The choice is hers to make and if someone does something not nice to her whether she’s listening to music or not, it’s never her fault.

      1. This. Michael, I agree that music can be unsafe, but would you offer the same advice to a male runner? Like Salty says, it’s not much of a leap from “She had headphones in” to “She was wearing a short skirt” or “She flirted with him.” Not saying that you are going there, but I think society as a whole does tend to blame the victim in instances where a female runner was attacked.

        1. I hear what you are saying, and understand completely. I surely was NOT going there however. And yes, I would tell ANYONE (male / female / or other) that running with music is not as safe as running without it. It is a matter of awareness to one’s surroundings, and the fact that we can’t see behind us (but we at least have to the ability to “hear” behind us to an extent).

          Let’s face it…there are a lot of just plain crazy people in the world, and nothing that we might do will keep us completely safe. It is all about risks and mitigating them when we can. At the very least, being consciously aware that we are engaging in a potentially unsafe endeavor, and considering our choices.

          I train almost exclusively in the dark (early mornings). I always have my phone with me, carry a small pepper spray container on my belt, have flashing lights clipped to my belt in the back, and wear a headlamp. I run against traffic, and without music. I love my GPS watch in part because in the event that the road ahead seems “not right”, I can just turn tail, or alter my course and still have an idea how far I’ve gone. But it is STILL not as safe as going to the gym that I pay to be a member of and running on their treadmill.

          We shouldn’t live our life in a shell, but there is a balance we must all find as well.

          1. I agree with you on the music front and cringe when I see anyone wearing it on busy roads, etc.! But then again, I really enjoy running without it so there’s really no trade-off for me leaving it at home!

            And I totally knew you weren’t “going there!” But there are similar parallels. What society expects of women can be a bit extreme and that’s not just men’s expectations of women, but women’s own expectations of each other. In this area – running safety – there isn’t enough talk about the trade-offs of being “safe.” So always glad to have this conversation.

            Thanks again, Michael!

          2. Just to emphasize again, I knew you weren’t going there, just pointing out how this line of thinking can sometimes lead down this path! Thanks for taking my comment in the spirit in which it was intended.

    2. I’ve never run with a belt before, because, having a waist of roughly the circumference of Lake Superior, I don’t wear ANY belts. But you’ve almost convinced me…. thank you for the suggestions and encouragement!

  2. I actually bought pepper spray a couple of years ago, but I never run with it. Why? I realized that if I am on a route I feel unsafe enough to carry a weapon, the better choice for me is to find a different route and/or someone to run with. I ran with it once or twice and I just felt uncomfortable and freaked out the whole time.

    That said, what I would add to the list is to listen to your instincts. If you see someone that scares you, re-route, turn around, and run somewhere you feel safer. There is a trail I run on and sometimes I see someone that makes me uncomfortable – so I turn around or I run on it only with friends. The better option for me is running on the streets where there are houses, businesses, people, traffic, etc.

  3. I would get a RoadID but it won’t protect you. I wear one more to help in case of a medical emergency. I also always carry a cell phone in the dark and wear only one headphone in the light and no music at all in the dark. I have heard of people carrying a loud whistle but I don’t do that. I guess it would be a good idea if you want to attract others’ attention.

    That said, run where you love! Be safe as you can about it but run on those beautiful trails and love them.

    1. My husband calls my roadID my “toe tag.”

      I went through a phase with headphones, but am back to not running with them outside because I personally don’t feel like it’s a good idea. I like my music loud and that takes away my awareness of surroundings. My main concession to safety is to stay in populated areas and to turn back if an area doesn’t feel right. They are building a Costco near my house and I like to run by it to see the progress. A couple of weekends ago, I was doing that and a car drove past me and then parked. As this was a weekend, the construction site was closed. I turned around and hightailed it out of there because it just felt unsafe.

      1. That brings up an important recommendation and one that you can see traces of throughout these responses: TRUST YOUR INSTINCTS.

        That truck in the Costco parking lot or idling by the curb or guy you didn’t see and suddenly he’s by a tree could be nothing. Maybe they are lost and pulled into a parking lot to check the map or he’s getting his toddler a snack. Maybe the guy doesn’t smoke in his house and he’s just out having a cig. But maybe he really is up to no good and you don’t want to find that out. You want to turn around and go home and spend the day thinking “that might have been nothing but I’m glad I trusted my instincts.”

  4. I have a Road ID, but like Debra, I think of it more as an FYI in case anything medical happens than anything else.

    Since I’m not much of a trail runner, I don’t have any tips beyond what’s already been mentioned, but I will say just be aware and don’t let fear keep you from what you love.

  5. I have to say, I’m with the first commenter on this one. I never, ever listen to music when I’m on trails. I want to be able to hear everything going on around me – whether it’s approaching footsteps, a rustle in the bushes… whatever! I also carry pepper spray in a nifty canister with a strap that fits around my hand (and I make sure the nozzle is pointing away from me before I start out! 😉 ). I met a woman on the trail who carries a small stun-gun/taser-like device, and gets them for all of her friends. My “jury” is still out on that tactic; if it can be used to briefly immobilize an attacker, it can also be used by an attacker to briefly immobilize me! But that’s all the more reason to be extra-aware of the surroundings.

    1. I’m with you there too, Marilyn. Like I told Michael I’m not a big music person outside and this is one of many reasons! As for weapons of any kind, Mace (although I’d love to run with the blogger, just not the spray stuff!), taser, gun, etc I’m with Mint here. I feel safe running where I live and the parks I go to and in that I’m fortunate! I realize there are less safe places and perhaps this is the only option (can’t really conceive of a place where I’d only run while packing, but maybe?) But the weapon thing is something that’s just not a reasonable step for me to take, so i don’t do it. But I do get why people would. I’m definitely not anti-safety at all! Just pro-running and living the life you want to live!

  6. This is really interesting to me. I am DYING to run trails…all my runs are alone and in the suburbs and I am so bored of my roads. And just a few miles away we have amazing forest trails, hundreds of them. And I’m too scared to go alone and I don’t have many running friends.

    But I am, alas, with Michael. If I was running anywhere vaguely solitary, I would ditch the music 100%. I use it sometimes in the ‘burbs but not when it’s early or late, and it’s very safe where I live. But if I was in the trails? Never.

    I remember when I lived in London I was running a link trail between a very big, safe park and where I lived. It was an old disused railway line and I was running down feeling like a Girl on Fire. And then out of nowhere stepped this guy that had been coming to my church recently and totally creeped me and other girls out. I was utterly terrified. I have never been so scared in my whole life. And I felt SO vulnerable and SO alone and SO like roadkill. In the end, it was fine, he ignored me but I never ran that trail again.

    The whole Mace thing is interesting too as it’s illegal in the UK. I keep meaning to buy some…and there’s THIS fabulous mace holder that I found online – much better than a belt or anything else.

    So where am I after writing too much (sorry). I would much MUCH rather be safe than sorry. I don’t want to die, I want to run forever and it only takes one nutcase and I’m a goner. So I would always advise to ditch the music unless you’re somewhere very public in daylight….and where possible, take a partner.