Kerri Ladehoff runs along the street near her home in Templeton. Ladehoff runs around town a few times a week, but since the deaths of Mollie Tibbetts and Celia Barquin Arozamena last summer, she no longer runs before sunrise. (Photos by Annie Mehl)
Kerri Ladehoff runs along the street near her home in Templeton. Ladehoff runs around town a few times a week, but since the deaths of Mollie Tibbetts and Celia Barquin Arozamena last summer, she no longer runs before sunrise. (Photos by Annie Mehl)

July 30, 2019

I draw in a deep breath and begin.

Sometimes it takes a while before I remember I need to exhale and continue breathing.

As I wind my way up a paved hill or around the bend in a trail, my body quickens, the muscles in my legs begin to ache, my hearts races — but my mind stops.

For me, this is how I let go. This is how I detach from the world. By running, I can be a part of a universe that is entirely my own. I am out in nature, experiencing so much life, but I can disconnect from the parts of life that are draining, stressful and at times, overwhelming. I can observe everything around me and not dwell on my thoughts.

But as free as I sometimes feel or want to feel, I am always cautious and have to constantly be aware.

As I make my way further along the trail at Swan Lake State Park, I feel my heart skip a beat as I approach a stranger. If it’s a woman, I remain alert but smile. If it is a man, though, I feel on edge and force a half smile and or slight nod.

After I pass him, I always look back over my shoulder.

Logically, I know that both the man and woman I pass along my run are strangers, and either could attack me — but in my head, it’s the man I fear.

What society teaches women, what we read in newspapers or stare at in disbelief on TV, is that it’s up to us to be smart, not trust strangers (predominately men), use the “buddy system” and plan our lives around making sure we don’t do something dumb that leads us to getting hurt or, worse, killed.

There’s a quote that has resonated with me for some time (being a kid who watched too much “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” and thought the world that was out to get her): “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them,” said Margaret Atwood, acclaimed author of the book “The Handmaid’s Tale,” which recently has inspired a popular TV series.

In almost every case, the perpetrators of sexual violence are men. Of women who reported a rape, 98.1 percent of them reported a male perpetrator; 93.3 percent of male rape victims reported a male perpetrator as well, according to a National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey completed in 2010 by the Centers for Disease Control’s Division of Violence Prevention.

It’s not fair that women like myself have to take precautions like carrying hand weapons or pepper spray before doing outdoor activities alone, and that we can’t have the peace of mind that we will not be assaulted or catcalled.

But nothing will change until society does, said Julie Gore, a sexual abuse advocate for Centers Against Abuse and Sexual Assault, a nonprofit organization that helps coordinate and provide services and assistance for sexual assault and abuse victims in Carroll County and the surrounding area.

“We need to teach boys and young adult males that there is such a thing as consent,” she said. “Unfortunately, that is not happening. (So) we have to also teach females to be safe as well.”

Last year, after the murders of Mollie Tibbetts, a 20-year-old University of Iowa student who was killed while out running in Brooklyn, Iowa, and Celia Barquin Arozamena, 22, a Iowa State Female Athlete of the Year who was killed while golfing alone, I had continuous nightmares.

The one thing I knew I could always count on to help relieve my stress and clear my head — running — became the very thing that fueled my anxiety and blurred my mind with dark thoughts.

Of course murders happen all over the world every single day, but it was the proximately of where these murders took place in relation to me and the fact that the women killed were both outside doing nothing out of the ordinary except being themselves and living their lives that left me thinking — Who’s to say this wouldn’t happen to me?

After Tibbetts was murdered last year, I attended a self-defense training class for women and spoke with area officials for a story trying to make sense of what women face when they’re outside alone, and how to help them stay safe.

But I struggled with the narrative of women needing to change what they do, when they do it and who they are, rather than a narrative about not perpetrating crimes.

Still, I took the class for my own knowledge, asked law-enforcement officers for safety tips and relayed to others what I learned — but honestly, none of this stopped my worries.

And after all that, despite the deaths of those young women — I still love running alone.

None of this is women’s fault, and there isn’t anything we should change. I want to be proactive about the problem, and this is why I am writing about it now, a year after Tibbetts’ death.

But I am not alone with these thoughts. As I start my evening run at Swan Lake, the same worries I have race through the minds of other women as well.

————

Kerri Ladehoff, 42, of Templeton, used to run every single morning before the break of dawn — but after last summer, those runs ended.

“I would go at 4:30 a.m. It didn’t matter if it was dark,” she said. “Even if it had snowed, we would still go out. Now, I cannot run outside in dark. I make sure it’s daylight. I used to have both headphones in and music as loud as it could go — I just run with one headphone in now. Right after that happened, it was scary to go out by yourself, because nobody knew what had happened.”

After Tibbetts went missing last summer, Ladehoff altered her running routine to try to increase her safety while running. But as a personal trainer, she didn’t even know what to tell her clients, she said. She still wants them to work out and enjoy going outside, but how could she ensure their safety?

Ladehoff said that hearing about the murders of the young women in Iowa affected how she runs, but she did not let her fears override the joy she has for running or remove it from her weekly workout routine.

“I still have to be aware of my surroundings and (be) conscientious if someone is following me or not,” she said. “It’s kind of paranoid, maybe, but I guess I would rather be paranoid. I think your alertness is heightened for males (you encounter) just because it is the opposite gender, (and I’m even more concerned) if I meet a vehicle with a single male or a couple males.”

For Cayla Morton, 26, of Carroll, the running trails were where she could escape from the chaos of everyday life and feel nothing but solitude after long, hectic days in the classroom with her high school students.

This was her happy place — and danger didn’t enter her mind.

“Before the couple murders happened, I just didn’t think about it, ever,” she said. “I recognized that it was a possibility, but part of the reason I moved to Iowa was because I (previously) lived in a city where I was used to getting yelled at or (cat)called at while running, and part of the reason of coming to Iowa was to get away. When Mollie (Tibbetts) was killed, I stopped (running) for a while.”

Those close to Morton were worried about her and told her she needed to stop running.

“What if it happened to you?” they asked.

But after some time, she knew she couldn’t stop. Running was a part of her she could never abandon.

“To me, this is my happy place, and I don’t want to let these things ruin it for me, and I don’t want it to hinder my ability to escape, because that’s why I run,” she said. “I think part of it is just acceptance and thinking that it’s probably not going to happen to me, but if it does, I can’t do anything about it anyway.”

When Mary Anne Lahr, 66, was growing up, she roamed every inch of the hundreds of acres of property her family owned outside of Carroll.

Years later, she still lives on the same farm where she grew up. In the evenings or early mornings before the mosquitoes come out, she walks along Russell White Nature Trail in Glidden. Lahr has a quick pace — a quality she attributes to her years spent working as a nurse.

Along the nature trail, Lahr is at peace with the plants and animals. By her side is her black lab mix, Max. He loves to walk with her and runs ahead along the wooded path while the two explore the trails together.

But Max, a dog who loves everyone, would not keep her safe from a rabid animal, or what Lahr really fears: a man.

After the murders last summer, Lahr’s morning and evening walks — which she used to keep her blood pressure down, muscles strong and for the simple reason that they made her feel good — stopped.

Slowly, the habit faded and she found other ways to fill her time, but she missed her walks and knew they were good for her.

Recently, Lahr spoke with her doctor for advice on ways to stay safe and feel better while walking alone.

His recommendation: Carry a gun.

I don’t think you have anything to worry about.

Would you pack some heat?

“(My husband and I) are going to take a gun class through the Carroll County Sheriff’s Office,” Lahr said. “Do I want to? No. I am a nurse, even though I retired. (Guns’) purposes are for war, and on a farm, they are to put an animal down or kill a rabid animal, or for meat to hunt. I am not afraid of wildlife. I am afraid of a bad man. As long as you leave (animals) alone, they are not out for me.

“I am not afraid of nature. It’s mankind I am afraid of.”

Jessica Morton, 32, of Carroll, heads out to Swan Lake or the Carroll Municipal Golf Course almost every evening after finishing up at the office.

There are times where she is joined during her walks around the lake with friends, but for her, the sunset runs are a way for her to recharge and reflect on the day while also getting a bit of physical exercise.

Morton knows the dangers that exist when she is out at the lake — sometimes miles away from any human interaction — but it’s not something she can change.

It just comes with being a woman, she said.

“I think it’s something that women inherently have, just knowing the dangers of being women and being out by yourself,” Morton said. “You hear about it all of the time, and it’s a risk you are going to assume if you are going to do that kind of thing.”

After the murders last summer, Morton continued her solo runs and walks but became more aware of what could happen, she said. If it could happen to someone like Tibbetts or Barquin Arozamena, who’s to say it wouldn’t happen to her?

”It was like PTSD after those murders happened,” Morton said. “It was just on a loop through my head. I think I felt not only that it could happen to me, (but) I just felt such a kinship towards those women. I thought about that girl in Brooklyn all of the time, because I don’t know what the distinction is between her and me. It could have been me or you — it could have been anyone.”

————

As the sun slowly wanes over the cornfields adjacent to Swan Lake, I quicken my pace and try to finish my run before the sun has fully set.

About a year has passed since Mollie Tibbetts and Celia Barquin Arozamena were murdered, and like these four women I spoke with, every time I go out to run, what happened to them is still on my mind.

But at the end of a long, stressful day, sometimes I need to escape. And since I moved to Carroll, one place where I know I can always find refuge is Swan Lake.

The serenity and peace I feel out with nature squashes any fears that dart through my head.

I know that for every run I go on, no matter where in the world I am, the women who lost their lives doing what they love or simply partaking in their daily routines will be with me.

The fear will not fade, but I will continue running, biking or doing whatever I like to do alone — knowing the risks, but also knowing it’s my right.

When I talked with Lahr, she referenced a quote that resonated with her as she, too, decided she would get back into the groove of walking outside. She would not let her worries overcome the freedom she felt out in nature.

The quote was “Don’t let the bastards grind you down,” which is translated from Latin and was used in Margaret Atwood’s “A Handmaid’s Tale.”

So like every woman I spoke with and women like Tibbetts and Barquin Arozamena, who lost their lives while just being themselves, I will not let my fears or worries eclipse the joy I feel when I am out in nature alone.

Because I know if I give up what I love, nothing will change.