116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
When 20-year-old Mollie Tibbetts went for a run on July 18 in Brooklyn, Iowa, and never returned, her disappearance spotlighted the fears of many runners, especially women, who don their running gear every day uncertain of what awaits them on the road.
However, instead of shrinking in fear, runners across Iowa and the country are lacing up their sneakers and dedicating their runs to Tibbetts.
'It obviously has affected our community, and to go farther than that, I'd say it has affected the running community,” said Brandie Johnson Flathers, a runner in Brooklyn, where Tibbetts lived. 'We have several runners in this community, and before this happened, you'd see them running around town regularly, as well as people walking or walking with their kids, and you don't see that anymore. People are scared.”
That's why Flathers has organized a 5-mile run in Brooklyn in memory of Tibbetts.
Scheduled for 9 a.m. Sept. 30, the run will start at the Brooklyn, Guernsey and Malcom High School and head out to 385th Street - also known as 'the blacktop” - the same road from which Tibbetts was abducted.
'Obviously there is significance in that route because that was one of Mollie's favorite routes and it was where the incident happened,” Flathers said. 'But I hope that by doing this run, we can overcome that fear. Mollie wouldn't want us to stop running, she wouldn't want us to give up something we love and she wouldn't want us to live in fear. So we just wanted to put this together to honor her and to hopefully show her, and everyone, that we're not going to stop.”
The event is free, but runners are encouraged to make donations, all of which will go to the University of Iowa Stead Family Children's Hospital in Tibbetts' name. Runners and walkers of all abilities are welcome, Flathers said. Those interested can register at https://tinyurl.com/yb5honn4.
'It's really a beautiful route to run,” she said. 'It's quiet and it's peaceful. That's why a lot of people love to run the black top, and I'm guessing that's why Mollie liked to run there, too.”
A mark on runners statewide
Flathers said she didn't know Tibbetts, but she lives near Tibbetts' mother and would see Tibbetts regularly on her runs. Tibbetts' death, she said, has struck at the heart of many runners in the community and across the state.
'Most of the time when I'm running, my mind wanders to Mollie and what happened to her,” said 24-year-old Mikayla Ahrens of Marion.
Ahrens said she has been running for about four years and often runs alone. In the past, she said she's dealt with catcalls and men yelling at her from vehicles, all of which make her 'feel uncomfortable.” But since Tibbetts disappeared, she said, 'I'm more sensitive to that now than I may have been before.”
'I don't feel safe anymore,” she said. 'Before, I took precautions, and it was always at the back of my mind that I had to be careful. Now it's all I think about when I run.”
But Ahrens said she is determined to not let that stop her. Instead, she said she has logged between 50 and 70 miles in Mollie's name over the past month. It's empowering, she said, and almost feels a little defiant.
'I feel like every time I am logging miles for Mollie it's just me reaffirming that I'm not going to stop running because this horrible thing happened,” she said. 'I'm not going to let it stop me, and doing it for her just helps me reaffirm that decision.”
For running coach Carol Thumma, 50, running was once her 'quiet time,” where she can clear her head and reflect. That changed, she said, when she started experiencing harassment.
'I've had bottles and soda cans thrown at me” she said. 'I had a guy get out of his car and try to stop me and talk to me. I've been chased by dogs, and I was once chased by a pig. I run a lot of rural roads, and you have to think about all of those things when you're out there.”
Because of her experiences, and now knowing what happened to Tibbetts, Thumma said she is often fearful to run alone.
'For years, running has been my peaceful time,” she said. 'And I feel like I don't have that anymore. Now, I'm always looking around waiting for something to happen.”
Over the past two years or so, Thumma has been helping coach new Couch25K runners. Couch25k is an app that helps new runners train to run a 5K. Thumma is currently coaching her second group of new runners and she said she always recommends they find a buddy or group to run with.
'This happened,” she said of Tibbetts' abduction and death. 'This is a real thing and it's scary. And, I think we are all more aware of the need to be cautious and protect ourselves.”
Taking more precautions
In Cedar Rapids, 34-year-old Megan Lemke said she has been running for about 13 years. Lemke is a long-distance runner who trains for ultra marathons and often runs alone.
'This is going to be something that I think is going to stick with us for a long time,” she said.
Lemke says she's always felt the need to carry pepper spray or a stun gun with her when she runs, just in case. She said she also makes an effort to look every person she passes in the eye and say hello, 'so they know I see them and can identify them.”
Since Tibbetts was killed, Lemke said she's added another layer of protection in the form of an app that allows her husband to track where she is at any time during her run.
'It makes me feel safer,” she said. 'Women shouldn't be stuck inside the house because there are bad people out there. We should be able to go out and run and not have to worry about our safety.”
Lemke said she often thinks of Tibbetts when she runs, dedicating her miles to the young woman whose death has inspired so many runners to stand up.
'We are not going to stop running, we are going to keep going,” she said. 'And I just hope her family can see that and know we are still thinking of them and still thinking of Mollie.”
Since posting the Brooklyn run for Tibbetts on social media Tuesday, Flathers said there has been a huge response.
'In 24 hours, we've had about 150 people sign up, including runners from Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri and Illinois,” she said. 'When we decided to do this, I wasn't sure what the response would be, but I knew we wanted to do this for Mollie. This is about Mollie, about her family and about the community.”
If all goes well, Flathers said she hopes to make the run an annual event.
l Comments: (319) 398-8238; firstname.lastname@example.org