WHEN THREE YOUNG WOMEN were murdered midrun over a period of nine days this past summer, runners reacted with understandable shock, alarm, and concern. Nothing about the victims' final miles should have been out of the ordinary: All three headed out in broad daylight. All three were on routes they'd traveled safely in the past. Their deaths occurred while they were running by themselves -- one in Michigan, one in New York City, one in Massachusetts. But almost every runner trains alone sometimes. That such ordinary circumstances led to such unfathomable tragedy made these stories especially heartbreaking. More than two months have passed, and no suspects have been named in any of the three cases, which are likely unrelated.
As details of the murders spread in early August, well-meaning nonrunners started peppering the athletes in their lives (especially the women) with advice: Don't run with headphones. Don't run in the dark. Don't run alone. Runners joined the discussion, too -- some eager to share what they do or carry to feel safe, others dealing with a newfound sense of vulnerability. "Emotional stories about people we relate to have a strong effect on us," says Jessica Gall Myrick, Ph.D., an assistant professor and researcher in media and emotions at Indiana University Media School in Bloomington, Indiana, and a former collegiate runner. When a person sees herself (or a loved one) in a victim, it's easier to connect with the story, and the more similarities, the stronger the connection. Multiple cases intensify the reaction: "It can make you think the threat is greater than it really is," says Myrick.