Birmingham businesswoman Lora Whitehead started running at 20 years old and has spent all of her adult life continuing that passion.
If you are a runner, you understand how close-knit the running community is in Alabama.
So it's no surprise that women across the state are now having conversations about how to best protect themselves after the recent murder of Memphis mother and teacher Eliza Fletcher.
"I'm a Birmingham native and graduate of the University of Alabama at Birmingham," said Whitehead. "I have been training in Brazilian jiu-jitsu for the past six-and-a-half years. Brazilian jiu-jitsu is a self-defense/combat martial art that features grappling, ground-fighting, submission holds, and throws. Most every fight will end on the ground, and Brazilian jiu-jitsu takes the fight to the ground and can help you control the outcome of a fight, incapacitate your opponent and get away. I tried a class in 2016 and was immediately hooked."
And ever since, Whitehead has tried to help other women, especially runners, prepare for any type of attack.
"My main tip is to always practice situational awareness: eyes up, watch people around you and make frequent eye contact," she outlined. "Confidence and engagement are large deterrents. In any of the classes which I have taught in the past, nearly every student is shocked by how quickly a random violent attack can occur. Another tip is to have a GPS watch or run with your phone and share your location with someone you trust. I share mine constantly with two of my best friends, one of whom is also a runner. As an early morning runner myself, I also wear bone-conduction headphones. These sit outside of the ear and leave me able to hear vehicles or foot traffic around me. My final tip would be to encourage female runners to sign up for some type of martial arts training, not just one or two self-defense courses, but several weeks or even months of regular training."
And luckily for Alabama women, those classes are accessible this fall.
"Anyone who would like to try out a jiu-jitsu class would be welcome at our school, Heroes Martial Arts Academy, at our Trussville or Vestavia Hills locations," Whitehead offered. "I've been training under Coach Chris Mize and his staff now for close to 7 years, and they truly are a second family to me. The level of expertise and knowledge which Coach Mize possesses is unparalleled, and even 1-2 classes would benefit someone with no prior training greatly."
Whitehead says it's important to educate the community on the fact that victim blaming does no good. For example, some critics said Eliza Fletcher should not have been running in the dark by herself.
"Those types of comments upset me," Whitehead lamented. "I find it shameful that people are willing to blame the predatory behavior of an assailant on an innocent victim. I have often told past students that we simply don't live in an ideal world and that women especially have to worry for their safety to the point of overthinking every tiny detail of something like a run, a walk, or even walking to their vehicle when they leave a store."
Even though Fletcher's murder was in another state, Whitehead said one runner's death affects every runner.
"The outpouring of concern and care which I've witnessed from the local running community has been outstanding," Whitehouse said. "I have quite a few fellow runner-friends on social media and have recently scrolled through to find friends sharing virtual events such as 'Finish Eliza's Run,' as well as others sharing heartfelt messages on how when one runner is taken from us, it impacts us all. Some of these posts have been incredibly moving and inspiring to see. This has been such a heartbreaking case, and it's one of those situations that reverberates throughout the running community and will cause female runners to think, 'That could be me.'"
Whitehead said that even though some people don't like to talk about it, women should also get trained in how to operate a firearm and consider running with one.
"I'm aware that this is not always a popular opinion, but I do advise that if one is comfortable with being armed and has trained often and trained well, then this is their option. If one is not comfortable with this option, however, I would highly advise enrolling in martial arts classes or at the very least carry pepper spray and be prepared to run," Whitehead stated.
"I know how easy it is to be zoned out while you're running or how complacent we can be in a familiar area," she added. "I also know that many runners, myself included, often run alone. That aspect makes them more susceptible, I would say. I believe that people in this day and age who are constantly on their phones or who are not paying attention to what is happening around them are just as easily targeted. Violence also tends to be random in nature and can happen so quickly that there is little time, if any at all, to react."
If you would like to take self-defense jiu-jitsu training with Whitehead, she can host the classes at Heroes Martial Arts Academy. In the past, the money raised went to the Make-A-Wish Foundation's Trailblazer Challenge.
"My best friend and I participated as a fundraising/hike team for the Make-A-Wish Trailblaze Challenge," said Whitehead. "Make-A-Wish Alabama invites people to participate in the Trailblaze Challenge to raise money to grant wishes for critically-ill children here in Alabama. Heroes Academy and I hosted a self-defense course as part of my fundraiser this year. On an incredibly impressive note, my best friend completed the 26.3-mile hike on the Pinhoti Trail at 36 weeks pregnant last year!
"I have met some amazing people through this organization and can't wait to participate again in 2023. I greatly admire the work that they do for children here in this state, and it's been a joy to witness what a wish means to a child, "Whitehead added. "I know that times are currently difficult for almost everyone, but I would love it if everyone who reads this article will donate $1 to Make-A-Wish Alabama. They're doing life-changing and hope-filled work for children here in Alabama!"
Whitehead emphasized that any of us can become a victim.
"I would like to remind every single woman who reads this article to be vigilant and be aware and to understand that we do not live in an ideal world," she advised. "There are predators who walk free all the time when they should never be allowed to do so, and so I would implore all of you to seek out real training and to be prepared to defend yourselves."
To contact Heroes Martial Arts Academy or set up training, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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