On Being Woman: Reflections on My Mennonite Running Life

Last summer I was interrupted during a particularly foggy early morning 12-mile run. There was an unusual amount of road traffic for just after sunrise on a Saturday. I noticed a large number of Amish buggies, and huge white Amish-hauler vans and big trucks (that seemed like they should have Trump stickers but didn’t) were passing me. As I coasted down a hill, I realized I was running through Linda Stoltzfoos’s search party. I approached a Mennonite church parking lot and found the make-shift search party headquarters. It was 7:00 a.m., and probably one hundred Amish, Mennonite, and community members were gathering to commence the search. Buggies were still arriving, and police cars slowly cruised in the lot. Several men eyed me carefully as I jogged past. I kept my head down and kept running.

It’s been one year since Linda Stoltzfoos, an 18-year-old Amish teen, disappeared from Beechdale Road in Bird-in-Hand, Pennsylvania. She was walking home from a Sunday church service when she was kidnapped, strangled, and stabbed to death by Justo Smoker.

I think about her regularly, for I, too, spend time alone on country roads. She, walking home from a Sunday church service, and I, a Mennonite long-distance runner.

When the news story broke last June about her disappearance, and in the following weeks as a kidnapping and murder seemed imminent, I felt sick to my stomach. I spend hours running alone on country roads in Lancaster County. What if it had been me? Had I been out that day? I checked my GPS watch running logs. My half-marathon training records show a 6-mile run in a nearby area the day before.

The 12-mile run when I stumbled upon her search party was a difficult run to finish, for I imagined myself finding a body… in a ditch, in a corn field, under a tree.

I remember as I finished my run and I neared my house, a squad came screaming past. I felt sick to my stomach. Had they found her body? Was it nearby?

While the run was traumatic, I suppose I felt safe that day. I was at least running through a search party.

I think about safety a lot. I’ve been road running for eight years, and you learn some things.

Like when you choose a new running route, don’t use earbuds for several days. Get used to the route. Notice the traffic, the people. Notice the cars driving past. Do you feel safe? Where do you feel exposed? Don’t run at night. Wear bright colors. If you’re running in the early morning, wear a head lamp. At all times have an exit plan. That slow-approaching car? Where can you turn off? Which Amish farm is closest? Do you trust the folks at this non-Amish farm? Pay attention to cars that pass you twice. Memorize license plates. (You can always tell when folks are watching you when they pass you from behind because they slightly drift over the yellow line. Every time a car drifts over the line, I look up and find myself locking eyes with someone in the rear-view mirror.) (It’s always a man.)

Part of my approach to road safety I’ve learned from one of my friends who lives in New York (which, according to my rural neighbors is “the most dangerous place in the world”). Besides the common-sense tips of not being out alone after dark, she talks about intuition.

“You don’t feel safe? Something feels off? That person on the subway making you feel uncomfortable? Get out. Move to a different car. Change your location. There’s a reason your body is giving you these messages. Listen to your intuition.”

Recently we traveled to San Juan, Puerto Rico. We were walking, just the two of us, through the beautiful, colorful streets, Instagramming the architecture in the late afternoon sun. The streets were empty, and we turned down one street and noticed a man muttering to himself. We felt it at the same time.

“Let’s turn around,” I said.

“Absolutely, let’s go the other way,” she replied.

As two 30-year-old single women, we enjoyed our time exploring Old San Juan. We also listened to our intuition and deviated from our route if necessary.

For the most part, nobody bothers me when I run. The time in my life when I received the most harassment was when I lived in a small town in northern Indiana that was surrounded by Amish homesteads. It was common on my afternoon run for J.O.’s  in a Jeep to drive by and harass me. (J.O. refers to “jumped over”; it refers to Indiana Amish youth who have left the Amish; they have “jumped over” the fence.) They would honk the horn and yell at me, leaving me to think J.O.’s in their free time weren’t good for much.

Mostly, though, when people see a Mennonite woman running, there is just general confusion. When I was attending a Mennonite Bible Institute in southern Indiana, I was running (in a skirt) one winter afternoon. An “English” man was walking next to his young son who was on a bicycle. A look of great concern came over the man’s face as I approached, and he motioned for his son to stop riding, (presumably so he could “save” me from whatever it was I was running from). I awkwardly waved, tried to smile, and ran past.

When I moved to Lancaster, PA, a Mennonite friend in the city offered me a “running tour” of Lancaster city. We were both wearing Mennonite running skorts. I donned an Adidas hat to cover my head, and she wore a prayer veiling. We scampered all over the city. A young woman with a missing tooth and a cigarette walked past, “Okay, I don’t mean to be rude, but I have NEVER seen an Amish person exercise.” Inwardly I rolled my eyes. My friend smiled and said hello.

As I think about running safety and the different reactions I get while running (from mild harassment to general confusion), it strikes me how these experiences are not shared by Mennonite men. No one bats an eye if a Mennonite man were to run down the road. But this is not the case for Mennonite women. (Indeed, no one bats an eye if a white Mennonite man were to run down the road. The same might not be said for an African American man.)

And so I think about the parts of my running experience that are not shared by white men. For Justo Smoker did not attack an Amish male. He attacked an Amish girl.

And I wonder – is the experience of being a woman different than the experience of being a man? The answer is so obvious, but there are those who want it not to be true exactly when they need to focus on it. There are those who pretend the experience is the same for everyone precisely when it is not.

The fact that I think about Linda Stoltzfoos on nearly every run is evidence, for one. I’m constantly scanning traffic. I notice my route radiuses getting shorter and shorter. I notice I struggle to have motivation to get on the road. I haven’t been this scared before. All this, based on one murder. (It makes me wonder what my black brothers and sisters experience, considering the news we encounter on a regular basis.)

Indeed, different Mennonite women have different attitudes toward road running and female safety. I once suggested a running route to one of my friends, and she said to me, “You would run on that road?! A man exposed himself to some girls on that road once!”

While I champion safety, I do not fall into this “fear of the public” mentality.

“Let’s be clear,” I responded. “That was a one-time event. He doesn’t live on that road and was probably driving past. I’m not going to avoid one of the most beautiful (open, visible) routes in Lancaster because of a one-time event years ago.”

You see? They don’t get to scare us. They don’t get to make us disappear. I will keep running and being visible. I will keep showing up. I refuse to stay inside.

I’ve also been thinking a lot about systems recently. How systems can carry ideology and treatment of people even if the people currently running the system don’t believe those things, and the folks who put those systems in place are long gone. As a school admin, I see how systems put in place years ago continue to affect students and staff that the institution serves. It occurs to me that there can be institutional dysfunction which is the fault of no current employee, yet we all experience the dysfunction, and we all bear the responsibility for change. (I could give examples from various institutions – can you?) (I like to think that it works both ways, that leaders can affect long-lasting positive change, institutional change that outlives them. Why does it feel so hard to be hopeful in this way?)

Is it different being a woman?

A friend of mine, studying at a liberal Mennonite university gave a literary presentation that somehow included reference to his conservative upbringing, to women, and to feminism. A questioner in the audience asked about women from his community and about feminism – if they want it. My friend responded, “Mennonite women are largely content. They have no need of feminism.” He told me this story as if for approval, yet self-assured of his answer. I looked him square in the eye and said: “I would never have given that answer!”

And he shouldn’t have either. He is much too educated to provide such a simplistic, unnuanced answer. He should have at the very least said, “It’s complicated,” and cited the countless sex abuse cases and the (countable) disaffected Mennonite women he knows.

But when a system is working for you, you don’t question if it is working for others. Not to mention the female hegemony he doesn’t look past. 

Years ago, a group of young Mennonite students plopped into their seats as the bell rang for my English class, and they asked as a group: “Miss Swartzentruber, are you a feminist?”

This was a land mine, for then (as now) the word feminist is heard as a four-letter word among conservative Mennonites, especially in those pockets where fundamentalism has attached itself to Anabaptism.

I backed away from the land mine. Turning the question around on them, I asked, “What do you mean by a feminist? Can you define what feminism is?”

They squirmed and looked at each other.

I went on: “If by feminism you mean that female teachers should get paid the same as men, and that female teachers should receive the same benefits as married male teachers, then yes, I’m a feminist.”

A few kids raised their eyebrows. Not because I said, “I’m a feminist,” but because of the hint I was giving them about pay practices at a Mennonite school they attended. These bright students knew that their female teachers worked their fingers to the bone every day for their students. I believe they were shocked to discover that between their goofy, easy-going teachers there was inequality quietly percolating, as it had been, for years.

I suppose what running is teaching me right now is that different people from different groups have different experiences. And it’s no use arguing that we all experience the same things.

Yet no matter how often I have this conversation, someone refuses to listen to it. It is as if there is a chosen deafness.

Why can’t we trust people? Why is it so hard to accept that someone has had different experiences than me? And that those experiences have occurred in systems which happen to benefit me, but not entirely everybody else?

Despite the fact that running motivation for me has been quite low, a few months ago I signed up for the Bird-in-Hand Half Marathon. This local race is nationally recognized for its community experience and next-door view of Amish life. Runners “run with the Amish” through Lancaster County, past Amish farms and schoolhouses. Aid stations are manned by Amish kids and families, and finisher medals are fashioned from old horseshoes from Amish horses. I generally avoid heritage tourist traps, but the race is so highly rated (and literally in my backyard) that I figured I ought to run it. (I noticed that the course is only a half mile from Beechdale road.)

My training leading up to the race was absolute trash. Pouring rain, an insane work schedule, and low motivation caused me to miss half of my training runs. Then I got quite sick with allergies the week of the race. I decided to run anyway, despite my hacking cough and intermittent nosebleeds.

Registration, parking, and port-a-pots were seamless. Indeed, Mennonites and Amish are similar enough for me to know that we know how to do large group events. The lack of thumping music at the starting line was also decidedly local. I felt proud to be welcoming so many out-of-state visitors to “my” community. Didn’t see many Amish or Mennonite runners, though; I was rockin’ a skirt by myself, amidst all the neon spandex.

By mile 2, I ended up in an Amish front yard for a 20-minute pit stop. I had a nosebleed.

“You live here?” I asked four Amish spectators.

Fluids flowed down my hand. Each spectator checked their pockets for tissues.

An Amish man asked softly if I would like some paper towels, a rag to clean myself, and a cup of cold water.

“That would be nice?” I stammered. I realized the nosebleed was going to be a bad one, and I contemplated dropping out. Meanwhile, an Amish lady found a crumpled (used?) tissue, which I accepted. The Amish man returned, and I jammed paper towels on my face. I asked him how many runners he knows are racing.

“Didn’t they say about 1800? Or do you mean how many runners I know personally? About 8 or so. My son was one of the first ones through here,” he said modestly. Though wearing a long beard, he did not have a mustache, and his cheeks looked like they had just been shaved. Behind him, a cow mooed.   

He looked at me: “You need someone to help you. You don’t want to keep running. It could start bleeding again. Aren’t there people around to help?” He was referring to the race organizers and the ambulances dotting the course.

He mentioned a second time that I should probably not finish the race.

THIS WAS EVERY MOTIVATION I NEEDED TO ABSOLUTELY FINISH THE RACE.

I mumbled something about finding an ambulance, then motioned awkwardly to the pile of paper towels at his feet.

“We’ll take care of it,” he said softly, looking into the distance.

I walked for a mile holding my nose, then carried dirty paper towels for 10 more miles. Which I ran without stopping.

At one point, I came upon a group of women in matching miniskirts cresting a hill, squawking like birds.

“Where are you from?” I asked, jogging past.

“Long Island!” they hollered. “LONG OYLAND! Long Oyland! Where YOU from?!”

“I’m from right here, man; I run these roads every Saturday.”

“Ahhhh! You are so lucky!” they cried.

Indeed, little Amish kids offered “wasser” at multiple aid stations, their little chorus of cries in near unison. I was amused at the runners’ wonder and curiosity at all of the county delights – I mentally catalogued all the things they photographed.  

Because I had stopped so long for my nosebleed, the race had really thinned out. For the last two miles, we were running parallel to Beechdale road. I was running alone, and I thought of Linda Stoltzfoos. I blinked back tears.

I finished the race and was surprised by the “community picnic,” a free, massive Amish dinner of ribs, BBQ chicken, potato salad, veggies, cake, and soft-serve ice cream. I wanted to hug the food tent. I’m not sure if race participants understood how Amish/Mennonite that part of the event was. The menu, the help-yourself buffet styling, the endless food for a crowd of over 2000, the seamless organization of it all, the little tiny Amish and Mennonite children darting to and fro. This kind of hospitality runs deep in my bones.

With my back to a tent of 1000 people, I sat by myself in the grass, cross-legged in the bright September sun. I thought to myself how, though I had been surrounded by 2000 people that day, I had barely spoken to anyone all morning (except for the runner’s group from Long Island) and one Amish man.

Both of these groups were my people: the running community, and the plain community. Yet that morning, somehow I felt more like a spectator than a participant, in both groups. 

And maybe that’s what I mean by different people from different groups have different experiences. I wonder what it takes to identify the margins. Who is experiencing life differently than I am? And what might they need?

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4 thoughts on “On Being Woman: Reflections on My Mennonite Running Life”

  1. Wow, this is good. I connected with it in the sense that I have daughters who run, but even more personally as someone who has lived in other cultures most of her adult life, you described being a spectator so well. I felt uncomfortable this past year over being lumped into certain ‘camps’ because of the way I looked, but not at all the way I thought. If we were sitting in person i might share some of those examples 😉 I think bottom line, world around, is that each person wants to be known for who they are, not what group or groups they might fit in. It is proof that we are created in His image.

  2. I loved this, and it really made me think! Thank you! I think I may have more questions later. I do not come from a plain background but I live amongst it in rural Ohio and I am often told similar things about feminism and the inequality of things. I may ask to pick your brain one day. Thank you for writing this!

  3. Your concluding questions (and really the entire essay) go very well with this week’s Sunday school lesson. Are you teaching?
    Thank you for writing, Esther!

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