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Seattle runner assaulted at Golden Gardens Park pushes through Chicago Marathon

Kelly Herron fought off Gary Steiner when he assaulted her inside a bathroom at Seattle's Golden Gardens Park in March 2017. (Colleen O'Brien/KIRO Radio)
LISTEN: Seattle runner returns to what she loves after assault

In March, Kelly Herron — an avid Seattle runner — was assaulted by a sex offender who hid in the women’s bathroom at Golden Gardens Park.

You might remember Kelly for what she said to her attacker as she successfully fought him off.

More from Colleen O’Brien

“You messed with the wrong girl and you are not going to get me today,” she recalled. “And if you think one of us is leaving this bathroom and it’s going to be you, you are wrong. Not today [expletive deleted], not today.”

That phrase, “Not today …” became the battle cry for many women who’ve been sexually assaulted and those hoping to learn how to defend themselves.

I was at Kelly’s free public self-defense course months ago. It’s something she provided less than a month after the attempted rape — scabs still covering her face.

She was not well but felt it was something she needed to do. However, not long after that, she decided to take a step back from her promise to keep training for that marathon and from the public life that was thrust upon her after the attack.

This week, I got a chance to catch up with Kelly at her workplace in Pioneer Square. She had something to show me.

First, let’s talk about how she’s healing. She took a step back from work, taking daily walks, which were tough enough because she was suffering from hyper-vigilance.

“I just forced myself to go outside. Go for long walks. Let that hyper-vigilance kind of become less and less and just start to become more comfortable. I’m on guard a lot. And I’m hyper-aware. I don’t always feel like I’m going to be attacked by I’m always ready for a worst-case scenario.”

She also sought intensive therapy.

“There are things that I just can’t fight. Especially sleeping and nightmares. But I don’t really have flashbacks anymore.”

During all of this, she got back to training for the Chicago Marathon. She entered as a charity runner — raising money for the organization Girls on the Run. And Kelly’s mom ran the marathon with her.

She says the first 15 miles of the marathon were a blast. After that, it became increasingly difficult to keep going.

“I was in what was called the pain cave. I couldn’t see straight. I was really starting to hurt …”

But then she saw a poster that motivated her and she pushed on.

At mile 22 a friend appeared.

“I just started breaking down crying and she gave me a cold bottle of water and gave me a pep-talk and literally pushed me back into the race.”

She kept going, but there was no relief.

Kelly describes her running style at that point as more of a trudge. She later posted a picture taken at about this point in the race. In it, she’s bug-eyed, grimacing, tilted slightly to the left, holding her mother’s hand.

“It actually reminded me so much of the grit that I felt during the assault when it just felt like it was never going to end … Running is the thing that helped me survive the assault. But the assault is the thing that actually helped me survive the marathon because I’ve been in that place before. That place of almost hopelessness. But you have to hang on to something because you have to get out of it.”

She came to the final stretch in rough shape but determined to finish.

At this point in our conversation, Kelly revealed to me her Chicago Marathon medal.

“I could hear the cheers and I was trying to give them a thumbs up. I thought of all the people who had supported me and believed in me and who were tracking me. There was a part of me that doesn’t want this guy — my assailant — to take anything from me. And to reach that finish line, for me, would mean that this isn’t about looking backward anymore, this is about looking forward and the future and what am I going to do now.”

She says she’ll keep running but doesn’t think she’ll do another marathon.

For now, she’s still focused on recovery and fostering her “Not Today …” movement. She has T-shirts and is starting to make the speakers circuit with an important message.

“A lot of people say, oh, she was so lucky that she got away. Well, is it lucky that I took a self-defense class three weeks prior? That’s not luck, that’s preparation. And yes, things could have been worse. That doesn’t make me lucky. There is nothing lucky about that situation.”

Kelly was prepared. Her attacker found that out when she gouged out his face.

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