On March 5, 2017, Kelly Herron began the day just like many others: with a 10-mile run in Seattle’s Golden Gardens Park in preparation for a marathon she planned to run.
But things took a drastic turn about halfway through when she went into a public restroom. While she was drying her hands, she turned around to see a disheveled man in a hooded sweatshirt who’d been hiding in a bathroom stall. She felt a chill up her spine.
“Right behind me, like a straight-out-of-the-movies bad guy,” Herron, 38, tells PEOPLE. “It was literally my biggest fear. Attacked while running. It was my biggest nightmare.”
Within seconds, Herron says the man, who was later identified as 40-year-old homeless sex offender Gary Steiner, lunged towards her, pushed her to the ground and began raining blows down on her head.
Herron says she was in the fight of her life, desperately trying to escape his grip, smacking and clawing him as she screamed, “Not today motherf—–!”
Herron says the attack moved from the bathroom sink into a large bathroom stall where her assailant tried to pull off her pants. At one point, she was able to crawl away but he quickly followed: “He just wouldn’t give up,” she says.
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Herron says she was lying on the floor and deflecting blows to her head when she was able to pull herself out of the stall backwards underneath the door.
“I got to that other side, I jumped up on my feet,” she says. “I heard this voice in my head. The same voice that I hear when I’m racing and so tired at the end of the half-marathon and there’s a quarter mile to go. It was like, ‘Kel, you are almost out of this. Girl, do not quit. You’ve got this.’”
Herron rushed out of the bathroom and, with the help of a passerby, locked her attacker inside the restroom until police arrived.
“I felt like a dude,” she says. “I was spitting blood. It was crazy. I was very primal in that moment.”
Before she was taken the hospital and treated for various injuries, including lacerations to her head that required stitches, she watched Steiner being led away by police.
“The first thing he told the police when he was arrested was, ‘Just kill me. Just kill me,’” she says. “He was bleeding out of his head and he was beat up. I felt good about that.”
Herron: Self-Defense Classes Saved my Life
After the attack, Herron posted about the attack on Instagram, recounting the harrowing story. The post made national news.
“It was really important to me that people knew that I didn’t just get lucky and get rescued,” she says. “No one rescued me. I thought it was important that people knew that the reason I survived is because I was prepared for that situation. I fought like hell and they can do that, too. It was very important to me.”
In fact, Herron credits self-defense classes she took at work three weeks before the assault with saving her life.
“I wouldn’t have been so confident,” she says. “The violence of it gave me permission to be violent back and to not be polite or scared.”
She continues: “One of the things we learned in class was that often if you pretend like you’re not afraid, be loud and play hard, if you do that, it can often deter your attacker because you will seem like you’re more trouble than you’re worth. I wanted to show him that I was not going down easily and that I was going to put up a fight.”
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After the attack, she says she became relentlessly focused on marathon training — ultimately to her detriment.
“I felt a lot of pressure that wasn’t real… that I had to prove to the world that this wasn’t going to stop me. In retrospect, I know that’s not really true, but I was fiercely determined to the point that it became unhealthy,“ she says.
“I had flashbacks daily, I had nightmares every single night. I couldn’t sleep. I had anxiety. I had chronic headaches from grinding my teeth. I felt depressed. It was miserable. I couldn’t feel feelings for a really long time. I couldn’t even cry for about a year. It took its toll.”
Also slowing down her healing process were the court procedural delays for Steiner, who was charged with second-degree attempted rape and second-degree attempted assault.
He was eventually convicted and given a three-year sentence in March 2018. He died behind bars on July 13.
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Today, Herron is a self-defense advocate with an Instagram following of 13,000. “Not today Motherf—–” has become her slogan and battle cry, and her personal website is Nottodaymf.com.
She regularly speaks about her ordeal and plans to write a book about overcoming adversity, resilience and self-care.
“It’s the worst thing that’s ever happened to me, but it’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me,” she says. “It has given my life a purpose, and I feel that the impact that it’s had has been a net positive, and I’m really proud of that.”
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