Thousands of runners rally around US to ‘Finish Eliza’s Run’

In this photo provided by the Memphis Police Department, 34-year-old Eliza Fletcher is shown. Authorities in Tennessee searched Friday, Sept. 2, 2022, for Fletcher, who police said was abducted and forced into a vehicle while she was jogging near the University of Memphis campus. (Courtesy of Memphis Police Department via AP) ((Courtesy of Memphis Police Department via AP))

MEMPHIS, Tenn. – Catie Grusin didn't know Eliza Fletcher, but she woke up at 3:20 a.m. and put on a pink top before attending a vigil and running event honoring the slain kindergarten teacher who was kidnapped during a pre-dawn jog in Memphis, Tennessee.

Thousands of people like Grusin, in cities across the U.S., finished Eliza’s run on Friday morning.

Holding a candle in the early-morning Memphis darkness, Grusin gathered with others and sang “This Little Light of Mine" — the tune associated with Fletcher, who softly sang it to her students in a video posted on the internet. Grusin then stood along Central Avenue to cheer on hundreds of runners as they set out to complete the 8-mile (13-kilometer) run Fletcher started exactly one week earlier.

Grusin didn't participate in the 4:20 a.m. run but felt compelled to do something in the wake of a tragedy that hit home with runners across the nation.

“In the moment, it's just beautiful and you're thinking about the people around you that are maybe in a different circle of grief than you are,” Grusin said during an afternoon interview with The Associated Press.

Wearing a pink top and purple shorts, Fletcher was forced into a vehicle after a struggle last Friday, and her body was later found Monday behind a vacant duplex after a massive police search lasting more than three days. A suspect was swiftly identified and has been charged with her kidnapping and murder.

The killing of the 34-year-old mother of two and avid runner shocked people nationwide, and was particularly upsetting to women runners. An obituary described Fletcher as a “born athlete” who enjoyed spending time outside with her husband and children.

As a tribute to Fletcher, groups of runners decided to “Finish Eliza’s Run” on Friday morning. Groups also ran in Dallas, Nashville, Chattanooga, Tupelo, Mississippi, and many other cities and towns around the country. Hundreds logged their runs on a website dedicated to the event.

Fletcher was taken while running on the University of Memphis campus. Grusin, a 21-year-old advertising and social media marketing student at the school, lives near the spot where Fletcher was attacked.

The university sent out a safety alert to students, and media seized on the story and the resulting search for Fletcher.

“Seeing the news story that morning, with it being so random, and so violent, and so close to home, was terrifying,” said Grusin, a Memphis native.

Many female athletes fear working out alone, at night or in secluded places, and while crime statistics show such killings are exceedingly rare, many report being harassed or worse, even in well-populated areas.

“In a way, a lot of the women that were there relate to her story,” Grusin said. “Looking back, that is the most emotional part for me, as a woman. We do have to watch our back, and my head is on a swivel. It's just a terrible feeling.”

Emotions have run high this week in Memphis, a city reeling from Fletcher's killing and a shooting rampage on Wednesday that forced people to shelter in place and led to a city-wide manhunt for a man who shot seven people, apparently at random. Four people were killed.

Like other U.S. cities, Memphis has a problem with violent crime. In recent weeks, the city also has seen other kidnappings, as well as the non-fatal shooting of a Memphis police officer who was looking for stolen cars, the fatal shooting of a church pastor in her driveway during a daytime carjacking, and the shooting death of a community activist during an argument about money.

But most people in the city and surrounding Shelby County are neither victims of crime, nor perpetrators of it. They see Friday's scene of compassion, unity, and hope as a beacon of good in the city.

“The incredible turnout at this morning's event shows that there are good people in Memphis, and that these incidents are not representative of Memphis,” Shelby County District Attorney Steve Mulroy said.

In a tweet, county Mayor Lee Harris added: “We will not recede into the shadows. We’re going to let it shine.”

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Associated Press writer Rebecca Reynolds contributed to this report from Louisville, Kentucky.