Content Note: Assault and Sexual Harassment

I run to escape the day-to-day stress, the kind that grinds us all down: unanswered work emails, dishes that somehow pile up in the sink, the general lack of hours in the day. It feels so freeing to literally outrun my stressors, even if just for 30 minutes or an hour.

I run to feel human. I stop thinking about myself in relation to my work or my relationships, and simply connect with my body. I run to feel the physical pain, the self-doubt, the impulse to give it all up and call my husband for a ride home—and to feel the accompanying ecstasy when I run through the pain and out the other side, then keep on running.

I run to feel powerful. Mostly, I run to feel free.

But I’m never really free when I run.

Because I’m not just human—I’m a woman. And as a woman, I can never feel fully, totally, entirely free. When I run, I can relax into the sensation of freedom for a little bit… until I hear a catcall, sense a car creeping behind me for blocks (or even miles), or become overly aware of every snapped branch as I speed down a forest trail. Since I’m a woman, when I run, I can never fully escape—inevitably, I’m removed from the moment.

Running presents itself as one of the most democratic sports around.

To be a runner, you don’t need fancy gear. You don’t need a gym membership (or even the courage to step into a gym). You don’t need professional training or a rare body type—provided your body is equipped for running, odds are good that your body knows how to run. And for so many women, this is part of the appeal of running.

According to Statista, running is one of the most popular sports worldwide. In the U.S. alone, a whopping 60 million people engaged in running, jogging, or trail running in 2017—and the majority of these runners are women.

“Two things I’ve grown to love about running are that you can do it anywhere and it’s an amazing way to explore a new place,” says Katie Sullivan, director of brand and marketing at Swerve Fitness in New York City.

Samantha Baron, an education coordinator at Sentergroup, Inc., who lives and runs in downtown Chicago, agrees. “Running’s something I can just go and do,” she says. “It’s something that’s so seemingly gender-neutral.”

But the experience of being a runner isn’t gender neutral.

The average runner of any gender deals with standard safety concerns, like getting lost or avoiding traffic. But runners who present as women are much more likely to face a host of additional issues on their runs, most of which revolve around physical safety.

Harassment is so pervasive among women runners that it’s practically become normalized. “My immediate reaction is to say I haven’t been harassed,” Sullivan says. “But then I realize that I can’t actually remember a run in NYC—day or night—when I wasn’t peppered with catcalls and sexual comments. They were all what I’d typically characterize as ‘harmless,’ but the recent shift in our culture has made me rethink the way I tolerate them.”

Cultural conversations about sexual assault and gender inequality can help women validate their own experiences. They can also make women more cognizant (and perhaps more fearful) of the potential threats lurking outside their front doors.

“Recent events definitely have an influence,” says Colleen Elrod, a nursing student who has run primarily in suburban environments. “Now, no matter what time it is, I feel like I’m taking a risk every time I go out for a run.”

And this isn’t paranoia.

A 2016 Runner’s World survey of more than 2,500 female runners and approximately as many male runners uncovered the extra concerns that weigh on women who run:

  • The majority of participating women runners reported they are sometimes, often, or always concerned about being physically assaulted or the recipient of unwanted physical attention while on a run.
  • 43 percent of all women surveyed experience at least occasional harassment while running—compared with only 4 percent of men. That number increases to 58 percent among women runners under the age of 30.
  • Of the women who reported being harassed, 94 percent said their harassers were men.
  • 30 percent of women respondents have been followed by someone on foot, on a bike, or in a car while running.
  • 18 percent of women have been sexually propositioned mid-run.
  • 3 percent shared they have been physically grabbed, groped, or otherwise assaulted while running.

And just as the #MeToo headlines surfaced, so have stories of women runners who have experienced assault.

This October, well-known runner and safety advocate Kelly Herron was 12 miles into Vancouver’s “Girlfriends Run for a Cure” half-marathon when she was accosted on the course by a male bystander. Herron made the split-second decision to abandon her record race time and pursue her assailant in order to press charges.

Sadly, this wasn’t Herron’s first encounter with assault while running. In March of 2017, she fought off a brutal attack in the public bathroom of a popular Seattle park. These experiences prompted Herron to create the platform Not Today Motherf***er (NTMF), which brings awareness to the topic of runner safety (especially for women runners) and provides personal safety tips to women.

But harassment and assault aren’t even the worst that can happen.

In the summer of 2016, the running community reeled as three joggers were killed in the span of nine days. Those cases were deemed unrelated, but they all shared one thing in common: Each victim was a woman.

Just as our culture tends to blame women for being sexually assaulted, people searched for ways to explain away these deaths as evidence of the women’s poor judgment. Even though all three women were running during the day on routes that were familiar to them (which is not to say they would have been responsible for their murders if they’d made different choices), the armchair advice poured in from social media: Women shouldn’t run alone. Women shouldn’t run in the dark. Women shouldn’t run with headphones on. Women shouldn’t run too far from where they live. Women shouldn’t…

Freedom, meet constraint.

The fear of harassment or assault doesn’t just affect women while they run. By its very nature, harassment is meant to communicate to its targets that they are not safe.

Research into the consequences of street harassment has found that people who are harassed tend to experience body-image issues, increased depression, heightened fears of rape, and internalized shame. These are consequences that extend far beyond a ruined workout.

In an attempt to avoid harassment and assault, women runners tend to alter their behaviors: They change their running routes, alter their schedules, and adopt new habits in the hopes of feeling safer.

Many women choose to be strategic about when they run.

“I started training for a marathon back in July,” Elrod says. “In order to get my long runs in, I’d have to start running between 4 and 5 a.m. Even though I live in what I consider a very safe part of town, there have been so many recent stories about people being harmed while running that I never felt fully safe unless the sun had completely risen and I was on a two-way, busy, double-yellow-lined road.”

Sullivan also modifies her runs. “I rarely run at night, but when I do, I wouldn’t venture on the West Side Highway (fewer people, fewer eyes on you) or into a park,” she says.

And they’re not alone. Sixty percent of women respondents in the Runner’s World survey said that potential threats cause them to limit their runs to daylight hours.

Many modify what they wear too.

“I definitely consider the time of day when choosing my wardrobe,” Sullivan says. “On a super-hot weekday afternoon this summer, I decided to run in shorts and a sports bra, and found myself running through several crowds of men spending their lunch break outside—I’ll never make that mistake again.”

And then there are the safety measures put into place.

Every woman interviewed for this article shared that she sometimes alerts a friend or family member to her intended route prior to a run and asks them to follow up if they haven’t heard from her by a certain time.

Some women adopt more advanced measures too. For example, Elrod often runs with 911 queued up on speed dial and her phone in her hand. This mirrors data from the Runner’s World survey, which found 73 percent of women respondents who are concerned about safety run with a phone rather than unencumbered.

Other women bring along weapons for physical protection. “When I lived in cities, I would run with pepper spray as well as with my keys between my fingers,” says Caitlin Murphy, a critical care nurse who resides in Steamboat Springs, Colorado.

Baron brings along mace on every run. “It definitely makes me feel better to know that I have it,” she says.

The 2016 Runner’s World data found that 21 percent of women bring pepper spray on their runs at least some of the time. One percent have gone so far as to carry a loaded gun.

Of course, not every woman who runs is harassed, assaulted—or even terrified—every time she laces up her sneakers.

The odds of harassment often diminish outside of urban environments. “Because I’m living in a small mountain community,it just feels safer. And when I’m out, I see people I know,” says Heather Hower, a trail runner who resides in the Colorado Rocky Mountains. “It’s like everyone is watching out for each other a little bit.”

Even in urban environments, some women are more concerned about vehicles or other roadside hazards than they are about would-be attackers. “Probably my biggest issue is cars,” Baron says.

And of course, men are also sometimes the targets of harassment or assault. But as a general rule, the contrast between cis male runners’ concerns and those of other genders remain stark. The Runner’s World survey previously cited found that only four percent of male runners reported experiencing harassment while running—compared to nearly half of all women surveyed. Meanwhile, only one percent of men reported being sexually propositioned on a run (compared to 18 percent of women), and 93 percent of surveyed men reported they are rarely or never concerned about unwanted physical contact or assault as they prepare for a run.

The striking difference between the experience of running while male and running while female is even reflected in Google search results. Type in “male runners stats” and you’ll get pages and pages of results pertaining to marathon finishing times, training guides, and other sport-related info. Search for “women runners stats,” on the other hand, and stories about the dangers of running while female show up in the first few results and continue to spill onto the following pages.

While running may be a more democratic sport than most, it’s still challenging for women to escape the realities of deep-rooted cultural misogyny—no matter where, when, or how fast they run. In order for women runners to be really free, our culture first needs to reconcile with its pervasive misogyny, and men as a collective group need to stop harassing and assaulting women.

“I always wish someone would go into all the high schools and say something to make high-school boys not catcall women,” Herron says—pointing out that boys who learn to treat women with respect are less likely to grow into men who don’t.

Until that day, Herron says there are several strategies women can employ to feel safer on their runs.

“The No. 1 safety strategy is just to be completely aware of your surroundings,” Herron says. To that end, she makes a habit of continually scanning her surroundings and wears open-ear headphones that allow her to enjoy music while simultaneously hearing what’s going on around her.

Herron does occasionally bring a weapon, but she’s very selective about what she uses. “If you’re going to carry a weapon, it should be something that you’re very comfortable with, very skilled at, and have lots of practice with,” she says. Her preferred option is a Go Guarded ring, which is a plastic, serrated-edge weapon that can be worn on any finger. She points out that it’s also essential to keep your weapon in your hand at all times. “It’s not going to be any good in your fanny pack,” she says.

Herron also advocates for self-defense classes. “I would recommend a self-defense class to anyone,” she says, crediting the skills she learned in such a class with helping her fight off her first attacker. “The fact that my self-defense class was brought in by my employers—that’s something that I’d love to see more HR departments do. Taco Tuesday is great, but you can also give employees the tools that could potentially save their lives.”

Finally, it’s important to look out for each other. And that can happen in several ways.

“Men often ask me what they can do to make women feel safer, and I tell them to be on the lookout for creeps,” Herron says. “Sometimes just making eye contact can be enough to deter them. I also think guys need to call each other out for harassment and misogyny.”

Talking openly about women runners’ experiences can be another form of solidarity. “In coming forward with my stories, I wanted to let other women who have been accosted or assaulted know that they’re not alone,” Herron says. “Sharing the stories and hearing that it’s happened to other people can be very healing, so that you’re not kind of caught in this spiral of shame and blame.”

While having to think so much about safety may curtail women’s freedoms while running, Herron says putting strategies in place can help women feel confident enough to continue heading to the streets and trails. “While I don’t think we can ever get to a place of 100 percent freedom, I think we can do everything we possibly can to free ourselves of worry and fear.”