I saw her up ahead. In her bright reflective pink-purple jacket she was hard to miss even in the early minutes of dawn. Of course, that’s the point. Runners want to be visible to traffic.
Like me, she ran by herself. As I was about ten feet away, she veered away from me on another trail, and picked up her pace.
This was not competition. This was caution. Solo runners, especially those who are women, need to be cautious in a way that those of us who are men do not. A recent Runners World survey revealed that 43% of women and only 4% of men have been targets of harassment mid-run. (See Running While Female.)
I confess it wasn’t until several women in my online running group shared their experiences of harassment that I considered the risks of the solo run. (Their conversation was in response to last summer’s murder of several women while running.) Whether in my rural community or the suburban and urban areas I often run, I have never personally experienced harassment or threatening behavior from others.
I simply had never thought about it.
Once the women in my runners’ group brought up the topic I paid attention. I noted the watchfulness when I encountered women on my runs. Running alone was not nearly as common among women as men. Group members talked about never running the same way twice and carrying self-protective devices. Many women lamented they no run less often because they feel unsafe running alone. Others described frightening encounters.
I shouldn’t have been surprised. When I taught college my women students were careful to call security or go with friends after night classes. The young male students brazenly marched into the dark without fear. That’s been awhile, though, and my own sense of security deprived me of appreciation for my fellow runners.
How had I been so oblivious to the experience of so many of my fellow runners? Now that I was aware, I noted the alert looks i got from women especially in more isolated areas. Maybe my big smiles were a little creepier than I imagined. In response, I began giving a wider berth as I would pass to assure others that I have no ill intent. I drew back the magnitude of my smiles, sometimes just nodding.
In an era when our politics validate lewd or worse behavior as locker room talk, those of us who feel safe running alone (or walking to our cars alone) have a responsibility. We must make it clear to our male peers that any talk or action that degrades and belittles others is unacceptable.
I still run alone but I hurt for those who cannot. I am awed at the bravery of those, like the woman in the reflective pink-purple jacket, who run solo but must remain ever-vigilant because of the sins of my gender.