This piece was featured in issue #28 of Like the Wind Magazine. Words by Lela Moore – additional reporting by Simon Freeman – illustration by Monika Jurcyzk

I ran every night in the dark and had felt pretty comfortable. A man blocked the bridge I was crossing to ‘get directions to the metro’… aka to tell me I was beautiful and that he wanted to talk to me. I basically had to change my routine, so I would take the metro to the other side of the river and then run from there, just because it didn’t feel safe any more to be even briefly in a more remote area of a pretty busy trail. I’m not particularly concerned about someone jumping out of the bushes on a trail or anything, but having someone physically block my path was a bit of a game-changer.”

This is Laura Goodfellow, of Alexandria, Virginia, talking about an incident on her regular running route. The encounter left her shaken. “It just made me really aware that someone can make you feel permanently unsafe with less extreme actions than the horror stories we always hear about,” she says. “I think my odds of being murdered on a run are low, but getting harassed or feeling unsafe is a different story.”

I put out a query on my Facebook page recently. “What’s the scariest thing that ever happened to you while running?” I did mention that I was collecting information for a story I was writing; I did not mention that I was focusing specifically on women’s safety on the run.

Notably, save for one man, only women responded. A Facebook post on a personal page is not a scientific study, of course, but it is not hard to extrapolate that those who identify as women feel more fear while running than those who identify as men. And most of that fear stems from harassment.

These women told stories of being followed by men, on foot, on bicycles, and in cars, while they ran. Of being catcalled – “so many catcalls”. Of having a group of men yell “bounce, bounce” while she ran hill repeats in a sports bra. Of being approached by a group of men who then began running with her until she was able to outpace them. Of being honked at, splashed, and flashed.

A more targeted question posed to two private Facebook groups of runners who identify as women prompted more stories. The incidents themselves are scary, even shocking, but perhaps more notable are their repercussions in these women’s everyday lives and the disruption to routines.

While one piece of dubious advice offered when the issue of women’s safety on the run comes up is “don’t run in the dark,” Goodfellow says that her regular path is well-populated at all hours. “The harassment literally happens out in the open. I always felt safe before because there’s so many people nearby, but if what is happening to you doesn’t look like harassment, then there’s really no one to help after all.”

Across the Atlantic – in the UK – a recent high-profile attack on an elite athlete made headlines, not least because the incident happened in broad daylight. Sarah McDonald has represented Britain at the European Championships and the Commonwealth Games and reached the semi-finals of the 1,500m at the World Championships in 2019. She will be competing as part of Team GB in the 1,500m at the Tokyo Olympics. McDonald frequently used the towpath alongside a canal that links where she lives with the centre of the city of Birmingham. On a bright February Wednesday at 10am, McDonald was running towards the city centre, into the wind, to warm up for a session. The idea was that McDonald would turn around after the warm-up and do the session with the wind behind her on the way home. Her boyfriend cycled behind her, carrying water and spare shoes.

Suddenly McDonald’s boyfriend called out to warn her that a bike was approaching from behind. “I was not expecting a moped with two guys on it. But when I stepped aside to the right – away from the water’s edge – one of the guys on the bike reached out and physically grabbed me as they passed. They carried on a little way past me and then stopped to look back. To be honest I really didn’t know what to do but, as you can imagine, my boyfriend was really angry and wanted to go and confront them. But I told him: ‘What are you going to do? It could be dangerous.’”

McDonald says that she finished the session but once she was home and had told a couple of people what had happened, she realised the seriousness of the attack. “It is actually pretty normal for men to shout rude things at me as I run,” she says. “I’ve had cars slow down as they pass me so the men inside can hoot the horn or shout at me. That is an everyday occurrence. But this felt like it crossed a threshold.”

McDonald decided that it was important to speak out about this attack, not so much for herself but for others who might be really impacted by something similar. “So really the reason I spoke out was to support the people who have turned to running during lockdown. During the pandemic, running has been the only form of exercise for many people and bad experiences can easily turn people away from the sport.”

While McDonald admits that she felt unsafe running on her own for a few days after she was attacked, that passed pretty quickly. However, she has not been back to the canal towpath since. But what is perhaps worse is the reaction to her speaking out. After the story was picked up by a couple of national newspapers and a TV channel in the UK, McDonald says she received a huge volume of social media comments and messages. The vast majority were supportive, but a significant number suggested that McDonald was somehow responsible for the attack or that she was enjoying the publicity that came from her story being shared.

This is victim-blaming taken to a new level.

Alongside being told not to run in the dark, another tip frequently offered to women is to take self-defence or martial-arts classes. Jinghuan Liu Terzolan has a background in martial arts, but found her skills inaccessible when another woman yelled anti-Asian slurs and cursed at her as Terzolan ran in her neighbourhood in Altadena, California. “The funny thing is that when you’re running, your thoughts are all over the place, and I totally didn’t have a fight-or-flight instinct,” she tells me. “I totally didn’t know how to respond. I think there’s the difference between a physical attack vs a verbal attack. With verbal, I didn’t even know how to respond.”

Many runners told me that harassment had left them permanently on edge while running.

According to Jessie Zapo, coach and founder of Girls Run NYC, a big part of the issue of women’s safety is that harassment has become normalised. As a runner embedded deeply in the New York running scene, Zapo says that unwelcome attention and comments “are just part of my day-to-day”. However, Zapo adds that over the past five years or so, the topic of women’s safety in general – and in running – has become much more widely discussed and understood. Zapo thinks that this might be because with more women running, more incidents have been reported, which in turn encourages more women to come forward with their stories of situations where they have been attacked, harassed or made to feel uncomfortable.

Annie Normand lives in Duluth, Minnesota, but attended medical school in Washington, DC. While in school, Normand says: “I was out for an early morning run when a car pulled up next to me. The driver was wearing no pants and tried to chase me. He eventually gave up and drove away. The part that really bothered me was the black garbage bag taped over his licence plate… he knew. I still think that might have been the fastest I’ve ever run. It made me feel off balance and unsure for a long time. And I am still hyper-vigilant about cars pulling up to kerbs or slowing down, even all these years later. Like most of us, I’ve also been subject to yelling out of car windows etc. But the quiet malevolence of a car with a hidden licence plate just still makes me shudder.”

More than two-thirds of British women surveyed by Women’s Running magazine earlier this year said that they did not feel safe, or had adjusted their behaviour while running in order to feel safer. Nearly a third said they have thought about stopping running because of concerns about safety.

Several women I spoke to mentioned carrying something with which to defend themselves against an attacker as the result of being harassed, followed, or threatened while running.

“I was running along a river canal in Spain, where I was living at the time, when a man exposed himself and began to masturbate as he approached me. It was extremely disturbing, especially since it was in broad daylight, and I never ran that path again when alone,” says Kelli Smith, who splits her time between Costa Mesa, California, and living abroad. “I also always run with pepper spray when I am alone, especially when I am living abroad and running in more isolated areas. It is just a part of my regular gear now.”

Emilia Benton, who lives in Houston, Texas, was running in the park across the street from her house around 8am when she realised she was being followed by a man in a car. “When I finally turned around to look at the driver and see what was up, I saw a man making a suggestive gesture. I jumped up on the kerb and sprinted away around the block instead of going right into my apartment building, so that he wouldn’t see where I lived,” she recalls.

Benton stopped running with headphones, a change she has since made permanently. “I’d been running with a friend before we split up at the end, but on any given day that I’d have been running alone, I would have been [running with headphones]. And if that had been the case, I probably wouldn’t have even heard or noticed that car following me so close behind,” she says. “It was enough of a rude awakening to make me see that wearing headphones really can impede your ability to be fully aware of your surroundings.”

Whether a woman is alone or in a group also does not seem to affect whether she will be harassed. A number of women told me stories about group runs in high school or college where the entire group was targeted.

“Once, in college, I was running with about seven of my female teammates and our male assistant coach,” said Ellie Waddle, who went to school and still lives in Beloit, Wisconsin. “We were followed for two miles by two 14-year-old boys on bikes who were yelling gross derogatory comments and swerving into us. One of them came up behind our group and slapped one of my friends on the butt. We didn’t feel that we could push them because they were riding on the street side and they did not respond well to being asked to leave. Eventually our assistant coach was able to chase them off into the neighbourhood. I have never been so angry. I’ll never be able to be 100% comfortable on runs by myself or even in groups of only women.”

Megan James is a high school cross-country and track coach in upstate New York. Twice she – along with her school’s administrators – has had to intervene with companies whose employees have harassed her female athletes while they were out on group runs. On one occasion it was someone in a company delivery truck; another time, it was construction workers. She notes that the boys’ team runs the same routes, but they have never reported harassment. “Both of these instances have required my middle/high school athletes – some not even teenagers yet – to be increasingly aware of their surroundings, and this is a generally very safe area,” she says. “I require each group to have a cell phone with them when they leave campus. Some of them have practised looking at licence-plate numbers so drivers are easier to track down.”

Harassment happens in all settings: urban, suburban, and rural. Harassment may be more prevalent in urban or population-dense suburban settings, simply because there are more people, but women who run in rural areas often note that it’s more difficult to escape a dangerous situation when you’re in the middle of nowhere.

Jenny Wilkins moved last year from New York City to rural Carlisle, Pennsylvania, where she now lives with her mother. She was accustomed to harassment in the city, but, as she noted, there was always somewhere to go if you needed to. A side street to turn down, a store to go into. “In a city, like NYC, running is the norm,” said Wilkins. “You see people doing it all the time. Out here, I don’t see as many people while I’m out on a run. I hate to say it, but it’s on my mind a lot, like what would my escape route be? I certainly miss having my friends around to run with, there’s always a sense of security in numbers.”

Last summer, a carful of men harassed Wilkins as she ran, alone, on a road where she had nowhere to escape. They passed her twice on a hill where she was running repeats, then pulled over and three men got out and ran into the nearby woods. “This all happened in the weeks following the murder of George Floyd, and my mom and I were having a lot of discussions about race, a lot of tough conversations about the model minority myth, and our experiences being AAPI (Asian American and Pacific Islanders) in a predominantly white town. She asked me if I had ever felt unsafe, and this was one of my stories. These days, when I run or cycle, I share my location with her on my phone. She’ll get nervous if I’m gone for more than half an hour, which, as a distance runner, is a lot of the time.”

Wilkins bought pepper spray and runs with it now. “In a city, you could hypothetically outrun or maybe try to outwit a pursuer on foot. Here, there was a few guys backed by a ton of steel,” she said. “it took me weeks after that incident to feel comfortable on longer runs. And when I saw things on the news, sometimes I’d barely get out to run because of that anxiety. After the insurrection at the Capitol, I kept my runs really short and close to the house. My anxiety has influenced my mileage over the past year.”

As we have seen with Sarah McDonald’s story, professional runners are victims of harassment too. Emily Infeld, a 2016 US Olympian in the 10km and a bronze medallist in the 10km at the 2015 World Championships, wrote on Instagram on 13 March 2021: “I don’t really know where to start and I’m feeling pretty exhausted.

“I’ve been stalked, harassed and threatened by a man I’ve never met for the last three years. He’s reached out over social media and email. He’s left me voicemails, sent me packages, and threatened my life. He drove across the country to rent a place two miles from me after threatening to kill me. I’ve left Portland for months in order to stay safe. This man is delusional and I don’t feel safe. I have no idea where he is now but his messages have started up again and I can’t handle it.

“I was able to get a court order against this man in 2018 but it hasn’t stopped him. I am trying so hard to be kind and to stay positive but I just feel so frustrated and hopeless. I don’t know what to do and just want to share for anyone else who’s dealing or has dealt with something similar.”

In a follow-up post two days later, Infeld laid out the strategies she had used to evade her stalker: moving (multiple times, at great personal expense) from her home to the homes of friends and family and even to hotels or Airbnbs. A permanent restraining order. Constant contact with the police. Documenting every encounter. Professional security. A global threat-management firm. And still, she suffers at the stalker’s mercy. Neely Spence Gracey, another American pro runner, commented on Infeld’s original post that she, too, has dealt with a stalker.

High-profile cases where women were attacked and murdered while running sent waves of concern about women’s safety in the sport through the American running community in 2016.

The killings of Ally Brueger in Michigan, Karina Vetrano in New York and Vanessa Marcotte in Massachusetts, all within weeks of each other, were covered in a breathless, sensational way by the media, often linked together despite having little commonality beyond each woman being a runner. The message: women, you aren’t safe out there. Brueger’s killing remains unsolved. A man is serving life in prison without parole for Vetrano’s murder. A man charged with the murder of Marcotte remains in jail, though his case has yet to go to trial.

In March, Sarah Everard disappeared in south London while walking home from a friend’s house. A policeman was arrested and charged with kidnapping; a day later, Everard’s body was found and her assailant was also charged with her murder; he will stand trial in October.

Dr Rachel Hewitt, an author, literary historian and lecturer in creative writing at Newcastle University, is writing a book about the history of street harassment against women. On 21 April, she spoke on BBC Radio 3’s Sunday Feature about a troubling pattern: the harassment – and worse – of women increases at points in history when women are demanding increased rights. The connection, she posited, has to do with men feeling “embattled.”

Certainly this was true in the United States following the killings of Brueger, Vetrano and Marcotte. A rash of articles about women’s safety on the run, accompanied by statistics about who is harassed, how often, and by whom (spoiler: mostly women; all the time; almost always men) appeared. Tweets asking women to tell their stories garnered attention for a few days, and then followed the usual life cycle of trending Twitter topics. The subject of women’s safety on the run was forgotten as it settled back into being part of the quotidian background hum that most female runners experience when preparing to exercise. (Hat, sunblock, keys, tell someone where I’m going and when I’ll be back and how many people will be on this trail at this time and do I need to hold those keys in my hand or are they OK in my pocket?) Because there was a larger buzz about harassment of women surrounding the 2016 presidential election, it was easy to forget where one story ended and another began. The rising tide of awareness about harassment swelled into the #MeToo movement the following year, but still, the focus seemed to be on just that: awareness, instead of solutions. Famous men were fired. Some were arrested. But Donald Trump sat in the White House, seemingly above it all.

“I feel as if we normalised these instances and didn’t really hold anyone accountable,” says Gabby Drillich. Drillich, 28, lives in Brooklyn, New York. “Sometimes we see times changing, and then other times they appear to be standing still. Women getting harassed on the run and beyond is a huge issue.” Jessie Zapo agrees. “When I first moved to New York, I was not really into running in the way I am now,” she says. “I would pull on a hoodie and a pair of baggy sweatpants and go to Prospect Park to run laps there. There was a guy on a bike who would follow me, trying to chat to me. Flirting I guess. I didn’t feel threatened but I was working out so the distraction wasn’t really welcome. And I found it odd, because I was dressed in this baggy gear, all sweaty – and still this guy was trying to chat me up.”

Everard’s death resulted in protests across Britain calling for more attention to women’s safety on the streets. Another flurry of articles appeared. But the marches organised in the wake of Everard’s killer’s arrest were less focused on the existence of harassment and violence against women, concentrating more on actions that they wanted men in charge (specifically, the police) to take.

In that sense, the response to Everard’s death echoed more the tenor of the protests against police brutality toward Black people in the United States that took place last summer after the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Less a reminder violence exists than a primal scream: WHAT ARE YOU GOING TO DO ABOUT IT?

So consider that we are living through a nearly unparalleled time of global consciousness about women’s rights, intertwined with an increased awareness of racial justice and LGBTQ+ rights. If Hewitt’s hypothesis that harassment increases when men – particularly white, straight men – feel their spaces shrinking, then perhaps it’s no surprise that every runner you know who identifies as female has a story about being harassed.

But Drillich and others say the men in their lives are consistently shocked when it hits close to home. “One time I was running with my husband, and a man leaned out his window and screamed ‘Nice rack!’ I didn’t think much of it, but my husband was livid,” says Drillich. “I think a lot of people, especially males, who don’t experience this daily, do not understand the level of harassment that women face on the run and beyond.”

And there are so many more stories like this.

“I was part of a team of 10 women doing the Speed Project, running from Los Angeles to Las Vegas in a relay, ” says Jessie Zapo. “The race starts in the very early hours and I was on one of the first legs. So I think I started running at around 4:30am. My route passed the Hollywood Bowl in LA, which is not the nicest area, especially at that time in the morning. My crew had driven ahead in the van to meet me at the end of my leg, so I was on my own. Suddenly there was a guy standing by the side of the road holding some sort of metal pole. As I passed him, he took off running after me. I ended up running as hard as I could until I reached the highway, where I figured there’d be more people, and I called my crew who drove back to pick me up. I was so scared.

“In my mind, I would fight someone hard,” Zapo continues, “but that does not mean I’ve not felt really scared at times. And for a woman who has had a bad experience, they can end up assuming that all men might be a threat.”

Robin Kutner, who lives in California, said she struggles to respond when men in her life give her advice about safety when she complains about an incident of harassment. “Like, do you [male friend] run with pepper spray or only in a group? Why should I have to?” she asks. “I often get just as upset about that scenario as I do about the original incident, as it comes from people who think they are being caring but really just adds to putting the onus/blame/burden on the victim. Society has a bad habit of victim-blaming, when it comes to harassment like this and also in many other unrelated scenarios.”

Another story highlights the way that women’s safety is somehow seen as women’s problem. Recently Jessie Zapo was invited to be part of a panel discussion about safety for runners. “97% of the people who attended the panel discussion were women,” she says. “It is as if when men see a panel about safety while running, they assume it doesn’t relate to them. The panel was not about women’s safety – it was about safety in general. But of course, it became about how women can keep themselves safe.”

And this is a big part of what is wrong with the discussion around women’s safety – the assumption that women need to change their behaviour in order to stay safe, while men – by far and away the most common perpetrators of acts against female runners – aren’t really expected to do anything.

Two-thirds of American women report being the victims of street harassment, according to a study conducted by the non-profit group Stop Street Harassment. That’s no small number. But when you narrow in on runners, as Runner’s World magazine did in 2019, the percentage of those identifying as women who experience harassment grows to 84 percent.

Women’s safety on the run is a bit of a chicken-or-egg issue. People who identify as women are on the receiving end of most harassment, and those who identify as men most often perpetuate these acts, according to the women affected by them. In the 2019 Runner’s World survey, 94 percent of women who were harassed identified men as their assailants.

And yet when it comes to ensuring that women are safe on the run, we are told, well, just don’t run at certain times or in certain places, or avoid running solo, or don’t run with headphones or other technology, or maybe just don’t run outside at all. It is women who are asked to teach others how to stay safe. To say nothing of the intersectionality of the harassment endured by those who identify both as women and as BIPOC or LGBTQIA+. And rarely do we ask how we can make running safer, instead of just making women safer?

“The incessant ‘be safe’, ‘don’t run alone’, ‘don’t run at night’, ‘don’t run early in the morning’ is a fundamental misunderstanding of women’s lives, if you think we aren’t hyper-vigilant 24/7,” Zoey Dowling, a runner who lives in New South Wales, Australia, tells me in an interview over Facebook Messenger.“ It creates this convenient myth that if you just alter your behaviour, nothing bad will happen to you. I’ll take the risk and live a life on my own terms rather than being put in a box that I didn’t make.”

Running has a reputation as an unusually equitable sport. Every runner, man, woman, in a wheelchair or on foot, elite or back of the pack, runs the same course. But the sport has a long history of excluding women or minimising their achievements. Women were not a presence in the running world until well into the 20th century. There were no running events in the modern Olympics for women at all until 1928. Women were told their uteruses would fall out if they ran far or hard. Until 1972 (the same year the Boston Marathon officially allowed women), when the 1,500m became an Olympic event for women, the longest distance women ran was the 800m.

According to a report by Running Shoes Guru, as women gain numbers in the sport, and spend proportionally more money than men to participate in it, they are not leading it at the top.

Running, by and large, centres on white men. When you look at who runs the running industry – who directs races, who chairs running organisations and who serves as CEOs of brands, who creates and manufactures gear – it is largely white men. Most American elite running coaches are white men, as are college coaches – even of women’s teams. And the power wielded by the top running companies is neither small nor local. Business Insider wrote that, based on the company’s 2017 profits, Nike would be the 96th richest country in the world. And while women do make up more than half the field in road races in the US, road runners are nonetheless a startling 90 percent white, according to 2017 surveys by both Road Runners USA and Athletics Canada.

So perhaps it’s not surprising that, instead of creating a more welcoming space, the bouncers of the running world are asking women to enter at their own risk.

In the Runner’s World survey from 2019, 43 percent of runners identifying as women said they were “always, often, or sometimes” catcalled, whistled or honked at, or had other unsolicited sexual attention directed at them or sexist remarks made to them. Thirty percent of women have been followed by someone while running, and 18 percent have been sexually propositioned while running.

That’s a lot of women. It’s not isolated incidents, and it’s not isolated geographically. It happens in cities, suburbs, and in rural areas all over the United States and around the world. It’s everywhere, which means that lots of people in lots of places prioritise their own power over women’s safety on the run. And it causes women to limit where they run, when they run, and how freely they run.

That’s right, power. Harassment isn’t about sex, usually, and if you’re harassed, it doesn’t mean that you should have worn a looser shirt or longer shorts or a more compressive sports bra. It doesn’t mean someone wants to date you, and they’re just going about it in a weird way. It means someone spoke to you rudely, or followed you, or flashed you, or propositioned you, because they wanted to feel more powerful than you at that moment.

This notion of harassment as being about power and not sex is a hard sell. But as any woman who has been left in an exhausted puddle of mixed emotions after enduring harassment will tell you, the effect of being harassed is that your power in your space is removed. You become an object, not a person, to your harasser.

Science backs up the idea that some men are wired to view women they perceive as provocatively dressed as objects. TikTok user @justsillyforreals went viral recently presenting her version of this study. “They don’t even recognise you as something that has thoughts and feelings,” she says in her video, referring to “sexist men.”

As the harassment of runners who identify as female becomes a bigger issue throughout the sport, the question of what to do about it has shifted, too. Most harassment is never reported; one survey conducted by the #wewill collective in the UK concluded that 86 percent of harassment that women endure on the run goes unreported.

While the #MeToo movement resulted in some concrete actions, including exposing many famous men as serial abusers of women, some of whom lost their jobs and/or influence, it seemed more focused on a reckoning from the top down versus a system of education from the ground up. It still asked women to be the informers and the teachers. In the UK following Everard’s death, attention was focused on both training the police to respond more forcefully to accusations of harassment as well as creating curricula for schools about sexual harassment and violence. The sisters Maya and Gemma Tutton started Our Streets Now in the UK two years ago with the dual goals of providing schools with free lesson plans about street harassment and a legislative campaign to persuade lawmakers to criminalise it. After Everard’s death, the Tuttons spoke out about the importance of avoiding victim-blaming in cases of harassment and violence against women.

The #wewill campaign is a collective of women’s organisations and publications in the UK that launched after Everard’s death in March. “In the days following the murder of Sarah Everard… it became clear to us through the more recent discussions in our communities that we have all been changing our running (and walking) behaviours out of fear our whole lives,” their mission statement reads. Unlike Our Streets Now or Stop Street Harassment, the #wewill campaign is centred specifically on runners who identify as women, and on changing the game for them by focusing on reporting harassment and enforcing punishment against harassers.

In the end, this is what will change the game. Men must learn that harassment is not only not flattering or kind; it can and should be a criminal offence. And men must enforce men: no longer can we rely upon women, disproportionately the victims of harassment on the run, to do the dirty work of educating men about the effects of violence against themselves. Believe women in your lives who tell you they have been harassed; far more women than not experience harassment in daily life, and those who run will experience it there too, in greater proportions. But most of all, educate both yourselves and those who look up to you – your children, your students, your family members, your friends – about harassment, what it means and how it hurts us. Because it hurts us all.

Lela Moore is a writer in Brooklyn, NY, where her favourite runs are Prospect Park trails and the Coney Island boardwalk. TW and IG: @runlelarun

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