Runners across the nation recently emerged from the warm haze of endorphins to express shock and disbelief that 43 percent of women runners have reported being harassed while running
The statistic came from a Runner’s World online survey—in which I participated—about how safe runners feel on the road.
As surveys go, this one was particularly skewed (if Donald Trump were a runner, he’d be yelling that it was rigged). It was conducted while the running community was freshly spooked over the murders of three women who were running when they were attacked. We were all scared in September, and many of us still are, since none of the murderers have been caught.
When Runner’s World crunched the data and filed its report, however, it was sexual harassment that came to the forefront. “Running While Female” highlighted the boorish behavior that many women encounter while they run, particularly if they’re young and pretty. One twenty-five-year-old from Boston recalled a man saying “mmm hmmm,’ like he was salivating over a steak.”
In the aftermath of the piece, men (and some older women runners) expressed shock that sexual harassment was so pervasive, and vowed to help. “Men must own this issue and create a safe environment for women everywhere,” one man wrote.
At first glance, this is a wonderful sentiment, the idea that decent men everywhere will form a sort of protective barrier around women who run, keeping us safe from the minority of bad guys who threaten us. I want to believe that the guy who approaches me—or passes me—has got my back, and will watch out for me with the sharp eye of a mother who sees an unaccompanied child in a park and immediately goes on high alert for another’s offspring.
Unfortunately, even male runners get scared sometimes, as we learned from the two guys who ran away from a clown.
But it’s even more misguided to believe that we can create a safe environment for women everywhere.
The fact is, it’s not a safe planet. It’s not safe for rabbits or cows or gazelles, or for women or men. This is a truth that Western societies have beautifully concealed with antibiotics, airbags and security systems, and so it’s always upsetting when a murder or a survey suggests that we’ve been comforting ourselves with a lie.
Yes, it is disturbing that so many women runners are harassed; that they do not feel safe; that they are, in fact, not safe, as the tragic deaths of Alexandra Brueger, Karina Vetrano and Vanessa Marcotte remind us.
It’s easy to ride around with our Coexist bumper stickers and assume that we ought to be safe, but nature laughs at the concept. A rabbit doesn’t have the “right” to be safe while sitting exposed in a field. Should humans? The inherent brutality of the world, which theologians and philosophers have grappled with for thousands of years, has been papered over so much that we believe safe is the default and become outraged when it becomes clear that it’s not. That’s our bad.
We are not safe, none of us, and we become less safe when we start to believe that we are.
We are not safe when we run in big, noisy cities. We are not safe when we run down quiet, rural roads. We are not safe when we run down a public path accompanied by two children—one of whom who is eleven years old. We are not even safe while running in an organized marathon—witness the woman who was attacked by a bear in the midst of a marathon in New Mexico in June.
As a runner who hasn’t ventured on my favorite wooded trail since Vanessa Marcotte was found dead, I don’t celebrate this. Nor do I excuse the verbal harassment that assaults not just women runners, but all runners. (I’m looking forward to equally indignant reports on Running While Fat, Running While Slow, and Running While Old.)
But the Runner’s World survey, and the recent deaths, remind us that yes, good people should have each other’s backs; it’s also a good idea to carry a handful of sand or a can of mace when you are out running alone.
But we should also never forget that we live in a world with both boors and bears—and for that matter, the biggest bad guy of all—cars. Because the biggest danger that runners face is not harassment or murder. It’s getting run over by a car. More runners are killed by cars than strangers. There have been at least two deaths in recent weeks—one in Texas, one in New Jersey—and just yesterday, a jogger was hit in Georgia.
The solution for all of these problems is the same: Get off the roads and onto a track or well-traveled park or rail trail. If you must run on a road, go with a friend, wear orange, and be prepared to defend yourself.
And never, ever believe you are safe.