I wasn’t always “The Punisher” and I’ve been uncomfortable with male attention since I can remember. So in college, when I really started running and found myself on the receiving end of commentary from men, I started listening to music to avoid having to hear what they were saying as I ran by. The headphones became my shield, and in a weird way gave me more confidence because I knew I wouldn’t have to pretend to not hear some catcall or “hey baby”. Before the headphones, I would just ignore them, which tended to result in more aggressive and angry taunts. This happened on almost every single run. A longer run would result in more comments. I just didn’t want to deal with it, so the headphones became as essential to my run as my shoes.
Every single female runner I have ever discussed this with has had to deal with unwanted, and often offensive, comments from men while running. Runner’s World published a special report on the issue in November. The article paints a really upsetting, although not surprising, picture, but the outpouring of personal stories in response to the article really drove home how pervasive this issue really is. This is my story of harassment I’ve experienced while running.
I will start by acknowledging that I’m relatively lucky compared to many other women who have felt so threatened they stopped running or worse, actually experienced physical harm. I have been attacked while running though, and not by a man. In college, I ran on the track and cross country team. I was also an architecture major and had a crazy deadline and presentation which caused me to miss practice one afternoon. I headed out on the easy 6 miler alone and stuck to the familiar Fens loop, running on the opposite side of the road to the park for safety since it was getting dark. I was less than a mile from the end, when a group of 4 or 5 high school age girls approached me coming from the opposite direction on the sidewalk. They parted to let me run through – or so I thought. As I ran past, one of them grabbed my ponytail and yanked as hard as she could causing me to flip backwards and land directly on my back with a hard head bang on the sidewalk. Being the fiery personality that I am, I got up and expressed my displeasure with the group – to put it mildly, but came to my senses and ran away when they decided to chase me. Of course I was faster than them so I got away safely. This might be a unique incident because it was a gang of females, not males, who attacked me, but to this day I never run through a group of any high school aged kids regardless of gender.
The most common experience has been lewd comments and honking. It has not really decreased now that I am in my 30’s and no longer a PYT. I don’t get any comments when I run with my husband but running in a group with other females doesn’t always guarantee immunity. In college, many team runs resulted in even more attention. While comments and honking may seem harmless, it creates a stressful psychological environment which tends to last a lot longer than the 3 seconds it takes to blurt out “nice ass!” I almost never run in a sports bra – even though it is one of my favorite feelings – if I am running in a city because I don’t feel like dealing with the extra attention it draws. I have a friend who yells “go f*ck yourself” or some version of it to every honk or rude comment she receives while running, and while I totally respect her ability to stand up for herself, she shouldn’t have to. Yes, men receive comments sometimes as well, usually inspired by particularly short shorts or well-formed pecs. Sure, my husband sometimes gets comments and giggles from girls when he runs without a shirt on, but he can probably count the number of times this has happened on his fingers, and his father-in-law didn’t send him a mini can of pepper spray to carry with him.
Unfortunately, other runners have also been the culprit in a few of my most memorable harassment episodes. In Boston, there was this guy I would see on my runs from time to time and he always gave me this creepy eye f*ck look. Eventually, he chased after me one time to stop me in order to chat me up. I’m on a run. I don’t want to have to think of ways to say no to being asked out on a date. In Oakland, I was chased and then body checked by an older gentleman after I passed him. I assume he was pissed that I was faster than him. No physical harm is caused by situations like this, but the cumulative effect of these experiences slowly erodes the self-confidence we work so hard to build as female athletes.
One common factor among all of my experiences of harassment while running is that they happened while running on the road in cities. I have never had a single issue on a trail run. That being said, if I pass a male runner or walker while out on a remote trail, I always look back to check that they have continued on their way. I’d be curious to hear from my trail runner lady friends about any unsettling experiences they’ve had while out on the trails.
All of this is not to say that all human interaction while running is bad. I have had some genuinely lovely encouraging comments from people on the street as I run by. I got a sweet high five out of security guard both times I passed him on a run a few weeks ago and am always blown away by the support from male runners during trail and ultra races. I honestly believe the majority of guys are great, but for those of you who have whistled, cat-called, or said something lewd to a female runner on the street, just imagine if that were your mother, or sister, or girlfriend. And as a general rule to everybody: beware of aggressive high school girl gangs.