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Running And Safety: Why We Need To Talk About Harassment Female Runners Experience Outdoors

In the fall of 2013, I was training for my second marathon – my first one since I went vegan. I was documenting every week of my training here on the blog, sharing my ups and downs so that other female vegan runners had something to relate to. Yet there was one incident that I didn’t write about.

Outdoor running and safety tips for womenI was doing my weekly 10+ mile long runs in a quiet neighborhood across the street from our apartment complex in our then-home of Daphne, Alabama. The neighborhood funneled into a long, scenic road that was even quieter but oh so beautiful, with old live oak trees forming a tunnel over the roadway. Running along that road, with not a soul in sight, was very peaceful, and always cleared my head from busy day-to-day thoughts. There were also plenty of challenging hills, which I found beneficial for my marathon training.

So one day, I was running up one of those long hills only to see a truck pull onto a side street in front of me. A middle-aged man walked out of the car and started making the most lewd gestures with his hands and face, looking me straight in the eye as I passed him.

I never ran up that hill as fast as I did that day. I think it may have been my fastest mile during that run according to my GPS. I was thankful to have gotten away easily, since it seemed that the person was only interested in showing off, but I couldn’t stop thinking what could have happened if he had attacked me physically.

The sad part is, this was not the only time I’ve experienced some form of harassment while running or walking outside. What’s even sadder is the fact the vast majority of female runners (and not only female BTW) can recount similar stories. From being honked at and catcalled to experiencing more disturbing expressions of unsolicited attention, we often brush it off as just a side effect of being outside by ourselves. It happens so much that we have learned to take this harassment for granted and hardly ever talk about it.

That is, until something terrible happens. In the past few weeks, I was once again reminded of the danger female runners encounter outdoors. Within a span of nine days in early August, three women in different parts of the country had been attacked and killed in the broad daylight during a casual run. Being a female runner who prefers to run alone, I’ll admit that this rang too close to home.

I asked myself: What can we do to be safe while running outdoors? From my soul-searching and reading various opinions online, another question arose: Why do we even have to worry about protecting ourselves?

When discussing female athleticism, it’s important to admit one thing: by engaging in running, or lifting weights, or any other athletic activity, we women declare to the world that we are strong physically to push ourselves to new athletic heights, and strong mentally to own and use our bodies the way we want to. We embrace the strength and the ownership of our bodies and show the world that it’s us, not somebody else, who decides what path we want to follow. Unfortunately, not everyone is cool with that. Some people will honk and yell out lewd comments when they see us running to reduce our athletic effort to just what it makes our butt look like. They’ll be the first to tell us that we should stop lifting heavy or it will make us ‘look like a man’. And sometimes, in an effort ‘to put us back in our place’, they go out and plain attack us.

Conventional safety advice for female runners suggests that we should always carry pepper spray or a Tazer or even a gun (ugh), run with a partner, never run in remote locations, etc. However, this approach has major flaws – things can go wrong even when we come prepared. The attacker could grab the gun out of our hands. The wind could blow that pepper spray in our faces. Our running partner may bail on us, or we may have trouble finding one in the first place. We may prefer to run in remote locations because there are fewer people willing to judge us, or it may be the only available place for running in our situation. Also, the advice to take the above mentioned preventive measures suggests that if a woman doesn’t comply, then it will be her fault if she gets assaulted. Can we do away with the victim blaming once and for all?

I would hate to write a post that only raises questions and doesn’t point to any answers. Yes, in a perfect world women (as well as all female-identified individuals) wouldn’t have to fight for their right to be respected in their athletic endeavors and other areas of life. Yet even in 2016 we still find ourselves tangled in the red tape of sexism, as the coverage for the recent Olympic games showed. Between opting to run with guns and running with no protection whatsoever, where do we find a happy medium?

It’s up to you to decide. Be aware that scary sh*t happens, but don’t let it scare you into not wanting to exercise ever again. Samantha Gardner went through a living hell when she was attacked (link trigger warning: sexual assault), but it didn’t stop her from excelling at running and even winning Rock’n’Roll New Orleans marathon in 2015.

Use your judgement. If you believe that taking a certain measure will make you safe, go for it. Talk to your friends, not just female, whether they are runners or not. Talk to men in your life about why it’s important to recognize women’s right to exercise, and why honking at female runners isn’t a great way to show support. Get in touch with a running community in your area (if you can find it), and do some brainstorming. Running doesn’t have to be scary, but it doesn’t have to hurt either.

I am very open to hearing your stories and your advice in the comments below. If you have any thoughts on resolving the issue of harassment of runners, please share!

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author avatar
Alina Zavatsky - Vegan Runner Eats
Alina first made a switch to a vegan diet in 2013 to optimize her athletic performance as a marathon runner. Eventually she embraced veganism as a way to be kinder to fellow living beings and the environment. Alina hopes that this blog helps its readers on their path to becoming vegan and making this world a better place.


Monday 7th of October 2019

Interesting topic, nice article, my sister runs every night and I always accompany her to ensure her safety.


Sunday 28th of August 2016

I think what I find most disturbing is the realization that for some jerks, they weren't thinking, today is the day I'm going to rape some woman, but they come across a woman by herself and seize the opportunity. It's very unsettling.As far as guns, I had a police officer who was teaching a safety course say if you carry a gun, if you pull it out, USE IT. He said never use it to threaten someone to leave you alone. They could get it away from you and then things just got worse.I don't really have any answers but I think we need to hold these jerks accountable. There have been recent cases that although they didn't involve runners show that as a society we are still blaming women and giving young men a pass for bad behavior.


Friday 26th of August 2016

Get a big, scary dog that likes to run. I have a lab/pit mix that I would go for walks with way early in the morning. I'd get a little creeped because it's so dead that time of day, but then I know I have the dog and there's no way anyone's getting close enough to me to do anything.

However, that really does bother me that we have to protect ourselves from the wrongdoings of others. It's like locking up your bike or locking your car doors. Ideally, no one would steal your bike, but there are assholes out there who would suffer no pangs of conscious in stealing a bike or rifle through your car looking for stuff. It sucks.


Friday 26th of August 2016

Excellent post, Alina! You're right that it's so expected that we, as women, will be harassed that we rarely even feel surprised by it. I am blessed that where I currently live, it's a lot of families, and I rarely encounter honking and yelling. But when I lived in a big city, it was common. It certainly made me self-conscious and even fearful. You just never know how it may or may not escalate.


Friday 26th of August 2016

Hi Cadry, thanks for stopping by again! I agree that living in family-friendly neighborhoods does make running feel safer - that's been largely my experience too. I feel way more relaxed running or walking in my neighborhood than, say, on a remote trail, even though a lot of runners swear by trail running.