Reported Personal Essay
Running Under Restriction: The Invisible Safety Burden on Female Runners
By Jillian Tracy
Why It's Newsworthy: The notion of women feeling fearful or unsafe in public spaces is not new. A 2019 study conducted by the non-profit Stop Street Harassment and the University of California San Diego’s Center on Gender Equity and Health found that 68% of women reported being harassed while in public spaces. The concern for safety is prominent in women who run, as a Runner’s World survey found that 84% of women reported experiencing some kind of harassment while running that made them feel unsafe.
My eyes always drift down to four inches of exposed skin left by the gap between my cotton candy blue sports bra and matching leggings.
Wearing a shirt is pointless, I think. It would be off after the first mile and be cumbersome to carry, but the vibrant color of my favorite running gear is hard to ignore. The shirt could offer a protective cover that makes me a less conspicuous target.
Every decision I make about my run — what to wear, which route to take, what time to go and what volume to listen to my music — is calculated. I bargain how much of my personal freedoms I’m willing to forego to prevent the possibility of harm.
Sometimes I tell myself I’m overthinking it, that most people won’t harm me. I tell myself the phrase that every woman tells herself at one point or another: “Yeah, bad things do happen, but they won’t happen to me.”
But then they happen. They happened in my town. A young woman just looking to exercise when she was attacked in February on one of the same pathways where I run. And that made my fears valid.
I didn’t think like this five years ago. My knowledge of violence against female runners, across the country but also at home, taught me that I need to be, and am expected to be, careful. My mom suggests I pick different routes. My friend scolds me for running alone on a dark, tree-covered path. My eyes see women being surveyed lustfully by men.
The invisible weight that women are forced to carry — a burden, a load, a fear of being objectified, harassed or assaulted — is heaviest when I’m running. It’s when I am alone, aching, sweaty and vulnerable. I jog in fear, anxious that something or someone will put me in jeopardy.
I’ve been subjected to passing comments, honks or hollers; things that made me roll my eyes and scoff — things that, to be clear, were and are not OK — but I’ve never experienced physical harm.
I have never heard my male friends express fears about running. I know they don’t shorten their run once the sun starts to set. They don’t avoid isolated paths or unfamiliar areas. They definitely don’t worry if their clothes will garner any unwanted attention.
Recently, I met one of my male friends, Heath Aston, for a run. We’ve been meeting to run whenever our schedules line up for the past two years. When we met, the city was still awakening from its slumber; Heath had on a long-sleeve gray running shirt and black shorts.
Physically, Heath and I are fairly similar; we’re both about 5-foot-7, with more robust legs, I’m only about 25 pounds heavier than him. If we ever decided to brawl it out, I’d bet on myself, having more athletic experience. Still, I feel safer when I run with Heath because he’s a guy. He isn’t a target.
Our runs usually pull double duty; acting as a workout and venting session. I’ve talked to Heath about the female running experience before, but it recently was on my mind again, having just read about the woman attacked a few minutes from my house.
Like most men I’ve talked to, Heath never considered the nuances of the female exercise experience, that is until a woman pointed it out.
He was on a night run through campus in September and around 8:20, he casually posted a picture to his Snapchat story.
“One of my friends from high school swiped up and (she) said like, ‘Must be nice,’” he told me.
I told Heath one of the cardinal rules of being female is that you don’t go running at night.
“I never thought about the fact that there's this unfairness to being able to do something as simple as going out for a run, because of a fear of your safety,” he said.
For the next 10 minutes, Heath quizzed me as we passed people, asking who made me feel uncomfortable.
The 30-something man on a focused pace wearing 4-inch cross country shorts? He’s fine.
The group of sorority girls walking back from the coffee shop? No worries.
A guy about my age shrouded in dark clothes, leaning off to the side of the upcoming section of pavement? I start to get nervous.
When I’m by myself, my breath becomes tighter; I look around for other people, for alternate routes. Even if I’m tired, I start to speed up, trying to spend as little time lingering as possible.
Running is supposed to be an escape; connecting you with your body and mind, getting lost in the metronomic rhythm of your feet as they keep pace on the ground. You’re supposed to feel free. But I worry, I’ll never get to feel free. Not fully, not the way men do.
It’s not as if the more we run, the lighter the load becomes, dropping off our bodies in measurable increments. The burden is a constant presence. Our society created it, but it seems in my best interest to reluctantly bear the burden. Because the day I allow myself to forget about the weight could be the day that something dreadful happens.
To some, running is just exercise, but to many feeling safe while running is a privilege.
This story features "How I Wrote This" commentary, providing a look into the ins and outs of the reporting process.
"Why It's Newsworthy": I felt that it was important to include this information at the top of the story so that readers can understand how widespread the issue of harassment is and understand that someone they know has likely dealt with it. My experience is personal, but it is not unique. Many other women experience similar things and I felt that this piece allowed me to work through why I feel so uncomfortable doing something as simple as exercising
"Every decision I make about my run...": Over time, I've become more conscious of why I run where I do. I make sure to run near crowded areas, on paths that are near roads or around parks at a time of the day when I know others will be around. Sometimes that means more people have their eyes on me and I could avoid that by running in forests or in more secluded areas but then in those areas, there is no one to help me or see me if something happens. You're always caught between a rock and a hard place.
"They happened in my town": This event was the genesis for this essay. When I saw the news alert about this story pop up on my phone, it struck me. My heart dropped for the woman, who could have easily been me or someone close to me on another day. I was sacred. My immediate thought wasn't about where she was running, even though I knew it was a trail I had run before, or what she may have been wearing or what her injuries might look like. What I was most concerned with was the possibility that because of what happened to her, she might never feel safe enough to go for a run alone again.
"I didn't think like this five years ago.": I'm from a small town that has trials perfect for running. If I went on a run after school, my biggest worry was seeing a neighbor whose name I couldn't remember. As I aged from a teen into a 20-something, my awareness and my appearance started to change. Now, even being out in my hometown makes me anxious. In January, a friend and I were walking along a path there when a teenage boy, probably not even old enough to define sexual harassment shouted at us from a passing car. He was unprovoked, but somehow sure that this kind of behavior was permissible.
"...passing comments, honk or hollers...": I'm in a constant battle with myself over how loud my music should be when running. A few years ago, I bought these wireless headphones that block out noise completely. On one hand, they help to block out the comments and honks, but also because they block them out, I have no way to know if those comments might be following me along my route.
"I feel safer when I run with Heath.":
I have a lot of other male friends, like Heath, many of whom have sisters, who treat women kindly, compassionately and with respect but who do not give a second thought to the privileges their sex affords them. I pride myself on being an accomplished, powerful and independent woman, but talking to them about the uncomfortably I feel when running makes me feel vulnerable; as if I'm weak for worrying. But I think the only way we can collectively address the issues that female runners face is by having inclusive, empathetic and at times awkward conversations.
"Heath quizzed me...": He started doing this after we had already moved on to another topic and I laughed when he first asked me. Not because it was funny, but because he was genuine. I think he was trying to understand where my fears were coming from; trying to see people through my eyes and sympathize with me. In a sort of silly way, it showed me that he had been listening, and that touched me.
"Even if I'm tired....": Sadly, even on days when I'm logging mile upon mile and struggling to catch my breath, I still try to leave some gas in the tank in case I need to make a quick sprint getaway
"Not fully, not the way men do.": Not too long before writing this story, I saw a man jogging through the downtown streets at dark. In my car, I said out loud, to myself: "That must be nice. Too bad I'll never get to know what that feels like."
"The burden is a constant presence.": When writing this, I tried to figure out the best way to describe the feeling I get when I run, or go to a grocery store, or unlock my car in a parking deck. I chose to call it a burden, by definition a" duty or misfortune that causes hardship, anxiety, or grief; a nuisance." No one ever asks to have a burden or be burdened with something. While on some days the burden feels lighter than on others, it's never gone completely and I don't think it ever will be.
Jillian Tracy, 21, runs on a trail at Lake Herrick on the University of Georgia campus in Athens, Georgia. Tracy frequently runs the trails here, but stays alert and aware of her surroundings when running in heavily covered or isolated sections that may make her more vulnerable to unexpected harm. (Photo/Jillian Tracy)