Why Do Women Trail Runners Fear for Their Safety?
Holding the mic in my hand, I gaze out at the audience of trail runners, running-gear manufacturers, race directors, running-store managers and nutrition-supplement reps.
Since arriving at the U.S Trail Running Conference outside Denver, Colorado, that morning, I’d been lobbying the conference organizers not to sequester the women’s speaker panel (of which I was a member) to a separate meeting room. I’m not sure why it had been scheduled to take place outside the main conference space to begin with; I can only surmise they figured we’d talk about things like dealing with menstruation during long races and other “female things” that men don’t need to hear about.
But that wasn’t what I was there to talk about.
“Let’s combine the women’s panel with the one about building community around the sport of trail running,” I suggested. Men outnumber women in the sport of trail running (a 60/40 split according to the American Trail Running Association) and I wanted to talk about what gets in the way of women’s participation. Creating communities that support women and help them overcome those obstacles is the key, so it made sense to me to combine the conversation about bringing more women to trail running with that about building community.
The conference organizers agreed.
So there I was, sitting on the stage with my fellow panelists. One of them was Lauren Jones of Lifes2Short Fitness, a Colorado company that offers women’s beginner trail-running clinics. “We also offer self-defense classes for women runners,” Lauren explained. Upon hearing this, I whipped my head around with shock. Then I glanced sideways to gauge the audience’s reaction to this news. Did anyone else find it remarkable that a run-coaching business was also teaching women how to fight off attackers? I saw no discernible reaction from the audience.
Earlier in the day, I’d been speaking with the male CEO of a hydration pack company who proudly showed me his women-specific designs. “This one has a pocket designed to hold a can of mace,” he said proudly.
“Huh,” I said. It had never occurred to me to run with mace.
“Personally, I run with a Glock,” he said. “Cougars, you know.”
“What kind of support do you feel women need to participate in trail running in greater numbers?” asked the panel moderator, gesturing that I was to answer first.
Thinking about Lauren’s self-defense classes and mace-carrying running gear, I choked.
I wanted to say: Women need to be able to go for a run without having to also having to prepare for possible assault or rape. And this isn’t just a women’s issue. This is a societal issue. Sexual assault occurs in every corner of our culture. It’s become so normalized that it’s not even discussed openly. It’s presented as something that happens to women. When actually, it’s something that men do to women. A lot of men. That’s the problem.
But I didn’t say that.
I suppose I didn’t want to be a downer on what was supposed to be a light-hearted conference about the sport we all love. I admired my fellow panelist Susan Farago of Trailhead Running, who passionately described how her Austin, Texas-based company helps women feel comfortable running trails and she and her co-founder, Richelle Criswell, coach, support and cheer large groups of women to their first trail race. Their grassroots effort is the kind of thing many women across the country need to get started in the sport.
But when I was given the opportunity to explain why so many women runners won’t run by themselves in the woods, I lacked the courage in that moment to point out the most obvious answer: we are afraid.
And rightly so.
Over the past two days, posts from women with the #metoo hashtag have proliferated my social media feeds, as women indicate that they, too, have at some point in their lives, experienced some degree of sexual harassment. It seems as though most of women I’m connected with on Facebook — strong, confident, accomplished, athletic women — are all saying #metoo.
But I wasn’t one of them. Or so I thought. Then I started remembering all the times since my early teens that I was touched inappropriately without my consent or cat-called while wearing running shorts. One time, a stranger “jokingly” lunged at me with a mock grab as I ran by him. He thought it was funny. My eyes welled with tears and heart pounded in my chest as I ran away as fast as I could.
Oh yeah, and there’s the fact that my college running coach was fired for sexual misconduct with his athletes.
So this morning it dawned on me. #Metoo is so fucking true for me, too.
It’s no wonder that when a female runner is attacked — or even murdered — that it causes ripples throughout runners all across the country, as it did in 2016 when men murdered women runners on three different occasions in different states in the span of nine days.
These events further entrench our fears. So we run less. We stay off the trails we’d really love to run on and stick to treadmills and high school tracks with really bright lights. Or we don’t run at all.
As it always happens when a story hits the mainstream media about attacks on women while running, articles about how we should protect ourselves pop up everywhere.
“Don’t run alone!” they say.
“Take self-defense classes!” they say.
“Stick to trails and routes you know!” they say.
“Only run in the middle of the day!” they say.
“They” may be well-intentioned, but without intending to, these articles further reinforce our fears and create even more obstacles and constraints within which we need to organize our lives just to go for goddamn run.
The only thing more tragic than these attacks and murders is that it discourages women from running. It’s tragic because we don’t just like to run; we need to run. Running is one of the most effective methods we have for managing stress and maintaining our sanity in an increasingly scary and complicated world. It helps us be better people and fully show up for those who need us, like our families, co-workers and communities.
Vigilance and self-defense is part of the modern women’s reality in every aspect of life, not just while running. But what else do we really need to overcome all this fear?
We need to know that men understand what’s appropriate and what’s not. We need to know that men are willing to step up and say #ihave because they realize now how their actions affect the women around them. We need to know that men are willing to come to our defense when they see other men acting badly because this is not a women’s problem, it’s a cultural one, and they created this culture in which sexual harassment is so prolific it’s not always obvious to the men doing it that it’s wrong.
Men also need to realize that we’re not going to stop running. We’re not going to stop wearing short shorts and tank tops that show off our muscles and let our limbs move freely. They need to know that our running clothes are not an invitation for sexual harassment.
We also need our families, friends and communities, who, out of fear for our safety, implore us not to run, that we’re going to do it anyway. We need them to support us with the understanding that we’re going to run in spite of our fear (and theirs).
We also need the media to change the way they report the most heinous crimes against women while running. Too often, these news stories imply that the women is at fault because the attack happened while she was running, alone, in the dark, wearing shorts. The underlying narrative becomes: how could she be so careless?
Women runners will not stop running even though we’re fearful. Even though it’s dangerous. Even though men have cat-called, harassed, assaulted, raped and murdered women.
And that’s why building community is so important. The core trail running community is an amazingly supportive network of men and women who share a mutual love of adventure, the outdoors, challenge and performance.
Growing women’s participation in the sport means acknowledging the realities of the broader culture in which we live — and not sequestering those conversations to the back rooms — and working together to expand trail running’s culture of support and mutual respect to newcomers.
This way, I hope that more women will recognize the trail running community as a place where they can feel accepted and safe.
Because we will not stop running.
Elinor Fish is the founder of Run Wild Retreats + Wellness, which offers women’s running and wellness retreat in some of the world’s best trail-running destinations around the world and a health columnist for Trail Runner magazine.