Women Runners Don’t Wave Back
The two women runners were heading north, and I was running south. First light painted the scene in a beautiful predawn palette of soft pinks and blues, with the sky burning umber and the trees dripping the darkest of greens. The women’s clothing reflected the streetlights and oncoming cars in bright white lines of reflective, high-visibility sheen. As we passed, I offered my preferred minimalist interpretation of the runner wave; lifting my left hand slightly with opening fingers, palm up. They didn’t wave back. I am not surprised. They never wave back, and they never will.
We share a familiar walking and bike path along a busy main road. It’s wide, pretty well lit, and offers several miles of easy navigation. As morning runners, I’ve seen these friends running and chatting for several years. Their rule is pretty simple — they don’t wave to me. Most of the time I don’t try, but the lighting and the wonderful temperatures had me in a positive mood that morning, and I lifted my hand once more.
On many mornings, I will run with my wife. On those mornings, the two friends will not only wave to us but break their own conversation to share a “good morning.” When I am on my own, however, the women neither glance nor acknowledge I’m even there.
This isn’t an unusual response. Women not waving back has become so routine that I’ve learned to not wave at all. And I’ve learned not to look. I keep my head, my eyes, and my energy looking ahead of me. If the woman waves, then I’ll wave back. But I’ve stopped waving first. If I am making someone so uncomfortable that not only are they not waving back, but they’re spending energy on not acknowledging I’m even there, then something is very wrong.
A woman runner recently reached out to me through social media. I had been bringing my phone on my pre-dawn runs and was posting a steady flow of early light scenes I was enjoying. The woman’s message was grateful and apologetic. She loved seeing my photography but needed to stop following me. She wanted to run before dawn and loved the early morning atmosphere, but was so uncomfortable running by herself in the dark that she stopped going after only a couple of mornings. Seeing my photos was only adding to her sadness and anxiety.
I have never taken a morning run for granted since receiving her message.
To know this fellow runner isn’t able to enjoy this amazing part of the day out of fear for her own safety is profoundly disturbing. It had never occurred to me it might be uncomfortable running in the dark of the morning. And I had never given a single inkling of thought to being wary of running alone.
It’s a big mistake to conflate this kind of anxiety with being in the dark. Women runners are just as likely to avoid waving to me or acknowledging my presence in the daytime. On a recent trail run, I shared my surroundings with a mix of hikers and runners, eager to get out of our COVID seclusion to enjoy unseasonably warm fall temperatures. I did not keep an exact count, but I passed dozens of runners, male and female, on the trails that morning. In casual observation, it’s easy to grasp that about half the women runners I saw did not wave or acknowledge me. And it didn’t seem to matter if the woman was alone, or running with friends.
Women runners get harassed. Every day. Harassed by male runners, by male walkers, by guys driving along on the road, by guys they happen to be running past during their workout. By guys everywhere. Too often the very races they’ve trained for become arenas for anxiety, discomfort, and plain fear as male racers target them during events. In many events I’ve raced, I’ve overheard lewd, crude, sexual remarks being said out loud by male runners. Spoken in full voice, with dozens of women runners easily able to overhear their filth as readily as I can hear them.
In our own social running circles, I have never interacted with a female runner friend that didn’t have her own tales of male behavior she found rude, offensive, disgusting, or even threatening. Even worse, the majority of them weave the narrative with a tacit understanding of normalcy. What they get is expected, anticipated, and sadly accepted as an enculturated disposition.
My wife is a runner and I do worry for her, especially as the world has become even more crass, violent, and unpredictable. She has two martial arts black belts in different disciplines, and I’ll also give thought at times to what might happen to her aggressor. But it’s so disturbing to be this easily accepting of the fact there will be aggressors. Her most common experience is the honk. And by common, I mean weekly. The male side of the species is still not able to evolve from honking their vehicle’s horn at a woman on the street. Sometimes, the honks are accompanied by shouts coming from within the car or truck. My wife has learned certain running outfits result in more honks. On one of our shared runs, we were at an intersection waiting for the light when a chap making the turn started staring. Not at me, though. It was not until his front wheel struck the curb did he take his gaze away from her.
The numbers are staggering. In the Runner’s World survey from last year,
“84 percent of women have been harassed while running.”
Recent counts show 6o million people are calling themselves runners in the US alone. More than half of them are women. With a rough calculation, that means over 26 million women reported being harassed. In my own experiences in our running community, I’d report the number at 100%. Back in 2016, the leading running magazine reported:
“A stark 58 per cent of women under 30 said they experienced harassment always, sometimes or often when out on a run.”
In other words, over half the women in this age group aren’t just experiencing harassment, they are being assaulted in some way, shape, or form, almost every time they run. An even more disheartening fact is the surveys are years apart. Nothing has changed. If I’m interpreting the trends correctly, the situation is continuing to get worse.
New organizations like the Runner’s Alliance are making a big difference in education and empowerment for women runners. Women are speaking with clarity, strength, and becoming beacons of organization against violence and harassment. And thankfully, men are joining the fight.
It’s the men that need to start talking about this more.
A recent Trail Runner piece should serve as an example. The Safe Outside initiative survey the article links reveals the problem of assault is international and extends far beyond the running community. The article’s subtext needs to get repeated:
“Men have a responsibility to create a safe and accepting environment through thoughts and actions about sexual harassment and assault.”
The industry as a whole needs to stop treating this as a side issue. If this many runners are being affected on a daily basis, then why is this not in our daily conversation? I live within a large running community here in Hampton Roads, Virginia. There are a number of running clubs and a pretty wide range of racing options within a twenty-mile radius. I’ve raced in just about all the events presented and have never read or seen anything offering genuine education about the issue, or offering guidelines and affirmations of harassment never being tolerated.
The running community will soon be able to safely gather again at major events. Imagine picking up a race packet that includes materials about sexual harassment and assault. Imagine a letter written by the organizer denouncing harassment and declaring their races completely and unequivocally unaccepting of inappropriate behavior. The majority of race organizers are men. Imagine the male race organizer recording a video to all the male racers about what is right and what is wrong. The statements need to be open and direct. Skip the corporate cleanliness and start talking about what needs to change.
Race organizers take note — this isn’t that difficult. And there are a lot of you. Don’t wait for national organizations to lead, lead it yourselves. Our post COVID freedom will bring new energy to the running community, and no doubt you are already creating races for next year and beyond. As leaders within your own running community, now is the time to step up. Write the letters, make the statements, and put them in our race packets.
On an early morning run, a lone woman runner striding strongly comes into view. The time is a little past 5am, with a thin fog diffusing the lamp light and occasional head lights from very few passing cars. It is dark, quiet, and still. As we pass, we share eye contact and a good morning exchange through soft voices and an easy wave. A couple of morning runners, we have seen each other in the pre-dawn hours along this path for nearly five years now. It’s a simple greeting we share. A runner’s greeting.
I never take her greeting for granted.