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Rethinking Running Safety

You may think of running safety solely in terms of physical safety. The most obvious, and therefore best recorded threats to runners, have long been associated with proximity to physical danger. Take car accidents for example. The CDC estimates that some 137,000 pedestrians end up in the hospital to be treated for non-fatal crash-related injuries.

Other threats come in the form of darkness, wild animals and lack of places to run. Accordingly, you can take steps to combat the issue of physical danger. You can run on designated pedestrian trails far from distracted drivers, running companies created neon vests with lights that make you visible at night, there’s bear spray that straps around your hand for easy access on the go. You can even wear runner identification bracelets with your name and emergency contact information, should you find yourself in an accident on the run. Problem solved, right?

Well, not exactly. While all of these items are beneficial (and important pieces of gear to have), especially when it comes to being seen while running in the dark, they only answer a fraction of the problem.

More to the story

Recently, I was catcalled by a stranger who went out of his way to whistle and howl at me as I passed. I did what I always do, what I’ve done since I began running at 14 years old: I put my head down, ran a little faster and prayed the man didn’t pursue me further.

Unfortunately, I’ve grown used to the catcalls and lewd comments. They’re unsettling, infuriating and frightening, and they’re also one of the reasons I prefer not to run alone.

I often take my solo runs on paths where I know I will see other people who can come to my defense, but sometimes that’s not enough. On one such run I was blissfully weaving through runners and walkers on a busy path when, suddenly, someone screamed at me.

“N****R!”

It came so suddenly, and so full of rage that I slowed down out of surprise to look for the vocal attacker. My eyes combed the people around me. I saw eyes quickly flicking away, pretending they hadn’t heard or seen a racist assault. I felt angry and embarrassed.

I found the man ... eventually. His face was red with fury at my audacity to run while Black. As we jogged past each other, I searched for something to explain his reaction. But nothing about his T-shirt, running shorts, shoes or hydration belt made the situation any clearer to me. We were simply two runners from different worlds crossing paths.

What struck me most, was that I found myself more horrified at the crowds of people pretending not to see me … again. The same community I have seen come to my defense as a woman being verbally assaulted, failed to come to my defense as a woman being racially assaulted.

Why the disconnect?

It’s unlikely that a runner hit by a car will ever be left for dead by a crowd of bystanders. If a woman is attacked in the presence of other runners, people jump to her defense. But a runner of color? There is clearly much work to be done here.

The Black Lives Matter movement has called an unprecedented level of attention to racial assaults. But there are no designated minority-friendly running paths. There are no call stations placed along trails to report a racist attack. And there is no market of products to make it safer to run while Black.

The running world takes the safety of its community seriously. Yet, it took the murder of Ahmaud Arbery while out for a run, to shine the spotlight on another critical challenge for the running community.

What can we do now?

Within the running community, women have only recently moved to the mainstream. It wasn’t until 1984 that the Olympic Marathon became a women’s event and was won by the American Joan Benoit Samuleson. As recently as 2008 the 3,000 meter steeplechase became an Olympic event for women- despite the fact that men have been competing in the steeple since 1900.

While women have slowly but surely broken their way into the world of distance running, runners of color are still seen in many places as an anomaly. This is largely due to the fact that stereotypical physical features associated with the Black community, such as large glutes, quads and more defined muscle mass, do not fit the image of a “distance runner.” An article published on LiveStrong.com in April stated that “...a long distance-runner’s body is less muscular (than a sprinter’s)” and that “...sprinters often have more developed glutes than runners…).

When the idea that only people with small glutes and less muscle mass are suited to running is regularly stated as a fact rather than an opinion, it’s easy to understand why Black runners are seen as out of place.

Our challenge now is to redefine who we perceive to be a runner by making the entire running community as inclusive as possible. We have to continue to look at not only the physical, but also the situational and social aspects of running that influence the safety of our community. When it comes to making running safer, there are steps we can all take. Preparing for shorter days with decreased visibility, sticking to designated trails and making sure someone always knows where you plan to run is a good start. But let’s do more. Let’s continue to advocate for the physical changes that make running safer for you, but also advocate for the social changes that make running safer for everyone, but the BIPOC community specifically.

By Claire Green. Claire runs professionally for the HOKA One One Aggies. When she’s not running you can find her swimming, writing or in the closest karaoke bar.

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