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What It's Like to Be a Woman Who Runs

What It’s Like to Be a Woman Who Runs

 Ani Freedman

I used to never carry my phone on runs with me. Cushioned and reassured by familiar suburban streets, I thought nothing would happen to me. That was until Eliza Fletcher was abducted and killed in September 2022 in Memphis, Tennessee. Women’s History Month may be over, but our identities as female runners and remembering those within our community cannot leave us.

Fletcher was a mom of two young boys and a devoted kindergarten teacher. She was a passionate marathoner whose joy for life and running was unjustifiably cut short and robbed from her. Hearing the news of her tragedy awakened something in me that, over six months later, has not left my mind: the enduring strength, resilience, and unnecessary fears that characterize being a woman who runs.

As calm as I was before Eliza Fletcher’s tragedy, I was always on alert. I got nervous any time a car seemed to move a little too slowly beside me as I ran on the street. I maintained a stern look in my eyes to present an unfriendly, unwelcoming demeanor in the case of eye contact with someone whose attention was unwanted. I tried to stay in public places, like the Albany County Rail Trail or Five Rivers, places that I’ve always seen as safe.

I’ve been fortunate enough to never have a dangerous encounter while running. I’ve been catcalled on the street or given a lingering glance that’s made me uncomfortable, but I am truly lucky. I’ve heard too many stories of women being followed on their runs or harassed by men at the gym if they choose to use the treadmill. We do not run for attention, to be watched, or to be preyed on. We run because we love it, because we need it, and because for many women, especially mothers, it’s a time to feel strong and independent and like we are doing something for ourselves, when so much of our time can feel devoted to others. We run because it makes us show up better for ourselves and our loved ones. And it angers me that there are people who make that impossible or unsafe for women.

Since Eliza’s tragedy, I’m now accompanied by a small personal alarm and my phone attached to my waist with my Spibelt, secured so that I can grab it at a moment’s notice. I know that if I press my phone’s power button five times, I can call emergency services immediately. I know that my Garmin watch can share my location with my loved ones in the event of an emergency. I send someone a text, tell the doorman of my apartment building, or tell my mom when I’m home how long I’ll be running as I leave. Sometimes I glance over my shoulder a few times if I can hear the steps of someone quickly approaching, or I’ve sensed a presence of someone that seems to have been following me a little too long. There are times when my heart rate spikes if someone passes me a little too close for comfort as I wonder if they could grab me or take me down, especially if we are in a more remote spot. I have little mental check-ins with myself, assessing how much energy I have, and how far and how fast my legs can carry me if I need to make a quick getaway.

This is what it means to be a female-presenting runner. And strong as we are, women are targets for unjustified violence and abductions. I do not want myself or anyone else to be Eliza Fletcher or confront the possibility of never coming home because we chose to step outside and do one of the things we love most.

As we move out of Women’s History Month, I want runners and non-runners alike to think about what it means to be a woman runner. It does not have to mean fear. It does not have to mean never being able to run outside with a clear mind. But it does mean we have to take things into consideration that men usually do not. It means we have to look out for one another, to run together more often, or to reach out to friends and ask them to join us. Whether that’s making our way over to the Fleet Feet Run Club or texting a friend to come along for our Sunday long run, solidarity is everything.

I thought that if I’m going to write about this topic, it is necessary to include a list of precautions or things to keep in mind if the people reading this identify as women or have loved ones in their lives that do. I’ve gathered these from other runners I’ve interacted with, through the running community on social media, and from my own experience. Please share it with whomever you think would find it useful.

  • Find a running buddy or join a local running group (such as the Fleet Feet Albany and Malta Run Club!)
  • Try to run in crowded places or areas where you know there will be people around. Stick to routes you know.
  • When running somewhere new, try to go with a group or another runner.
  • If you don’t have someone else to run with, ask a friend or loved one if they’ll bike beside you.
  • Bring your phone with you on all runs.
  • Make sure you have cell service where you are.
  • Wear one earbud out, opt for no headphones, or invest in Shokz headphones (I have the OpenRun Pro model and love them) so you can hear your surroundings and stay alert.
  • When running alone, let someone know where you’re going and how long you’ll be gone.
  • If running early morning or after dark, wear reflective materials and bring lights with you so you stay visible.
  • Share your phone or GPS location with loved ones.
  • Consider any personal protection equipment, such as small alarms, pepper spray, etc. and make sure you know how to use it––in the event of an emergency, you don’t want to be fumbling and accidentally harm yourself.
  • If you feel unsafe, get out of the situation as quickly as you can, or find a person or business nearby that you can turn to for help if necessary.

I wish I didn’t feel compelled to write that list. I wish all runners could feel safe when they step out the door. And the truth of it is, it’s not just women who need this list. This reality is shared by all oppressed groups upon which hate and violence is unjustly inflicted, especially women whose identities intersect with the most marginalized groups. All BIPOC runners, all trans and LGBTQ runners, all Muslim and Jewish runners, many of whom are also women who must navigate these multilayered identities in their everyday lives and as runners. With hate speech, antisemitism, gun violence, and continued racist acts and unjust killings of people of color, we must work to make the running community safe for everyone. Doing so starts with recognition of the problem to create groups and spaces within which all runners are accepted. Everyone has the right to run safely. Everyone has the right to find joy in running. We just need to make that a reality for all runners.

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