Why so many women feel unsafe when they run

Stacy Chesnutt completes a mental checklist before she heads out for a run.

It’s become so routine the long-distance runner and coach from Halifax hardly notices it anymore.

What route will she take? What time of day is it? Should she bring her dog along? 

“I think all women, we have a Spidey sense, and that has been triggered so many times that I’ve changed my path,” Chesnutt told CBC’s Maritime Noon. 

Chesnutt has been competing in races for 31 years, and said she’s been subjected to catcalling and yelling on several occasions.

“This is the first time we’ve really started to talk about it,” she said. “But for years as a runner, I just dealt with these things and never once thought about it.”

She is not alone.

Many women say an activity that men take for granted comes with a certain degree of fear, and it’s led some women to take precautions like carrying makeshift weapons or changing their route on the fly.

Chesnutt, the race director for Sole Sisters Women’s Race Series, says she often brings her dog along to feel safer. (Stacy Chesnutt/Facebook)

In fact, a recent survey by Runner’s World magazine found that 84 per cent of female respondents had experienced some form of harassment while out for a run, including physical assaults, catcalls and being followed.

“So many men don’t realize that this is an issue,” said Taylor Rojek, the magazine’s associate features editor. “They truly don’t know that it’s something that women experience, that you can feel unsafe and that you can feel afraid when you’re going for a run, and that’s not fair.”

16% feared for their lives

Runner’s World asked more than 5,000 runners, most of them women, 43 questions that centred around harassment and how it changes their behaviour.

Rojek said the answers were bleak — 67 per cent of respondents were sometimes concerned they’d be physically attacked while running, and another 16 per cent felt so threatened while running that they feared for their lives.

“Some women, especially here in the United States, are practically running with an arsenal,” Amanda Diebert, who wrote a tweet on running safety that went viral, told CBC’s Maritime Noon. 

Diebert, a TV and comic book writer based in Los Angeles, said she was overwhelmed by the response she got from a single tweet. She heard from one woman who had made a ring that was covered in serrated silicone so that it could collect DNA in case of an attack.

A father told her that his 12-year-old daughter ran with brass knuckles in the shape of a cat.

Diebert said she’s had to quickly change her route when she realized a man was following close behind her on a trail. (Submitted by Amanda Diebert)

Many more women made sure to run with a friend or dog, and carry a cellphone or keys, Diebert said.

It’s not just about the fear of being physically attacked, Diebert added. 

“I think it’s easy to dismiss catcalling as harmless when you’re not a person whose been on the receiving end of what that culture and escalating harm can actually cause,” she said. 

The case against wearing headphones

Both Diebert and Chesnutt say there are things they’ve unconsciously incorporated into their running routines to feel safe on trails, roads or tracks. 

Chesnutt said she never runs with headphones because “if it’s in both ears you’re lost in the music. If you’re lost in the music, you’re not aware of your surroundings.”

She doesn’t carry a weapon, or even a cellphone, but that doesn’t mean she lets her guard down.

“I don’t know if a lot of men understand that just being followed closely or someone maintaining the same route as you, can alarm you if they’re close enough to you,” she said. 

The Nova Scotia RCMP advise anyone biking, hiking or running alone to tell a friend where they’re going, and for how long, and to choose areas that are well-lit at night.

“Keep a mental note of places to go for help along your route,” spokesperson Cpl. Jennifer Clarke wrote in an email. “Often gas stations and coffee shops are good bets. They are also open early in the morning and late at night, or even 24 hours so it’s a good idea to know where they are.”

Julie Morrill, a consultant in emergency preparedness and personal safety based in Virginia, teaches a self-defence class specifically for women runners.

Her advice might sound simple, she said, but it works: the best way to keep yourself safe is to pay attention. 

“It also changes our body posture, makes us walk taller, makes us walk bigger, longer strides. So we look more confident and less like a victim in the first place,” she said. 

It’s not just up to women

According to the Runner’s World survey, 68 per cent of female respondents said no one has ever stepped in to help when they were being harassed.

Rojek said too often women are asked to change their behaviour to feel safe as opposed to the focus being on people perpetrating the harassment or bystanders failing to help. 

“There are things that we all can do to make women safer, and it’s all of our responsibility to do that,” said Rojek, who helped create the Runners Alliance, a national advocacy initiative to combat harassment against female runners. 

For men, it’s about keeping conversations respectful, she said.

“Don’t ever comment on a woman’s appearance or express surprise at her pace, that she’s running so fast,” she said.

Even men with the best of intentions don’t realize that their own behaviour on a trail can be threatening, said Diebert. 

“So if you can cross to the other side of the path or go ahead and get passed,” she said. “A hello and a smile, on your left, something to acknowledge that she’s a human, you’re a human.”


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