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Why Do Some Women Trail Runners Fear For Their Safety?

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“What kind of support do you feel women need to participate in trail running in greater numbers?”

Holding the mic in my hand, I gazed 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 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 “female things” that men don’t need to hear about, like dealing with menstruation during long races.

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 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.

I whipped my head around with shock. Then I glanced sideways to gauge the audience’s reaction. 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.

“Huh,” I said. It had never occurred to me to run with mace.

An important question

“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 mace-carrying running gear and Lauren’s self-defense classes, I choked.

I wanted to say: Women need to be able to go for a run without also having to prepare for possible assault or rape.

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. 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 discussion of 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 how 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 in order 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 to point out the most obvious answer: we are afraid.

Related: More women than ever are running trails, but barriers to entry remain. How can they be addressed?

Me Too

Over the past two days, posts from women with the #metoo hashtag had proliferated my social media feeds, as women indicated that they had experienced some degree of sexual harassment at some point in their lives. It seemed as though most of the women I was connected with on Facebook — strong, confident, accomplished, athletic women — were 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 had been 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 my heart pounded in my chest as I ran away as fast as I could.

Then there’s the fact that my college running coach was fired for sexual misconduct with his athletes.

So, it dawned on me: #Metoo is true for me, too.

It’s no wonder that when a female runner is attacked — or even murdered —  it causes ripples throughout running communities 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.

Events like these further entrench our fears. So we run less. We stay off the trails we’d really love to run on, and instead stick to treadmills and high-school tracks with really bright lights. Or we don’t run at all.

In the wake of these kinds of attacks, articles pop up about how we should protect ourselves.

“Don’t run alone!” they say.
“Take self-defense classes!”
“Stick to trails and routes you know!”
“Only run in the middle of the day!”

Too often, these news stories imply that the woman 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?

Without intending to, these articles further reinforce our fears and create even more obstacles to running.

It’s tragic because we don’t just like to run; we need to run. Running is one of the most effective methods for managing stress and maintaining sanity in an increasingly scary and complicated world. It helps us be better people and show up for those who need us, like our families, co-workers and communities.

Vigilance and self-defense is part of the modern woman’s daily reality—and not just while running. But what else do we really need in order to overcome all this fear?

We need to know that men understand what’s appropriate and what’s not, and that they are willing to step up and say #ihave—to recognize 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. Sexual harassment is so engrained in our everyday interactions, many don’t even realize that what they are doing (or saying) is wrong.

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. Our running clothes are not an invitation for sexual harassment.

To our families, friends and communities, who, out of fear for our safety, implore us not to run: we’re going to run anyway.

We 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 us.

And that’s why building community is so important. Trail-running comprises an amazingly supportive network of men and women who share a mutual love of adventure, challenge and performance in the outdoors.

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.

I hope 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.

This article was edited and republished from a blog post, with the author’s permission.