There is a terrifying but triumphant story behind that image in the picture above. Kelly Herron was four miles into an afternoon training run when she stopped to use a public bathroom in a Seattle park. A man was hiding in a stall and attacked her, pummeling her with his fists and attempting to sexually assault her. Herron fought back as viciously as she could, using all the training she had just received in a self-defense class, and screaming “not today, motherfucker!” Ultimately, she escaped the bathroom and managed to lock the assailant into it, detaining him until police arrived. Her Garmin recorded the whole event, resulting in the tracking lines you see on that t-shirt above. Now she sells t-shirts emblazoned with that “route,” and the words “not today, motherf@#!er” The proceeds benefit Face Forward, an organization that provides reconstructive surgery and psychological support to assault survivors.
Last month, Kelly Herron and her shirt were featured on the cover of an important issue of Runner’s World magazine. Runner’s World surveyed women runners and found that 84 percent of them had “experienced some kind of harassment while running that left them feeling unsafe. That includes physical actions like groping, or being followed or flashed, as well as subtler forms like catcalls, honks, and lewd comments.”
The survey also revealed that “45 percent of the women we surveyed say they no longer run in certain places because they fear for their safety.”
Check and check. As a much younger runner, when I was in grad school in New York City, I endured verbal harassment almost every time I went out for a run. I soon learned to adjust my route to avoid – as much as possible – any location where street repairs or construction was taking place (no easy feat in NYC), because men in groups were more likely to make lewd comments or uninvited commentary on my appearance than men alone. But “men alone” sometimes raised my hackles on the occasions when I took less populated routes through Central Park, or under overpasses, or along a river. And frankly, that gets frustrating and tiresome, and quickly takes the fun and stress-relief out of running. As the article in Runner’s World points out:
There’s a complex calculation that takes place in women’s minds before lacing up for a run. In addition to what’s on the training plan, women often consider the time of day, their route, their clothes, whether to track their workout on Strava, whether to wear headphones, and what protection to carry—Mace, Taser, or an alarm. For many women, running doesn’t resemble the blissed-out, endorphin-filled escape it should be. Instead, we’re on guard, bracing ourselves against a constant threat of harassment. It’s a task more exhausting and mentally taxing than mile repeats.
And women runners – who are often out in early morning hours, trying to string together routes that will make up long miles – regularly find themselves in vulnerable situations. One woman interviewed by Runner’s World said she had taken to running the same 1.4 mile loop around her house and neighborhood, sometimes up to 8 times to get the mileage she wanted. There are too many frightening stories of women who went out for their daily run and didn’t come home: Mollie Tibbetts, Vanessa Marcotte, Karina Vetrano, Alexandra Brueger, Wendy Karina Martinez, Suzanne Eaton, Natalie Christopher.
The typical recommendation for women runners is to carry pepper spray, Mace, or a taser, or run with a group. But as Runner’s World writer Lisa Haney points out, “those recommendations don’t guarantee safety, and they put the onus on women to protect ourselves from dangers we shouldn’t have to worry about in the first place. They limit the places and ways in which we can run.”
I’m no longer a runner (not by choice), but I’m a walker with a penchant for off-the-beaten-track trails. So all of the concerns still apply. I carry pepper spray; I study trail maps to see where the edges of a park are – so that I can get back out to civilization in a hurry if I need to; I don’t go into parks where I see just one car parked at the trailhead. How many male runners and hikers have to think this way?
Kudos to Runner’s World, Garmin, and Hoka One One for banding together to form the Runner’s Alliance, an organization that will help women find safe ways to run. They have recommendations for becoming a “helpful bystander,” but the bulk of the program still puts the onus on women: it is designed to empower and encourage women to protect themselves.
Massive cultural change – to create a world where women can run as safely as men – is probably beyond their scope.
Running in groups won’t necessarily save you from harassment. Thanks to a courageous revelation by middle distance track star Mary Cain, we are learning how incredibly toxic and abusive the world of professional track team running can be – especially for female runners. In her NYT op-ed, Mary Cain shared how Nike coaching staff – headed by Alberto Salazar – demanded increasingly excessive and absurd weight-loss, based only on bizarre male attitudes about what the ideal female distance running body should look like. (See my post about Allie Kiefer for another example!) Mary Cain was repeatedly publicly shamed and harassed in practices, enduring crude and uninvited comments about her body.
Since her op-ed was published, many other Nike athletes have confirmed her account. Female athletes in Britain have also come forward to share their own experiences of relentless fat-shaming by male coaches.
It’s absurd for me to even write those words: “fat-shaming.” Have you SEEN these women???
An article in Women’s Running magazine suggests that “Recruiting more women into coaching would result in a safer sport…” Superstar marathoner Shalane Flanagan, who knows a thing or two about track club culture, is now coaching with the Bowerman Track Club and says she’s trying to encourage female athletes to talk openly with her about “about weight, menstrual cycles, or anything else that might hinder training at a high level.”
It’s a start. But there are miles to go. It’s a small thing, but maybe we could start with sports commentators? As NCAA steeple chase champion noted last summer about the coverage of her championship appearances:
“…I was disappointed with the commentary that has occurred during my races for the past two years. Both times, the comments have brought attention to my appearance more than my ability. In 2018, I was called “the baby faced assassin” and told that I looked like I still played with barbies. This year, the commentators found it necessary to state (incorrectly I might add) my height and weight multiple times. Not only were these comments objectifying and unnecessary, they drew attention away from the real focus of the event. People attend this event and listen to the commentary because they want to see what we are capable of, not what we look like we’re capable of. So why do the commentators insist on providing information that has nothing to do with performance in the sport.”
Seriously, y’all… It’s 2020. I can’t believe I’m still writing and reading about this lunacy.