It's a little after 6am, I've just witnessed the most glorious sunrise on the beach where I live. The tide is low revealing miles of sand. The calm of early morning broken only by the occasional seagull swooping overhead. I hear myself panting as my pace increases and then I see him. Some way in the distance a lone figure. Turning to check behind me I realize we are the only people on the beach at this early hour. Weighing up my options, I slow my pace and contemplate taking a detour or retracing my steps. I return my attention to the figure, and look harder. He's slightly stooped, his walk is slow, somewhat unsteady. He's elderly, wearing a trilby and worn jacket, I allow myself to relax a little and continue. Closer now, we draw level, and as we do so he raises his hat, just a fraction. With a nod he says 'Good Morning Madam' and I greet him with a breathless 'Morning' and smile as I pass.
This encounter is exquisite in its rarity because the exchanges I am on the receiving end of, as a lone female runner, are frequently unpleasant and sometimes frightening.
The safety of female runners is in the spotlight in America's northeast after the killings of three women recently. Here in the UK in Didsbury a jogger was attacked by a man who tried to strangle her by the wire of her headphones in March. Two months later, in Thamesmead, a woman was sexually assaulted when she stopped to stretch during her run and whilst it's rare for female runners to become victims of serious crimes like these, it's incredibly common for them to experience intrusive attention.
Casual everyday harassment includes cat-calling, the shouting of lewd comments, and beeps from car horns. The level of which would seem to escalate in direct proportion to age and choice of running attire; the younger you are and less you wear, the more comments and harassment you can expect.
Personal Trainer Eleanor Kovacik 36 years old from Northampton can testify to this and recounts a frightening experience while running recently. Wearing a pink sports bra and leggings, on a day when temperatures approached 23˚, she found her path blocked by four men who fanned out as they spotted her.
' "Alright" one of them yelled at me as he lunged forwards' She remembers 'I asked him to step aside and let me pass. He stood firm, and then one of the others hesitated and pulled him back. It was terrifying'.
The common answer, to events like these, is to issue women with advice on where, how and when to run. We need to recognize women who dare to run are not the problem, and stop what amounts to victim blaming. Instilling fear in women and suggesting they are not being cautious enough, or asking for trouble, absolves those intent on harassing and abusing them. Where some see wolf-whistling or cat-calling as harmless, consider it flattering or simply banter, many women take issue with the suggestion they enjoy or invite this level of attention.
'I just want to run without feeling anxious' says Charlotte Blake. A trainer and founder of parkour charity Free Your Instinct
Charlotte suffered a frightening experience as a teenage runner, when a man attempted to engage her in conversation and then followed her. Whether shouting obscenities to female runners or beeping car horns the result is the same. Women are frequently left feeling intimidated, frightened, and in some cases violated. I'm a mother of five children, with three boys and two girls. My protective instinct insists I warn my daughters on the perils of running alone, and the likelihood of cropped tops and shorts attracting male attention and comment. The woman who wants my daughters to grow up in a new world, where female harassment is a rarity, demands I educate my sons in understanding how to interact with young women in a non-threatening way, and with respect. Women run to enjoy a sense of freedom, to escape, to improve their health and to lose weight. Some run as athletes and compete at the highest level. Others run for fun, happy to simply get round. Women run to feel better, combat stress and find solace in running for many reasons but running for male attention or entertainment is not one of them. Running makes our hearts strong, beating a little faster should only be in response to a change of pace and nothing to do with who we encounter whilst we run. Men don't need to wear a hat to greet us appropriately, a genuine 'Good morning' or 'Hello' will suffice. This is the only acceptable way to interact with a solitary female runner.
Please don't tell female runners to laugh off attention when they run, please don't tell them it means nothing and it's just a bit of harmless fun. Casual harassment is simply that, it's harassment, unwanted attention, and it needs to stop.