The Right To Run

In 1967, the era of Mad Men, a young woman by the name of Katherine Switzer entered herself in the Boston Marathon under the gender neutral name, K.V Switzer. Just two miles in Switzer was accosted by a race official. She almost gave in but crossed the finish line in 4 hours and 20 minutes. In 1975 she ran it in 2:51. In 1984, 90 years after the addition of the men’s marathon, the women’s marathon was added to the Olympics.  Switzer said, “I wanted to do it, I knew it could help women and I knew women deserved it”

Since I was a little girl I have loved hiking, particularly in Jackson Hole where my uncle has a house. One summer, when I was about eleven years old he told me I could be a great runner. I thought he was crazy. Why would anyone run for fun? Lo and behold I loved “training” for the mile in middle school track. Prior to running I didn’t think I was particularly good at anything. There were girls in my grade who were already superstar athletes and had been playing their respective sport, namely lacrosse in my area, since they were five. Running was what I needed as a young girl to build confidence. Ever since then, despite some tears and injuries, I have been forever grateful for the gift of running and to my uncle who introduced me to this sport.

I decided to run in college because running was truly what made me into a strong, independent and confident young woman. As previously stated, before I started running I considered myself untalented; however, after putting in thousands of miles I’ve come to realize my passion for the sport, my talent, and my strength. I have come back from injury and irony deficiency. I have ranted with friends, run off hangovers, explored many roads and trails, and completely lost myself myself in thought and the steady motion of running. Sometimes I don’t even realize I am running...That is until a truck honks at me or a car slows down.

For years, even before puberty,  I have watched men stare at me, and other ladies, even taking off their sunglasses to watch me down the road. And it ruins my run because it is all I can think of afterwards. How long are they watching me for? Why do men look at women  in this obvious way?  Women deserve the sheer joy and simplicity of running. There have been many times in my career when I question why I run, but it is the times when I’m stared at, honked at, and catcalled at that I simultaneously question why I am running and also why I must run. I feel so disgusting and objectified when this happens: I’m not an object, I’m a runner. However,  if I were to stop running, even for a few months, because of some lousy men that would be giving them the power. I want to run for myself and to be an example; sometimes running is physically really hard and taxing,  but wow is it so rewarding, both physically and mentally.

This past spring, during my senior of college, I decided to train for the 10k, a 6 mile race around the track. I trained for this event specifically because I wanted a change after running the 5k for many years. As such, I was running high mileage, and I loved it. In March, I was running my favorite 7 mile run by myself. It was a foggy grey day but warm, and spring was in the air. The trees were still bare. I was not too far from campus when a bearded man, about 70 years old, slowed down in his green pickup truck and rolled down his window. I figured he was just going to ask for directions. Instead he said, “Hey, I see you running all the time, all around... You must want a ride just about now”

There was a pause. I was so stunned. Should I keep going and not say anything? I just stood there. There were no other cars in sight. I never ran with a phone, because when running I always want to be free from distractions and to disconnect. He then said, “Just kidding.”

Who would joke like like that, especially in the #metoo era? Granted, Knox County was largely for Trump, aside from my very liberal college that added a tiny blue dot to the area. Teammates of color had racial slurs shouted at them after the election and many people didn’t feel safe running in the area. Everyone knew we were “those liberal college students”. For some reason I thought some of it had blown over by 2018, even though there were still multiple Trump signs scattered about the roads on which I ran. Don’t bother them and they won’t bother you, I always thought. However, I now realize my naiveté and the severity of this situation. Regardless of my surrounding area, in that moment I was taken aback but also knew that I would make it back to campus.

When I got back to the athletic center I paced outside my coach’s office, until he stepped back in, “Hey, Susannah, how’s it going?”, he said. He, could immediately my tone that something was up because I was known on my team for my bubbly and positive energy. I wasn’t tired from the run but I felt depleted; I was trying to process the current events and what had just happened to me. I told him all of this. He was disgusted, wrote a few notes down and picked up the phone to campus safety right after I left.  I did not want to run alone, and my coach agreed that this was a good idea. All of a sudden after four years, I did not feel super safe. What about my younger teammates? Some of them had just gotten to know the routes for themselves.

I have found that runners can be pretty anxious people. I was especially anxious as a freshman, and was trying to think how I would have reacted to the situation even as a sophomore. My team was alerted of the situation, and I talked to campus safety, but just felt silly for not remembering the license plate. Since we were technically still in winter training a lot of runs where on our own, but to protect myself and others I would sometimes rally together ladies of all grades so we could all feel safe together. More often than not I frequently asked my best male friend to run with me, and that made me feel somewhat safer or at least assure me that an old man wouldn’t roll down his window at us. I don’t think the bearded man was ever seen again.  

Months later, when I heard of the disappearance and death of Mollie Tibbits, I was distraught. Tibbits, a student at the University of Iowa, was out for an evening run in her town of Brooklyn, and she never came back.  Her disappearance received national media attention, and received even more attention when it was found that the man who abducted and killed her was an illegal immigrant. Now, sometimes even in my small town, I go out and think that maybe I’ll never come back. I used to convince myself that I was safe but in light of recent events I have not run in my favorite woods. I purchased an Apple Watch with cellular service in case of an emergency (and just for peace of mind). I personally do not want to live my life in constant protection mode because no one should have to worry about their safety when doing something that is not only great for their physical health, but mental health. Running has given me such great joy and confidence over the years but as I am now navigating my post-collegiate running career, which essentially means running by myself, it seems that you never really know when something bad will happen. But for the past few weeks I have run for Mollie and for all the ladies who have accompanied me on runs and cheered for me in races.

My advice to men that see women running is: unless a lady is clearly injured or in harm's way just keep going or doing what you are doing. She wants to keep running and you probably have something to do that isn’t bothering her. It’s that simple guys! I know it’s tempting to gawk at us because we are beautiful (and strong) but nope we aren’t flattered by it so don’t even bother.

My advice to women is: Run with people when you can. Tell people where you are running. While it is tempting to explore on runs, believe me I know, only do so if you know the neighborhood or are carrying a phone. Have it on airplane mode so you don’t get distracted. We cannot live in fear and we must keep each other safe.

And I am in it for in the long run. Now let’s go ladies!