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The solution to harassment of female runners isn’t ‘don’t run alone’

Three women have been murdered in the last two weeks while out on a daily run.

Murdered. Torn from their families’ lives, their stories splashed across the headlines. Critiqued by the anonymous masses, “She shouldn’t have been running alone.”

I have no words for these tragedies. These are the worst-case scenarios — the horrific realities that all women on every run are vaguely aware of, working to push them to the corners of their minds until someone shady sets off an alarm.

Millions of women run and exercise outside every day. Millions of women make it home safe and sound every day. And it’s rage-making and fundamentally unfair that these millions of women should be forced into fear or told to “always run in groups,” “carry pepper spray,” “bring your dog” and “don’t run at night.”

It’s a reality that needs to be confronted and changed. Because while millions of women run and exercise each day without being murdered, these same women are still victimized repeatedly and grotesquely by men who share the streets. And it’s not OK.

But to make something stop, you have to bring it into the light, so I posed a simple question to my friends, “What’s the worst harassment you’ve ever received while exercising outside?” These are their jaw-dropping responses.

I was verbally assaulted

“I’ve been really blessed,” Kim Prytherch, a blogger and mom of two from South Carolina shared. “The worst is when I was training for the Dopey Challenge and someone yelled at me to keep on running because my ass was still fat.”

Please let that sink in for a second.

Kim actually prefaced her story of being verbally assaulted by saying “I’ve been really blessed.” Like she was lucky. Like she got off easy. Like having a stranger scream at you from a passing car that your ass is fat is somehow “not that bad.”

And I get it. I’ve had someone yell at me, “Keep running you ugly bitches!” It’s an unsettling thing to have happen — one that leaves you hurt and angry, with no recourse because who could you possibly report such conduct to? But you still weren’t physically hurt or in fear for your life, so… it’s somehow “not that bad.” But it is; it is that bad. It’s not OK.

I was physically assaulted

You can’t even imagine the rage that filled me when my younger sister, Mary McCoy, a smart, strong Ph.D. student and mother of two said, “A Jeep full of what must have been high school or college boys threw an entire container of Wendy’s fries at me when I was running midday. I threw back a middle finger, but it was still super disorienting, like, ‘WTF did I do to y’all?'”

I just keep picturing this in my head — there she goes, running down the street, minding her own business when some entitled dickheads think it’s funny to throw french fries at her. What in the actual hell is wrong with this world?

More: An open letter to my street harasser

I was sexually harassed

Kim Vose, a triathlete and ultramarathoner started by saying, “I don’t have a very good running story other than the normal ‘woo woo’ catcalling,” which, sidebar — why is this “normal”? It’s not. It shouldn’t be.

Then she went on to say, “I was riding my bike and I heard a car come up slowly behind me, which was startling. As it drove by, a big, bare butt was hanging out the window. I wasn’t sure if I should be scared or laughing. But it was a man’s butt for sure.”

Look, anyone with any sense of humor at all gets that butts are funny. They’re funny between friends and loved ones.

They are not funny or acceptable when they’re used as a way to startle, scare or intimidate a stranger who didn’t ask or want to be subjected to your backside. That’s called sexual harassment.

It’s not OK.

I was followed and stalked

I don’t know what crazy world we live in that men think it’s somehow OK, or even desirable, for them to follow and stalk women who are just enjoying a workout, but three — count ’em, three — of my friends relayed scary and inappropriate tales of men following them while out and about.

First, there’s Larissa D., a communications and marketing manager from Missouri who offered two frightening tales. “I used to run in a park about three blocks from our apartment. A guy followed me out of the park on my last loop and into my neighborhood. I don’t scare easily, but he made me very nervous. A cop happened to drive by and was aware enough that he noticed. He drove around the block to watch him until I got home.”

Then there’s Victoria Pardue, a certified health coach, who reports being followed and harassed pretty much every day. The worst case happened last summer. “I usually have guys who will turn the corner, go around the block to circle back, then drive real slow behind me and ask if I need a ride. Last summer I had the same guy doing it every time I went out for a run, so I finally yelled at him, ‘Leave me alone! I’m just out for a run. Stop following me. Don’t talk to me.’ I didn’t see him for a few days, but the next time I did, he did it again. I called the police and reported him.”

The scariest tale of the bunch comes from Angela VanBrackle, a community development manager for the National MS Society.

“I first encountered this guy while walking my dog. He asked what time it was, and I said 9 o’clock, to which he responded, ‘In the morning?’ which should have been obvious. Then he commented on my feet and asked to touch them. My dog sensed my fear and growled at him.

“A couple days later I saw him on a run, in two different locations, he just appeared from behind a tree both times. He was then sitting on my apartment staircase when I got home. It was terrifying he now knew where I lived.

“The next day he was pacing in front of my door when I turned the corner coming home. Apartment security responded quickly, but he was gone. I saw he was arrested a couple days later for an incident at a store across the street from where I live.

“For months I always had someone walk me to my car and back to my apartment or had my dog and a friend with me on runs, along with pepper spray. It was absolutely terrifying.”

More: Women share stories of sexual harassment on Twitter

I was physically attacked

I truly thought Angela’s stalking story would be the worst I heard from my small sample size of women. I didn’t imagine I would hear her story, much less one even scarier. I was wrong.

Debbie Woodruff, a certified personal trainer and running coach, underwent the unspeakable experience of being physically attacked while on a run. “Running very early in the morning, in the dark, I was grabbed and taken down by a guy. Amazingly, I was able to fight him off — thank God he didn’t have a weapon or think about punching me — and ran the fastest I’ve ever run to get away. It changed me so much for so long. I held so much fear, and still do in certain circumstances.”

There are no words. There are no explanations. There is nothing, nothing, that makes this OK. And yet, these are the stories we don’t hear. These are the stories we don’t see splashed across the front page. The daily, ongoing harassment and assault women face while doing something as innocent as taking a walk, run or bike ride.

The problem isn’t with women exercising alone. The problem isn’t with women not carrying pepper spray or their phones. The problem is a society in which men think these actions are welcome or OK. That they’re funny. That words yelled out a passing car don’t really matter. That french fries aren’t weapons, so getting hit with one doesn’t hurt. That catcalls and stalking are compliments. And in the worst-case scenario, that women are just an object to be bent to men’s wills.

They’re not. This needs to stop. It’s not OK.

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