Winter Running – Is it Safe?

street harassment

So, lockdown 2.0, hey? Who’d have thought at the beginning of April that we’d be back here again (or still?), but this time with the looming presence of darkness hanging over us at about 4pm.

I’ll be completely honest, I’m a fair weather runner. There’s no better reason to run than a crisp, autumn day. Sea blue skies, crunchy carrot coloured leaves, feeling the sharp stab of cold air as you inhale those first, heavy breaths.

The idea of heading out after work, dreary grey pavements reflected in dreary grey skies if you’re lucky, pitch black usually, doesn’t fill most people with anything close to resembling enthusiasm.

And then the rain. The. Rain. Whilst I like to think I look like a character from a romantic drama, swept up in a storm into the arms of her lover, I’m pretty certain I appear more on the “drowned rat” aesthetic spectrum.

Winter running can be bleak. I get that, and I’m definitely not the first person to acknowledge it. But is there more that we’re looking past here? Whilst the rain, the dark and the cold appear, on the forefront, to be the obvious negatives, what about the symptoms of these conditions? What about the safety of winter running?

With the government restricting those of us in England to exercise outside during the second corona virus wave they seem to have overlooked the logistics of this for women.

In the first UK-wide lockdown there was a substantial rise in public sexual harassment on our streets. Plan UK found that 1 in 5 young women and girls had experienced some form of street harassment during the spring lockdown. Cat calling, heckling, being followed and abused increased exponentially. Runners World UK recently published an article stating that 46% of female runners in the UK say they’d been harassed on the run.

My shock isn’t at the numbers. My shock, initially, was at the time of the spike in this harassment. It has been theorised that perpetrators of street harassment felt protected by the quietness. That solitary women striding our streets appeared more obvious as targets than before. The vast outdoor isolation of lockdown enabled predatory people to spot lone runners and not be held accountable due to minimal on lookers. And where there were by-standers, there was a reluctance to interfere in “other peoples business”.

But street harassment is everyones business.

I’ve spoken before about by-stander accountability. I may write about it soon. But, to summarise, it is our responsibility to call out crap when we see it. It is one of the first steps to minimising the effects of a harasser. If a perpetrator realises their actions won’t be stood for, that, in fact, their car flung comments aren’t as original as they think they are, then they will begin to feel some sense of awareness.

With companionless exercise now encouraged by law, these matters may be only heightened in the winter months. We’re standing out more than ever. With high visibility clothes a necessity in the dimly lit suburban streets I’ve felt, all the more, like a moving target on my evening runs.

As silly as it sounds, there’s a gender bias in the assumption that running under the rare flash of a sodium street light is the same for women as it is for men.

I spoke to a male friend recently about having to put a cork in my sunset thames path runs for the year due to complete lack of lighting despite it being a well populated thoroughfare for pedestrians and cyclists alike. While his fears concluded with trampling through muddy puddles and being unable to see the scenic, but low hanging, branches mine took a much bleaker turn.

To the thought of being tomorrows newspaper headline.

“Women missing, last seen on towpath, she should have run faster”

And whilst my fears are unfounded from personal experience, I was told enough growing up, as all little girls are, to be constantly aware and on the look out for danger. Running alone in the dark, for a lot of women, is intimidating.

And many women agree.

I’ve spoken to female runners who are perturbed by being catcalled, followed, mugged, or worse. I’ve spoken to those who cross the street to avoid hooded strangers and habitually grasp their keys in their Wolverine like grip. Always ready to claw at anonymous threats. We take the long route home because it’s better lit, steer clear of the shadowed public parks because “public” doesn’t feel such a welcome when any unknown could be waiting in the trees.

It’s clear that, at the best of times, women feel unsafe running. So what can we do to avoid feeling the fear this lockdown?

Whilst I greatly begrudge the fact that the onus is on women to change their behaviour to feel safe, rather than on society to put an end to the problematic nature of misogyny, here are some small actions I would recommend taking this lockdown:

Buddy Up
Be aware that, as of writing this, you are allowed to meet up with another person outside for exercise. Having company for a run will help calm the sense of anxiety you may feel on a solo jaunt.

Lightbulb Moment
Sticking to well lit areas is all very well and good if you can but this completely overlooks the fact that we may have to adapt our behaviour to keep ourselves safe, rather than the liability being on the people who build our cities and streets. There are dangers in being forced to run along busy roads or more populated areas which may also bring a sense of vulnerability in a street harassment and covid sense. So, write to your local council about poor street lighting you deem to be a danger to the public. Even if nothing is done in an immediate sense it is always beneficial to raise these concerns with our MPs. They work for us. It’s their job to keep us safe.

Track and Trace
Take advantage of the numerous safety features on your fitness devices and smart phones. Strava Beacon and Garmin LiveTrack are two great tracking options available. Or for the London dwellers, the Safe & The City app allows you to report incidents from poor lighting to being followed in real time, which then collates these incidents to build up a map of the safest routes around the city.

Oldy but a Goody
Of course the time old telling-someone-where-you’re-going technique is a must for all runners no matter who you are, what, when or why you’re running.

Use the Force
Ironically, be mindful of what you’re wearing. Yes, yes, I know – sounds like I’m slut shaming. Hear me out – I’m the first person to call out victim blaming when people criticise women’s clothing, however in winter, please, wear hi-viz. At the least, you’ll look like a speedy lightsaber racing through the streets, at the most it could save your life or help people locate you if you become incapacitated in any way. The amount of times I’ve plodded along a badly lit section of the Thames Path and narrowly avoided a darkly-clad dog walker has shook me up more times than I care to say. Also, a head torch! Especially handy when your frozen fingers are fumbling to find your keys.

You Do You
Finally, do what you feel is comfortable. Society has a way to go with allowing us to reclaim our streets. Not being harassed or assaulted is still a “woman problem”, a “victims problem” – we are still being burdened with the responsibility of not being attacked, rather than teaching people not to become attackers. If you don’t feel safe running at night, do what you need to do until we possess our freedom. There will be a day where we will own the pavements. We’ll take back the roads from the fools in ford fiestas who hassle us.

So, is winter running safe?

Winter running is wonderful. The frosty sunsets are picturesque, the dusks can be tranquil, the trails and mud are the most fun you’ll have all year and seeing the city lit up under the spill of the shop windows florescent hue makes you see the streets in a different perspective.

There is beauty and joy to be found in running in the rain, embracing the drowned rat demeanour I spoke about earlier.

Yes. Despite my ramblings I believe that there are ways to enjoy the roads and trails as much as we did in those sunnier months. It’s our right to.

Does society have a lot of work to do to make women feel safe running in the winter?

Big time.

And that time is now.

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