Running scared... what can we do to reassure women runners?

Alison Armstrong on a training run

Alison Armstrong out on a training run. - Credit: Alison Armstrong

In light of the sad and shocking case of Sarah Everard I’ve noticed a huge backlash against men and the debate around harassing behaviour towards female runners has been re-ignited.  

A young female, walking home at 9.30pm taken away all too soon. I think all of us have thought back to times we have taken chances walking home or when we have been approached and had inappropriate comments made which made us feel scared, angry or threatened.     

As a practising criminal lawyer, I know only too well that cases like Sarah’s have always happened but are extremely rare.  

As runners we have a far greater chance of being hit by a car or a tree than something like this ever happening.  

It is all about identifying risks and mitigating them as far as possible, whether that is wearing high-vis vests so we are visible to cars, meeting with a friend or not wearing headphones to be more aware of our surroundings. These are all things we can do to feel safer against these risks. 

Whilst reassuring a fellow runner (who was up most of the night worrying about a run the following day in light of the Sarah Everard case), the point was well made that whilst cases like Sarah’s are rare, harassing behaviour is far more common.      

The statistics of how many of us have experienced harassment on a run is extremely concerning. 

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So what can we do? 

Legal Protection 

There are laws against harassing and abusive behaviour. Cases come before the courts daily where inappropriate and abusive words have been said to members of the public if these did or are likely to have caused someone harassment, alarm or distress.   

S.5 of the Public Order Act 1986 makes it a criminal offence if someone “uses threatening, abusive words/behaviour or disorderly behaviour within the hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused harassment alarm or distress”.   

The Protection from Harassment act 1997 says a “person must not pursue a course of conduct which amounts to harassment of another and which he knows or ought to have known amounts to harassment of the other”. This course of conduct usually involves two or more occasions.    

Whilst I appreciate not everyone may wish to report such behaviour, the laws are there to offer some degree of protection and your actions reporting it may prevent another person experiencing it.   

Supporting each other  

It’s so important to discuss and talk through our fears and organise runs together. You may be able to help someone simply by listening and re-assuring them.    

It saddens me to think of someone giving up something they love out of fear and I think by talking these things through, sharing experiences and supporting each other, this will go a long way in helping anyone feeling ‘singled out’ or whose confidence has been shaken. 

Organising runs with friends  

This could reassure a friend who is concerned or simply enjoys company. After a negative experience, a social run with a friend could encourage someone to re-start running again. 

We can’t control someone else’s behaviour, just our response to it. How we feel will vary hugely depending on the type of behaviour along with our personal circumstances and life experiences. I encourage anyone who is scared or concerned to reach out to other runners.  

Will the Sarah Everard case stop me running solo?  No, but over time I have made changes to routes and opted to run with a friend at night before so my running patterns and behaviour have changed as I’ve experienced more cases in my job. I think my behaviour also changed when I became a mother.  

For my first marathon I trained at 6am in a city centre or round a local lake often when it was still dark with not a soul around. I did the same job then, I knew the risks but I felt more prepared to take them. I now juggle my work commitments and training to avoid running in the dark solo and would not do the same routes I once did before I was a mum.   

Education and the future. 

To be whistled at, leered at or complimented in anyway by a man when running is never welcomed.  

There is this mistaken belief by some men that this type of behaviour is a ‘compliment’ and to any man reading this I can promise you that it is not.      

Do you ever recall a single film, tv programme or book where a man lands the leading lady behaving like this?      

Will it get you noticed? Perhaps but never in a positive way and far from making that girl feel complimented. At the very least you will have ruined her short quiet time when she feels free, you may have ruined her day or, possibly worse, undermined her confidence so much that she stops running. All from one comment, I hear you say? Yes… words and behaviour are damaging.    

It should also be said this is a very small handful of men and it saddens me to see the huge generalisations and backlash against men as a gender, but the statistics don’t lie and it is a problem we must take notice of.  

So what can we do…maybe I’m an optimist but I think we can change this in the future through education.  

I’m sure now there is more awareness, we will raise our sons to behave differently and by reaching out and supporting each other in the meantime, we will shape a future of running free from worry and stress, enjoying all the many incredible benefits running has for us.