‘Nowhere feels safe’ – women share their stories of running in public

One in five women worry about the risk or threat of sexual harassment while exercising, according to Sport England’s This Girl Can research

Have you ever checked the clock and realized it was too dark to go for a run? Have you ever changed your clothes because they may be ‘too revealing’ to avoid yet another car beeping at you? Have you ever carried a credit card in your leggings pocket ‘just in case’?

It is likely that if you’re a woman who has ever exercised outside, you would answer ‘yes’ to all of these questions.

In January this year, Ashling Murphy put on her trainers, left her house and never returned.

The 23-year-old teacher was killed while out exercising at 4pm, running along the banks of the Grand Canal outside Tullamore, Ireland. Jozef Puska, 31, has been charged with her murder of her and is awaiting trial.

Murphy’s death led to outpourings of grief and support, especially on social media, with #shewasonarun trending across posts and stories, as people tried to make sense of yet another female life being taken too soon.

She was doing something she enjoyed. She was doing something she should feel safe to do. She was just running.

Most women know the mental checklist you complete before training outside: you contemplate the time of day you leave the house, you pick the most populated or well-lit roads and paths and dress appropriately – because you’re trying to minimize the likelihood of sparking unwanted and unwarranted attention.

Amy Hughes, the first women to run 53 marathons in 53 days, lives in Cheshire and knows the checklist well: “I’ve always been wary of what time I go out [for a run].

“In the day I’m not really bothered at all, but you do have to think about it if it’s dark,” she told BBC Sport.

“You’ve also got to think about what you’re wearing and you shouldn’t have to think about what you put on to go for a run, but it’s just in case someone says or does something.”

Murphy’s death left many women questioning how safe they are training and exercising on the streets alone.

In November 2021, Sport England’s This Girl Can research found:

• One in five women (22%) worry about the risk or threat of sexual harassment in relation to doing physical activity and exercise, including 38% of those aged 16-20 and 35% aged 21-30

• 28% worry about personal safety exercising outside in the dark

Hughes recalled one experience she had while running.

“There was a traffic jam and these guys were in the car and they were just shouting disgusting things at me as I ran past,” she said.

28% of women worry about personal safety exercising outside in the dark, according to Sport England research

Charlotte, a runner training for the Manchester marathon was even photographed by a man while she was running in broad daylight.

“I was running in a wooded area in the summer and there was no-one else around me,” she said. “As I ran past him, he lifted his phone and photographed me. He didn’t say anything, he just took a photo of me.

“It made me feel so uncomfortable and upset and I ran home as fast as I could. I remember questioning everyone who I ran past on my way home, wondering if I had enough energy left to sprint away if I needed to.

“Once I got home I was playing it over and over in my head. He didn’t touch me or say anything but the idea that there was a picture of me on that man’s phone without my consent made me feel sick.”

Charlotte did report it to the police after encouragement from her friends.

“The sad thing is, I now have the same worries on every single run,” she said. “I know I’m a smart, confident and capable runner, yet in the space of a few seconds none of that mattered. In that man’s mind I wasn’t worthy of his respect, I was just a woman exercising that he wanted to look at.”

Emma, ​​a runner in London, says constant harassment has changed how she exercises.

“Almost every time I run near a road I have men rolling down their windows, shouting sexual abuse. I only run near a road because I’m nervous to go to the park. I’ve completely stopped running alone because nowhere feels safe, she said.

This type of harassment or intimidation does not just affect people enjoying their daily exercise – professional athletes have also spoken out about how it is affecting them while training.

British triathlete and Olympic gold medalist Georgia Taylor-Brown tweeted in December: “I left my house for a run a few days ago and as I ran past three workmen, they whistled at me. Did they really need to make me feel uncomfortable while I ‘m just trying to do my job?

And Welsh 400m runner Rhiannon Linington-Payne questioned what governing bodies were doing to help women train safely outdoors when indoor venues were closed during the winter 2021 Covid lockdown.

As a result, Welsh governing bodies made an effort to work with Welsh police to tackle intimidating behaviour. But a report by UN Women last year found that 95% of sexual harassment is going unreported in the UK, so is enough being done?

Mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, believes it is down to men and boys to question and change their behavior towards women in public.

In his video campaign ‘Is This OK?’ that was released in December 2021, the video shows a young woman being approached, filmed, shouted at and intimidated while running and he says it is on men to rectify this issue not women.

Burnham said: “Blokes have got to look themselves in the mirror. It’s embarrassing to behave in that way, why? It’s just not right. It’s not respectful. It’s not acceptable what women have to face day to day.

“Sometimes there’s too much tolerance of the macho, laddish banter but there are boundaries and actually we shouldn’t let that go unchallenged.

“If you have mates that do that regularly, if you have mates that spike drinks, or do worse in pubs and clubs you shouldn’t just distance yourself from them, you should report them. And just have a different approach to this whole issue .

“The campaign is really important on so many levels. But as I say, it’s about men, lads and boys. This one’s on us. We’ve got to own it. We’ve got to sort it out. It’s time for change .”

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