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Running Scared – A female runner’s experience of a very ordinary Summer’s Day run

Rachel Cullen writes:

Running Scared – A female runner’s experience of a very ordinary Summer’s Day run

I’ve run the route hundreds of times. I know the mile splits down to every lamppost: the gruelling climb that begins just outside the town centre and doesn’t end until I see the bus stop at the top of the hill; the corner shop that I’ve never been in but can’t help thinking of a full fat Coke every time I run past. And then the part I’m looking forward to. The route becomes really pretty – a lot more rural. I have various options from here, turning in different directions for a short, medium or long route depending on my mood, session plan – or simply the time I have available.

It’s summer and I’ve chosen the medium route, today. 8 miles of sunshine should do the trick. I’ve cruised up the climb and my legs feel strong; the views from the top rewarding me for my efforts.

I don’t always run this route by myself, but today that’s how it’s worked out. That’s fine with me – I love running by myself. It’s light outside – the darkness takes a long time to arrive at this time of year, giving me more opportunity to run and feel safe. Something I’m thankful for.

The busyness of the road has now gone and been replaced with a quiet country lane which weaves around a small village cricket ground towards a section of road that narrows, allowing only one vehicle to pass in either direction. There are a couple of remote farmhouses located just beyond.

There is nothing remarkable about today. The sun is shining; I’m in the flow.

Life is good.

I hear the car approaching from behind, but I don’t take much notice. It will drive past me in a second. There is nothing more to say.

But the car doesn’t drive past me. It has slowed right down and is crawling beside me at barely 10mph. I notice it is a BMW. I look again. Why hasn’t he driven past me? The man inside has his window open, and his elbow is poking out, resting his arm in the ultimate ‘macho cruisin’ vibe. He is wearing shades. He is watching me. He says something and I don’t quite catch the words, but his demeanour puts me on high alert. I half-smile and run on. He drives up to me again and says something else. I still don’t catch the exact words but this time I notice that he has a small child sitting in the passenger seat of the car. A young boy. My mind is jumbled with questions. What did he just say to me? What does the boy think is happening, here? Is it his dad? His uncle, perhaps? Is this his normality? What on earth must he be thinking? That it’s perfectly normal to kerb-crawl next to a single female who is out running by herself on a summer’s day?

Suddenly I am very conscious of everything. I am conscious of wearing shorts. Perhaps I shouldn’t wear them anymore. Do they look pornographic? Are they too short? Maybe my bare legs are an invitation for trouble. Stupid girl, Rachel. I’ve brought this on myself. But it’s 27 degrees and I would melt in long running tights.

The country lane I used to love now feels eerily quiet. Where is the traffic? Why aren’t there any other cars, here? Where is everybody? I used to love this part of my run with the views of rolling hills and patchwork fields, but now I feel sick because I am completely alone, and I have no idea what I will do if the man who is harassing me stops the car.

I remember that the route narrows up ahead, and I can only pray for a vehicle to be coming in the other direction where the road narrows – giving me time to plan ahead and scrabble some escape route together as the BMW is forced to let the other car go past.

My speed increases. I’m not wearing a heart rate monitor, but I can feel a hard, repetitive thump in my chest as I am now running faster than I should be able to without appearing panicked. If he sees that I am frightened, perhaps that will make things even worse? Like dogs when they sense that a person doesn’t like them. I don’t want to offend him. That could spell trouble.

I can see a small red car coming towards me. Thank fucking god! The BMW has no option but to wait as I run towards the narrowing in the road, and my eyes dart to the farmhouses that are dotted around in the fields at either side. Which one could I feasibly run to? Which is closer? I scan the different options. Are there any signs of life? Is anybody outside in their garden? Are any doors open? How long would it take me to get there, and what if nobody is in when I do?

The red car drives through the narrowing in the road and I have settled on a farmhouse that I will run towards. I run and wait… the only sound I can hear is that of my heart thumping in my chest. The only sound I am waiting to hear is that of the BMW. What will he do now?

The red car has gone and the next thing I know the BMW screeches past me at high speed – this time he doesn’t slow down and crawl alongside me.

He has gone.

But this ordeal isn’t over for me. I am still on high alert; adrenalin is still pumping through my veins and “fight or flight” is all that my body is capable of focusing on, right now. Is he waiting for me around the corner? Has he pulled over somewhere, ready to pounce when the time comes? I am four miles from home; it is 4.30pm in the middle of summer and the school children are milling about in the streets – and I have never felt so vulnerable. He had a young child in the car with him, but that was no barrier. Does he even care if anybody sees? What were his intention? Did he want to lure me into his car? Offer me a lift? Ask me directions? My mind spins with possible outcomes – each one of them macabre – the stuff nightmares are made of.

I want to pull over and phone my other half to tell him what has just happened but then again, I’m desperate to get back home. What is the point in stopping for a panicked phone call when all my instincts are to JUST.GET.BACK.HOME?

The last few miles are a complete blur. I don’t recall any of them; only a desire to keep moving forward as quickly as I possibly can until I reach safety. Nowhere outside feels safe to me just now.

I finally throw myself through the front door and allow myself to breath. I almost collapse with the weight of the panic that has built up inside me. When I eventually manage to speak, I try to explain what has happened to my other half. But the words don’t quite work. It sounds like… nothing. I’m talking and it sounds like nothing happened. “He slowed down and said something to me out of the car window.” Oh. So what? But it wasn’t that. That’s not what happened. It was far more sinister than that – darker; scarier. I’m frustrated that I can’t fully convey what I’ve just experienced. I question myself. “Did anything actually happen?” but I can’t deny how it made me feel: terrified – as though my life was in danger.

No words help.

My mind whirrs over the following days – I go through what happened step-by-step, analysing myself for an irrational response. Interestingly, I critique myself – not the man who chose to deliberately intimidate me. I ask myself if I misinterpreted something he did. Could he have been lost? In need of directions? But in this modern era of satellite-navigation (especially in his high-end BMW) that just seems beyond unlikely.

Worse still, I imagine who else he has done this to. Which other women have been made to feel like this – in fear of their lives – during a run by themselves? And then I become enraged. Does he have any idea what that does to a woman? Doesn’t he care about the burden of fear he has just shrouded another person in? And for what purpose? What is his thrill in doing this? What does he hope to achieve?

Weeks pass and I don’t run by myself for a while. Not even in summer – not even in the daytime.

It’s now three years later, and – it’s only fair to put things into context – I’ve moved to live in a different area, but I haven’t run that route since. Even if I did still live there, I’m not sure whether I would…

I’m writing this following the shocking events of the last week that caused a national outcry against female violence and intimidation. An event so devastating it has brought hundreds of thousands of women together – both virtually and in person – to object to this being our collective daily experience. Every one of us has a story of some type of intimidation at the hands of a male. And although I do feel the need to stress that – of course – not ALL males behave in this despicable manner, but there are many out there – too many – who do.

The little boy who sat silently in the passenger seat of his father’s / uncle’s / whoever’s BMW car. Will he become the next generation of males for whom this is an accepted, legitimate behaviour? Now is the time to stop putting the burden of this behaviour onto women. To stop implicitly asking us to question ourselves and our own actions.  Take my initial response: “Should I have worn leggings instead of shorts?” “Should I have done something differently?” “Am I to blame?”

No! I was not to blame. We have every right as women to run along the road – any road… at any time of day… during any season… in any weather… under any circumstance… without fear of intimidation.

I was lucky on that day. My story turned into “nothing.” But it wasn’t nothing. It was something – a horrible thing that happened to me – a 38-year-old woman – that should never have happened.

Let’s stop telling ourselves that our stories and experiences are ‘nothing.’ Let’s stop making excuses for the behaviour of a percentage – however small – of males who see it as their right to behave in this way. Let’s stop the narrative of questioning ourselves and looking to find fault in ourselves where there is none.

Now is the time to stop all of it and to demand the right to run / walk / hop / skip or jump anywhere we like in safety, and in peace. Now is that time. It’s here – and it’s on all of us to demand that it happens.

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