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Risk, reward, and running in the middle of the night

At one o'clock yesterday morning, I put on my running shoes, stuck my earbuds in, and went out the door. Six miles later, I was home and getting ready for bed. Even though I've been told all my life about walking dark, empty streets alone as a woman – let alone running them, let alone with music playing in my ears – I've been doing this a lot lately. Let me explain.

For most of my adult life, I've seen running as a means to an end – a necessary chore that helped keep me in shape for backpacking, hiking, biking, and various other more exciting physical pursuits. I didn't like it, but I tolerated it, putting in my miles a few days a week after work. Even on my best, prettiest running routes, the ones that twisted through cool pine groves or circled bright summer fields, I would only halfway appreciate the run itself – it was a distraction from the scenery, not an opportunity. I'm also in grad school and often find myself working into the night and eating a late dinner, at which point I would think, shit, I didn't get my run in. This would sometimes lead to procrastination doubling on procrastination. Tomorrow.

And then, a couple months ago, it was almost midnight and I was feeling morose about once again skipping out. Suddenly I thought to myself – you know, you'll never be a superhero with an attitude like this. So I got off the couch, and I started on a run about five minutes later. When I came back, I realized something startling – without meaning to, I'd put in an extra mile more than I'd planned when I left. I'd been having fun. Ever since then, I've been doing at least one late night run every week.


I like the emptiness of the roads, the stillness – how I seem to be the only thing moving in it, and how that feeling is sometimes broken apart by the little cottontails that seem to appear out of nowhere, zipping in front of me. I like the occasional raccoon. I like the quiet, against which I can play my own soundtrack or else lose myself. I like slipping around quick-footed in the dark. I pretend I'm a girl-beast – nothing can catch me. When I used to run in the afternoons in my old town, it wasn't terribly uncommon for a carload of boys or men to slow down and follow me and catcall for a while – something about how exposed I was on this one particular stretch of sidewalk that ran by a heavily trafficked street. That's not how it is, running this way – I can more or less let go of the idea my body in public while I run. I feel anonymous, untroubled. I'm in shorts – because I like the way the air moves around my legs – and I'm the only one who notices or cares.

More than once lately I've been told this habit is risky. I suppose it's a valid enough concern – while this town is very safe in general (a privilege, I know), we have made the national papers for acts of violence before, and just last year some guy tried to assault a couple of women out alone at night – both fought the would-be attacker off. And I won't deny that there are a couple times where I've felt a twinge of uneasiness when a figure appears on the sidewalk nearby. There's a big dirt yard full of construction equipment on one route I sometimes take, and it's hard to tell whether someone's hanging out in it until they step out to the road. Sometimes when I pass it and notice movement I do think, here it is, the robber, rapist, and/or murderer you've always known was coming for you! But I usually attempt to amend this thought to what if someone needs your help? This could be your superhero origin story.

Because frankly, the risk isn't so very great, and at a certain point it becomes a matter of perspective. How come when something bad happens to a woman, suddenly we all become professional risk analysts? And why the equivocating about different kinds of risks? We're willing to lionize men who spend thousands of dollars risking their lives on mountains but a girl can't get tiny thrill out of running in the dark without someone saying you know, it isn't safe and expecting to be taken seriously. As if the idea of "risk" has never occurred to me. And please don't think I'm talking up my own bravado. I'm certainly not asking for pats on the back for the act of running at night – god, no – that would be immensely silly. It's just running. I'm not soliciting any opinions on the decision: that's my point. What I'm actually asking is why so many basically innocuous acts, when performed by women, are read as an open solicitation for opinions, for words of caution, for safety "tips," for stories of "I heard about this woman who…" Would anyone seriously stop to lecture, at length, a guy who wants to go for a nighttime run in his pretty-safe small town about how he shouldn't ever listen to music along the way, or that he shouldn't go at all? I suspect that even if this behavior was perceived as a "risk," it would go unremarked upon — the assumption being that the runner knows what he's doing. But, you know, that's just a guess.

The difference with how we treat male vs. female "risky" behaviors has to do, I assume, with how we perceive sexual violence, specifically – we code women as potential victims, as a default state, and not men (which not only puts the onus on women to alter their behavior in frequently ludicrous ways, but also elides the existence of male victims). We also like to think of rape (and other kinds of violence, too) as "strange man jumping out of the bushes!" because then we don't have to acknowledge the frightening facts that those who hurt you are often those closest to you. It's much more likely that, should I encounter violence, it would come from someone I already know versus a nebulous stranger waiting to assault me on a nighttime run. But that's much more terrifying to admit, isn't it?


In the end, it's not worth it to me to sacrifice the sheer pleasure I feel being in my body, running solo, mile after mile – not over the chance that some unnamed terror is going to be waiting for me, someday. Maybe that's stupid, but I'm not sure it's stupider than, say, risking a possible (if improbable) hundred-foot fall for the sake of a fun, kickass climb. Even if it is stupid, I'm tired of entertaining the idea that a given innocent act is going to get me raped or killed. It's shitty, flawed math. I'm not slathering myself in ground beef and swimming in the shark tank — I'm just running, and I refuse to become my own worst concern-troll. When we ask women to constantly act to minimize all perceived risk to their safety, we paralyze them. We pull them out of public, because the easiest to spot dangers seem to be there. The thing is, I'm not willing to let a vague potential risk outweigh this reward I care about a lot, and that's what I've started saying to people when they tell me I'm not being "safe." For once, in this one small way, I'm making the choice to move through the world how I want – because when I round the corner at 4th street and the beat of my favorite Eels song starts banging in my ears, I feel fucking untouchable, and honestly, a little more human.

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