I run frequently in the dark, unafraid, over moorland and hills, but always in company and with a torch on my head. I run more rarely in my city, on urban streets, in the dark. This afternoon I lay on my sofa in a gloom that I cannot explain, and I knew that it could be softened by running, but I didn’t want to run. I didn’t want to get up. I wanted to lie under a thick blanket with a cat on my legs, and stare into space.
I got up. I walked upstairs. I put on my running kit. I put on my shoes. I took a house key off my keyring. I forgot to take my phone, or any water, or my safety wristband that lists my name and contact details, my emergency contact details and my blood group: A+. No known allergies.
I just had to get out and run. It was urgent.
But I am a woman, and it was dark, and I was going to run along the streets of my city, and all these things mean that this run would always be different for me than for a man. Don’t protest. I have run with men in dark woods with headtorches, where I would never dare run on my own — and no would any woman I know — and asked them whether they would run here alone, and they have answered with heartbreaking thoughtlessness, “yes, why not?”
I have run along a canal and a man has looked at me and his gaze has lingered for just a little too long, and I have thought about him and his whereabouts and whether he is following, and where might he be waiting, for the next several miles of my run and he has ruined them.
I am not anxious or scared as a rule. I’ve been to dangerous places, in war and post-war, and I have been very afraid in risky situations. I don’t think I am oversensitive about safety. But I think all women runners must think like this. A couple of days ago on Twitter a woman posted a question: what would you do, women, if men were absent for 24 hours? And so many answered that they would run, or walk, or be free, without thought of risk of what-might-happens. that it was heartbreaking (and of course got the “not-all-men” brigade out in force). (It’s not all men.) (Men are perpetrators of 80% of violent crime.) (Many victims of violent crime are men.) (Many victims of violent crime are women.)
So here is an example of how my brain worked, on an ordinary four-mile run around ordinary streets in an ordinary city, on a winter’s day after dark.
Which way shall I go
Which way is the safest
Shall I go up the main road which has more cars or the residential street with a wider pavement but fewer cars
Should I go at 4 or at 5 when more people are coming home from work and there will be more people around
Which street has the most lights
Which street has the most lights and houses that are not set too far back from the street because if something happens I don’t want them to be too far back that I can’t get help
I’ll go up the main road because though I dislike running near traffic, but it will have the most people around so it will be safe and then I’ll turn along another main road but then I have to run past restaurants and bars though what if someone bothers me there, a drunk, or a pack of men or anyone
Never mind I’ll risk it, it’s early, maybe people aren’t drunk yet. I’ll go on the main road with the most lights even though the pavements there are bad and I could trip
I want to run down the road past the park but I know it has no street lights. I think it’s too risky
But maybe I can anyway because it’s rush hour and there are lots of cars and it’s not too long, about half a mile
But that’s half a mile in darkness
But there are grass playing fields on both sides so someone could easily drag me off the pavement
But they wouldn’t do that in sight of passing traffic
Which side of the road should I run on: if I run on the left, traffic can see my reflective jacket better but someone could stop and grab me or heckle
If I run on the right it would be hard for a car to stop wouldn’t it because it would hold up traffic
I’m not going to go down by the park
But if I go down the residential road on the far side of the park instead, how light is it and how many people will there be walking about and how posh are the houses and how far back from the road because remember when that man followed me when I was running on the posh street and no-one would have heard
I’ll go down to just above the park and turn right and run along roads that are quiet but well-lit and hope they’re OK
But hang on that man has just come out of that ginnel and it’s not very long and it has two street lights so I’ll take that instead even though it’s a ginnel and all my instincts tell me to avoid ginnels
But sod that why should I be scared of running around my own city
I take the ginnel and turn left onto a dark residential street. There are lights but not many and they are not bright
On the other side of the road are two people walking and a person walking a dog. I think, do they feel safe because there are two of them
Why won’t my brain shut up about risk all the bloody time
I run past a young man and notice him because I notice everyone because I have to. What might he do, what will he do, should I be worried, should I cross the road, no it’s fine, he’s walking on
I run on. I run fast. I pass the grammar school, set back off the road. I have run these streets many times, but always in daylight or company. Tonight I am angry: why should I be scared of my own city. Why can’t I run on the streets without worrying about everything, everyone, every possibility
I run fast enough for my purposes, not so fast that I might trip. I turn into another residential street, split by a grass bank of vegetation in the middle. This street is so familiar, I feel safer here, for no reason at all.
I know there is a good mile of flattish street, and then I could turn down my steep training hill
But the path that goes down my steep training hill is narrow and so is the road, and it goes under a bridge where cars must slow down, a perfect pinch point. I shouldn’t go down this road, because even after the bridge the road hugs dark woods where anyone could be, dark woods that I love but which I don’t run in on my own at night. So stupid: who can tell a woman from a man when she is in dark clothing with a blinding headtorch?
I have no headtorch. I am pinned to the roads
I should not go down this road. It’s not safe.
I turn left down the narrow path, under the bridge, fast, fast, fast down the hill, next to the woods, the fast of the unsafe combined with the fuck-it-ness I also feel. Cars coming up the hill, rushing home. They could stop. They don’t stop.
I get to the bottom and have two routes choices: a good flat run along the valley road, but the path is dark and badly lit and again hugs the woods.
I choose the hill instead: a residential one with lights.
No people on the streets. No-one is walking.
I run up the hill, turn right up another hill, turn right into my street. I stop at the wall outside the park and stretch.
I am home safe.
I was never scared.
I was never not thinking about my safety. Because that is what I have been taught to do, by life.