IT was a particularly gloomy January evening when I saw the equally gloomy BBC headline: “One in three women harassed while running, survey finds.” I immediately knew it was time to put my New Year’s resolution into action. So I got my running gear on, waited for a break in the rain, then headed out into the darkness.
I wasn’t hopeful of succeeding first time. Friends had been sceptical about my chances. The resolution isn’t about keeping fit, you see, but keeping optimistic. My plan, for the entirety of 2017, is to offer a high-five to every fellow runner I pass for the first time.
Running is boring. People who talk about running, to people who don’t do running, are gold medal contenders in the Boring Olympics. But it’s free, requires no specialist equipment or skill, keeps you fit and helps clear your head, so it’s little wonder so many people resolve to give it a whirl at the start of each year. The main snag with this is that winter is the worst possible time to take up running, particularly if you spend most daylight hours chained to a desk. And that’s without factoring in the Scottish weather.
I’m not suggesting for a minute that we should minimise horrible experiences, but I do hope women don’t read headlines about harassment and resolve to stay indoors
I understand why English Athletics wants to highlight the harassment women experience while out running on their own. I understand why The Guardian followed up with an appeal for user-generated content headed “Women: have you been hassled while out running?” I’m not suggesting for a minute that we should minimise horrible experiences, but I do hope women don’t read those headlines and resolve to stay indoors. I’d like to hear positive stories too.
I’ve never felt harassed when out running, but I appreciate that not everyone responds in the same way to what I term “spectator interaction”. One woman’s shout of encouragement is another’s unwelcome intrusion, and not everyone’s experience is enhanced by the prospect of a full house in running bingo (that’s a “Run, Forrest, Run!”, a horn toot, plus an outburst of generic admiration such as a “gaun yersel hen” or a “whoosh!”).
It’s not a competition, but the experiences my male friends recount are a lot less friendly
It’s not a competition, but the experiences my male friends recount are a lot less friendly. One pal earned a “haw, fatso” when he first took up running, and after shedding a few pounds graduated to “haw, psycho”, while others report being chased or even attacked. None has given up altogether, but some have changed their routes or the timing of their runs.
English Athletics commissioned its research to coincide with the launch of its RunTogether programme, which starts from the premise that running is “most fun when shared with others”. This is an England-only scheme, so those in Scotland who clocked the “run and be harassed” headlines will have to do their own research if they want to get in touch with informal running groups. One great starting point for anyone seeking safety in numbers is the wonderful grassroots phenomenon Parkrun – timed Saturday-morning 5ks in parks all over the country that anyone can enter for free. There are 26 in Scotland including five in Glasgow alone, three of which were established as Commonwealth Games legacy events. Not only are the routes marked out every weekend, but some truly special folk get out of their beds just to come and act as volunteer marshalls. In the more demonstrative parts of the country they even clap and cheer when you pass by.
Some of the best aspects of pounding the pavement are lost if people decide that going it alone is too risky
These opportunities are great, but running in a group isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, and it generally takes a bit of organising. Some of the best aspects of pounding the pavement – the easy availability, the head-clearing potential – are lost if people decide that going it alone is too risky and harassment or outright abuse is inevitable. If the great majority retreat into gyms, a pleasingly solitary pursuit might become downright lonely. I always feel spurred on by the sight of a fellow runner, and a bit disappointed that the camaraderie of Parkrun isn’t replicated elsewhere. Hence my modest resolution to try and generate a spark of team spirit, without being intrusive or invading anyone’s space; without doing anything that might be perceived as harassing or belittling. To maybe raise a smile, or encourage someone when they need a wee boost. To offer a simple reminder that we’re all in this together, whether we’re in high-end Lycra or an old T-shirt and hand-me-down shorts. That we’re all just trying our personal best. That when you rub our feet the wrong way, we all blister.
The man in the fluorescent orange top appeared before me within the first two minutes of my run
Reader, I was high-fived. I was high-fived on my very first attempt. The man in the fluorescent orange top appeared before me within the first two minutes of my run. I had no time to pause, or to assess his potential friendliness, as we were approaching each other at a fair lick. So I simply raised my gloved hand into the space between us, and then … impact. I might have whooped. I definitely did an instinctive double fist-pump. I’ve never felt so alive. He was already long gone, powering away behind me, but I had an extra spring in my step. Two strangers, united by a simple act of putting one foot in front of the other on a dreich winter’s night.
You can follow my efforts (and commiserate when I’m left hanging) by checking out #Hi5AnotherRunner on Twitter. Or, better still, join in!
A version of this article first appeared in The National.