Over the past couple of weeks, the upward curve of the mileage required by my marathon training plan has started to run into the downward curve of the daylight hours available for running, which means I find myself, more and more, running in the dark. Last night was one such run. I got out of work at 4 p.m. and by the time I made it home, dressed in my running gear and was out the door, it was ten minutes until 5 p.m. I estimated that I had about 90 minutes to do the ten-mile run I had scheduled (eight miles at race pace, plus a mile each for warm-up and cool down) before dark fell.
Well, I estimated badly. I was just about to start the seventh mile of my run when I realized the sun was quickly saying bye-bye, and because I was nearing the end of a spur that took me three miles from home, calling the run off was not an option. I was just going to have to finish the run.
Now, before I continue, I need to say that I was running on the Pinellas Trail, which is this fabulous recreational trail that is amazing during the daylight hours. At night, though, it is dark, dark, dark. There are no overhead lights anywhere, just the occasional light courtesy of a traffic signal at an intersection or the bright lights from the playing field from the nearby high school. When you move away from those little pockets of light, it’s like running into oblivion, particularly because I didn’t have a flash light or a head lamp. (And by the way, I know this is ill-advised and I plan to fix it as soon as possible.)
And yet, despite the fact that I could only see maybe thirty feet in front of me, everything about the run was perfect. I felt light on my feet and powerful. Occasionally I’d look up and see bats swooping down overhead. When I’d emerge from part of the path that was heavily canopied with trees, I could see the dark sky overhead streaked with pink and purple from the rapidly vanishing sun. It was eerie and beautiful, and I felt a sense of liberation and magic that I rarely feel when I run during the day. I felt like I probably could have kept running for miles.
This was a huge departure from my previous experiences with night running. Two years ago I wrote about why I don’t run at night, but my attitude started to change one night last December, when I went with Brian for a run on the trail around a nearby lake. He was loving every second of it, but all I could think was that I needed to be on high alert for the omnipresent Attacker of Female Joggers* that apparently lurks in every shadow wherever women run outside. I mentioned to Brian that I was feeling afraid and he just laughed and said, “If you’re going to be afraid of anything, be afraid of the coyotes we saw that time we raced here.” (Gee, thanks, babe.)
Our divergent responses to the same situation made me think critically about my emotional reaction to running in the dark, specifically how I was so afraid of it while he considered it just another adventure. In this I could see our differences both in temperament but specifically in our socialization. I am positive that he has never been bombarded with cautionary tales about the peril he is sure to face if he walks or runs alone at night, at least not the way women are. (Seriously, the idea of the female night runner as a rapist magnet is so pervasive it even became the subject of an Onion spoof.)
When I dug through my feelings I started to feel like it was unfair that he could be so carefree about running at night, while I was basically running with one eye trained over my shoulder (which is no way to run, especially if you don’t want to trip and fall and break your face). But I also realized that just because I had been socialized to be afraid of running alone at night, it didn’t necessarily follow that I had to spend the rest of my life being afraid. Fear is something that exists inside of my own head, which is actually great, because it means that I am the one who has control over it.
(Hear that, fear? I OWN YOU.)
So I started trying to approach this from more of a logical perspective and less of an alarmist “OMG! We’re all gonna die” mindset. My job makes this easy to do because reports of any crime that might be even the slightest bit newsworthy in a seven-county area will wind up in my email inbox, and over the six years I have worked in this job, there has only been one report of an attack on the Pinellas Trail. That attack happened several miles from my home, and the victim was a man on a bicycle. No attacks have been reported in the parks near my home. Statistically speaking, the trails on which I run are far safer than the roads in my neighborhood.
In fact, reports of attacks on joggers or cyclists of any gender are quite rare. Don’t get me wrong – they do happen. But they don’t happen only to women, and they don’t happen nearly as often as people seem to believe they do.
What does happen quite often? Car crashes! Lots and lots of car crashes! And yet you never, ever hear anyone warning women – or men, for that matter – not to drive. (Except in Saudi Arabia.) And if you want to talk about actual attacks on women, a recent WHO report found that 40 percent of murdered women around the world died at the hands of their male partners, and yet no one says women should not get involved in romantic relationships with men.
I get why no one says women shouldn’t get into relationships with men, because the vast majority of men are not violent abusers. I also get why no one is saying people shouldn’t drive, because even though car crashes happen all the time, they still involve only a small fraction of the cars on the road each day. Both of these things still pose bigger risks to women than running at night, and yet even in the year 2013, it’s still implicitly accepted that women should not run alone at night.
The threat of rape and murder at the hands of strangers is used quite extensively to curtail women’s freedom in the world. It’s effective because that fear burrows deep inside of us, and so we change our behavior in hopes of avoiding such violent outcomes. (And I’m sure part of that is fueled by a desire to avoid being blamed should the unthinkable actually happen.) In this way we become agents of our own oppression.
But then what do we lose out on? Well, here’s something Sam at Fit, Feminist and (Almost) Fifty wrote about it:
There is something very special about the dark. It’s powerful. And there is something that feels mysterious and secretive about it. The dark hours of the morning feel like stolen time, extra hours of dark before the day really begins.
She also said she likes it because it makes her feel like a speedy ninja! I know what she means by that. I felt sleek and stealthy running in the night, like I was almost supernatural. It was a totally new experience, and one I look forward to doing again and again (but with the proper equipment, of course). And to think, all this time I was afraid of it because of the literal bogeyman in the dark.
I was going to finish this up by saying that I don’t think women should take to the streets and trails en masse at night but you know what? I think we should, and it looks like it’s already happening in some parts of the workd. Check out this article about She Runs the Night, a Nike-organized women-only night race in Sydney, which was organized with the goal of motivating “women to lace-up and discover the excitement and enjoyment of night running with their friends.” Hells yeah!
*I have told my coworkers that if I am attacked while I am out running and they write a story in which I am referred to as a “jogger,” I will come back from the grave and haunt them.