Jordan A. Blacksmith—hit by car while on a run, Lodge Grass, MT – deceased
Ahmaud Arbery—shot by white supremacists while on a run, Georgia – deceased
Sarmistha Sen—attacked while on a run, Texas – deceased
Wendy Martinez—stabbed while on a run, Washington, DC – deceased
As a female runner, I cannot relax too much and lower my radar. I am also Lakota, a woman of colour. I cannot run forward without looking over my shoulder. Like my relatives above (as we believe we are all related), and the long list of others like them, I run at a risk.
My dad tried to teach me this. My mom shared her many and often horrific stories. But I remained naïve as a youth when I went out for my runs. As I grew older, I noticed the cars slowing down. I heard the catcalling, the lascivious stares and vulgar comments. I would toggle between numb and threatened, trying to filter it out but knowing I could only do so at my own risk. I wondered, why do boys and men feel they can be so violent and threatening with such abandon? Why do they think it’s okay to make me feel this way?
“AS A FEMALE RUNNER, I CANNOT RELAX TOO MUCH AND LOWER MY RADAR.”
In high school, these comments turned into actual threats of physical harm and violence, not just for being a woman but for being a woman of color. When I was walking, a car full of young men slowly rolled alongside me, making disgusting and racial comments; threatening me. They even brandished weapons. They were white males, and there was nothing to inhibit them from doing this in a public, shared space. I was exposed, and I was brown.
I had a stalker in college who used my exposure as a runner to terrorize me. He would come to my track meets and just stare. He sent creepy and sometimes violent emails that made me cringe. He would mysteriously be on the bike paths where I took my cool-down runs, just staring at me. I couldn’t run alone for months. It was scary. I didn’t realize how much it impacted me until the start of an indoor track meet. As the starting gun went off, I saw him out of the corner of my eye just past the starting line. I realized in some Pavlovian connection, that he and a gunshot both meant the same thing: danger.
Needless to say, I didn’t race well that day. There was no more freedom, no more joy, just training for a while. Those were dark days, and I had a hard time imagining what it would feel like to run alone with joy ever again.
To be an Indigenous woman, a Lakota runner with brown skin, means that I am more of a target. When I speak with people about privilege, especially men, you would be surprised how many people don’t understand the concept. So I ask them to think about how different it is for a man to walk down the street than it is for a woman, and how they plan to teach their daughters to navigate that. It’s a lesson they will never have to teach their sons unless their sons are Black or brown, BIPOC or Two-Spirit, etc. That sense of freedom, that ability to lose oneself completely in the act of walking or running, that is privilege, and it’s a privilege their daughters may never enjoy.
I’ve dedicated my life to my relatives and communities by being a community organizer and heart worker—rather than just being “hard work,” my work speaks to my heart and gives me purpose. In the process, I’ve heard more and more stories of people who have been victimized for simply being—a female, a minority, and outdoors. I have become more aware of the dangers and more alert to the signs of human and sex trafficking, more aware of the silence that many endured from experiencing abuse, violence, and harassment. I’m more informed about the epidemic and international crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls, Two-Spirits, and relatives as I organize to amplify this issue, the voices of families, the work of advocates, and the reports. Rather than be frozen, rather than be silenced or still, I’m using my running platform to raise awareness through prayer and information sharing.
“IT’S INCREDIBLY RARE THAT I RUN OR DO ANYTHING OUTSIDE WHEN ITS DARK OUT, UNLESS SOMEONE IS WITH ME.”
But a sense of purpose and a sense of safety are not the same thing. When I leave for a run or go to a place where I’ll be by myself for a while, I have to share my location with my partner, parents or whoever I am with. My loved ones and friends ask me to do this because they know the work I do. They know the statistics I constantly talk about and who I advocate for. Sometimes they’ll take a picture of me so they know exactly what I was wearing in case something happens. I have an index finger-sized pepper spray container that I put in my pocket or tuck under my watch to help me feel safe, or at least it helps my mom feel safe. It’s incredibly rare that I run or do anything outside when its dark out, unless someone is with me. At nighttime, I choose not to run. I change my routes to be unpredictable.
I hope to see a future where running is freedom for all who enjoy it, a space to disconnect from work and the day to day and reconnect with our surroundings, ourselves, and this glorious world we share. I hope we can be free from worrying, free from intimidation, free from violence, and free from unsafe situations that make us hesitant to even go out the door. I hope to see more visibility within the running community for my fellow Indigenous, Black, Brown, Asian, Muslim, Two-Spirit, LGBTQ+, non-binary runners and walkers, and people with disabilities in the running and wellness community. I want our lived experiences to be understood, so we are seen protected and heard—and so the list of names I shared at the beginning of the essay never has a chance to get longer.