The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion I can’t outrun the risks of being a woman runner. And I’m sick of it.

Melissa A. Sullivan after completing the 2018 Marine Corps Marathon. (Courtesy photo by the author)

Melissa A. Sullivan is a three-time Marine Corps Marathon finisher and is training for her fourth in October.

I will never forget when I charged up the final hill to complete my first Marine Corps Marathon in October 2018. At the base of the Iwo Jima memorial in Arlington, a young service member draped a medal with the famous eagle, globe and anchor insignia around my neck and congratulated me with a resounding OORAH!

Conquering those grueling 26.2 miles was exhilarating. I felt strong. I felt confident. I felt empowered. Until I went on a run a few days later.

It was a fall evening with a hint of crispness in the air. A group of men loitering in front of a convenience store started running behind me in D.C.’s Dupont Circle neighborhood and chased me for three blocks. I was terrified. Now I wasn’t running for a personal record. I was running for my life. My runner’s high was obliterated by the cold, sober reality of being a woman in this sport: Any sense of strength, confidence and power generated by running is fleeting.

I’ve been thinking of this ever since I learned the news last week about the death of Eliza Fletcher, the kindergarten teacher and mother of two children who was killed while on an early-morning run in Tennessee. Fletcher’s routine has been picked apart to somehow justify her fate — classic victim-blaming. But Fletcher could have done everything right as a runner, as most women who are attacked do. It doesn’t matter. The bleak truth is that violence finds us despite our best efforts to prevent it.

Reactions from the running community reveal that encounters such as the one I had are common among female and female-presenting runners of any age, location and ability. In an echo of #MeToo, countless women have come forward to share their stories, demonstrating that it’s in fact more shocking to learn about a woman who has not had a scary experience while on a run.

I’ve been forced off the Mount Vernon trail in broad daylight by an aggressive male cyclist. I’ve been tailed by an Uber driver — “just in case you get tired and need a ride” — despite my repeatedly declining his assistance. A man once exposed himself and attempted to ejaculate on me as I ran on the sidewalk in Navy Yard.

I’ve been catcalled, confronted, cornered, threatened and followed more times than I care to remember. Fortunately, the evening I was chased in Dupont Circle, the presence of a nearby police station deterred the men from pursuing me farther. But the menace is ever present.

Do not run at dawn or dusk. Cover up. Only run in a group. Do not post your run route. Change your run route. Try to de-escalate the situation. Do not back down. Leave one earbud out. Always be aware of your surroundings. Shouldn’t you run on the treadmill instead?

I’m tired of being told to register for a self-defense class. (I have.) I’m over second-guessing my hairstyle on the way out the door (because a ponytail makes it that much easier for an attacker to grab me). I’m fed up with the well-meaning but unsolicited advice to carry pepper spray, a flashlight and a whistle. (I do.)

Frankly, it seems not to matter what I do, what the thousands of other women runners who’ve been harassed and confronted while running do — every time we go out on a run, there is a chance we will not finish that run.

A few years ago, a Runner’s World survey found that “43 percent of women at least sometimes experience harassment on the run … compared with just 4 percent of men.” Like so many other women, I’m angry. I’m frustrated. I’m exhausted by the expectation that the onus to prevent the harassment and intimidation of female runners is, should be and always will be on us.

Not on a culture that normalizes the objectification, degradation and subjugation of women. Not on the broken justice system. Not on the urban planners who fail to provide sufficient lighting, jogging paths and other safe public spaces to exercise.

Of the various race photos taken of me, my favorite is from the 2019 Marine Corps Marathon. A torrential downpour made conditions miserable that day. I was drenched from head to toe, but I was smiling ear to ear. I remember breezing past the 17-mile marker on solid footing. Radiant and proud, I locked eyes with the camera. When I showed the photo to my boss, she said I reminded her of Wonder Woman.

When I think about why I run marathons, I think about that photo. I run to feel free, to be at peace, to ground myself. Running is my escape and my sacred practice. I intend to keep running as long as I can — dangers be damned.