I never considered myself a stereotypical “feminist.” I wanted to wear a bra and spend time in the kitchen. I was just fine with not having to register for selective service, and as long as I retained the right to vote, which ironically has been called into question by many supporters of a certain presidential candidate this month, I would be content. Part of me thought “rape culture” was an exaggeration. I had never been a victim of unwanted sexual attention, and I didn’t entirely disagree with those who touted the “she was asking for it” argument.
Then I decided to run a marathon. Not because I thought I needed to get healthier or work out more or look better; I just wanted to see if I could do it, for me. I started training nearly 10 months before the October race, knowing it would take me awhile to get over the six-mile hump. I was living in Washington, D.C. at the time and began running in winter when few people are out on the streets, and I was covered headband to thermal socks in thick clothing. During my five runs a week, a car would occasionally honk as it passed me, or I’d get the upward nod or a whistle from a man on the sidewalk. I thought nothing of it.
But as spring came, the streets and downtown area — where I preferred to run — became increasingly crowded, I shed my wool tights in exchange for running short, and my mileage increased from 20 miles a week to 30 miles a week. Now I started to notice. I’d get a few car honks, a few nods, a few whistles, the occasional lewd comment shouted at me from across the street. But I could still blow it off; boys will be boys.
Late spring, 35 to 45 miles a week. I began to count the number of catcalls I would get during my runs, disaggregating by level of inappropriateness, age and gender of the offender. This was certainly not a precise science, but it gave me something to think about while I ran, besides the general misery of my legs and the little man in my head telling me that running marathons was for stronger people than me. When I finished each run, I would record my distance and time in my meticulously detailed running journal, and in the notes section I would record the number of unwanted or rude comments. Bearing in mind that I guessed at age ranges based on the very limited view of my gentleman callers and that I omitted car honks from my data entirely, by mid-summer, I was averaging about one catcall per mile. Mostly, the offenders were male, ranging anywhere from middle school boys to elderly men. Some were as innocent as a wink or an upward nod, others as lewd as comments made by our Republican candidate for president.
I couldn’t blow it off anymore. It’s one thing to get harassed once per mile while running less than three miles in a day; it’s another thing entirely when you’re running 15+ miles. I’m not a fast runner. Imagine getting catcalled about every 10 minutes for more than two and a half hours. I started avoiding certain streets on my runs, construction sites and areas with sports bars. But I had little reprieve. I turned up my music, put on my blinders and just ran, for me.
One day in late July, I ducked out of my office a few minutes early to get in a short run before teaching at my Pilates studio. It was around 95 degrees with 80 percent humidity, but I only planned to run two miles or so. I changed into the running clothes I’d brought for such weather: bright orange running shorts, a sports bra and a purple mesh tank top. About a mile into my run, a man passing me on the sidewalk said something to me that no human should ever think, and certainly should never verbalize. This was not a playful wink or a honk or even a lewd comment. This was a verbal assault — a truly repulsive comment that cannot and should not be printed, or even repeated. I didn’t get a good look at the man, and I’m glad I didn’t. I ran past, said nothing, stopped in a running store a block away for a drink of water, and then took the metro back to my Pilates studio to avoid having to run back the way I came. The words stuck in my head and I could feel my face burning as I sat on the metro, partially from the day’s heat, partially from the anger I felt at not finishing my run, but mostly out of shame. Why did I feel ashamed?
I arrived in the air conditioned bliss of my Pilates studio — a tranquil place with paintings of forests and waterfalls and a community of people I had come to love and trust. These women were some of the most supportive people you could imagine. My Pilates studio was filled with strong, health-conscious women who were there to be the best versions of themselves, to de-stress from a day at work or to take a few minutes’ break from raising families to focus on their bodies and their health.
The shame of the verbal assault began to drift away. It must have still shown on my face though, because as I entered the mat room, a woman I knew quite well, in her late 50s or so, asked me what was wrong. I mentioned briefly that I’d gotten a pretty nasty catcall on my run and that it was still ringing in my ears. The woman paused for a second, looked at me with a motherly expression and said, “Honey, I’m so sorry that happened. Maybe you could wear some of your longer shorts around here.”
“Wear some of your longer shorts.” The words rang in my head loudly enough to drown out the obscene comment from earlier. I looked down at my body, saw my mesh tank top, my running shorts and my running shoes. These clothes were made for running by companies that specialize in women’s fitness apparel. I saw my bare legs, exposed to just a few inches below my hips. “Yeah, I guess.”
I sat down on my mat to stretch. Was this outfit inappropriate? Did I ask for it? But then it hit me. This. Right here. This is rape culture. I wasn’t dressed this way to get attention from men, or from anyone. I was wearing this outfit because it was 95 degrees and I was training for a marathon. I was running … for me. I wore these shorts because they don’t chafe in the heat, because I had been to a Nike outlet earlier that year, and these were the cheapest running shorts. And yet another woman, well-intentioned though I’m sure she was, had advised me not to wear this outfit again, because it would attract the unwanted attention of men. Was the man excused for his nauseating comment because he couldn’t help saying his thoughts out loud while I was dressed this way? Am I to blame for daring to wear such clothes when there might be a man present? Was I asking for it?
No. I was not asking for it. No runner is asking for it.
No woman is asking to be a victim. We’re not running — or walking — down the street, hoping to get honked at or to have strangers yell obscenities at us that would put Billy Bush and Donald Trump to shame. And no, we do not take it as a compliment. Yet, when those things happen, we feel like we’re to blame.
I started to think of my options to avoid future unpleasant situations like the one I’d experienced that day. I could follow the woman’s advice: wear longer clothes, suffer through the heat and deal with the one-catcall-per-mile. Anyone who knows me knows that’s not an option. I don’t do heat.
I could run when it’s cooler outside, early in the morning. Yes! That’s the perfect solution. I’ll run very early in the morning, when there are fewer people on the streets and I can cover my bare legs without suffering from heat exhaustion. I could run in the dark, in the city, very early in the morning …
But if something happened to me then … what would people say?
Contact Elizabeth Naro at