What It’s Really Like to Run as a Black Woman

Getty / Christopher Malcom

To date, I’ve ran eight half-marathons, one full marathon, and over a dozen 5Ks and 10Ks. Running has always made me feel unstoppable. It’s physically taxing but mentally and emotionally recharging. It has produced a new level of dedication in me and helped me develop an intense trust in myself and body. As a former cheerleader, it also taps into my competitive side as I strive to beat my mile times or overcome a steady hill.

As much as I love running, running as a 5’2″, curvaceous Black woman has presented its challenges. I try to run one to two races a year, everything from 5Ks to full marathons, which means the large majority of my weeks are dedicated to training. I learned early on that when running while Black, as is the case with so much of Black life, my body and appearance are perceived first, versus being noticed for my talent or not being noticed at all – a privilege that non-Black runners are so freely awarded. I’ve been accosted, followed, and in some cases stalked while trying to practice the sport that I love.

And it’s not just me. Black runners, especially Black women runners, across the nation have shared the same harrowing experiences as me. “I’ve been catcalled, approached, and followed in various instances,” says Vitoria Cabrera, a sales operations director and marathoner.

She shares one distressing incident that, sadly, many runners can relate to. “A man catcalled me from his car and I ignored it, as I typically do whether running or not. But the man kept calling out to me, asking if I was married, asking if I wanted to talk, telling me that I looked good, and just generally being a nuisance,” Cabrera says. When she had to stop to tie her shoe, the man pulled up beside her and continued taunting her; she was only a block away from home, but was scared to run straight there and reveal where she lived. So Cabrera ended up circling her neighborhood, hoping to shake the man off.

“I Just Do Not Trust Anybody”

Several studies have confirmed how widespread experiences like mine and Cabrera’s are. In a 2020 survey by RunGrl, a media company for Black women runners, 90 percent of respondents said they’d received unwanted comments while on a run. One in three had been followed, like Cabrera, and five percent had been assaulted.

For myself and numerous other Black women runners, we try to manage all the factors that are partially in our control: we’ll choose highly trafficked running routes, avoid outfits that might be considered revealing, run without headphones, and inform friends of our routes before heading out.

Nina Joy Mena, MD, a runner and the owner of psychiatric services company NJoy Life, says she avoids running at night, often switches up running routes to eliminate predictability, carries safety devices, and only shares about her runs on social media afterward, never live.

“I just do not trust anybody and it’s unfortunate that it really has had to come to that,” says Ashlee Green, a cofounder of RunGrl. “I’m always conscious of what’s happening around me, what people are doing, and what their intentions might be. It’s caused me to be hyperfixated on safety and being vigilant.”

Unfortunately, however, most of us have been catcalled and harassed even when we take every possible precaution. “While running in a pretty suburban and sleepy part of Brooklyn, an older gentleman told me that my body looked good and that I had a nice butt,” Cabrera tells PS. “It was 98 degrees with 98 percent humidity so I wore a sports bra and shorts. But I’ve been catcalled while fully clothed too.”

Sadly, any environment can present hypersexualization – the runners I spoke to describe being harassed everywhere, from the street to professional settings to the gym. “When I used to work at my corporate job before starting my own business, I would change [into my running clothes] in my car rather than in the office to avoid unwanted comments about my appearance as I prepared for a run, even if it was said in a ‘joking’ manner,” says Radiance Basden, a Lululemon ambassador and the CEO of Rooted in Radiance. “Instead of appreciating my effort and dedication to keeping my body healthy, some individuals focused on my clothing or appearance. Looking back, it’s disheartening to be judged based on what I’m wearing rather than my commitment and passion for running.”

While Cabrera describes making “mental notes of places where [she] felt objectified or known areas where others have been assaulted” and avoiding running in those spots, she adds, “I’ve been objectified in the gym, so running on a treadmill doesn’t provide any additional layer of comfort.”

Being approached on runs is so common that many Black runners I spoke with recount strategies for escaping (relatively) unscathed. Dr. Mena says she zigzags through packs of men she unexpectedly encounters. Cabrera has a go-to response she pulls out when she needs to neutralize a situation. “Sometimes when they say, ‘Damn, you look good!’ I’ll respond with, ‘I know, right?’ and 99.9 percent of the time, the men laugh and go back to whatever they were doing,” she says. “It’s unsettling to think the potential for anything to happen is so prevalent. But I love running so much.”

Changing the Course For Black Women Runners

Recreational running was originally marketed in the late 1960s as “free, easy, and relaxing.” The idea was that all you needed were rubber-soled shoes, a commitment to personal health, and the ability to go outdoors a few times a week.

Decades later, you wouldn’t expect this slogan to still require an asterisk: running can be “free, easy, and relaxing*” – *unless you’re Black (or a person of color, or in a larger body, or a person with a disability, or visibly queer).

Basden believes that being a victim of hypersexualization or the fear of experiencing it can keep Black women out of sports in general. And this isn’t just recreational joggers that are sexualized on the streets, pro athletes are also facing this problem. “As an athlete all my life, I’ve seen how our uniforms have always been sexualized, and I notice it more now than ever,” Basden says. “Despite my small frame, I still face sexualization, and I have runner friends with more curves who experience it even more intensely.”

Despite these challenges, all the runners I spoke with for this story hope that the potential risks don’t keep people away from the sport. “Overt sexualization exists everywhere: on our phones, television screens, music, the train, the supermarket, sitting on your stoop, you name it. You can’t get away from it,” Cabrera says. “Avoiding it would involve simply sitting at home and staring at the wall.”

Inclusive run groups are one source of safety, support, and hope for Black women runners, and they’re becoming more common across the country. “I feel safest running in groups because I dare anyone to try something with me when running with 100-plus friends,” Cabrera says.

Although she was once harassed while on a group run, Cabrera used it as a moment of education when a man runner from the group asked what he could have done in the future if it happens again. “My running group now has open discussions about incidents that happen while we’re out doing what we love, whether we are together or not, so that all are aware of hot spots and trends,” she says.

The athletes I spoke with would like to see the formation of more inclusive groups like RunGrl, Running Sistahs Social Club, and Black Runners Connection to further create safe and teachable spaces. “Encouraging and supporting our voices and stories can also help challenge stereotypes and raise awareness and to participate without fear of being hypersexualized,” Basden says.

But she notes that a lack of representation in running is part of the problem. Running is still overwhelmingly seen as a white person’s activity. Basden believes that if the media portrayed more accurate and respectful diverse running stories, Black runners would benefit.

“Organizations can create policies and training programs to provide educational content about respectful behavior and the psychological impact of hypersexualization,” she shares. “Providing safe reporting mechanisms for harassment and discrimination can empower Black women to speak up about their experiences.”

Accurate representation would also show other Black women that this space can include them. Dr. Mena says the media could “inspire and motivate Black individuals to engage in running, knowing that their experiences are valued and celebrated – ultimately enhancing their overall running experience.” Because the truth is, when you are shown one image so many times, it’s hard to feel welcomed or supported if you don’t fit into that mold.

Ultimately, Black women should not have to choose between running to improve their health and moods and not exercising to avoid the male gaze. My hope is that Black women won’t be forced to put aside their passion for running due to hypersexualization. Because really, doesn’t everyone deserve to feel safe while doing what they love?

Natasha Marsh is a freelance writer who writes about fashion, beauty, and lifestyle. Prior to freelancing, she held styling staff positions at The Wall Street Journal, Burberry, Cosmopolitan Magazine, British GQ, and Harper’s Bazaar.

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