Running with the Devil
I took up running about ten years ago. But I don’t call myself a runner.
I don’t run very fast or very far. I don’t log miles or keep time or wear a bracelet that tracks my heartbeat.
I’ve been wearing the same frayed sports bra and hideous nylon shorts forever, though I re-up on a new pair of Brooks trainers from Fleet Fleet every eight months or so. I run alone because I don’t like to feel competitive and don’t enjoy other people in the morning. I also make a lot of stops to look at flowers and bugs, and real runners don’t like that.
My gait is irregular and inefficient, and I tend to break into dance moves when Lizzo circles into my playlist. Between that and all the zigzagging so the dogs can sniff out the latest catscat drop, you might not even call it running, as it more resembles “drunken trotting” or “loping like an arthritic animal.” Like Prancercise, only less graceful.
I just pick up my feet and hurl myself around enough to jack up my metabolism and suck in some fresh morning air by myself for a few miles. It helps corral the squirrels of my mind in the same direction for the day, and it also brings me a lot of joy to listen to my favorite songs while witnessing the world in soft sideways light as the sun crests the treeline, the birds shaking off the dew.
Though I may never keep up with them, I still feel a camaraderie with my more disciplined, better-dressed sprinter sistren. As women who run (prance, lope, whatever) alone, we are united in vulnerability as we pass through dark neighborhoods and playgrounds, past parking garages and empty streets where danger lurks. We look over our shoulders constantly, the specter of harassment or violence galloping alongside us, the rush of freedom tempered by fear.
Last month’s murder of mother and kindergarten teacher Eliza Fletcher while on her regular pre-dawn morning run in downtown Memphis has brought this ever-present threat out of the shadows. Her route was well-lit and full of security cameras, which captured her abduction on video but could not save her.
Even worse, after her killer was caught, social media continued to question whether she should have been out at that hour in the first place, the crusty old misogyny and hypocrisy of “she asked for it” bedeviling the conversation rather than why it was an already accused rapist and predator was still out stalking women.
Listicles appeared and local police gave workshops on how to stay safe while running: Don’t use headphones, don’t wear a ponytail, don’t show too much skin. It’s all decent advice—even common sense I guess?—that minimizes the risk of being noticed by a psychotic stranger and yanked by the hair into a car because you were too distracted by your bombass playlist. But it all contributes to a type of functional agoraphobia for women. And none of it will push the onus of responsibility onto a society that believes women who step out alone somehow deserve to be hurt.
“Female runners, and particularly runners from additionally marginalized communities that are affected by violence and harassment, are routinely told to modify their behaviors, and limit their freedom as though this violence is an unchangeable force. We can’t change the culture, the assumption goes, so we must change the women.”
For a few weeks, I did change my behavior on my runs. I wore even uglier shorts and kept my music at a barely discernible level. I carried around a mini taser in my pocket, but I got too freaked out that I would zzzzzt myself by accident.
I avoided my favorite morning route, a three-ish mile dash across Montgomery Street to the Tatemville neighborhood on the westside, where there is a large, lovely pond tucked between the old county fairgrounds and the Cash and Carry car graveyard on Staley Ave. There’s a parking lot for senior center at the front, but I always enter on the dirt path on the far side, where there’s an old oak tree that drops acorns the size of tennis balls. The only other creatures I ever see there are flocks of Canadian geese, croaky egrets, and an older lady who stomps around the paved trail with a baseball bat.
Savannah Agenda’s Eric Curl recently reported that the huge development planned for the area has been postponed, and for now it remains surrounded by untouched woods that abut the railroad tracks. To my knowledge no crime has been committed here, though my husband insists upon referring to this bucolic and remote setting as Rape Lake.
We have fought for years over my weekly jaunts there, his concern for my safety at the heart of his loud requests that I find someone to run with or contain my expeditions to our own neighborhood. I counter that our neighborhood doesn’t have a pond and is only three blocks over, and not necessarily any safer.
In fact, I argue, when other women see me running around that lake, it gives them permission to be there, and the more of us who claim it, the safer it gets. I don’t know whether that’s actually true, but I sure hope so. What is true is that though local Republicans keep bellyaching about badass District Attorney Shalena Cook-Jones’ progressive social justice policies, violent crime in Savannah is actually down.
Anyway, the discussion usually ends with me prancing down the street.
In a world where presenting as a woman is inherently dangerous almost everywhere—I am thinking of our trans sisters and the brave warriors standing up in Iran as well as all the Americans now being denied the right to choose their own reproductive destiny—I like to think that gallivanting by one’s self in a public space is a defiant and hopeful act. Running alone flips off the culture that tells us we don’t belong, that we’re too fragile, that the Bad Guys will get us. Yes, the risk is real—may Eliza’s memory be a blessing—but the more women who fill the streets, the less room there is for society’s excuses.
I also offer my forays across Montgomery as a small act of anti-racism, a practice of pushing against my personal biases about a neighborhood I lived next to for 16 years but had no reason to visit until I became aware of the lake. I’ve cavorted past the blocks of well-kept small houses long enough now that the residents give me a friendly wave and call out heyhowyadoin, which is more than I can say for the snooty millennials traipsing around Ardsley Park these days.
Frankly, I think I have a lot less to worry about from the guys smoking weed on their grandma’s porch at 8am than the creepy dude who just moved into the new overpriced apartments on Abercorn. Though I remain straight terrified of the mean auntie with the rose bushes who once yelled at me for throwing a tied-up bag of dog poop in the garbage can in the lane behind her house. (Where else should I have put it? Garbage cans are owned by the city, right?)
I’m not a real runner, I promise, but I missed those meditative morning miles, and my legs itched to get back to familiar ground. So I returned to the lake this week, with promises to be extra vigilant and a renewed conviction that I will not allow the psychos or the patriarchy kill my joy.
It was gorgeous as ever, a light mist rising from the water. A cormorant bobbed on the surface, occasionally dipping its head under to hunt for breakfast. It was quiet except for the occasional crash from the junkyard, and I jogged and danced and jump-roped the dog leashes and exchanged a knowing smile with the baseball bat lady, two women claiming space in the world.
I may not ever outrun the fear, but I’ll never stop chasing the freedom of fresh dawn air.
And even though we’re heading into the time of year when the sun rises later and the mornings will be dim, I refuse to let the darkness take over.
Live your life like there’s no tomorrow ~ JLL
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