To the Redheaded Runner I used to pass in my neighborhood —
I've never talked to you, but I've known you for over a decade now. I knew you when I taught myself to run around our Virginia streets to Linkin Park's "Meteora" in 2003 (oh, baby me). I knew you when I ran in giggling packs with my high school cross country team every afternoon in the fall. I knew you when I came back home to visit after college, always a little stunned by our uncanny knack to be out running at the same time, and somehow always passing each other as we ran in the opposite direction — me and "the Redheaded Runner," which is the infamous name that my mom and I gave you after seeing you over and over and over again.
In the ups and downs of my relationship with running, you've been like a North Star — always constant, rain or shine, running with the exact same ferocity in the exact same streets with that exact same red ponytail whipping behind you. But in the ten plus years that I've known you, I've hated you for almost all of them.
See, there's a reason you were so infamous — why "the Redheaded Runner" became something of a mythic figure in my life. You never smiled. In fact, in a neighborhood where most people waved and said good morning or at the very least gave a curt nod, you always stared straight ahead, so deliberately ignoring everyone that over the years you became a fixation to both my teenage and adult self.
Of course I took it personally. I was 13, and then 16, and then 20 — ages when you don't know how to take anything but personally, even if it hits in different ways. Like an idiot, every time I passed you I would smile and wave on reflex, and like clockwork, you wouldn't even flinch. By the time I was in college I had a kind of sixth sense for when you were coming around the block, and learned to ignore you right back. I was almost smug about it, certain that you would feel every bit as hurt as I did, still convinced in this narrative I'd written for myself that your decision not to acknowledge me had everything to do with me.
Well, my redheaded friend — today I would like to apologize to you for that, some ten years too late.
You see, for a large part of my life, whenever I've felt even vaguely threatened, I've smiled. I thought I'd grown out of it, but even just last night, when the doorman of my building made an lewd joke about the security pictures he had to take of me every time I locked myself out, I smiled. I laughed! I wanted my key to get into my apartment to lock myself in and put another line between me and the rest of the world that does creepy things like that, and I wanted it as fast as possible. Haha! Funny joke! (Give me my damn keys.) Smiling is, and always has been, my first line of defense.
It wasn't until I moved out of that neighborhood where I used to run into you that I understood just how narrow-minded of me it was to assume that another woman owed me that smile back.
As a grown woman, I've come to understand — the same way all grown women do — that not only are you not obligated to smile, but that sometimes you just can't. That sometimes men will literally yell at you to smile. That sometimes the threat of engaging with strangers out in the world — particularly when you are a woman running in it — is far too present to think that a smile could will it away even if you wanted it to; that in fact, a smile might even encourage it.
I live in New York now, so I haven't run into you in a year or so. I only thought of you this morning because I was running in Central Park at sunup, and a man was coming at me, running the wrong way on the track. The assessment wasn't intentional, but there it was anyway: He is a man. He is deliberately running the wrong way on this track. It is six in the morning. I don't see anyone else in my immediate sightline. None of these unconscious factors were alarming ones, but they were enough for me to make a conscious decision: not to look over at him, and not to smile.
He muttered it so fast that it took me a few paces to realize what had happened. It took me off guard, but not as much as it would have back in the days when you and I ran in our old neighborhood. This kind of thing is, unfortunately, the New York normal. I felt myself shaking it off as I ran, thinking the same thought I've had the countless times I've been harassed in this city: Why the hell do so many men think I owe them something?
If the "bitch" didn't rattle me, the sudden realization that came after it did: that for years and years and years, I had put that same expectation on you.
And for all that I know you — know the rhythm of your legs moving, the sharp way you pump your arms, the exact route that you take at 9 a.m. on Saturday mornings — I truly don't know you at all. I have no idea who you are, or where you've been, or what goes through your head when someone passes you on our loop. I have no idea how many times someone has yelled something at you from a car window, or shamed you for running a sports bra, or done something that made you feel powerless and small. I don't know if your mom also had to warn you not to run in the dark, or run on the trail in our neighborhood where girls had been assaulted. Hell, I don't even know if you were one of them.
Because that right there is the inescapable truth — the world is still a deeply unsafe place for women who run. Just last summer, three female runners who were out in broad daylight were murdered in separate incidents within the span of one week; only a month ago, a woman was beaten and nearly raped before managing to lock her own attacker in a bathroom mid-run; the case of the Central Park Jogger's gang rape and near death remains infamous nearly 30 years after it happened, a nagging thought in the back of every woman's mind as she laces up her shoes to run when the sun isn't in the sky. And these are just a few of the cases striking enough to get media coverage; some form of it happens every day, reminding women who run that they are never truly safe, from catcalls to assault to the unimaginable. A statistic from last October showed that 43 percent of women experienced harassment while running (58 percent of women 30 and younger), compared to a whopping four percent of men.
There is no denying that the experience of running as a woman will always be fundamentally different from running as a man. There are "rules" a woman has to follow — be it what she wears, where she goes, and what time she does it — and even when she follows them to a tee, there are still consequences. Even ones as stupid and petty as getting called a "bitch" before anyone has even had their morning coffee.
So today, my redheaded running friend, I am not just writing to tell you that I'm sorry — because while I owe you an apology, I also owe you my gratitude. I'm grateful that you never smiled back at me. I'm grateful that when you went out into the world to do something for yourself, gave yourself permission for it to only be about yourself. And above all, I'm grateful that you run. That you ran, that you're running, that you'll probably still be doing that same route with that same intimidating glint in your eye long after the rest of our peers have given it up. I'm not entitled to know anything about you or what is going on in your head when I pass by, but it is enough to know this — that despite all the nonsense that comes with being a woman and a runner, you are out there and doing it anyway, one loop around our old neighborhood at a time.