Lots of women feel unsafe running in the dark – so we give up something we love | Robyn Vinter

At this time of year, swapping fresh air for a sweaty gym, I yearn for a society in which we can go outside without fear

My normal running route takes me through the backstreets of the former factory town where I live, up winding tracks through farms and small clusters of sandstone houses to grizzly, grey-green moorland. It is a steep route, but the view from the top of the hill is breathtaking. On a clear day, it is possible to see forests, farmland, moors and lakes more than 30 miles into the Yorkshire Dales. I do the same run nearly every day, and it somehow looks different each time. I never grow tired of it.

I run because I enjoy the exhilaration of the fresh air and the outdoors. This time of year it is the damp smell of the leaves, the misty woodland and mushrooms. I like the rush of being on the moor, gazing as far as I can into the distance with the wind whipping my hair. I like coming home with muddy legs and nettle stings and cold, pink skin that prickles when I get in a hot shower.

I’m not remotely an elite runner, nor am I someone who pushes myself or strives for a personal best. But I have a busy job where I often spend all day talking to people, so going for a run is a treasured time when I get total space to be alone in my thoughts.

But this simple joy is coming to a halt for a few months thanks to the onset of darkness. By mid-October, many women are trying to find alternatives to after-work activities such as running, walking and cycling because they simply don’t feel safe enough to do them. And for a lot of us, this can be quite a big lifestyle change every time the winter months come around.
Last week, a tweet I posted about this problem received a huge response, clearly resonating with thousands of women and non-binary people of different demographics, and attracting sympathy from many men. But there was also some backlash. Speaking about this elicited the ire of a minority of men who encouraged me to “grow some balls”, and pointed out that men are at much higher risk of being attacked in other situations, including pub kicking-out time on a high street.

Let’s make this abundantly clear. We are not scared of being punched. We are scared of being raped and killed. Nothing about our fears is irrational or cowardly. Women who are afraid to be out alone when it’s dark feel this way because of the men who attacked Zara Aleena, Sarah Everard, Sabina Nessa, Nicole Smallman, Bibaa Henry and Libby Squire – women who were walking home, going to meet a friend, or on a night out.

These tragic stories of women who seem so familiar to us – combined with a lifetime of being followed, groped, masturbated at, catcalled and harassed in public places – of course mean that we modify our behaviour. We take a taxi after going for a few drinks, even if the walk home is only 20 minutes. We use well-lit paths, avoiding shortcuts. And we stop exercising outdoors in the winter, which is a huge frustration.

I admit that this is not an easy problem to fix, though there are definitely things that would help: a higher rape conviction rate for a start, along with a move to take more seriously “minor” crimes such as flashing and stalking that can terrify victims and be a training ground for perpetrators who go on to commit serious sexual assault. There needs to be urgent accountability for bad behaviour inside police forces, as detailed in the Casey review into racism and misogyny in the Metropolitan police, to give women confidence that our safety is a genuine priority.

Scheduling competitive races for the autumn would mean women were under less pressure to train in conditions when they feel unsafe. I know many women were left frustrated when the London Marathon organisers chose to return to an April race for 2023 after a period of holding it in October, when runners could make the most of the long summer days for training.

To keep fit in the winter I run on a treadmill in a sweaty gym, though I have little enthusiasm for it. I yearn for the freedom that men have, to strap on a head torch and simply carry on without fear ruining their enjoyment of an activity they love.

  • Robyn Vinter is North of England correspondent at the Guardian

  • Comments on this piece are premoderated to ensure discussion remains on topics raised by the writer. Please be aware there may be a short delay in comments appearing on the site.


Robyn Vinter

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