What Can We Do About Strangers Who Mock and Harass Runners?

Image for post
Image for post
Photo by Kyle Kranz on Unsplash

The Anxiety That Kept Me From Running

I consider myself a “casual” runner — I’m not particularly fast, I don’t run in races, and I rarely go on any structured training-style runs. Despite that, running still plays an essential role in my life. It’s one of my main hobbies, and it’s had innumerable positive effects on my mental and physical health.

Unfortunately, I almost never started running. Years ago, when I first started getting interested in the hobby, I spent months feeling too anxiety-ridden to actually start.

I worried that I’d be running too slow, doing it wrong, or in some other way making a spectacle of myself. I imagined running down the sidewalk and having all eyes on me; random strangers judging and looking down on me.

Day after day, I put off starting to run. I let my anxiety get in the way of trying something new that I really wanted to do.

Finally, one day I worked up the will power to actually put on my shoes and hit the streets. There wasn’t any big secret to my breakthrough — I simply fought as hard as I could to ignore the anxiety and put one foot in front of the other.

The run went fine. Nobody stared at me or said anything. I went unnoticed down the sidewalk for a couple of miles and then went back home.

My anxiety didn’t disappear overnight, but from that day on, I slowly grew more confident with each run.

Since then, running has become part of my regular routine, and I go for a run most days of the week. These days, when I lace up my shoes, I feel my stress dissolving rather than building.

Mocked While Running

So far, it sounds like a happy ending: I was scared to run, I faced my fears, and I ended up growing as a person. Unfortunately, that isn’t the entire story.

I’m sorry to report that over the years that I’ve been running, I’ve now had several experiences in which my initial anxieties about running were actualized; times when strangers not only noticed me, but even went so far as to shout rude comments at me.

This happened most recently last week, which is what put the idea for this post in my head. I was on a slow run around my neighborhood and had reached a big hill. As I struggled my way up, a man on a bike shouted at me that I was going so slow I shouldn’t even bother. He said it with a sneer, erasing any possibility that he meant it as a light-hearted joke.

It was exactly the kind of thing that I had been afraid would happen before I ever started running. If it had happened during that first anxiety-filled run, I probably never would have run again.

Fortunately, at this point in my running “career,” I’m confident enough in my abilities that I was able to ignore it. But that doesn’t change the fact that this stranger was an absolute jerk.

These types of encounters have been extremely rare for me. I’d estimate they’ve happened less than once every hundred runs. Even that’s more often than they should happen though. There’s no reason whatsoever that anyone should be trying to put down a random stranger who is trying to work hard to better themselves.

I’ve seen other runners complaining about this issue on forums, so I know I’m not alone. Some runners have even reported far more extreme interactions, such as being followed or having drinks thrown at them from cars.

Female runners objectively have it much worse, experiencing insanely high levels of harassment. Runner’s World had an excellent article about this, which I highly recommend to women and men who run.

What’s the psychology behind people who yell at runners? Are they projecting their own low confidence? Are they simply anti-social individuals? Regardless of their reasons for the rude remarks, dealing with these people is an unfortunate fact of life.

I’ve had success so far ignoring them, simply not responding and pretending I haven’t even heard them. I do sometimes worry though that eventually, I’ll have to deal with someone who persists.

I also try to adapt my running to reduce the likelihood of these encounters:

  • I run primarily on my city’s greenways, where I’m surrounded by other people working out and separated from car traffic.
  • I run during times of the day that have a lot of other runners out and avoid ever running at night.
  • I avoid going back to the few spots where people have shouted at me before.

I don’t think it’s fair that I should have to adapt my running to avoid these anti-social people, but I’ve come to accept it as a step that I have to take.

Some additional steps that I’ve heard of people taking are running in groups, carrying their phones with them, or switching to running indoors on treadmills.

In order to really fix the problem, city and state governments will have to get involved. There’s only so much that individual runners can do.

One of the changes that I would like to see is an increase in the number of spaces dedicated to running and other forms of exercise. I’d also like to see these spaces have better safety features, such as lighting and call boxes.

The more complex problem though is finding a way to change the behavior of people who mock, shout at, and harass others. I worry that it may be an impossibly difficult task.

I don’t want to discourage anyone from running. The benefits that I’ve gained from this hobby far outweigh every negative I’ve experienced.

But, I also don’t want anyone to think that they’re alone in getting mocked or yelled at when running. It happens to nearly all of us — it’s not because you’ve done anything wrong and you are absolutely right to be offended and outraged by it.

I hope that we can find a permanent way to fix this issue so that nobody will feel too scared to participate in the hobby they love.

Written by

I’m a lawyer and teacher from North Carolina. I write about sobriety, mental health, running, and more.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store