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Áine Kerr: Women deserve to run for exercise without having to face the shadows

After the murder of Ashling Murphy in Tullamore, the businesswoman and broadcaster describes the endless safety routine female runners have to follow.

Áine Kerr

WHEN WE RUN as women, we run with long lingering shadows behind us.

Some of the shadows are imaginary, some feel like the weight of a shared history with our fellow women, some of the shadows feel hauntingly scaringly real.

We run fearing that someone will encroach on our fading shadows as sunset nears or we enter a dimly lit area. We run often fearing what might lie in wait, amid the shadows.

‘Have you’?

In 2021, I ran 52 marathons for Laura Lynn Hospice, requiring me to lace up in the early mornings after creche drop-offs and in the dark evenings when the day’s schedule offered some temporary reprieve, in the thunderous rainfall and in the intense temperatures of a summer’s day.

Lacing up and deciding to run requires a constant roll call of quickfire questions. That checklist run-through, often before stepping over the boundary of the front door and leaving the sanctuary of home, has only grown through years of running.

The roll call often feels contradictory because I love and hate running. I run, in theory, to de-stress and to declutter a busy brain, to find clarity, to escape the strains of the day and to reconnect with life and nature. And yet when pounding the pavements, laneways, tracks and trails, I’m hyper-vigilant and alert, rarely lost in the moment or focussed only on the rhythm of my breaths and steps.
The internal monologue begins with the ‘have you’ questions – have you run that route two days in a row, have you put on identifiable memorable clothing, have you enough charge on your phone, have you turned on your running app to ensure you’re being geolocated throughout your run, have you put your headphones in but not turned them on?

Everything is an act of proactively derisking against the unknowns that lie without.

The potential actions of others impact decisions about running all of the time.

The roll call is an act of trying to take control, to take back my power.

Hyper-vigilance

In stepping out, I choose the routes with better lighting, the ones that avoid quiet streets or cul-de-sacs, the ones that allow me to run close enough but not too close to houses with carefully positioned CCTV.

I calculate the acceptable distance to the roadside where passing cars might have dash cams but not too close that someone could easily stop to pull you into their orbit.

Running requires constant conscious and unconscious decisions – measuring the length of time it will take to get from A to b, clocking the other women passing you alone, tracking the changing sounds and movements, always seeing, always listening.

When we run as women, we deserve for it to feel like an easy, stress-free, safe, communal act of freedom. An act of simply putting our health, our fitness, our well being first by lacing up our shoes.

Instead, we run despite the lingering shadows of history creating a climate of fear. We run knowing the stories of the women murdered, abducted, harassed, assaulted, raped and terrorised.

We run and share with other women ways to change patterns of behaviours and movements, tips to try and derisk us from harm. Our sentences to each other begin with ‘don’t forget to’, ‘be careful’ and ‘stay safe’.

For Ashling

We run today and yesterday mourning the loss of Ashling Murphy. We run hoping her tragic passing might now unlock a new understanding and an urgency for change and action.

Women won’t retreat indoors and retire their runners. But equally, we won’t stand for this conversation about women’s safety to regress only to us having to condition our actions and movements anymore.

The conversations past and present need to be converted, this time, from a laundry list of things that women can do to keep themselves safe to a radical exploration of the behaviours and attitudes of some men.

In the coming days and weeks, we need to ask harder questions of male privilege and entitlement, of gender inequalities, of everyday casual sexism to extreme acts of violence, of why men think it acceptable to catcall when we run or to run so closely behind us without explanation or apology.

But we need a bias to action. A bias towards creating a dedicated department to deal with the progression of women’s rights and women’s safety as called for by the National Women’s Council. A bias towards supporting the Men’s Development Network. A bias towards creating a truly Gender Equal Society.

But change will only come when the men in our lives take the opportunity to simply listen to us this week, to simply start by asking a loved one the question: have you ever felt unsafe?

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Change is not the preserve of policymakers. Change will come in the simple acts of allyship every day from men in workplaces, nightclubs, lecture halls, public transport, street sides, running tracks.

We need our male allies to be a positive force for good in our long-lingering shadows.
Because we deserve to run and feel the freedom they feel.

Áine Kerr is a business leader, broadcaster and keen runner.

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