Runner’s Playlist

Person in Black Pants and White Socks

She remembers her ex-husband once saying that no matter where you are on Earth–could be the middle of the Sahara Desert or on some forgotten adventurer’s trail through the rainforests of South America–you can always count on seeing a woman out running all by herself. Can’t you just picture her out there in her leggings and tank top with her earbuds firmly in place and her ponytail undulating rhythmically with each step she takes? The sweat beginning to darken her clothing just below her breasts and in a triangular pattern on the small of her back and accumulating in tiny beads on her forehead and upper lip as she propels herself forward?

She wonders if he can see her now from his broken-in sofa spot back home as she runs alone in the dewy early morning past an ancient village somewhere in rural China. Has he made the connection that she has become that very runner he evoked so derisively all those years ago as she sat on a bench in their front entryway lacing her athletic shoes for a mid- morning 5K around the neighborhood? Does he joke that when she ran out on him she just kept running? It sounds like a joke he’d make. Maybe he’d even sing it with an exaggerated nasal twang like lyrics to some lonesome honky- tonk ballad.

She ran out on me
And she’s still running today

I begged her not to leave
And I watched her run away

She rarely runs in the city. Too crowded. Too frustrating. You’d think people would just default when walking on sidewalks to the side of the road they drive on. You’d think that, but you would be mistaken. Even if, on a good day, nine out of ten people get it right and stick to their respective right sides, that tenth person is still egregious enough to ruin the whole idea of having a run. Maybe he’s walking straight at you doing some weird hammer arms motion or flapping his vulture wings. Maybe he’s walking backwards and slapping himself to chase away the evil spirits. Or maybe a whole family is attempting to demonstrate dominion over the sidewalk by fanning out in a five-wide formation. She could run in the street, but the hyper-vigilance she’d need to maintain to avoid getting hit by some guy on a motorbike or in a car heading against traffic along the shoulder would undo any mental health benefit the run might provide. It just isn’t worth it.

So, she takes a car half an hour north out of Beijing and runs where it’s more remote. It’s always been true that she uses this time to think, but her thoughts rarely lead her to any sort of transcendence. She tries to organize her tasks for the upcoming week. She replays old arguments in her mind and wins them. “So what? So, what does that mean that you’ll always see a woman out running by herself no matter where you are? Is it supposed to be an insult to do what other people do? You’ll always see some middle-aged man sitting on the couch all day watching sports and not lifting a finger to help out around the house too, you know?” Often, she just listens to upbeat pop music through her earbuds and avoids thinking altogether.

She remembers running along the Corniche in Cairo a few years back when she lived there. It was wide open and gorgeous beside the Nile, and, in the warm, dry climate in the early morning, it was maybe her favorite place on Earth to run. One day, an Egyptian man stepped into her path and, after she’d slowed down and removed her headphones, smiled and said, “You have beautiful breasts. Very firm. Just beautiful.” She’d stood there for a few seconds in shock, still panting from the exercise with her heart keeping beat to the last song’s tempo and her arms now folded in front of her chest in modesty lest her protruding nipples give the man something else to remark on. A few moments later, an older man joined the scene and began yelling in Arabic, sending her harasser shuffling away abashed with his head bowed. The old man then looked at her and said in heavily accented English, “Next time, you slap him.”

Runnin’ away
To get away
Ha ha ha ha
You’re wearing out your shoes Look at you fooling you

It’s not true that she never thinks about the dangers of a woman out running somewhere remote all by herself. It infuriates her because she should be able to do this one thing she loves without having to feel unsafe, but she knows there are men in the world who would happen upon her and see her as prey. No matter how strong and how fast she could run away, she knows it might not be enough, and she hates that. But she still runs in every country she visits or lives in.

She sometimes thinks of that famous photograph from the Boston Marathon in 1967 where the first woman to enter the race was physically restrained and assaulted by a race official. She thinks of that photograph and the rage on that old man’s face as he lashed out against a changing world that confused and scared him. What had he been so afraid of?

She ran cross country when she was in high school and was good enough at it for a place on the varsity team. She practiced before and after school nearly every day with her best friend Mei until Mei’s father finally persuaded her to quit. He said all that running would jostle her reproductive organs and make her infertile. She and Mei had laughed about it at first, joking back and forth as they ran about their uteruses falling out on the track. “Uh oh. That was my womb all right. Just flopped out back there around that last corner. Hope no one slips on it.” Then, they both stopped getting their periods, and Mei got spooked enough to listen to her dad.

She remembers overhearing a guy at school refer to her one day as “the girl with the big thighs”. His friends had told him to stop and that that was mean, but they were all still laughing even as they reprimanded him. That night she’d stood naked in front of her bedroom closet mirror after her shower and inspected her body from every angle. Her breasts were average in size but high and firm and her stomach flat. Yes, it was true that her thighs and butt were round and toned, but she decided she didn’t care and ran just as hard and fast as always.

Near the end of her marriage, her ex-husband once stood between her and the front door to keep her from leaving for a run around the neighborhood. She’d laughed when he said, “You can’t just keep running away from everything,” which made him even more upset. She’d almost capitulated and taken off her shoes to sit on the couch with him and talk in circles about their broken union once again, but she didn’t. Instead, she grabbed her sports bottle, her house keys and her headphones and iPod, turned in the opposite direction and left the house through the back patio door.

Now, all these years later, older and wiser but still as fit and healthy as ever, she sometimes thinks to herself that no matter where you are on Earth–could be Asia or the Middle East or even a small Midwestern American town–you can always count on some woman having to overcome a lifetime of male interference just go out for a run.

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