This Is Not a World for Women: Running to and Running From

New York City has made me a better runner.

It’s not from trying to outrun all the shuffling shoes scuffing the sidewalks, nor from hurdling over the asphalt before that cab from down the block screeches and reaches toward me during a red-handed “no-walk” sign.

Maneuvering the bodies and buildings sprouting from the curved concrete is another art of its own, but even its mastery hasn’t translated into any remarkable refinement in how fast my feet peck the path below.

Hi, beautiful.
Smile, sweetheart.
Are you cold? I can help.
Running for something: To see the city, to be active, to clear my mind, to be with myself, to observe humanity. That’s why I love it and why I’ve stuck with it. In a sense, moving to New York last fall rekindled my running hobby.
There is a sprawling spread of isosceles hexagons etched into the black concrete that lines the stretch of Central Park all the way down its west side. From 110th all the way down to 59th, few materials – besides the asphalt of the vehicle roads at each block and the cement lining here and there – interrupt the continuous canvas.

Running for something: To see the city, to be active, to clear my mind, to be with myself, to observe humanity.

At some points, it is smoother than others. Some parts are cracked or crooked or protruding from the Earth, forming a wedge into a third dimension. And it is that very wobbly wedge that interrupts the cadence of my violet and orange Nikes, yanking the rest of me to the ground.

Hands first, or so I recall, but then a sudden skid onto my left and then my right knee: I roll onto my side, scooping myself up off the ground and quickly shooting up to my feet with the momentum of just my bottom and thighs, my hands and arms sore, cut, shocked.

And bloody.

A hobble and wobble toward the cement ledge just off 96th street later, I inspect my elbows, palms and knees. From afar, perhaps I’ve been splashed with ketchup. But up close, the liquid oozes from the scrapes and scars in my skin. It is 6 A.M. I don’t know where to go.

I live almost 20 blocks and three avenues over, and there aren’t many people around. Most are minding their business anyway, or so I think. The majority, hopefully, might not notice me as I try to remain subtle and rummage through the September piles of foliage for dried leaves to wipe the blood.

But up close, the liquid oozes from the scrapes and scars in my skin. It is 6 A.M. I don’t know where to go.

Some wipes and minutes later, shoving my Apple buds back into my ears, I pick my pace back up for a stride or two, but then I stop. My limbs ache and I haven’t stopped bleeding. Every time I unhinge my knee to take a step to even walk now, it burns. I can’t keep running even though it’s only been two of the five miles I planned to go.

I need to clean up. The closest coffee chain store is about two blocks and an avenue away. It feels so far. I haven’t even made it back to the edge of 96th.

Every other step–my left knee still burns. Every one in between–my right one does. The morning breeze stings my palms and elbows, and even though every couple steps I wipe every cut with a dried leaf, I’m seeing the blood start to trickle and trickle down my knee.

I don’t want people to notice. I don’t want people to ask to help. I just want to get to a restroom and then get home.

“Nice legs.”

For a split second, I know this is the exact manifestation of my momentary dread: mockery of my bloody state.

I turn around, still taken aback even though I am so paranoid and on my toes, and an old man of about 50 or 60 repeats, “Nice legs.”

He continues, “You work out here often, sweetheart?”

I am visibly around my age of 19. I am panting, sweaty, huffing and puffing. My baby hairs and more are fraying from under the headband, attempting to keep my braid in further control. I am panting, sweaty, huffing and puffing – and I am bleeding, visibly. But that’s not what he and “nice legs” are getting at.

He continues, “You work out here often, sweetheart?”

At first, I can’t walk that quickly because it burns, but the shame of him talking about how “sleek and sexy” my legs look burns more. I almost jog again. It stings so much, and moving the cuts on my joints only makes them bleed more.

A block of jogging and near-dripping secures me space, time, and solace to stop and grab another leaf. And another. And another. Because I have bled even more, and I spit onto each of my calves, too, to rehydrate the already dried, quickly crackling blood stains from the leaks on my knee. My purple and orange Nikes have greeted dots of red.

New York City has made me a better runner.

As I’m reminded, I don’t like to stop mid-run. I have gained stamina and strength, not running to achieve better times or records, but to get in my love for running the outdoors and exploring whichever city I live while still fabricating, at best, a sense of safety. Because through the music or podcasts I am blasting, even when I’m in full stride at full speed, I must avoid the eyes and traps of reading the lips of men who yell, scream, wave, holler, nod, wink, deliberately at my way.

This bloody episode was the first time after one mistake in the middle of freshman year last fall, when I stopped in the middle of my run and then froze in the Labor Day heat from the comments of two men who started to walk with me down the hexagonal sprawl.

Fast forward a year and three months from the initial scare and three months from the bloody one, I went out this week, dressed instead for the December chill: full leggings, heftier socks, thick headband around my ears, long fleece.

But, as we know, it’s not about what you wear. Let that never be the implication. Let there be no confusion.

At 2.37 miles, my phone suddenly died, and my podcast stopped. As I yanked the white wires and wrapped the strands around over my feeble Apple brick, some random man, again of 50 or 60, nodded his head in a singular upward-fashion, yelling, “Ow, ow! What’s up?”

On my only run since then just a couple days ago, I couldn’t help but wander off into a mental abyss as I wandered the Upper West Side, blasting my music to combat the psychological clutter, barely doing an effective job.

But, as we know, it’s not about what you wear. Let that never be the implication. Let there be no confusion. 

It’s so demoralizing to run by him or him or him, locking accidental eye contact, swallowing their winks and gazes and gapes. I run a little faster every time – every time, that is, that I am reminded more and more that this world was not made for me, which is truly every time. I am encouraged more and more to surrender the streets – the outside, the activity, my energy. To curl up or maybe adapt to a treadmill or soften my spirit to the ways the world wants women to wash ours away.

This is far from the first time I have been attacked or demoralized for my gender, for my girlhood, for my womanhood; but it is simply a harsh reminder that even the most public premises or seemingly seen situations are unsafe and uncomfortable for us. It is item number infinity on the list, “Remember, the world is not safe and not made for you.”

Running from something: from someone, from some people, from some discomfort, from some danger.

New York City has made me a better runner, and as much as I wish to refuse, deny and overcome, it has churned me from one that used to, to one that runs from.