To nod or not to nod? That is the runner’s question.
You’re on a dirt trail or a crowded park path, shorts bunched up awkwardly, sweat dripping off the tip of your nose, and you see another runner. Do you acknowledge? Perhaps a cursory nod or wave or “good morning?” Or do you cross paths with all the intimacy of two cars lurching through an intersection? (That is to say, none.)
When I'm out running, I would like to say hello to everyone. I don’t, of course, because I live in New York, where all humans — runners included — operate inside a three-foot bubble that cannot be penetrated.
Lately though, I’ve started to wonder if maybe runners’ lack of engagement has less to do with geographical location and more to do with safety. This summer, three female runners were tragically killed while out on routine runs. Most women I know fix themselves with a steely gaze to get through a run in order to stave off unwanted catcalls or comments from men who think a little sweat and Lycra is an invitation for a whistle. (It’s not.)
So what are male runners — the decent ones who aren't planning on being creepy or harming anyone — to do in such a situation?
Well, first I asked one such runner what approach he takes: Does he ever acknowledge female runners as they cross paths? He was emphatic: Hell no. He’d never want to unintentionally make someone uncomfortable, he said, and since they’d both pass in and out of each other’s lives in an instant anyway, why make her have to think about responding?
Then I asked a female running partner her opinion: Would she appreciate a head nod or a “good morning” from a male runner? She was just as emphatic: Yes. More than anything, she liked the acknowledgement that we’re all out here doing the same difficult thing on the same early morning, sharing an experience.
Every runner’s thoughts on the matter must differ — and maybe even change from day to day — but this is one area where, at least for me, there’s something larger and more powerful than traditional gender dynamics at play.
Once, during one of my group training runs, someone was whining about how hard our intervals were. (That someone could have been me. My memory's foggy.) What someone said in response has stuck with me since: Running is a privilege. That we’re lucky to have the strength and ability, the stubbornness, to move our bodies in a way that even resembles running.
And so maybe this is the reason that, for me anyway, I think a subtle nod or a quick hello to fellow runners, regardless of gender, is the way to go. It’s a tip of the hat, an insider’s wink (don't actually wink!) that says, we’re in on the same secret, and I am glad to see you out here.
All of these thoughts came to a head during a recent 10-mile race, when a guy came barreling behind me at the nine-mile mark, grunting and yelling to no one in particular, “Come on! We got this!” His manic energy gave me a boost, and as I surged, I said, “Let’s go, finish strong!” because late-stage adrenaline turns me into the real-life version of an inspirational Instagram account. After we made it through the finish line, he whooped, I whooped, we locked eyes and clapped hands — no words necessary.