Writer Rachel Hewitt: ‘Running is fundamentally important to me, physically and emotionally’

·4-min read

Rachel Hewitt is an award-winning writer whose books meld history, biography, memoir and nature-writing. They include A Revolution of Feeling: The Decade That Forged the Modern Mind and Map of a Nation: A Biography of the Ordnance Survey. She lives in Yorkshire, has three daughters and until recently was a lecturer in creative writing at Newcastle University.

Have you always been a runner?
I wasn’t a runner at all at school. I was absolutely dreadful at all forms of school sport, it just didn’t suit me. Then when I was about 25 I got a couple of days’ work at the London Marathon exhibition and I was inspired to start running after that – but not in a wise way. I wanted to go from nothing to running a marathon in about three months, which is just not possible. I wasn’t interested in stretching or doing any weight training or anything to do with looking after my body. So, of course I got injured and didn’t enjoy it. It was only after moving to Yorkshire and having my first daughter that I found a way of running differently – with less focus on time and competition and more on being outside and feeling good in my body.

Why do you think harassment of female runners is on the increase?
If you look at surveys over the past five years, you’ll see that male hostility to women in the public sphere generally is increasing and I think what happens to women in and around sport is a microcosm of that.

Unwanted physical attention experienced by female spectators at men’s football matches in this country has more than doubled in the past eight years. One survey showed that nearly 60% of female runners are harassed and feel in danger. The number of women who have been killed while running since 2016 is higher than the number of women who were murdered while running in the 30 years before that. This seems to point to a real intensification of violence towards women taking part in sport outdoors. It’s certainly something I would say is a very normal part of my running experience, which is pretty awful.

One of the worst effects of street harassment is women feeling so disempowered in outdoor space

How do you react?
Most of the time I ignore it. But research by Holly Kearl of the Stop Street Harassment campaign in the US has shown that one of the worst effects of street harassment is women feeling disempowered in outdoor space and feeling like they’re there under sufferance. And, actually, quite a good way of countering that is to shout back. But, on a personal level, I make that decision in the precise moment, responding to levels of risk and benefits. If there is only a low risk it might escalate; if there are other people around, particularly other women, then I might be more likely to draw attention to it. Whereas if I’m running through an industrial estate in the dark and a man shouts something, I almost certainly won’t say anything back.

Does it make you feel like stopping running?
No, because I’m quite bloody-minded and I don’t see why I should be deprived of it. Running is fundamentally important to me, physically and emotionally.

Do you prefer running alone or with a companion?
A bit of both. Most of my training runs are done on my own. I’m very happy with my own company. And one of the things I like about running is the self-sufficiency that it relies upon, that it is entirely down to me whether I’ve packed enough food or can read my map, or if I set off too fast and push it too hard and I’m not having a good time. But for longer runs, going with a few friends is wonderful.

Do moorland runs trump urban runs?
Absolutely. These days, I don’t run fast enough to get that massive endorphin burst that you get from fast running on flat ground. Instead, I get a different kind of joy, which is sensory. At the moment, it’s spring in Yorkshire and it smells amazing. And the light is changing, and it’s beautiful, and there’s this contrast between sometimes vast and expansive views and sometimes just little glimpses of a patch of snowdrops.

Apart from running, what could you not live without?
Yoga. Yoga is doing a lot for me right now.

Who’s your favourite writer about the natural world?
Wordsworth, because of the way his writing about nature embodies the emotional experience of being outdoors.