I'm still running my heart out: Exercising in public shouldn't have to be an act of courage

Would today be the day that I go for a run and pay for it with my life? I shouldn't have to ask that question

Published May 31, 2020 10:00AM (EDT)

Jessica Vaughn (Photo provided by Author)
Jessica Vaughn (Photo provided by Author)

A version of this essay first appeared in The Morning Call of Allentown, PA.

Today I got up and cautiously put on my running shoes so that I could go out into the affluent, predominately white, suburban Pennsylvanian neighborhood where I'm staying during the COVID-19 pandemic. I didn't call my husband to tell him that I was leaving, though today it crossed my mind that maybe I should, just in case.

Would today be the day that I go for a run and pay for it with my life? Do I have a right to run in order to keep my mind, heart and lungs healthy during this crazy time? These aren't questions that a person living in a free and just society should have to ask. The only question I should have to ask before I head out is whether or not my knees and hips can take the impact of the road.

Every walker, runner, biker, and home gardener I passed during my two-mile run put me on guard. I couldn't help but wonder if my presence was perceived as a threat. How can I communicate that I'm here enjoying the fresh air and sunshine just like they are? If I wave and smile, will that be enough? Or will they see a weapon that doesn't exist in my open hands? These aren't questions that a person living in a free and just society should have to ask. I should only have to focus on my breathing, my pace and my form.

Six year ago, while I lived in this house, I ran in this neighborhood while training for long-distance races. And six years ago someone came onto this property and spray painted, in big capital black letters, "I HATE N****RS" on our picket fence. Back then I was new-ish to the neighborhood and naïve about the many welcome gifts that people like to leave for new neighbors.

The vandalism was covered up before I could see it first hand. No legal action was taken. I didn't find out about this hateful act for months. After the words had been painted over, I could still see their trace. I will never forget how wrongly accused I felt.

Today, I still have questions for the vandal, though I know they will never be answered. Why was my presence a threat to their existence? Why did they feel the need to hunt me down and find out where I lived just so they could creep onto our lawn like a coward in the night? I wish the vandal had had the courage to say those words directly to me instead of painting them on the fence. Maybe then they would have seen my humanity. Maybe we would have had a conversation and moved toward a place of understanding. Until those questions can be answered, history is doomed to continually repeat itself. Again, and again, and again.

Each time I put on my sneakers and take to the streets in this affluent, predominately white suburban Pennsylvanian neighborhood, I carry a piece of Ahmaud Arbery's fate along with me. With each step I take, the burden is on me to prove my right to exist in the world. The streets of this neighborhood are my judge and jury. Failure to justify my existence may cost me my life.

Six years ago, as I stood on the well-manicured lawn staring at the covered-up outline of those hateful words, a piece of my humanity washed away. I felt the undercurrent of fear that had run through the veins of generations take its place. That night I lay in bed, just yards away from the picket fence, feeling divided, afraid and alone. How could it be that the community so quickly forgot? Where was the collective outcry against the wrongness of that act? The weight of these questions should have kept us all awake, wide-eyed, throughout the night. Until my neighbors could sense the inherent injustice of failing to see another person's humanity as they ran along the road, we would all be fated to suffer from the pain of a broken human spirit.

The coward's actions had their intended effect. I no longer felt safe going for my runs in the neighborhood and I started running in the park instead. Maybe there I could be free. The perpetrator could have been any one of my new neighbors, and I was worried that something worse would happen to the home or to me if I kept running in the neighborhood. My then-boyfriend (now husband) told me I was over-reacting. But today I know that my fears were deeply rooted in an unspoken reality.

While the facts of Ahmaud Arbery's case are still being uncovered, I do know one thing is certain. Exercising with melanin should not be a death sentence. Every living creature has a right to exist in this world without fear of judgment and persecution. We have a judicial system for a reason. No individual has the right to take that away.

For now, I will continue to run in this affluent, predominately white, suburban Pennsylvanian neighborhood while I wait for the COVID-19 pandemic to pass. It's all I can do. I'll run for my health and my life. I'll run in honor of Ahmaud in hopes that a fair trial will be heard and justice will be served. A part of me has been running in Ahmaud's shoes for a long time. I'm choosing not to quit. I don't know if the vandal still lives around here and I don't know if there are other neighbors who feel the same, but frankly I don't care. I have a right to run my heart out.

Today, as I neared the end of my run and the once-vandalized picket fence came back into view, I wondered about the conversations about the state of the world I will need to have with my unborn children. Will they be born into the free and just society that we've all been promised for generations? A better tomorrow? Surely they will they have the liberty to run unburdened. Only time will give me the answer to those questions. 

Until that better tomorrow comes, all I can do is hope that I'm able to make it back home to my family untouched by the hate in this world. I'll continue to get up each day, put on my sneakers and repeat this small act of courage. I will not choose to let fear to stomp out my existence.

By Jessica Vaughn

Jessica Vaughn holds a bachelor’s degree in Media, Culture and Communications from New York University. She is a former trends researcher and currently serves as operations officer for her family’s property management portfolio. When she’s not working, you can find her practicing yoga, running, cooking up a vegetarian meal or reading and writing about global health and wellness issues. (IG: @jessica_vaughn, Twitter: @jess_vaughn, Web:

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