When the Only Safe Place to Run Is the Center of the Road

Even though the Boston Marathon is still two months away, the course is already busy on weekend mornings.  Locals start running the course – portions of it, at least – in January, ignoring the cold, snow, and hostility of sedentary motorists unwilling to share the road.

Witness the complaint (right) to the Hopkinton Police Department:

Officer O’Brien’s fine police work notwithstanding, let’s be honest:   At one point, the runners probably were in the lane.  And what of it?   Middle-of-the-road running is sometimes necessary when there is three feet of dirty snow on the road shoulder, and icy trails are impassable.

We shouldn’t run in the road when there’s a car bearing down, of course.  But when there’s a break in the traffic, what’s wrong with a careful runner occupying the blacktop? Bicyclists are allowed there.

So, yes, you unidentified caller, I confess.  That was me brazenly running down the center of a snow-narrowed road earlier today.   Yup,  right in the middle.   I call it Runner’s Roulette, and yes, I know, the Road Runners Club of America does not approve.

But when you really need to run, and find your neighborhood has somehow been replaced by Siberia and the only snow-free zone is the road, what can you do?    Leave the headphones at home, dress for high visibility, and run down a less-traveled road.

You can't run on the side of the road if there is no side of the road!   (Image via Wikipedia.)
You can’t run on the side of the road if there is no side of the road! (Image via Wikipedia.)

I always begin cautiously, trotting as close to the icy edge of the road as I dare, and every time a car emerges on the horizon, I stop and climb atop the snowbank on the side of the road, meekly offering the right-of-way.In time, however, I get brash, emboldened by endorphins and the cold.  I still listen for the faint rumble that indicates a car making an approach, and yes, I move over as soon as I see someone coming.

But as the miles pass, if I’m not careful, I get a little more defiant, a little less meek.   I may not have the right-of-way, but I have the moral high ground here, dammit.   It’s 20 degrees and sleeting.  I am exercising, bud!  What have you done strenuous today, besides getting out of bed?

Okay, this is why the sedentary hate runners.

I ramp down the attitude.

But if no one’s in my lane, not even close, you bet  I’ll be running in it.  Why waste perfectly salted pavement that’s empty, lonely, calling out to be used?  Even in the summer, I confess to occasionally drifting into the center of the road if no cars are around.   For one thing, running on the side of the road all the time is horrible for your legs. The slant of the road – called the camber –causes unevenness in your strike and leads to all sorts of nasty overuse injuries, such as iliotibial-band syndrome.

So, too, does that Lilliputian track at the local Y, which you have to run around for approximately the length of time of the Academy Awards ceremony before you achieve a mile.

That said, there were at least two cases last year in which runners were arrested for running in the road: one man, on a highway in Canada; the other, on a street in Salem, N.H.  We all know pedestrians aren’t allowed on highways, and common sense says you don’t run down the center of a busy street, particularly after–hello?–you’ve already been arrested twice for the same offense.  So some sanity is required.  I like this lawyer’s tips for safe road running, particularly his suggestion to wave at motorists to quell the animosity.  If I get arrested, I’m calling him.

Then again, maybe I should rethink any exercise routine that involves me scoping out a lawyer.


I'm a single mother of four who has been running injury-free for 27 years, astonishingly without ever losing any weight. I'm a writer and editor near Boston, and author of "Honey, Do You Need a Ride? Confessions of a Fat Runner."

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  1. I run in the middle of the road, often. Some of the roads around my house have a nasty camber, so I move to the middle when no one’s coming. The traffic is usually light and I can hear when cars are coming. In fact, yesterday I was running on such road and a police car approached me from behind I moved to the side of the road until he passed and the went right back to the middle when it was all clear. He saw me and waved! I’m with you – you gotta do what you gotta do.

  2. All the time. I am blessed with very wide roads in my hometown, so I always run on the road. Usually I run on the right side (running toward traffic). But if it is icy or snowy, I always find the driest patches, which quite frequently are in the middle of the road. Of course I move if there is any traffic coming, but I try to run on residential roads that do not have heavy traffic. Since I usually run very early in the morning, there is often no traffic at all.

  3. I’ve never run in the middle of the road and we don’t have snow or ice to deal with. One day I was running at the edge of the road rather than on the sidewalk. It was a very large and not busy boulevard that has 2 lanes in each direction and the outside ones are extra wide. I suspect that they wanted to make bike lanes but never actually lined them. I was running in that area facing traffic and actually had a driver swerve toward me while waving his fist at me. I jumped up onto the sidewalk and was greatful that he didn’t stop the car to come be crazy at me.

    1. Yikes! That reminds me of a Clemson University student who did a study last year about turtles in the road. He put a fake turtle (who knew?) in the middle of the road, and then hid and observed the behavior of motorists. Way too many of them went out of their way to HIT the turtle. Don’t want to even think about how many of them are secretly wanting to hit us too!

  4. I run in the road frequently because the side walks around Seattle suck. The way I feel about it is if I’m not going to be provided with a runnable sidewalk then I have as much right as the cars and bike to use the road. Not sure if this would stand up in court but it’s how I rationalize it.

    1. Well, in Massachusetts, even horses have the right-of-way in roads … under some antique law, they’re considered “farm machinery.” So yeah, as the people who PAY for these roads, you’d think we’d have some rights, too!

  5. Hmm… Sometimes I run on the middle of the treadmill belt… =)

    I’m such a bad representative of runner, or an excellent treadmill salesperson, but I gotta say it – I never ever have to move off the treadmill for a car!

    That being said, as long as runners are being safe about it and move when a car comes, I don’t have a problem with it.

    Oh, and I’ve been meaning to tell you this for ages, but I read your book and loved it! We need more running books from the perspective of women.

    1. Middle of the treadmill — too funny! Thank you so much for your kind words — it won’t win the National Book Award, but it was fun writing it. And I agree with you about needing more running books from women — get cracking!