Culture

Why More African Americans Running Long Distance Matters

Toni Carey—the founder of Black Girls RUN!—shares why it's important for there to be more diversity in running and why it matters.

A Black Girls Run! Chapter in Sacramento. Photo: Courtesy of BGR!
A Black Girls Run! Chapter in Sacramento. Photo: Courtesy of BGR!

*Courtesy of Competitor.com

I reluctantly started running in 2008. I say reluctantly because I never thought it was something for me.

First, the pinnacle of my athletic career was playing junior pro basketball … in elementary school. It only lasted a couple years, and I thought it was a better idea to peak at age 9, than chance it later in life.

Secondly, when I heard “running” or “jogging” the two words conjured Prefontaine-like images of white men wearing terry cloth sweat headbands and short shorts, and sporting classic 70’s mustaches. It wasn’t bad. I just couldn’t relate.

Lastly, for most black kids, if you are athletically inclined, unlike myself, you are encouraged to run shorter distances in track and field. And running just for the fun of it, well, that was something white people did.

It’s all layered by the fact that my generation had no iconic professional African-American long distance competitors to model. If there were, they were outshined by talented sprinters and hurdlers such as Gail Devers, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Carl Lewis, Michael Johnson and Maurice Greene, just to name a few.

But, over the last five years, the landscape of recreational long distance running has changed dramatically. So much so, the increase in African-American participation in road races was worthy of a recent Wall Street Journal article titled, “Black Runners Are Changing the Face of the Sport.”

According to the article, “Nationwide, the share of frequent runners who identified as African-American has surged to 8 percent from 1.6 percent in 2011, according to a survey by Running USA, an industry-backed group that tracks trends.”

For most people, it may not seem very newsworthy, but indeed it is. For many black runners,  it’s a matter of life or death.

African Americans are most impacted by the nationwide obesity epidemic, more than any other race or ethnicity in the United States. According to, The State of Obesity’s special report:

  • African-American adults are nearly 1.5 times as likely to be obese compared with white adults.
  • More than 75 percent of African Americans are overweight or obese (including 69 percent of men and 82 percent of women) compared with 67.2 percent of Whites (including 71.4 percent of men and 63.2 percent of women).
  • The rates of deaths from heart disease and stroke are almost twice as high among African Americans than whites.

Black Girls RUN! (BGR!) was created in 2009 specifically with these statistics in mind. As co-founder of BGR!, the largest running group for black women with about 200,000-plus members across the country, it’s been amazing to witness more and more African-Americans, both women and men, use running to transform their lives from the inside out. For many, running has been the key to gaining a new empowering perspective about health and wellness that has never existed in the black community. Running has literally saved thousands of lives, including my own, and is quite possibly the catalyst for generational change that is so desperately needed in our community.

Even though the surge of black runners seems to have happened overnight, BGR! wouldn’t exist without pioneers such as Ted Corbitt and the South Fulton Running Partners, the oldest African-American running club in the country based in Atlanta. Without them, there would be no us. And like these movers and shakers, I  continue to ask myself how can we get even more black runners onto the pavement—for the health of the black community and the health of the running community. The two matter equally.

And, while progress has been made, there’s still plenty of work that needs to be done. We need to see even more ethnic diversity on the pavement. We need to see more pro-athlete women celebrated and supported. We need more minorities and women working on the industry level. We need more.

But, if running has taught me anything, I realize progress is a slow and steady process. After all, it’s a marathon, not a sprint.