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Why are Running Towns So White? And What Can We Do About It?

A lack of diversity in outdoor communities is not a surprise for many marginalized people.

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In a piece published earlier this year, we highlighted five of the country’s top running cities and towns: Eugene, Oregon; Boone, North Carolina; Stillwater, Minnesota; Flagstaff, Arizona; and Boise, Idaho. While it was obvious why these picturesque cities with ideal climates for running would be so appealing for endurance athletes, the statistics on their demographics was also glaring, showcasing that these cities are incredibly homogenous and lacking in representation.

While many of America’s big run towns are extremely lacking in diversity in general, many actually are diverse within regard to the running community, but remain heavily segregated—a fact that actually isn’t all that surprising to many Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) athletes and people from other marginalized groups.

“I think a lot of times people are so comfortable within their running communities that they don’t even see that there is a lack of diversity on their trails and running spaces and will often say, ‘Well, running is for everyone, everyone is welcomed,’ and can’t see how people like me could feel not welcomed by not seeing others who look like them,” Verna Volker, a Minnesota-based runner, activist and founder of Native Women Running, says.

RELATED: Indigenous Woman Builds, Uplifts a Community of Runners

Diversity in running is stifled by safety concerns

Gatorade Endurance recently surveyed minority athletes (specifically BIPOC, LGBTQ+, and disabled individuals) to identify and understand the barriers minority athletes face when considering participation in endurance sports, publishing the results in August 2021. The survey’s key findings showcased that safety concerns (i.e., getting injured, hate crimes, not wanting to train alone, and having a safe training location) were the top barriers within all four groups who are interested but do not participate in endurance sports. Other top barriers included time and family obligations.

RELATED: Survey Finds Safety is Among the Greatest Barriers Faced by Minority Endurance Athletes

When it came to the topic of safety, 22% of survey participants expressed hate crimes as a concern, and more than two-thirds of minority athletes said that seeing others like them participate would make them much more likely to get involved. Among those who do participate in endurance sports, 44% and 42% noted that getting injured and experiencing hate crimes were their top concerns.

Kira West, a Chicago-based fitness influencer and marathoner who partnered with Gatorade Endurance for its Someone Like Me campaign, noted that the survey results really resonated with her and put some of the challenges she’d experienced as a Black female runner into words.

“I’ve talked to a lot of Black men and women who have said they’re hesitant to train due to safety concerns, or the fact that they don’t necessarily see people who look like them, or don’t have family members who’ve expressed interest in participating in these activities,” West says. “When I was training for my first marathon, I was super-cognizant of when I was running and had different safety measures that I put in place even until race day. I definitely had a fear that there were certain areas where I might be profiled and made sure I ran routes that were well populated and that I wasn’t wearing things like hoods or hats to make sure I had the most appealing appearance so that there wasn’t any confusion as to why I was there or what I was doing.”

When diversity and segregation co-exist within cities

Alison Mariella Désir, founder of Harlem Run in New York City and director of sports advocacy at Oiselle, is currently working on her forthcoming book, The Unbearable Whiteness of Running, which aims to examine running as the negotiation of public space. For her book, Désir selected a few major running cities, including Seattle (where she is currently based); Brooklyn and Harlem in New York City; and Baltimore, Maryland, and overlaid Strava map data with redlining maps. She found that there was a direct correlation between areas of lots of activity and areas that were once higher graded (read: white).

RELATED: Alison Désir: Stopping The Silence

“The areas that were redlined (D grade) remain the most under-resourced areas in the country, with the least tree coverage, worst environmental impacts, highest COVID-19 infection rates, and the least Strava heat data, with the only exceptions being the cities that are now quickly gentrifying,” she says. “You have to wonder how it is that the areas characterized as the best places to run are almost exclusively white, and why it seems white people have no problem living in almost complete segregation. I suppose one could think that white people just somehow managed to find the most beautiful places to live and Black people simply chose the less desirable areas. But that would mean you know absolutely nothing about history.”

Désir noted that Eugene, labeled as the No. 1 city for running in our earlier article, is in Oregon, the only state in the country that had laws forbidding Black people from living there, in an effort to attract white settlers to the state in the 19th century. The city’s population is currently 83.26% white, compared to 1.56% Black.

“This, coupled with the housing discrimination practices of redlining and the creation of suburbs for white people, [helps] you understand that the segregation of neighborhoods and, more broadly, states, was not accidental but a long-term, orchestrated strategy by the U.S. government,” Désir explains. “Zoning laws and other defacto practices continue the work of redlining and housing discrimination that has since been formally outlawed.”

West agreed with this sentiment, noting that while her current hometown of Chicago is very diverse, the running community is still pretty segregated, which is likely the result of redlining and other past historical practices.

“I think it’s also a comfort thing, where sometimes I may want to run with people who look more like me and that may make me veer more toward where they’re based, which doesn’t allow for much co-mingling, compared to other groups in cities like New York (where I’m originally from),” she says.

“Cities and suburbs, by nature, are extremely segregated, and we tend to stay with what and who is more familiar and similar to us, whether culturally or philosophically or economically,” adds Carolyn Su, another partner on the Gatorade Endurance Someone Like Me campaign and creator of the Diverse We Run Instagram account. “As a result, while a city may have many diverse groups of people, each group is segregated amongst themselves, and, where a certain running group or trail or store is located will heavily dictate who comprises the group, who has access, and who patrons the store.”

RELATED: For Carolyn Su, TransRockies Run is About Building Representation

Sidney Baptista started the Pioneers Run Crew, the first Black- and brown-led running club in the Boston area in 2017 for this very reason, as he had rarely seen other runners in his predominantly Black neighborhood of Dorchester, even though it’s Boston’s biggest and most populous neighborhood, in addition to being the most diverse. Prior to starting the club, Baptista would often travel by train, bus, or bike to other neighborhoods to participate in organized group runs and quickly noticed he was one of very few people of color in those running groups.

“One of the biggest reasons many people don’t run in communities of color is because there’s such a stigma that if Black people are running, it’s away from danger or running from the police after committing a crime,” he says. “We need to continue to normalize Black people doing everyday things like running, and encourage white people to join them, especially if it might otherwise be one of the few instances where they interact with Black people in their daily lives.”

While the Pioneers Run Crew is currently pretty evenly split among whites and runners of color (in addition to recently attracting a team of deaf runners to join) and has continued to grow in size, Baptista noted that it is still sometimes struggling to reach more people of color in certain neighborhoods, which is possibly tied to the challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, with frontline and essential workers taking a hit and not being able to fit running and exercise as easily.

“Class definitely plays a role in this, and we just haven’t cracked that,” he says. “I think it’s a very hard thing to do, especially when it comes to reaching and meeting people who are on the lower end of the poverty line.”

Representation needs to start with the running industry

Another issue contributing to a lack of diversity and representation in running and endurance sports is a lack of leadership within the running and outdoor industries. Last fall, Désir joined forces with Volker and several other community leaders to form the Running Industry Diversity Coalition, which aims to fight systemic racism in the running community and industry. The coalition includes representatives from brands such as CEP and Brooks Running and has publicly shared goals for making running more accessible to minorities by educating through anti-racist and diversity, equity, and inclusion training, employing marginalized people in key positions, and holding industry members and organizations accountable when missteps inevitably happen.

RELATED: New Running Industry Diversity Coalition Pushes for Equity and Inclusion

“I think providing more opportunities for Native runners and people of color and showing how they will support our programs and communities is a key aspect of change that needs to continue to happen,” Volker says. “I continue to see companies resort to tokenism and I always say there’s room for us all. It’s been surprising how many people don’t reach out to me when I could give names and advocate for so many women who want these opportunities and who want to share their feedback and be a part of these communities, but they’re not being asked. We’re here and we’ve always been here.”

Volker, who is based in Minneapolis, also shared a recent, short-lived experience serving on the board of the Minnesota Distance Running Association, during which she was frustrated about the lack of response and acknowledgement of the tragic murder of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement within their own city, which is also very diverse.

RELATED: Black Leaders in the Running Community Talk Brands, Mental Health, Safety, and More

“I’ve noticed that a lot of long-standing running organizations are kind of set in their ways with older white men who have been in charge for years and aren’t comfortable discussing issues related to diversity, and I really think we need more people like us stepping in and shaking things up,” she says. “Before I left, I expressed that it was important to address these issues happening right within our own community, down the street from us, and that we can’t ignore what’s going on.”

Showing up for each other

Su, who is also based in the Boston area, created Diverse We Run in 2018 after noticing a pattern of thin, affluent white runners being predominantly highlighted in mainstream running and social media, and to affirm to minority runners that their stories were worthy of being shared, too.

This past summer, Su received an invitation to participate in the TransRockies Run, a six-day stage race that involved running about 20 miles per day for 120 miles and 20,000 feet in climbing across the Colorado Rockies. While she accepted the invitation and participated in the race, she was initially hesitant to do so because of her lack of trail running experience, in addition to the existing lack of representation in the trail and ultra space.

“It is intimidating and scary to put yourself in a setting where you’re not only a minority as a person of color or athlete, but also where historically, many outdoor spaces have been unsafe and violent for BIPOC,” she says. “But showing up is not only an act of resistance, it’s an act of reclamation—a redefining of how we can show up—and it’s an act of representation, an invitation to other BIPOC runners.”

West noted that getting family members involved, even if it’s not to participate, but just to attend events like races, is also key to breaking down some of these barriers, in addition to emphasizing to people that they’re not alone if they’re unsure of where to start when first trying out endurance sports.

“The more we talk about it, the more we’ll be able to be a part of the change. For me, showing up in spaces where I may be the minority at first and showing others that there is ability to be there is important,” she says. “Despite the challenges, I’ve received so much from getting involved in endurance sports from a mental health perspective and from a physical well-being perspective, and I really want to share that with others.”

“As I read and share stories on Diverse We Run, one theme consistently stands out: BIPOC runners show up in the sport for more than mere self-improvement or to seek self-potential. BIPOC runners show up for the collective, greater community—our communities,” Su adds. “My hope is that more runners of color will see that just because something is unfamiliar, doesn’t mean it’s not for us (as runners of color), that just because we haven’t historically seen [ourselves] in a space before, doesn’t mean we can’t be there, and just because we’ve never done something like this before, doesn’t mean we can’t try.”

RELATED: Speak Up, Speak Out: A Wish for U.S. Running From a Black Marathoner