Culture

Diversity, Inclusivity, and the Need for Change in Trail Running

How the predominantly white trail running community is evolving, thanks to some BIPOC trailblazers.

It’s no secret that there are very few Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) participants in the sport of trail running. Distance running, in general, is very white. Clubs like Black Men Run, Black Girls RUN! and Latinos Run have been trying to change that, though mostly on the road running side, by providing safe spaces for BIPOC runners — something that’s become paramount in recent months. But trail running?

“We haven’t tracked demographics in terms of race and ethnicity through our membership surveys,” says Nancy Hobbs, Executive Director of the American Trail Running Association. “But, when you’re looking at our sport through photographs, videos, and much of the imagery in terms of advertising and promotion, you can see that there isn’t a whole lot of variety in representation on the trails. We all need to work collectively to change this.”

What are the reasons behind the lack of diversity, and what makes trail running such a predominantly white sport? “Accessibility is not a limiting factor,” says Joseph Gray, who’s won both the USA National Mountain Running Championships and the World Mountain Running Championships, and is one of a few sponsored BIPOC trail runners in the U.S. “Road running is more accessible to the Black population in urban areas, but it’s no limiting factor. You can do urban trail running in an urban area.” Says Gray: “It’s more that it doesn’t look cool to them. They don’t see people who look like them in advertisements.” 

Yassine Diboun, a Moroccan-American ultra-runner who holds top ten finishes at big races like, Western States 100, HURT 100, & Cascade Crest 100, agrees.

“I think what it comes down to is people of color don’t think trail running is for them because they don’t see people like them doing it,” he explains. “They think, ‘That’s the stuff that white people do.’”

Beyond the imagery, there are other reasons why BIPOC runners don’t always feel included. Maria Solis Belizaire of Latinos Run, a 25,000-member strong nationwide club, points to a lack of information and a potential Spanish-language barrier as contributing factors as to why there aren’t more Latinos running both roads and trails.

“You see the NYC marathon and Spartan races filled with people who are Black, Afro-American, Asian, multi-racial, et cetera because those organizations spend money to target those communities,” she says. Solis points out that not doing something as simple as translating a Facebook ad to Spanish, for instance, is a missed opportunity. 

“Hispanic people don’t just go to races alone,” she says. “We will bring our whole families…cousins, friends, our abuela [grandmother]. It should be the companies who need to do more work to bring communities of color to their races.”

Current Trailblazers

Members from within the trail and ultrarunning communities are pushing for change. Some of them are the same people who have unfortunately suffered from the lack of diversity in these sports.  

Mario Mendoza, decorated trail and ultrarunner who’s been on eight US Mountain Running Teams, won five national titles, and placed on the podium of high-profile ultramarathons, explains that he’s struggled with the different treatment of white runners in contrast to BIPOC runners, like himself.

“I’d see another guy who would run one good race and be in the spotlight,” he explains. “But for me, it was nothing [for a long time].” The 34-year-old is now sponsored, but securing a contract took longer than it should have. “I just wanted people to embrace me for who I am and lift me up,” says Mendoza. “That’s what gives people wings.”

The Bend, Oregon-based runner is doing his part to give others wings—he works with young runners, putting on trail running projects, like taking a group of under-privileged kids to run on the trails of Lake Tahoe. This summer, he’s putting on a Central Oregon Youth Running Camp.

“Kids actually don’t see each other differently,” he says. “I’m hoping that sticks with them.” For the camp, Mendoza is hoping to have a mix of underprivileged kids and those from a higher socioeconomic status. “We want to build on unity. Community is what’s gonna fix things,” he says.

Gray, who started a grassroots program called Project Inspire Diversity in 2019, is working to launch trail running camps with race directors Justin and Denise Ricks to help give young minorities and low income families exposure to the outdoors. “We want to show them something different,” he says, “maybe they end up being athletes in the outdoor world.”

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For years I have been preaching that life is short and that we shouldn't waste time. I was a hypocrite for many years. In fact it was cowardice to avoid speaking my truth when it came to my experiences with racism. Truth be told, I was afraid to lose sponsor support at times. I was afraid that if I talked about a racial issue that maybe my sponsor wouldn't agree with my stance. I have always felt like garnering sponsors was a hard hill to climb for me and thus, I clung to them knowing that as a Black athlete in a predominantly White sport it would be a tall order to attain another sponsor if I lost one. ⁣ ⁣ By keeping silent I realized that I was just as bad as a racist person. Silence only allows racist ideology/behavior to cultivate. Exposing the issues and sharing my experiences can help others understand the problems and maybe help others gain knowledge on how to be better humans. I later found that other Black athletes felt the same exact way regarding fear of speaking on racism. ⁣ ⁣ I wrote a piece on this you can check out below ⬇️⁣ (Link in Bio) ⁣ ⁣https://trailrunnermag.com/people/no-change-in-silence.html ⁣ I can't say thank you enough to @trailrunnermag for their concern for diversity in the sport and in society. When I first brought up the issues surrounding diversity in my sport they were amongst the first to reach out with support. Also, huge shout out to my sponsors for giving this man a shot at his dreams ✊🏽⁣ ⁣ @hokaoneone @amphuman @electrobites @juiceperformer @foxriversocks @go2devices @gshock_casio_official @casio_us @hawimanagement @spartantrail @perfectfeet4u

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Diboun also puts on youth camps and is reaching out to communities with the intention of inclusivity and diversity. His Trail Running and Forest Skills weeklong camp sold out so quickly that he added a second week. “I’m trying to get kids, especially kids of color, to realize the fun and the benefits of getting out on the trails running and hiking,” he says.

And Mirna Valerio, one of very few high-profile Black women ultrarunners and a former Director of Equity and Inclusion at a school, recently hosted a three-hour Zoom course titled: “Introduction to Identity, Social Justice, and Antiracism for White People.” The course quickly sold out.

Good things, for sure, but should inclusivity be something runners like Mendoza, Duboun, Gray, and Valerio have to tackle on their own?

Changing Tide

Long aware of the sport’s landscape, ATRA held a Diversity and Inclusion panel at the 2019 Trail Running Conference with speakers such as Solis, Gray, and the legendary Billy Mills, Olympian and national spokesperson for Running Strong for American Indian Youth. In 2018, the organization made a concerted effort to diversify the images of runners on their website, and added Diversity and Inclusion links on their Resources page in an effort to encourage a broader base of participants to the sport. 

More recently, Fleet Feet hosted a YouTube conference on June 18th titled, Running for Change: a Panel Discussion on Systemic Racism and Running with four African-American players within the running space, including Gray.

In recent weeks, the individual efforts among white members of the running community have emerged as well. Ultrarunner Ian Sharman of Sharman Ultra Endurance Coaching decided to offer three six-month coaching spots to runners from the BIPOC community for free. “You’re realizing these things are happening,” says Sharman. “I wondered, ‘How can I help? How can I nudge things into the right direction?’”

“Maybe someone who’s a lawyer can do pro bono work for Black activists,” he adds. “Or an accountant can do something similar.” Sharman’s efforts inspired Scott Jones from Becoming Ultra to offer an additional free coaching spot to a BIPOC runner.

While camps, discussions and inclusive content and imagery are great, it’s hard not to wonder: Is it enough? 

Women from Black Girls RUN pose for an indoor group photo with pink balloons in the background
Photo: Courtesy of BGR!

The Time Is Now

With racial injustices sadly heightening across the U.S. in recent months, addressing inclusivity, diversity, and broadening national education about the issues are paramount.  

Recently, Black ultrarunner Kunlong Von Cousin was verbally assaulted by a white woman while out on a run in Boulder, Colorado, a town with a reputation for progressivism. While the woman screamed profanity-laced racial slurs, completely unprovoked, the runner placed his hand over his heart and said, “I wish I could hug you,” to his assailant, who fired back more racial aggressions. Von Cousin finally took a few running steps away from the incident, but says he fell to his knees weeping, then rose. “I thought, ‘I’m not going to let this lady beat me.’” Still, he explains, “She broke me.” 

The truth is that there is plenty of racism out there—both in overt and in more subtle forms—and it must be eradicated.

Gray, who’s raced all over the world for years, says he feels “a little more paranoid now” when he’s running, due to the current social climate. He talks about how, even before the events of recent months, he felt on guard—and wouldn’t even eat in restaurants—while traveling and racing in places around the country where he’d see confederate flags. “What we’re going through now took paranoia to another level, unfortunately.”

Diboun has said that the racism he faced as a young boy was one of the reasons he turned to substance use and, eventually, addiction in his early life. He became sober in 2004 and found trail running.

There is a moral call for all of us, as trail runners, road runners, and human beings in general, to make extra efforts to help everybody not only feel comfortable and safe on the trails, but comfortable and safe in life.

And still, that isn’t enough. We can all do more.

We Can Do More

“I try to be a positive person,” says Mendoza, “but right now things don’t look so positive.” Still, he has hope. “I think with this next generation, things are gonna change. They don’t see each other differently like we do.”

“The biggest thing in creating more diversity in trail and ultrarunning is giving exposure to Black athletes to show the younger generation the cool benefits to being a professional athlete in the trail running world. The media can really impact that,” explains Gray. “I could very well be happy to continue doing what I’m doing,” he adds. “I don’t have to care about other athletes. It was a tough road for me. But if there’s something I can do for the next generation, then I should do that.”  

Mendoza imparts that diversity for diversity’s sake isn’t necessarily fixing the fundamental cultural problem of racism.

“The real problem is how we see each other, and how we embrace each other,” says Mendoza. “I definitely think it’s changing, but it’s been hard. This last year I’ve been more embraced and welcomed and that has been cool.” But Mendoza has been racing at a top level in trail and ultra running for a decade and a half. 

A man and a woman embrace, smiling
Mendoza and his wife after he shattered the 100k treadmill world record.
Photo: Luke Webster

As a trail running community, no matter what ethnic background we all come from, the time is now—the time was yesterday and years past, actually—to do more to dismantle racism and increase diversity. We need to focus on lifting each other up, as Mendoza says, while we all find peace in the movement of running in the great outdoors.

As Diboun says, “Nature is a vehicle for compassion, and a healthy outlet for overall stress and anxiety.”

“We all just need to do stuff, instead of talking about stuff and not doing stuff,” he adds. “We’ve been not doing stuff, and looking away or past things for a very long time. If we all do little things, I am confident and hopeful that will accumulate and create positive and lasting change.”

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Keep an eye out for more varied content and representation here on Women’s Running and PodiumRunner.