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

Amid anguish across the country, runners opened discussions and made their miles more meaningful on Global Running Day this year.

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Global Running Day typically turns any runner’s social media timeline into a jubilee of trail selfies, group photos, and watch shots. This year was different, though, as thousands continue to protest racial injustice on the streets and while the COVID-19 pandemic is forcing many people to still train solo.

Some wondered on Wednesday if it was appropriate to acknowledge the unofficial holiday at all, but others turned it into a platform to donate to causes supporting Black Lives Matter, demonstrators, and healthcare workers on the frontlines. Runners also remarked that running a few miles on Global Running Day offered an opportunity to reflect on the times we’re living through and how to help.

Rahsaan Rogers, Matt Green, and Amir Figueroa got together on Instagram Live to discuss representation in running, as well as their personal experiences as black male runners and leaders in their communities. Rogers is founder of Resident Runners, a run crew based in New York; Green is cofounder of District Running Collective in Washington, D.C.; and Figueroa is leader of Harlem Run. The forum was hosted by the groups’ sponsor, Under Armour.

“I want all this speaking up and action that’s happening to not go away,” Rogers said. “That’s the only way we’re going to make change.”

They covered topics ranging from the stigma of talking about mental health among black men, to the killing of Ahmaud Arbery, the 25-year-old from Georgia chased down and shot by two white men while he was on a run, to the statements that running brands have issued since the protests began, sparked by the death of George Floyd, who died while a police officer pinned him down with a knee to his neck.

Here are key outtakes from the conversation.

On brand statements in the running industry.

During the past week, nearly all running shoe and apparel companies issued statements regarding their support for racial justice and inclusion of all races and ethnicities within the sport. What black runners are looking for following those statements is better representation in the boardrooms and at the executive levels of these corporations, which ultimately leads to more support and exposure of black runners.

“It’s easy for people to hop on the bandwagon, especially when there’s that pressure out there that if you don’t post something, you’re going to receive some criticism,” Rogers said. “My expectation is that these people who are saying something is that they truly stand behind their words moving forward.”

Green agreed, saying that he noticed which brands issued lists of changes they’ll make, which posted black squares,

“Brands are facing some tough decisions that they have to make, especially if there aren’t any black people or people of color in the room to help influence,” Green said. “That’s where we, as black running leaders, have to use our platforms to help make sure that we’re letting it be known that we’re upset and brands need to be better.”

And while the degree of influence that these businesses have on the sport can’t be understated, it’s not entirely their responsibility to do more, either, Green added.

“Ultimately it’s not all on them—it’s in people’s hearts and the decisions that they make—but we need to see more,” Green said. “This is so close to us and our reality, I feel like people would be able to understand it better if it was their reality as well and how much support they’d get from black people…at the end of the day it’s wrong—I can’t respect people who are being silent in this moment.”

How running groups help black men talk about mental health.

While more people are finding it easier to talk about mental health struggles, black men still are stigmatized for admitting their challenges. Often they don’t seek help when they need it. Running groups have created a safe environment for some to have important conversations, whether structured or informal, while running.

“We’re raised to be so strong that we can’t show vulnerability,” Rogers said.

At Harlem Run, Figueroa tries to encourage men to open up about anxiety and depression.

“When you’re not afraid to speak out about that, it really makes a difference especially when men say it,” he said. “I can’t even count the amount of men in our group who are open and honest now about dealing with anxiety and depression and I think that’s beautiful to see…we have a lot of big, black dudes who run with us and when you see them being vulnerable, it’s awesome.”

On the killing of Ahmaud Arbery.

That kind of support system has been critical during these times, when police brutality and corruption in the justice system is traumatizing.Yet, during the pandemic, which has disproportionately killed more black people, indigenous people, and people of color, it’s impossible to get together in person to share a few miles.

Harlem Run and District Running Collective have held group Zoom meetings to keep connections and communications open—especially after the Arbery case started receiving more media attention.

“There was a point where emotions and frustrations began to pour out. We just had to make sure it was a safe space. Everybody was there for a reason,” Green said. “It was eye-opening and it helped heal, but at the end of the day, here we are again.”

Rogers said Arbery’s death was especially jarring as a black male runner.

“Running has always been a release for me, a place of safety,” he said. “If we can’t feel safe in the outlets that let us relieve stress and disconnect, then where can we ever feel safe?”

Green agreed, adding that it’s a daily negotiation in his head when he’s training in D.C. He listens to stories from his friends all the time about the racism they experience on the run.

“For me, it’s ‘how do I make myself less intimidating?’” he said. “We create scenarios to make other people feel comfortable for just doing something as simple as running. I think about it all the time because I’m in a crew where I hear these things.”

On black representation in recreational running.

Rogers started running with his dad when he was a kid, but remembers he was almost always the only black boy running in local 5Ks and other events.

“There was nobody who looked like me,” he said, adding, “it was a very white, male, middle-aged sport back in the day.”

The bright spot? Anecdotally Rogers see improvement from his younger days, though at the elite level, the statistics for American distance running still lag (for example, the New York Times reported in February that of nearly 500 women who were competing at the 2020 U.S. Olympic Trials, 92 percent were white).

“So to see what the running community has turned into, I’m so glad,” he said. “I wish I had that when I was younger.”

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