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Runners Mobilize By the Thousands for 2020 Voting Initiatives

Relays, challenges, merchandise, and more: The fall racing calendar is filled with political action and voter education opportunities.

Runners are taking the phrase “exercise your right to vote” to new levels in 2020, signing up for virtual relays and challenges by the thousands in an effort to support voter education and registration drives, as well as draw attention to election issues that directly affect the running community.

The Womxn Run the Vote virtual relay, created by Run 4 All Women and supported by the running apparel brand Oiselle, begins on Monday with 10,000 people registered to virtually cover 680 miles from Atlanta to Washington, D.C. by Sunday. Teams of 15–20 people will record their activities, which can include running or 75 other forms of exercise, as they learn about Civil Rights historical sites and people along the route.

“It’s running, it’s walking, it’s handcycling, it’s gardening, it’s all of these different ways that people can use movement as a form of activism, making this event even more inclusive,” said Alison Désir, an activist and mental health coach based in New York, who founded Run 4 All Women, an organization that seeks to empower women through fitness. “The election is upon us and we want the relay to get people politically engaged, get them really thinking and planning for it.”

The relay also supports Black Voters Matter, with $23 of every $30 registration fee donated to the nonprofit organization whose mission is to increase power in marginalized and predominantly Black communities. Relay organizers say the sold-out event has raised $260,000 for the cause.

If the concept sounds familiar, it should. Women have been using running and relays as a platform to draw attention to political issues since at least the 1970s, most notably in 1977 when the National Women’s Convention took place in Houston. That year, a reported 3,000 runners, including Kathrine Switzer (the first woman to finish the Boston Marathon as a registered runner) relayed 2,600 miles from Seneca Falls, New York (the site of the first Women’s Convention in 1848), to Houston to symbolize the ground women had covered in the fight for equal rights.

In the same spirit, the Womxn Run the Vote relay also celebrates the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, while acknowledging that the white suffragettes excluded Black women from their movement. It wasn’t until 1965 that all women really had the right to vote.

“We had conversations around what we could do to make it more intersectional and what it could really look like if it was centered on marginalized folks,” Désir said. “This event isn’t rooted in the stories of white women and white feminism.”

Désir was also one of the women responsible for organizing a 2017 relay from Harlem to Washington, D.C., which attracted more than 1,000 participants and raised $100,000 for Planned Parenthood. The following year, in recognition of the 2018 midterm elections, Run 4 All Women named ambassadors to help organize grassroots voter registration drives, runs, and panel discussions.

Keshia Roberson, a Washington, D.C.-based health advocate and Run 4 All Women ambassador, got involved during that first effort in 2017. This year she conducted all the research in choosing the destinations along the virtual route, which she hopes serves as just a starting point for participants to learn more about some little-known Civil Rights history.

Keshia Roberson Run 4 All Women
Keshia Roberson is a Run 4 All Women ambassador who researched the Civil Rights history for the 2020 Womxn Run the Vote Relay. Photo: Courtesy of Run 4 All Women

Roberson believes the event has drawn so much interest because no matter what happens on November 3, participants don’t want to feel like they didn’t do their part during an election that experts are calling the most consequential of our lifetime. So much rides on all races, from the presidential choices down to local city council candidates, including how the country copes with climate change, health care, racial justice, and the ongoing spread of COVID-19, to name a few.

Many voters feel that the stakes only increased on Friday, when Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a staunch supporter of equality and reproductive rights, died, leaving a key vacancy on the bench.

“In this election season, especially during a time where we’re so disconnected due to the pandemic, the relay’s given us a sense of community,” Roberson said. “And the money that we’re raising for Black Voters Matter is going to communities of marginalized voters. It will help build power. The relay will have an impact on these upcoming elections.”

The Womxn Run the Vote Relay is one of many initiatives within the running community related to the November election. Saucony collaborated with prinkshop, for example, to launch a line that raises funds for She Should Run, a nonprofit and non-partisan organization supporting women to running for political office. Under Armour created a “Run to Vote” platform to help customers and employees register and make their voting plans.

The 20-day Running for Office Virtual Challenge kicks off on October 14, with a portion of registration fees going to America Votes, an organization dedicated to protecting voter rights and advancing progressive policies. The Pioneers Run Crew, a Boston-based group that creates and promotes a diverse and inclusive culture within the running community, is offering the More Than a Run virtual 5K. The race in part supports the “Fitness in Color” podcast in which Ibran X. Kendi, author of How to Be an Anti-Racist, is scheduled to discuss how to use running as a platform for social change.

Runners who want to get involved have a wide array of opportunities to choose from—and so far it seems like the interest is high.

“The relay is sort of a framework of thinking about the elections and how it takes collective action,” Désir said. “The election is not the end. It’s really the beginning. So it’s about building power and about showing that when we come together, we can tackle these really massive, scary issues. This is a practice in collective action.”