Get access to everything we publish when you sign up for Outside+.
When Montyne (Tina) King Clay’s daughter was in seventh grade and joined the cross-country team, Clay wanted to be able to run with her. More specifically, she wanted to be able to see her daughter running at more than one point on the cross-country course.
“You would see your child at the start, and then at the one mile, if you got there. But if you couldn’t run, you couldn’t get back to the finish line in time to see them finish,” Clay recalls. “So I looked at all those parents that would never see their kids in the race, and I started back running. And I’ve been running ever since then,” Clay says. As a kid, she was a runner, but hadn’t stayed with it as an adult.
Clay soon started running longer and longer distances. She saw something about the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s Team In Training and ran her first marathon in the late 1990s. “I thought it would be nice to raise money and run, and after that, I just got hooked on running distance,” she says. At 58-years-old, she has run more than 20 marathons.
Now, as a State Farm agent who writes health and life insurance, Clay sees many people either denied coverage or charged a premium because of their height and weight or their health conditions. She knew that running could benefit some of them.
So, in 2012, she started a running group called Healthy Active Soles for Black women in the Jackson, Mississippi, area. “The purpose is to stay fit and be healthy,” Clay says.
The group is now 25 to 30 women strong. They walk, run, and stretch together, as well as do community service. They range in age from 20s to 80s. “As you start running, you become friends. And once you get to be friends, you want to invite somebody else to join in and see the benefits that you’re getting,” Clay says.
Healthy Active Soles includes women with a broad range of running ability. They meet once a week for long runs, where nobody gets left behind, even if they’re beginners or walkers.
The group picks a race to train for, and Clay, who is a certified running coach, creates a training plan that members follow on their own for the rest of the week. They try to choose races that include a marathon, half marathon, and shorter distances, so that there’s something for everybody.
Healthy Active Soles has succeeded in encouraging members to “be active people and to be conscious of their food, diet, and exercise,” Clay says.
One woman in the group was a diabetic on insulin when she joined, and at first, she was barely a walker, Clay recalls. She progressed from walking to running, and now she competes in 10K races and half marathons. After getting more active with the group, she was able to come off insulin. Her progress is a testament to the group’s purpose, Clay says.
“Being an African American, we have a tendency to have high blood pressure, diabetes, and strokes more than other races or ethnic groups,” she says. “To see somebody come off insulin, that is a blessing.”
Running works to get people more active, she says. “Not everybody can run distance, and not everybody can run fast. But once you build up to be able to run, and you go from walking to running, it’s a good feeling. It’s like you feel free,” she says.
Clay is a member of the National Black Marathoners Association. The first time she attended one of their events, she enjoyed the speakers and the camaraderie, and seeing all the Black runners together, she says.
Over the course of her running, Clay hasn’t always had Black running peers around. “When you go to a race, the people at the finish line do not look like me,” she says.
Part of the appeal of Healthy Active Soles is that it gives Black women a fellowship of runners who look like them, she says.
Ahmaud Arbery’s murder in February 2020 stoked conversations among the running community about the safety of running while Black. “As a runner, being here in Mississippi, sometimes I run through neighborhoods that are very similar to the neighborhoods that he was running through,” Clay says. “I don’t run by myself in areas that I would feel out of place in.”
Clay ran the 2021 New York City Marathon in remembrance of Arbery. And on the day his killers’ guilty verdicts were announced, she and some members of her group ran individually in Arbery’s memory. “Nobody should have to go through that,” she says.
Next up for Healthy Active Soles is the Camp Shelby Norwegian Foot March and Extra Miles Marathon in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, on March 5, which benefits Extra Table, a local nonprofit working to end hunger. Clay is also looking forward to qualifying for the Boston Marathon.
Clay hopes that when her group is out there running, they help encourage other people who might not see themselves as runners. “The key to it is moving your feet. Once you start moving your feet, you can do more than you think,” she says. “You will build strength and endurance, but you have to start somewhere.”