Culture

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

One woman reflects on her own running experiences and what we can do to help create change within the culture of distance running. 

I’m a black woman who fell in love with running marathons in 2013. Since then, I have run ten of them in multiple states and as far as Berlin, Germany. Each has been so different, but there has always been one constant: When I line up at the start, I see a literal sea of white people. 

In some bigger races—like the New York City Marathon, which I ran in 2018—I see more people who look like me, but in general, it’s rare. When I see other black people, it’s like a family reunion. We strike up conversation, give each other head nods and encouragement while on the course, and just for that moment feel a little less alone. I never thought I would run in enough races to really start to feel the effects of the sport’s exclusivity, but as I kept running I kept noticing the lack of fellow black marathoners. 

I have, for the most part, always been pretty focused on my individual goals and enjoyment in running. But when I learned that the 2020 U.S. Olympic marathon team would be chosen in Atlanta, that’s the moment I became a fan of the sport and vowed to be at the race on February 29, 2020. I attended college in Atlanta, I spectated the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta; that city has always been special to me. And on top of my personal connection, the city is well known as a hub for black people. From all the historically black colleges located downtown to the history of Atlanta being “too busy to hate,” it has always been a place where black people are found in high numbers and it has often been viewed as one of the most racially diverse cities of the south. 

I was joined by hundreds (literally, around 200) of my Oiselle teammates and friends from all across the country. We staked out a full block on Peachtree and screamed our heads off the entire race. But for as excited as I was, I couldn’t help but notice a glaring fact—one that was broken down in a New York Times piece just days before: of the 512 women who qualified to run, only 1 percent of them were black. 

Standing there at that race, I couldn’t help but wonder why this dichotomy persists—that while American distance running is predominantly white, many track and field events (particularly jumping and sprints) are dominated by black runners? 

I tried to push that thought away for a moment and focus on the positive: the 2020 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials was a historic event. The United States has never sent a black woman to represent the country in the marathon; the results from this year’s race meant that the U.S. was sending two: Aliphine Tuliamuk, who broke the tape and won the women’s race, and Sally Kipyego, who finished third and earned the final spot on the team. I thought for sure that meant there would be stories galore celebrating this history-setting moment. And so, in the days after the Trials, I searched and waited. I scrolled past the many stories about Molly Seidel (who is amazing) and waited some more. 

In that wait, it’s easy to see how black runners can get the message that distance running, and particularly marathons, aren’t for them: It is hard to be what you can’t see. The lack of mainstream coverage for Tuliamuk and Kipyego was disheartening to say the least. I was so excited about this historic team, and frankly, it seemed like it just didn’t matter at all. Which in turns, feels like we don’t matter at all. 

The lack of coverage and celebrated role models perpetuate an ongoing problem. In 2008, a blog called “Stuff White People Like” listed “marathons” at number 27. The list was funny because it was true. But black people like marathons, too, and that needs more attention and coverage.

So what can be done? How can we change the conversation surrounding distance running? Encouraging runners of color to get out there is definitely a part of the solution. It’s still too rare to see other runners of color, and especially black runners at the marathons I run each year. But when I do, I always make an effort to say hi—or at least share a head nod of I’m past the point where I can talk in the race. 

But those of us out there who trying to be the change also need support. We need major publications to talk about black and brown marathoners who are doing amazing things (like winning the Trials). We also need to support and highlight the stories that are out there about diverse marathoners, like this piece from Eryn Mathewson focused on how remarkable it is that the U.S. is sending three black marathoners to the Olympics, or this one by Women’s Running‘s own Erin Strout about Tuliamuk and Kipyego achieving their American Dream. We need groups like the National Black Marathoners Association. We need it all.

And hopefully, if we can continue to show that distance running and marathons are for everyone—not just white people—we can create a ripple effect that helps change the narrative, and the reality. Perhaps if we saw black people running and training for races more regularly, it wouldn’t give folks pause when they see a lone black man running in his neighborhood. Perhaps showcasing diversity in running could mean more than just encouraging more black runners to run marathons and ensuring fair coverage for those that do—perhaps it could help save lives of people like Ahmaud Arbery. Of course, that issue is much more complicated than just visibility of runners, but the lack of visibility matters. And it’s something we can change and fix. 

You might be wondering what you can do. And honestly, the most important place to start is education. There are so many great books and resources you can read to start to understand more about race. (Because yes, while I and many black women are usually happy to talk, it is also sometimes exhausting and that should be recognized.) 

But you should also seek out diversity in your own life, and speak up when you see it lacking. What runners do you follow ons social media? What do those folks look like? Did you know who Aliphine was before the Trials? 

Think in terms of your local running world, as well. What does your local running group look like? If it, like many groups, is mostly white—ask yourself why and do something about it. If you host a race, where are you advertising that race? If you own a running store and host group runs, who are you inviting to join? Who are the people who lead those runs? 

These might seem like small things, but they all matter a great deal when it comes to inclusivity. In order for movement on this we need engagement at all levels. We—the entire running community—all need to speak up, speak out, and push for change, even if it’s one small step at a time.