With new Book, Alison Mariella Désir is Owning Her Role as a Running Industry Disruptor
Women's Running sat down with Désir to chat about her new book, freedom through movement, and creating space for lightbulb moments.
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Anyone who has regularly consumed running media over the last couple of years is undoubtedly familiar with the work of activist, advocate, and self-avowed “disruptor” Alison Mariella Désir. In addition to founding New York City club Harlem Run and the Run 4 All Women movement supporting women’s reproductive rights, and serving as co-chair of the Running Industry Diversity Coalition, Désir has published her highly anticipated memoir, Running While Black: Finding Freedom in a Sport That Wasn’t Built For Us, which will be released Oct. 18. Désir sat down with Women’s Running to discuss the inspiration behind the book, how her personal running story is intertwined in it, and her hopes for the future of the sport with regard to inclusivity among people of all marginalized groups and genders.
ENTER TO WIN: Book Giveaway: Running While Black by Alison Désir
Women’s Running: Congratulations on the release of Running While Black. I feel like I’ve known you and followed your story for such a long time, yet still learned so much about you as I read through it. Can you share how the book came to be?
Alison Mariella Désir: I’ve always wanted to write a book and had made many previous attempts at writing manuscripts over the years. Many of them are very difficult for me to even look at now because they were focused on mental health and the period of depression I experienced, which I also discuss in this book. I was attempting to write all those manuscripts while I thought I was better, but I still was very much in a dark place. Once you start feeling better and start taking care of yourself, you can’t even believe that that was once who you were.
This particular book came about in 2020, after I had an op-ed published by Outside titled “Ahmaud Arbery and Whiteness in the Running World.” What was really unique and what made this book so important to me was having a Black son (Kouri, who was nearly 10 months old when I learned about Arbery’s murder) and then living through the COVID-19 pandemic. It wasn’t that police murders of Black men had necessarily increased, but we were in this moment where there was a lot less chatter happening and these murders and vigilante killings were more visible. Thinking about that and thinking about how my son will one day be a Black man compelled me to write this. I had to share that moving through space as a Black body is different from moving through space as a white body and that historically and presently, we have never had access to freedom of movement. I just had to tell that story because it also creates a possibility for change and a new world where my son could be free to run, and free to show up as his full self.
You share so much of your personal story in this book, which resonated with me as a peer to you both in age and as a fellow runner and a woman of color working in this industry. But obviously, this book isn’t just important for people like you and me to consume. Who would you say this book is for, and who do you hope to see choosing to read it?
There are two audiences for this book and they’re both big. I, for sure, hope that Black people and other people of color read this and say, “Finally, my experience is represented in a book.” The complete experience is the joy, but also the pain, the fear, and the “otherness.”
But then what’s also important is white folks reading this book and recognizing that a world exists beyond their own, which is difficult in a world that’s rooted in white supremacy and that intentionally centers white people in every situation. It is by design that white people are unaware that Black people and people of color move through the world differently, despite the fact that it has been white people and white supremacy who created the laws and environment and maintained that. So I hope that for white people, it humanizes our experiences without shaming them, and while still offering them ways to take action to do better.
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When you first announced that you were writing this book, it had the working title The Unbearable Whiteness of Running. I never thought about it until I took note of the change, but to me, Running While Black is 100% the perfect name for this book because it immediately speaks to and centers your experience, which is one that will resonate with a lot of runners from marginalized groups. How did you settle on the final title?
With the original title, the book was more sort of a manifesto and in the category of anti-racist books, which are more instructional and intended solely for a white audience. It was my editor, who is a white woman, who said “What’s missing here is you.” That made me realize that what’s always been powerful for me in books is when you can go on a journey with the author when you can understand their worldview and what made them who they are, and then you get on board with their struggles and their way of seeing the world. However, that required me to be a lot more vulnerable than I had ever intended to be, and that’s where you get these stories from my childhood that build an understanding of who I am.
It almost feels like an honor to be able to have the title Running While Black because that is an experience that Black people and people of color (and white people, too) understand in some way. The name is provocative, and so it’ll get people interested in the book. The harder part was actually coming up with the subtitle, “Finding Freedom in a Sport That Wasn’t Built For Us,” because we wanted to make it clear and make sure that people understand using the word “us” also lets you know that this is Black-centered, that the “us” is me and my people. The whole title allowed me to reconcile the fact that running has brought me so much freedom and joy, but it was never intended with somebody like me in mind.
I’ve heard you comment about how one of the biggest challenges you expect in getting white people to read this book or even having these conversations in general, will be getting them to see that this isn’t about hating white people; it’s about hating white supremacy. Were you worried the original title might immediately make people defensive and opt not to pick up and read the book?
I think that because white people don’t learn this concept of white supremacy or whiteness, they’re not forced to think critically about their identity because they’re seen as a default. Therefore, something like that simple title is seen as an attack. While I wanted my title to be provocative and confrontational, I didn’t want people to bristle so much and feel so hateful for the title alone without getting into the meat of what I’m actually talking about. What I hope I do well through the book is take people on that journey of me asking the questions, “Do I hate white people? Or do I hate white supremacy? What does that mean, and what are the ways white supremacy and this concept of whiteness actually harm white people too?” I hope this will be a lightbulb moment for folks recognizing that we are all harmed in this system, obviously to different degrees, but it is in our own best interest for all of us to want to rethink how this society, and then on a more narrow level, how our running industry and community function.
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I loved reading about how you started Harlem Run. You talked about how in the beginning, you stood alone on a New York City street corner for weeks before people finally started showing up. Most people would easily give up too soon because they would feel like their big idea was a failure. It’s easy to picture you as the resilient Alison I know now and assume that you were just that determined to make it happen. But I did read the book and I also know that you’re human and that did leave you feeling somewhat defeated. So what was it that motivated you to keep showing up?
I think it was just that finding long-distance running had been such a pivotal piece of my life. As you said, I think people see me now and it’s consistent with my life that I am bold and disruptive. But I was also coming from a place where I would stay in my house for weeks, with no reason to even leave the couch. Yes, I had just run this marathon and started to feel good about myself and had gone to counseling, but I was not this person who was taking all of these risks and feeling like certainly it’ll happen. But the fact that running had done so much for me, I just felt like it was my calling. I’m not a religious person, but perhaps someone who is would say that it was fate or some kind of divine message and I really just felt like I had to do this.
A part of my own mental health was also hinging on building this community because I had loved the running experience, but I hadn’t seen a lot of people like me. So I thought, if only I can create this space, then I can have the best of both worlds. I can have the thing that is keeping me alive, happy, and functional with people who look like me. So there was a lot at stake.
Seeing how Harlem Run started from you just wanting people like you to run with, to showing Black people the physical and emotional benefits of running, and eventually, being centered as a vehicle for inclusion and social change, how does it feel to see how much it’s grown and how much of an impact it’s had on the running community, now on a national level, over the years?
Yeah, talk about the unexpected, right? Harlem Run has very much followed my own personal growth in terms of recognizing, “Okay, first, I want to do this to bring other people into the sport like me.” Then recognizing, “Oh, the impact of seeing Black people running through a neighborhood of mostly Black people and how our community was not just our run community of people who show up, our community was this larger community of Harlem.” And then recognizing that the media were interested in this story because I am a Black woman leading this group that centers Black and Brown people, recognizing, “Oh, we are actually tapping into this narrative of who moves and who leads movements.”
As my own development happened, Harlem Run sort of came with me. I think another critical piece of this is recognizing that there was this industry and that these messages weren’t just falling from the sky; that there is an industry that perpetuates and fuels these messages, whether it’s magazines, podcasts, retailers or brands saying, “Oh, there are people who are creating this, and sometimes we fit into the narrative that they want and sometimes we don’t.” But what if we were able to actually take control and be part of creating a new narrative? There’s so much I didn’t know was possible and I’m really proud of it. I love seeing the ways that other groups borrow from what we’re doing and find us to be an inspiration or a source of hope for their own communities.
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In the book, you also talk about some of the challenges you faced in the beginning of getting Harlem Run off the ground, such as when male leaders and other run groups expected you to run your event plans by them before finalizing anything and making any decisions. Would you say experiences like that prepared you for some of the challenges you’ve faced as a woman of color leading the charge on inclusivity in the running industry?
Absolutely. I wish I could say that a lot has changed, but the New York City running community remains a very male-dominated space. You’d like to think that other Black and Brown men will be in support of Black women, but we know that patriarchy is also a strong force. That’s why in this book, I try to be sure that I’m talking through an intersectional lens. What I found was that, as a Black woman, I was coming up against patriarchy and these men were looking out for each other and their own interests, and they were fine having a Black woman or another woman of color being second in command, or the one who’s doing the logistical support. And this idea of the frontrunner, the front-show person being a Black or Brown man was really hard for me.
So that’s what I just started focusing on, on creating my own space. I realized collaboration is what I would’ve loved and I would’ve loved the support of these folks, but I’m just going to build something that authentically feels good to me. But this is, once again, where everything about our existence is political. The running community, of course, has the influence of white supremacy, of patriarchy. I was coming up against those same issues that I would when I go into rooms, and I’m also one of the only Black people and the only Black woman in a room in this male-dominated space, recognizing that I’ve been here before. This has always been my existence; it’s just a matter of context.
As someone who spent more than a decade working to qualify for Boston and who has actually never experienced the event in person, much of the chapter about your experience running the 2017 race was eye-opening and admittedly a little hard for me to read.
But at the same time, even before reading your book, I grappled with similar feelings when I was struggling with my own personal running journey, and had moments when I had to ask myself “Why exactly is this goal so important to me?” I’ve realized in recent years that a lot of it did come from being a minority in these spaces and how the majority of runners who pursue a Boston qualifier and eventually make it to Boston don’t look like me.
Having people express overt skepticism when I’d share this goal fed into all kinds of feelings of imposter syndrome as I pursued it, which is what motivated me to share my training and goal – I don’t want to just send the message that we as runners of color deserve to be here on the starting line. I wanted to show everyone, white people and BIPOC runners alike, that we’re capable and deserving of pursuing and achieving these lofty goals, too. How have your feelings and relationship with events like the Boston Marathon shifted over the years?
I appreciate you sharing that. Whether it’s the Boston Marathon or the Abbott World Majors, I’m always sitting here just thinking critically, “Well, what is this goal about and what is the reason you’re pursuing it? What does this actually mean to you?” I’ve run some of them myself, and, yes, they’re amazing marathons. But the Abbott World Marathon Majors challenge was created, at least from my understanding, in order to create incentives around bringing people to these races and creating this hype, that completing the six of them was this monumental achievement.
Now, in my opinion, there are so many amazing races and marathons across the country that you could complete six of them and also feel that sense of accomplishment, right? So what is it about the World Marathon Majors? What is it about the Boston Marathon that you’re actually invested in and excited about? And when you start to think about that, if it’s just this idea that those particular six events mean something more than any other events, well, why? What is it that you’re chasing? And if the pinnacle of this sport that’s supposed to be for all people, is to get into this race that is extremely exclusive, whether you qualify or whether you fundraise sometimes $10,000, then there’s a real mismatch here in terms of what we’re saying running is about and what the pinnacle running experience is supposed to be or mean. And as you shared, there are obviously important reasons why people would see Boston or the Majors as meaningful for them. But I hope through what I say here in the book, whether you agree with me or not, you start to question why something is of value to you. And if the value comes from other people just saying, “Hey, this is valuable,” then maybe you should rethink it.
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After that first, not-great experience running Boston, you returned last spring for the 2022 race, this time collaborating with PIONEERS Run Crew, which is known to be Boston’s first Black- and Brown-led running club, in holding pre-race events and spectating the race. What was the experience this year like in comparison? Was it somewhat of a full-circle moment to be there in such a different capacity?
Yes; I think what I was able to experience this year was what the Boston Marathon could be like, if Black and Brown people were centered and given space to be ourselves. So I credit that to PIONEERS Run Crew and the Trailblazhers Run Co., who have really taken back this idea that Boston is only for a certain type of people and brought in just joy and our culture and our spirit. Part of that is 26.True, which is an unsanctioned marathon that takes place the day before the Boston Marathon and takes you through towns in Boston, such as Jamaica Plain and Roxbury, that are mostly Black, mostly immigrant communities. This challenges the idea that the Boston Marathon is actually a Boston Marathon, since it starts in the small town of Hopkinton and goes through mostly white suburbs before finishing in Boston itself. And believe it or not, I later found out that the police were called because our cheer station at 26.True was too loud and disruptive. Isn’t it literally the point of a cheer station to be loud and disruptive? But this man in this small, white town felt the need to protect his “space.” This just emphasized the juxtaposition of the 26.True, like, “OK, that’s your version of the Boston Marathon. Well, we will show you the real Boston Marathon the day before.” This isn’t just something that is happening in Boston; it’s happening all over the country. My message in that really, is it’s important and we, as Black people, are creating our own stuff. And we will continue to do that whether you get on board or not.
Will you be back in Boston for part of your book tour this spring?
It’s not on the schedule right now; I have not been invited in any particular way. I would love to be there because Kara Goucher, Des Linden, and Lauren Fleshman also have books coming out before the race, and I think this is the most books being published by women in running ever. So, if I could put that into the universe, I would love to see all of us on a panel together, talking about our books, all of which are critical of the industry.
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You recently tweeted about meeting a woman during one of your book tour stops who shared that she never knew our national parks were once segregated. Did you expect to hear comments like that and was that why you chose to include the timeline of key moments in both American Black history and running history even though this book is largely a memoir of your own experiences?
Yes, absolutely. This woman also had no knowledge that there was a point where Black people could not go to public pools, that they shut down rather than let Black people swim there. That wasn’t her history; that was her upbringing and her experience. But these were contemporary laws, and for many white folks, it is that intentional erasure and miseducation that leads people to just live in isolation of anybody else’s experience.
The people in power are the ones who create the narrative, the histories and the stories that we learn and it’s by design that white people don’t know their own history. Slavery is as much, if not more white history than it is Black history because white people designed and perpetuated the system. So contextualizing what this world actually looked like during this period of running and what our experience as Black people was, was essential to help white people and all people really understand. I’m not just saying I felt this way; I’m actually showing the conditions that create the environment such that I would feel a lack of belonging, when that’s not what I want to feel. This is the society and industry and community that I inherited.
And in the book you also talk about the initial meetings with the Running Industry Diversity Coalition, before it was officially launched with you as co-chair, and how those meetings were particularly tense, to put it mildly. But you’ve also talked about how you do your best to avoid goading white people into guilt and shame when it comes to carrying out RIDC’s mission, while also emphasizing that it’s important for white people to acknowledge the role they’ve played in marginalizing minority groups. What would you say are some other key components in keeping these conversations going and getting brands and industry leaders to take real action toward inclusivity and racial justice?
Something that I’ve become accustomed to doing is to show how I, as a Black woman, also have privilege, and that this is not something that is exclusive to white people. Often what happens when you talk to white people is that they say, “But I grew up in poverty,” or “I’m an immigrant,” Or “I’m a first-generation American and I’ve struggled, too.” But being white has never been a point of struggle for them.
I say this because I think it’s important to mirror and be instructional. And I say, “I’m a Black woman who is able-bodied. I’m a Black woman who is cisgender. I’m a Black woman who isn’t neurodivergent.” All of those things gave me privilege to be able to write this book, to be able to show up in spaces and move my body. And so I also have to be a disability activist, I have to be championing trans and non-binary folks. It’s not just white people; each of us has our role. I hope that helps people see “Oh, she doesn’t hate me. She’s talking about these systems that are set up to prioritize certain people and even she exists within it.” It’s really a call to action to get on board like, “Oh, you have only had this blissful experience while running. Guess what? I want that, too. Let’s work together.”
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You’ve shared that you expect to get “hate mail” about some of the book’s chapters, but say that’s a good thing because it means people are talking. But do you typically engage with those people? How do you navigate figuring out where it can actually be productive, especially when you hear the same tired comments like, “Stick to running” and “keep politics out of running?”
Honestly, it depends on where I’m at and how I’m feeling. Sometimes a comment lands for me in a way that I feel like I’m in the right frame of mind where I can answer it and don’t feel personally attacked. Other times, it is exhausting and I will not engage. But people who have genuine questions like, “I’ve never seen the world that way. I can’t even understand. Can you explain it further?” Folks who come from a place of curiosity, I am interested in engaging with because we have to remain curious. That’s really the only way that we build empathy and then we can make change. I think I have a good feeling at this point in my life to see when there’s a genuine conversation, and when somebody just wants to incite a feeling or troll me, and that will be my guide.
You’ve also shouted out athletes like Alysia Montaño and Mirna Valerio for being unapologetically themselves in sharing their experiences and navigating the running world as Black athletes and how that has helped to validate your own experiences. Who are some other women in the running scene who you think are changing the game or have had a significant impact on your running journey?
Ashley Davies, co-founder of Club Seattle Running Division (CSRD). The more I get to know her, the more I’m blown away by how honest, intentional and just brave she is. Also, India Cook, who is not somebody whose role is to talk about anti-racism. There should not be the expectation that every Black and Brown person is talking about racial equity. Does every Black and Brown person want equity? Of course. But our sole role on this Earth is not to talk about and try to deconstruct systems. For me, this is my passion and racial justice and equity is actually the work that I do. But India is a Black woman, this work isn’t what lights her up. She’s a coach who is the voice of a lot of races and does a lot of content focused on getting beginners into running, which is a beautiful thing. She is taking up space and showing her joyful, lived experience. Another one is Martha Garcia, who served as one of the original leadership partners of RIDC and who I’ve heard say, “I’m not a runner-runner.” But she runs, she moves, and she is also somebody who’s always speaking unapologetically and has just done an incredible amount of good in the running industry.
You’ve talked openly about how, as a Black woman, you’ve always needed to be cognizant of your personal safety and just watch your back when you’re out for a run. The recent tragic murder of Eliza Fletcher re-bubbled up some of this discussion about how these cases usually don’t get as much attention when they involve women of color. You’ve been asked before if women’s safety concerns affect you differently as a Black person, which has made you see how even womanhood is typically reserved for white people. How would you like to see the running industry improve when it comes to prioritizing and centering our safety and truly making this sport open to all?
Damn, good question. I mean, the murder of Eliza Fletcher absolutely was tragic and traumatic, but what it also showed me is that representation does in fact matter. Because when it’s a white woman who’s murdered, other white women and other white people feel like that could be them, so it matters to them. But when it’s a Black person, when it’s a Black woman or Black man, the response is not the same because they don’t relate to that story. And that’s where the problem is, that there is a sense of humanity and a sense of womanness or a sense of being centered, that is coupled with whiteness. Obviously, I don’t want anyone to be murdered while doing anything. But I want the same outrage, I want the same outpouring of support and demand for resources to come when our lives are taken. It’s even been reported that a Black woman came forward several months earlier, reporting that she had been attacked by Fletcher’s killer, but her account was not taken seriously. The way our lives are valued is not the same, which is why we say “Black Lives Matter.”
You’re juggling so much now between writing and now promoting this book and everything else you’ve got going on in your career. The first thing you have listed in bios such as your LinkedIn headline is “disruptor,” which I think is awesome. Is that how you want to be known and remembered?
Yes, absolutely. I do a lot of things and that’s also just who I am. My nickname that my father gave me from a very young age, “Powdered Feet,” speaks to that. I think that it’s really led by my curiosity of saying, “Are we doing this just because things have always been done this way? Is there a better way of doing this? Are we doing this and leaving people out?” That doesn’t mean that I always have the answers or even the resources to address the system or the story or the place that I’ve disrupted. It is powerful when somebody says something that causes you to pause and rethink the way you do something, rethink why you do the thing that you do. That’s what I hope my legacy is.
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You recently held your first WOC Take the Lead Retreat for women of color in the running industry. What was your vision for the event? Do you plan to make it an annual tradition?
Yes; we will absolutely be doing it next year. We say this is for women, femme and non-binary folks of color, and we had all of those people attend. But there were probably over 65 women of color who were there. And I was just looking around, “I know there are more women of color in this industry, why aren’t they here?” The goal for the retreat was, on one hand, simply just to provide a space where these folks could feel seen. We wanted to affirm, “You are not the only. Look at how many of us there are.” We wanted to create networking opportunities, so that somebody who maybe is junior level could find mentorship and support that they may not have internally. Our goal for Year 2 is to be even more intentional with creating tracks for people who are entrepreneurs, as well as for people working for brands, retailers, and events. Our goal is to really shift the industry and ensure that more women, femme, and non-binary folks are in it and can see what it means to have a career in the industry.
How has your trajectory in your running journey and doing so much work in the industry impacted your identity as a runner? What have you learned about yourself both as a woman and as a runner?
As a runner, I’ve learned that I really don’t care about accolades. Medals don’t matter to me. Particular races don’t matter to me. And maybe that’s because I’ve been there, done that. That doesn’t mean that I won’t ever get excited about or train for a race. But running is just something that’s an important practice in my life and an important teacher in my life. And then as a human being, it’s taught me that you can really love something and also want to change it. Something can be transformational for you and still not be accessible for other people, and you can and should pursue that.
What other projects do you have going on in the coming months?
I have a PBS show that’s coming out in December that is very much about Black, Indigenous and People of Color who are reclaiming their space in the outdoors. Through that, I’ve been able to kayak, fly fish, hike and more. So when I think about running or movement, I think about it in terms of the places that I want to see and the communities that I want to connect with.
I’m also planning a retreat for BIPOC of all genders in Alaska next summer, which I am super excited about. I was presented with the opportunity to create this retreat with Run Alaska Trails, where they handle all the logistics, and I provide the experience of going to places that probably were not on our radar, and also have conversations about belonging, safety, and joy while running incredible trails and learning about the Indigenous land that we’re running on. I’m really grateful that I can curate these types of trips that typically don’t have somebody like me leading them and I invite everyone to check it out.
Even though it’s still being fleshed out, you already have quite the book tour planned out going into 2023. What are you most looking forward to about it?
I am excited to be disruptive in new places, to say things that make people really grapple with and rethink what they thought they’ve known, whether about running or about history. I’ll be in communities where I won’t know most of the people who show up, which will be new for me. Some of these are spaces where I don’t imagine that conversations around racial equity are happening a lot. I’ll feel safe, since I’ll be with folks who I love, including Chris Lampen-Crowell and John Benedict, who are with RIDC and who have gone through some difficult conversations with me. Many of the stops will include a 5K run and a conversation, and people are welcome to join for either or both.
What do you hope readers, both white runners and runners of color, ultimately take away from this book when they finish reading it?
I hope they leave feeling empowered to run, take action, question their beliefs, and learn true stories, not just what is taught in history.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.