Plus, how joining a running club can help.

By Tonya Russell
May 19, 2020
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My stomach clenched when I saw her stare at me from the sidewalk. I was on my typical local running path, not far from my home, which included passing through a cookie-cutter suburban neighborhood mostly inhabited by white retirees. The elderly white woman had an alarmed, distressed expression on her face that made me instantly self-conscious. I’d never seen her before, but as I got closer, she mustered up the courage to stick out her hand and stop me. “Excuse me. My husband has wandered off, and he has dementia. If you see him, can you call the police?” Relieved, I gladly obliged, and made sure to scan the area for the remainder of my six-mile run.

Though my encounter turned out to be innocent, my nervousness wasn’t misplaced. This was my first run since news of Ahmaud Arbery’s death went national. Arbery, a 25-year-old black man, was gunned down by two white residents of a suburban Georgia neighborhood who claimed he “fit the description” of a burglar. Arbery was on his typical local run, not far from his home. His story confirmed some of my, and the black community’s, worst fears: No matter what I wear, no matter where I go, I am still young and black. I never know if I’ll end up in a situation where others will question my motives, or worse, end up like Ahmaud.

It isn’t uncommon for a black person to be met with suspicion in their own town. Just ask Jay Shaw, II, of Philadelphia. On a recent run, Shaw witnessed a woman risk her own safety to get away from him. As he ran down the sidewalk of City Line Avenue, a busy two-way street separating the suburbs from the city, he approached a white woman from behind, and alerted her to his presence, which is proper running etiquette. When she turned to move, he says she saw him and screamed, nearly running into oncoming traffic. “I was certain I would be stopped by a cop,” Shaw says. “I was anxious for days after that.”

Sarah Tosh, PhD, a sociology and criminal justice professor at Rutgers University, explains how years of suburban and urban diaspora have exacerbated racial tensions. Increasing numbers of white Americans are moving back into inner city areas, which they fled en masse in the ‘white flight’ of the post-World War II era. At the same time, African-Americans displaced from gentrifying urban areas have increasingly moved into suburban communities that historically have been predominantly white. “These tensions are further inflamed by a spate of highly publicized murders of African-Americans, rarely going punished and often at the hands of police—as well as increased attention to the tendency of white residents to report black neighbors to the police for a litany of minor behaviors.”

Safety and avoiding any suspicion are always front and center for black Americans, says Philadelphia-based psychotherapist and runner Alanna Gardner. “We’re constantly bombarded with images of black people being threatened, arrested, and killed for normal everyday things, and have evidence of them being murdered without justice. Trayvon Martin, and now Ahmaud Arbery,” she tells Health. These instances remain on the minds of black people, including her own, and the heightened awareness can cause anxiety and trauma responses. With at least 300 African-American deaths at the hands of police reported in the US each year, a 2018 Lancet study suggests that these tragedies negatively impact black mental health almost as much as diabetes. According to the same study, the mental health of white Americans was not similarly affected.

While I know that most people are inherently good regardless of race, I can’t ignore tragedies in the media, and they put me on edge, especially when I'm running alone. I often second-guess myself before stopping to find a restroom or a drink of water. Instead, I try to push through any discomfort for fear of my own safety. This anxiety keeps me off of trails by myself, and it’s why I stay in my own neighborhood at dusk. Though I initially joined a running group to find a training partner, I now benefit from the safety of running with a pack.

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Run856, my New Jersey-based running group, is pretty eclectic, though mostly white. We enjoy an idyllic running experience, complete with parties, outreach missions, and karaoke nights. A few times a year, we take over a local park, do a four-mile loop, then throw a party on the picnic tables—one that college students would envy, equipped with a makeshift bar and shot skis. We joke about how no one has called the police on us, and I have to step back and consider that a majority black group wouldn’t be able to pull this off. 

While I enjoy the camaraderie of a supportive community, other runners may feel uneasy about approaching an overwhelmingly white group. This is the reason Takia McClendon co-founded City Fit Girls, a national body-positive fitness community that brings together women of all backgrounds, ages, and abilities. Her friend, Kiera Smalls, is also a co-founder.

“There were not a lot of fitness groups or offerings that included people who looked like me, or representation in fitness publications—local or national,” McClendon explains. “Kiera and I wanted to make sure we had a seat at the table and that black women had a voice, so we created an inclusive group.” That mission has reverberated throughout local communities, and the group now boasts around 4,000 diverse members all over the country.

Diversity has been extremely important to runner Joy Widgeon as well. As a long black woman, Widgeon feared getting lost in gentrified urban areas. She also felt ignored and snubbed by runners who didn’t look like her or match her ability. After feeling excluded by a predominantly white group, she joined the Philadelphia chapter of Black Girls Run. If you're struggling to find the right running group for you, Widgeon, who now has a solid friend circle, recommends inviting more of your friends to join you.

A big part of feeling at home in a group is feeling seen. Empathy goes a long way when part of your community is hurting. “It was great to see everyone come together to run for Ahmaud on his birthday, but the real action will come in the next few weeks and months," says McClendon, who worries that not everyone fully appreciates the fear black runners live with and the support we need. "How will the running community respond when his murder isn’t a hashtag?”

So how can we bridge the gap and facilitate a more inclusive running environment? Gardner suggests that building inclusion and cohesiveness starts within the community. “Open dialogue and connection between running clubs can help bridge the gap,” she says. “Discuss ways to be allies when you are running and seeing people of color run, be willing to step in or call out racism, and utilize your privilege to protect others who don’t have any.”

Since Ahmaud’s death, I still find time for solo runs, but I am now more conscious of modifying my behavior for the comfort of others. I make an effort to smile and wave to everyone I pass, making it clear I'm not a threat. Now that I’m aware of it, I’d like to try to zone out, completely immersing myself in my run, while hopefully avoiding the perils that I may face running while black. In a perfect world, society would have evolved to not feel threatened by someone simply because of their skin color. But until then, I'll remain vigilant.

Tonya Russell is a freelance journalist based in New Jersey covering mental health, culture, and wellness.

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