As bad as this race was for me, my less than stellar performance was not what was at the forefront of my mind that morning. The RunGirl half is a women's only race nestled in the wooded beauty of a park not far from my house. Most of the faces in that crowd of 1000 runners are familiar to me from my running group, the local triathlon club, neighbors and random faces from the general area. This race is one of my favorites because it always feels like I am running among friends. It is very comforting to endure those tough challenges with friends. The problem is that most of those friends do not look like me. I am black, African American, a woman of color or whatever other politically correct title you choose to describe my ethnic make up. My running friends are every race under the sun, but only an extreme few are black. This is my concern and has been for a long time.
After all these years and numerous races, I still find myself searching the crowds for other brown faces in hopes that the numbers would have increased with each passing event. The race this weekend was no different than previous ones. In a crowd of nearly 1000 fit and fierce runner girls, I was able to count a little over 30 or so black women. Of course there were probably more than that, but the fact that I had to go several minutes on the course before running into another African American female was a bit disheartening. When I do run up next to one of these ladies on the course, I feel the strangest urge to say hi or make contact in some form to let them know I am here too. I make the same assumption that they are searching the crowd of faces in search of me as well. As corny as that may seem, it makes perfect sense when I and the other black women make eye contact at the local events in some silent affirmation that we are right where we belong and we are not alone.
I am actually a member of Black Girls Run!, a nationally recognized running group created to encourage women of color to network and increase our numbers in the running community. Sadly, the group meets at running venues that are more than 20 miles from my house, so I have never made the effort to meet up and run with them in person although I am up to date with their events and promotions. My plan is to change that really soon. I want to network with this group and find out if their experiences resemble my own. Do they sometimes feel the duality of being a black runner? Do they feel a longing to see more black women on the race courses, all while bonding and building relationships with other non-black runner friends? Do they too feel a sense of responsibility to spread the good news about running's virtues to their black non-running sisters? My husband is an avid cyclist who has numerous black male and female cycling partners he can point to within his circle of friends, so it baffles me why our women continue to shy away the sport of distance running in such large numbers.
Don't get me wrong. I am not lacking for companionship at all. My current running buddies are the truest examples of what loyal friends should be. They have stood by me through the good, the bad and the really bad. If it were not for our common running hobby, it is unlikely that we would have ever crossed paths at all. This is part of the reason these friendships are so precious to me because I recognize how rare these deep connections are, no matter the race or ethnic backgrounds of the individuals involved. I also have equally close relationships with my black girlfriends that go all the way back to my childhood roots growing up in a predominantly African American part of town. Of all my black girlfriends from the old neighborhood, college and my adult years, I can only count a mere 4 or 5 that run on regular basis. Yes, I have encouraged them to give running a try. Yes, I have shared my endless running stories of challenge and triumph in hopes that it would lure them into this sport I love. So far, it has not worked and I am not sure why. The area of town where I live is fairly mixed ethnically, but the running population is not. It is doubtful that my white running buddies have ever noticed this lack of diversity but it continues to scream at me, daring me to try to change it. I do see my black sisters in huge numbers at the gyms and at various local sporting events, but the black woman running continues to be an enigma.
By now you already know I started a running club at the high school where I work. My Go-FAR run club girls are Hispanic and African American and we still get strange looks from the neighborhood folks when we take off on our weekly runs. It is as if they have never seen black and brown young women taking their fitness seriously, and maybe that is true on some levels. I am deliberately trying to plant a seed with these young girls so the "lone black female" phenomenon I have experienced in my running days may be a thing of the past by the time these girls introduce running to their daughters. I know without a doubt that I am passing on some good habits to my run club girls, but I still want more. I need to make an effort to encourage their mothers and grandmothers to get involved as well. Heck, I am already older than most of their mothers and probably not much younger than their grandmothers (gasp!). I started running in my adult years, so why can't they? What if I started my own chapter of Black Girls Run! on my side of town? What if the number of black women running increased dramatically over the next generation? Will I pat myself on the back for having made a small positive impact on the running community or will I shake my head at how long it took me to realize I had that kind of influence?