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Running while Black

How Black running clubs are addressing racial barriers in the sport

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The fastest living sprinters on record are both from Jamaica, and Kenya is home to the quickest runners in documented marathon history. The two countries are the birthplaces of track and field athletes who consistently dominate at international competitions. Although there’s a long list of Black athletes who constantly appear on podiums at the world’s most prestigious running events, a 2020 survey by Running USA found that only four percent of everyday runners in the United States identified as Black. What’s responsible for the disconnect?

To understand why so few Black athletes in the U.S. identify as regular runners, knowing how running grew popular is essential. In 1967, University of Oregon track coach Bill Bowerman published the book Jogging. And the popularity of jogging skyrocketed.

“Bowerman and the white running culture of Oregon came to be [the] center stage of getting people excited about recreational running,” says Dr. Natalia Mehlman Petrzela, historian and author of the forthcoming book FIT NATION: The Gains and Pains of America’s Exercise Obsession. The book emphasized the belief that running was a universally easy, accessible sport that required two feet and a pair of sneakers. However, due to racism and segregation, that was not the case for many Black runners.

Jogging didn’t focus on Black runners or highlight challenges Black runners could experience. But as Dr. Petrzela says, “it’s important to note that there were Black people who were runners.” For example, in 1958, Ted Corbitt became the co-founder and first president of New York’s Road Runners club.

By the 1980s, Black runners were well represented on the world stage in elite competitions, yet when it came to showcasing everyday runners in popular magazines, images of Black runners were few and far between.

More than forty years later, a lack of representation continues to be a problem in the sport. 82 percent of consistent Black runners believe the running industry needs to do more to support diversity and inclusion in the sport. However, a lack of representation is not the only barrier Black people encounter in running. Almost 40 percent of Black runners reported they did not feel safe running in 2020.

“Existing while Black, in general, is just unsafe, and running is no different,” says Ashlee Lawson Green, founder of RunGrl, a digital media platform for Black women who run, “Case in point, Ahmaud Arbery.” In 2020, Arbery was tragically murdered in a racially driven attack while completing an afternoon run. “Since then, there has been a spotlight put on the fact that going outside and trying to intentionally take care of ourselves and our wellness as Black people is also something we’re not safe doing,” says Green.

Black runners have established running groups to address the various barriers they face when running. Today, three-quarters of regular Black runners are searching for diverse, inclusive spaces in the sport. Running groups and clubs have become pivotal to addressing the hurdles Black athletes face when running – and they have also become a place where runners can connect and bond.

“When you see other Black people when you’re out running, just knowing that there’s someone you can relate to that relates to who you are and your experience,” says James Ravenell, founder of the running club Black Runners Connection, “There’s nothing like that.”

This is why On is committed to the Every Runner Series, a collection of stories of individuals creating spaces for every runner to feel represented and welcome in the sport. The goal of the series is to help create an inclusive space in running for all.

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