The Demographics of Distance Running
Why Is Running So White?
"American-born" can be, of course, an odious distinction to make in our melting pot, but the dominance of African runners (even African, now American runners) seems to further discourage American minority groups from being able to identify with the sport. When she was coaching basketball at Augusta State in Georgia, Sobomehin helped out at cross-country meets and found that even among HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities), the team members were "almost always African," she says. "That's crazy." And in fact, the accepted perception that a black distance runner must be African has created a form of xenophobia about the sport, where naturalized citizens like Lagat and Keflezighi are sometimes labeled "carpetbaggers" and the New York Times reported that there were "thirty-three foreign-born athletes," including all three qualifiers in the 1500 meters, competing for the United States in Beijing. Keflezighi suffered questions after his 2009 New York City Marathon win about how "American" he really was (especially in online discussion boards), though he came to this country when he was 12 from war-torn Eritrea and did all of his training in the United States. Ryan Hall, one of the country's top marathoners (and who is white), considers those questions nonsense: "If someone is a U.S. citizen, I see them as every bit as American as me." Kevin Lyons, the Austin blogger, greatly admires Keflezighi, but nevertheless believes that to build diversity, distance running needs an elite competitor who is also "a regular black guy who says this is cool." Lyons admits that he rarely watched golf until Tiger Woods started playing and winning.
What about the massive media coverage given to celebrity marathoners like Oprah Winfrey and Sean "P. Diddy" Combs? To hear black runners tell it, those efforts have done some good by raising money for charity but little to bring African-Americans to the sport. "The marathon is so out there," says Fenty, the Washington store owner. "It's more powerful if they say, 'Run a 5-K,' or 'Find something you like to do and do it for half an hour or 45 minutes every day.' People pick these huge goals, and once they reach the goal, they're usually kind of beat up and burned out." Brenda Stallings, who leads the Black Girls RUN! Little Rock chapter, closely followed Combs's training for the New York City Marathon in 2003 and found it admirable that he finished but was less impressed with the follow-up of celebrity marathon dilettantes: "It would be more inspiring if he were still running. Oprah did hers and that was the end of it."
A Small Community That Cares...
On a steamy Saturday morning in May in Atlanta, the South Fulton Running Partners (SFRP) gather at the house of a member, as they have every Saturday since they formed more than 30 years ago, for their weekly "fellowship" run. The Partners have counted among their members politicians, doctors, mechanics, ministers, accountants, truck drivers, and architects. Despite a few knee braces, the group that mingles in the driveway of the host is impressively hale; almost everyone is north of 40 with strong muscle definition. Routes of three different lengths are passed out, the longest a six-miler that winds through the Cascade and Peyton Forest neighborhoods in Southwest Atlanta, taking in the paved Lionel Hampton Greenway Trail, through a bucolic forest of loblolly pines and mature hardwoods.
In 1962, the neighborhood, which was then a solidly middle-class enclave of white families in brick ranch houses, became a site of civil rights protests as the city erected barricades separating it from neighboring black communities. Courts soon ruled the barriers illegal, but within a year, historian Kevin M. Kruse writes in his book White Flight, "all but fifteen white families had sold their homes to black buyers and abandoned the neighborhood." Today the area remains solidly African-American (92 percent according to the 2010 census), but as the Partners set out on their run, they pass few neighbors who are independently out to do the same. In avidly pursuing—and loving—a sport that so few of their racial peers practice, the Partners have often felt separated from both their own community and from the larger (white) body of runners in general.
Jim Lemon cofounded the group in 1979 with a friend, the late Jerry McClain. At first they simply walked around a school track for stress relief. Walking became a "trot," and they soon left the track for the streets of Southwest Atlanta, training modestly after deciding to enter a popular local 5-K. On race day, "there were about a thousand runners," remembers Lemon, "and only about five blacks. In Atlanta! We were amazed." Eventually, they encountered other black runners on the high school track or at races, like the Peachtree Road Race, and fashioned a formal organization with the goals of promoting "running as a means of achieving and maintaining good physical and mental health, fellowship, and camaraderie" and of striving for "social welfare, civic betterment, and community improvement."
The club capped membership at around 35, a small enough group to ensure that intimacy would be retained. After that morning run in May of this year—with some good-natured complaints that the six-mile run actually measured more than seven miles—the Partners assembled in the backyard of the host, whose mother had recently died, and conducted an informal memorial ceremony. They joined hands in a circle for a prayer and then planted a small Japanese maple in her honor. The run and the ceremony were followed by a feast both healthy (quartered oranges) and down-home (fried catfish and grits).