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'Running While Black' tells a new story about who belongs in the sport

Cover of Running While Black byAlison Mariella Desir.
Penguin Random House
Cover of Running While Black byAlison Mariella Desir.

Runners are skinny white people. This was what Alison Mariella Désir thought until she came across a social media post from a friend, a 200-pound Black man, who was training for his first marathon.

Looking for a way to break through a persistent bout of depression, she signed up for a marathon as well. Much to her surprise, after 16 weeks of training with a Leukemia & Lymphoma Society running club in Manhattan's Central Park, Désir completed the race. And from then on she was hooked.

In her new memoir Running While Black: Finding Freedom in a Sport That Wasn't Built for Us, Désir tells the story of her non-traditional path to long distance running. Along the way, she reframes the history of American running by including the contributions of little known, yet influential Black runners in the narrative. Runners like ultra-marathon pioneer Ted Corbitt, Olympian and activist Wyomia Tyus and the first Black woman to win a marathon Marilyn Bevans, among others.

In the decade since her start in the sport, she's completed many runs, including the New York and Boston Marathons and the Run For All Women from Harlem to Washington, DC. She's also served as a founding co-chair of the Running Industry Diversity Coalition, a nonprofit founded in July 2020 that is devoted to increasing racial equity and fostering greater inclusion across all aspects of the sport and associated industry.

As Running While Black makes a case for why anyone might consider giving running a try, it also delivers a searing indictment of the ways in which the running industry perpetuates white supremacy and the marginalization of non-white voices. Désir also advocates for concrete steps the sport can take toward becoming more inclusive.

Author Alison Désir says running helped her reconnect with her body and gain insight into herself. She founded the running group Harlem Run to help other people of color find their way into the sport.
/ Brandon Williams
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Brandon Williams
Author Alison Désir says running helped her reconnect with her body and gain insight into herself. She founded the running group Harlem Run to help other people of color find their way into the sport.

Désir spoke to NPR about how running transformed her relationship to her body, starting a running club in Harlem focused on attracting more people of color to the sport, and what she tells people who are intimidated by marathons.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

When did you first get the idea to write this book?

After the murder of Ahmaud Arbery [in 2020]. I wrote this [op-ed] piece right before Mother's Day, which is also Ahmaud's birthday, about this new weight of living in this world as a Black woman with a son, who one day may find himself in spaces where he's unable to move freely through, where he has to correct himself or make himself small in order to appease the white gaze. And I talked about how the running industry, the running community, has always been deeply racially divided.

The op-ed went viral. Black folks were like, 'Thank you for finally putting this into words, what our experience is.' And many white people were completely shocked, had never considered what it was to run as somebody who was not white. And I was like, 'Okay, I need to write this book so that it hopefully draws awareness to these inequities and enacts some change.'

Give us an example of how running has changed your life and why embodiment is important.

When I was running my first marathon I was depressed, I was struggling with anxiety. My body was like a shell and all I wanted was to mute any kind of feeling that I had. I was drinking, I was overdosing on NyQuil [and] taking Xanax. And what running provided for me was my body was awakened again. It was simple things like recognizing that, Oh, when I run this distance, I have pain in my muscles and that means that I've been working hard. [Or], 'when I'm running at this pace, my breath sounds like this.'

I just started to notice what was going on with my body and receive that feedback, which is a really powerful force. Many of us are so disconnected from our bodies, we start to lose sense of what it's telling us. So running for me was reconnecting with who I was.

And I want that experience for everybody. It doesn't necessarily just come through running, it can come through walking, kayaking, hiking, any activity that's repetitive, that allows you to receive feedback and gain insight into yourself.

Wyomia Tyus breaks the tape to win the women's 100-meter Olympic final, October 15, 1968, in Mexico City, beating out teammate Barbara Ferrell, center, who was second, and Irena Szewinski, left, of Poland who was third. Tyus's time of 11.0 seconds, bettered the official world and Olympic records.
/ AP
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AP
Wyomia Tyus breaks the tape to win the women's 100-meter Olympic final, October 15, 1968, in Mexico City, beating out teammate Barbara Ferrell, center, who was second, and Irena Szewinski, left, of Poland who was third. Tyus's time of 11.0 seconds, bettered the official world and Olympic records.

When did you know that running was going to become an important part of your life, and something you wanted to share with your community?

I completed that first marathon and I knew that I wanted to continue running. But I also knew that throughout my experience, there were mostly white people around. I wanted to ultimately share this transformation with other people like me. I knew that there were other Black people in my community, who if only they started long distance running, they could feel the same things that I felt. They could see their world expanding. They could feel a deep sense of connection. They could really work out problems on the run.

So I started this organization, Harlem Run. It was through building it that I first became aware that there was an industry – that there are people who want to sell us things. There are people who are feeding this idea of who a runner is. At the time, I thought that a runner was a skinny white person. I remember looking at magazines and thinking, 'Wow, there are only white people on the cover.' I started to realize these messages didn't just appear in my head, I'm consuming the industry the way that this sport is commodified.

At what point did you know that you were making a difference with Harlem Run?

I knew that I was making a difference when the same people [kept] coming back. It was people who were looking forward to this Monday evening activity, because there was the opportunity to share stories with folks. People were sharing really vulnerable pieces of themselves. People were challenging themselves physically. And also, as adults, we don't really get an opportunity to feel a part of something like when you're younger. So people finally felt like they had this other community. And I remember one of the guys asking "can we make sweatshirts with Harlem Run on them?" And I was like, 'Oh, my gosh, people want to scream from the rooftops that this is theirs. '

You started out writing about the history of running and then you discovered something new about the contributions of Black Americans to running. Tell us about that.

I was on this panel about the legacy of Ted Corbitt. [I learned] that without Ted Corbitt and the New York Pioneer Club, an organization from Harlem founded by three Black men [in 1936], there would be no long distance running movement. It blew my mind. I thought, well, we were there, like we've been here this entire time, we're responsible for why the sport exists. And yet, we're made to feel secondary or excluded? And that shook me. On one hand, it made me realize, well, it's my responsibility. Ted Corbitt and others, they blazed the trail and now I have to carry the torch and tell this story. But it also made me realize just how fragile history is and how in the wrong hands, history is contorted in a way that Black and brown folks don't even matter.

Left: Archival photo of Ted Corbitt. Right: Ted Corbitt at the 1975 New York City Marathon.
Gary Corbitt/ Screenshot by NPR / Alamy Stock Photo
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Alamy Stock Photo
Left: Archival photo of Ted Corbitt. Right: Ted Corbitt at the 1975 New York City Marathon.

So tell us more about Ted Corbitt and the impact of the New York Pioneer Running Club.

Corbitt was born in the South and he lived in New York. He was just an incredible athlete. He would run like 20 miles a day, 10 miles to work 10 miles back. He was regularly running 100-mile races. Many people call him the grandfather of long distance running, or the father of the ultra marathon.

He's the one who ushered in this movement of precise mileage, of actually marking courses. He brought this concept of, if we want our sport to grow, we really have to have accurate measuring. That laid the foundation for long distance running being competitive and being taken seriously.

Perhaps most importantly, Ted Corbitt is the person who had the idea for the five borough New York City Marathon. If you were to Google that information right now, you will likely not find that story, because a white man is credited for that.

New York Road Runners, which manages the New York City Marathon, directly descended from the New York Pioneer Club. [The founders] were revolutionary in saying that this would be a club for people of all races. This was before baseball was integrated. This was revolutionary, having Jewish people, Black people and Irish folks running together. You're talking about really the creation of what we say [now] about running being accessible. Those are ideas from Black folks. It's a civil rights story.

You can find a bust of Ted Corbitt in the New York Roadrunners' RunCenter. But when you think about who has been championed, and whose name is said, it is not any of the folks from the New York Pioneer Club, or Ted Corbitt. That's something that New York Road Runners is working to address, but it's sort of like we're going back to make a correction. Everybody should have known his name.

And I just think like, Wow, what an impact would that have been? If I had known that Ted Corbitt, and these three Black men in Harlem and this organization existed, I would have known that long distance running is for me, because my people helped create it.

I have to say that it is a mind-bending thing to realize that the father of ultra-marathons was a Black man running to work.

Exactly. On the one hand, we regularly hear things like Black people don't do X or like, this is white people [stuff]. But then on the other hand, you think about the climate in which Ted Corbitt was running, where often he had to skip events because they were dangerous for him [as a Black man], or he would use the Green Book in order to figure out where he could stay in the country. There were instances where the New York Pioneer Club actually decided not to participate in a race, because they would have to stay in segregated dorms, and they decided to protest that. There's just levels to the ways in which we are divorced from our stories and our histories, and then made to believe that something is not for us. I hope that my book forces people to question the stories that are being told.

What do you hope stakeholders in the running industry will take away from your book?

The last third [of my book] is challenging the industry to take action. And I put it in the context of "will the industry have the endurance to stick with it?" Because long distance running is an endurance sport. And what I hope is through reading this book that people feel called to continue to take action.

In the past two years, there was a lot of excitement and interest initially, because these issues of racial inequity felt really tangible. [Now] it has sort of trickled out and it's no longer making the news, so it doesn't feel as urgent. But I hope that a book like this reminds people that while the work is urgent, it's a marathon. It's about your daily choices as an individual. It's about your civic engagement. It's about the decisions that you make in the boardroom. It's about who's in your marketing materials.

And on the other side of it, I also hope that Black folks realize that whether or not the industry changes as fast as we'd like it to, we are resilient, powerful, innovative and we will continue to create our own spaces where we can thrive.

What would you say to people who might be intimidated by long distance running?

Running is really hard. If it weren't hard, everyone would be doing it. But I will say that it's not that it gets easier, but that you become more equipped at doing it. You get more comfortable with the discomfort, and you get stronger. And it becomes something that you love.

For many people, when they think of running, they're thinking of a particular person or a particular experience that they've seen. So when they say I can't run, it's because they're thinking of Allyson Felix running the 400 meters in the Olympics. But running is many things. You can move in a way that will be good for your body. And that can start as walking, that can be run-walking. So I would say give yourself some grace, but by all means, try it.

Beandrea July (@beandreadotcom) is a writer and audio producer from Dayton, Ohio.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Beandrea July