A few weeks ago I woke up early and went for a short run around the neighborhood – 2.23 miles. The run was in honor of Ahmaud Arbery, on what would have been his 26th birthday had he not been chased down and killed by a white former police officer and his son on Feb. 23 for running while Black in a white Georgia neighborhood.
I posted about the run on social media because Arbery’s high school football coach had the idea of holding a virtual run to honor Arbery and show support for his family, denoted by the #IRunWithMaud hashtag. Tens of thousands of runners worldwide paid tribute to Arbery with their miles. It wasn’t lost on me at the time that some people may have seen my participation as little more than an attempt by a white person to feel like they were doing something for racial justice without really changing anything. If I’m being honest, there’s probably some truth to that, even if it wasn’t the conscious intent.
The truth is I thought about Arbery for every step of that run, and I’ve thought about him during most of my runs since as the harassment, assault and killing of Black men and women by the police has begun receiving well-deserved and long-overdue scrutiny. I didn’t know Arbery personally, but he was one of us—a human being, and a fellow runner who loved the freedom that running provides; at least he did until that freedom and his life were so violently stolen from him while doing an activity that many of us, especially those of us who are white and male, have the luxury of enjoying without fearing for our safety.
Arbery’s killing, as well as the killings of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and many others, has sparked more than two weeks of nationwide protests demanding both justice for the victims and systemic change to law enforcement practices that are rooted in racism. This isn’t the first time people have protested the killing of unarmed Black men and women by the police. What’s different now is the size and scale of the protests, as well as the fact that people of all genders, races, faiths and political affiliations are among those demanding change. Big cities and rural communities are speaking up. There’s a broad, diverse coalition saying Black Lives Matter and demanding that the United States prove that’s true with substantive action rather than the temporary lip service of years past.
While the action demanded has focused primarily on law enforcement practices, the reality is that all aspects of society deserve scrutiny and self-examination, the trail- and ultrarunning world included. From eliminating racism where it exists in our sport (and it does, as world-champion mountain runner Joe Gray has experienced) to creating an environment where everyone feels welcome on the trails, action is needed.
Yassine Diboun, an ultrarunner from Portland, Ore., and the host of the Trail-Running Film Festival’s road show during its trips to Arlington, Mass., summed it up this way in a recent column for TrailRunner Magazine: “Trail runners are my tribe! However, there is one glaring reality – ethnic and racial diversity is lacking and I don’t believe it is because only white-skinned people like to run trails. There is truth that out in nature we are ‘all one’. But until we recognize that there are systemic barriers that prevent many people from participating, things aren’t going to change. Saying that we’re all one while doing nothing to dismantle the systems that prevent people of color from accessing the sport, just perpetuates inequalities.”
In New England, we are fortunate to have some diversity in our trail- and ultra community, with different races, religions, genders, sexual orientations, ethnicities and nationalities represented, however that doesn’t change the fact that the starting line on race days is predominantly white. That’s not a criticism of any organization or participant; it’s simply an acknowledgement of reality. There are systemic barriers and other obstacles preventing people of color from enjoying the trails, and we need to do our part to understand what those barriers are and eliminate them.
When it comes to trail- and ultrarunning specifically, what should that action look like? The Trail Animals Running Club (TARC) is committed to answering that question. Two of the club’s leaders and race directors, Josh Katzman and Surjeet Paintal, are organizing a group to discuss ways to address equity and access in the outdoor community.
“While it may be uncomfortable to discuss, there is a history of systemic racism and privilege in our country that has made it more difficult for members of black and brown communities to have access to, and feel welcomed at, things like trail runs and races,” Katzman wrote to the club. “For some, especially people of color, it is impossible to ‘just run’ because systemic racism is part of their everyday life. It is TARC’s mission, and our work, to make the trails accessible and available to everyone, regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, or creed. This moment in our history has shone a light on the fact that we need to do better as a community of trail runners to help make the trails more equitable for all, especially historically oppressed communities.
“We don’t claim to know the answer,” Katzman added, “but we know we want to work with members of the TARC community to figure out how we can make an impact in our small community.”
While TARC is seeking solutions at the organizational level, there’s work to be done in other areas of our sport. The sport’s media—including this site—have a role to play, too. Looking back on MassUltra during these past 4 ½ years, the diversity of our community has often been included in photos, but diverse voices and stories have been heard less frequently in articles. That needs to change. I hope you’ll help me do that (you’re my best source for story ideas, so please let me know who and what you’d like to read about at firstname.lastname@example.org).
In addition to actions that running clubs, race directors, and the media can take to help the sport be more inclusive, there are actions all of us can take to make our sport more inclusive and accessible, and our country a place where “liberty and justice for all” actually means “for all.” For some, that action might mean joining the TARC focus group; for others, action may mean marching in the streets, lobbying state and local officials to enact policy changes, or joining (or starting) a community police oversight board. For some, action might entail using your social media platform to elevate marginalized voices; others might be better served by taking a break from the noise of social media to self-reflect since being shouted at on Facebook isn’t an effective way to change someone’s mind or encourage growth.
We all come from different backgrounds, different athletic experiences, different states or countries, and different life experiences that have shaped who we are and how we see the world. None of us is perfect, but none of us is immune from growth. The tools that empower us as ultrarunners are the same tools necessary to change ourselves and improve the community around us. As ultrarunners, we’ve chosen to do something hard because we want to. We’ve learned how to look within, go to those dark places where our fears and disappointments hide, and use them as fuel to succeed. We know how to fail, forgive ourselves, and try again. We’ve learned to listen to others who have experience that we don’t, and figure out how that knowledge can apply to us. We know that growth takes time, is rarely easy, and is worth it in the end.
We know how to rise to the moment, and one of those moments is now. Let’s put in the work that’s needed to make the trails accessible and inclusive for everyone. Let’s help transform our country into a place where racism is eliminated, and where hashtag memorial runs aren’t necessary because Ahmaud Arbery, Jay Pharoah and everyone else can finally run free.