How Inclusive Run Clubs Are Changing the Culture of Running

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As a little kid, Maria Solis Belizaire was a fiercely competitive runner. She’d blaze around the gym during PE. “I had to be first place,” she says. “Even when I wasn’t in school, my father and I would race around the track.”

But when she got into high school, she fell away from the sport, and didn’t come back to it until she re-discovered running in 2013 at age 35 living in New York. It felt good to be back. But, this time, finding a community wasn’t as easy as the bell ringing for gym class.

As she began training for her first marathon, starting with a couch-to-5K program, Solis went to runs organized by local running stores. “I remember they didn’t have pace groups for everyone, and I got left behind a few times,” she says. On one 10-mile run, Solis got lost. “It was the first time I was running in that part of the city,” she tells POPSUGAR.” I ended up finding my own way home, running a few miles by myself. I was a little disheartened.”

Despite these bad experiences, Solis loved the running club ethos: meeting new friends, exploring together, and ultimately forming a community. But, she didn’t feel like the existing run clubs were her community. After Googling a phrase like “Latinx-centered running groups” with no luck, Solis decided to start one herself, alongside a few of her friends.

Now, she is the CEO and founder of the international organizations Latinos Run and Latinas Run, which she founded in 2016 and which has several run clubs across the US today. Similarly inclusive run clubs for Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) have popped up around the country, and are changing the culture of running for the better. However, coaches and club founders say there’s a lot more work to be done to make running — and run clubs — more diverse and inclusive.

Systemic Barriers to Running

Many people of color still don’t feel welcome, represented, or included in run clubs — and the issue is far bigger than the groups themselves.

“When I wanted to start running, the resources for me were close to zero,” says Martinus Evans, who founded the Slow AF Run Club and wrote a book of the same name.

Evans first embarked on his running journey in 2012 after a conversation with his doctor, who told him to essentially “lose weight or die.” After that, Evans tried to hire a couple of running coaches, but they didn’t want to take him on as a client. “They were like, ‘You need to lose more weight’ orI don’t want to be responsible for you if you get injured,'” Martinus recalls. So he bought a bunch of running books and became a certified run coach. “It wasn’t because I love running and I wanted to train other people. It was like: I need to run and I want to run and no one will help me,” he tells POPSUGAR.

For people of color, this type of institutional oppression is typical. In fact, the barriers to entry with running — particularly distance running — start much earlier than adulthood. It starts in school, Evans points out. “All the little Black kids who are good at running are told to do track, and all the little white kids do cross country,” he says. One study in the International Journal of Exercise Science found that Black student-athletes were perceived to feel more welcome in track and field than in cross country, and another in Managing Sports and Leisure used data from middle school students to confirm the same results.

Later in life, when there isn’t a physical track (or an intense coach timing you with a stopwatch), it can be hard to put track drills into practice, while long-distance running can be easier to implement in adulthood and naturally filters into young adults signing up for 5Ks or joining run clubs.

To top that, barriers imparted on communities of color via structural racism and discriminatory housing policies mean that some majority-BIPOC neighborhoods don’t have paths, parks, or sidewalks where they can easily jog or shade from trees in the summer. And Black children (and teens and adults) don’t always feel safe running on the street, especially not in predominantly white neighborhoods, given the racially motivated and fatal incidents involving Black youth and white civilians and/or law enforcement. Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man, was out for a run when he was shot and killed by two white men.

Even for those who overcome these barriers and start running, there are issues with representation, getting left behind by pacers, and the cost of signing up for races like 5Ks (the average runner spends about $1,795 each year on running gear and races, according to data from Running USA). Added up, these barriers can all lead to Black, Indigenous, and people of color not feeling welcome in spaces where runners hang out, such as run clubs.

Despite these large-scale issues, there is still certainly a growing group of people of color who do run — or who want to. About 34 percent of runners are people of color, per the Sports and Fitness Industry Association (SFIA). However, much of the demographic data that’s captured at races, in stores, at run clubs, and during events shows a much less racially diverse picture, notes a report from The Running Industry Diversity Coalition (RIDC) and Bentley University. One global runner survey, for example, found BIPOC runners made up only about 14 percent of runners. So, although running is a lot more diverse than some might think, many runners of color aren’t captured in some of the available data on running, perhaps because they don’t feel comfortable in the spaces where the data is traditionally collected. The RIDC report specifically recommends the people operating these arenas (like leaders of run clubs) “reflect on what your organization can do to create space for the nearly 16 million BIPOC runners and joggers who are currently out running.”

Fortunately, inclusive groups like Latinas Run and the Slow AF Run Club are already leading the charge, giving BIPOC runners who’ve felt excluded a place to race home to, says Kiera Smalls, executive director of The Running Industry Diversity Coalition (RIDC) and co-founder of her own running group, Strides (formerly City Fit Girls).

Smalls started Strides a decade ago in Philadelphia, on The Lenape Lands. “We created a group to reflect the kind of sport we wanted to see. We saw the lack and we wanted to be the change,” Smalls says. And it wasn’t just about how they ran, it was about where they chose to start and end the runs. “It wasn’t the most scenic area downtown,” Smalls tells POPSUGAR. “It would be in true neighborhoods that reflected the demographics of the people who ran with us. That led to more people seeing us and showing up.” In working to create a safe running environment, Smalls also researched grant opportunities that help cities add street lamps and clean up neighborhoods. Her organization showed that when run clubs operate with inclusivity in mind, they can bring about safety, encouragement, community, and powerful change.

How Your Run Club Can Be More Welcoming

There are tons of easy ways to make run clubs more diverse and welcoming, Smalls says. For example, try out different start times so that people who work odd hours or have to factor in family support can make it to meet-ups, Smalls suggests. Evans recommends using name tags, where people can add nicknames and pronouns, as well as icebreakers during the stretching session before the run to help everyone get to know each other.

Supporting people, no matter how they run, is also key. “We have pacers to make sure no one is left behind, and have a walking portion on all of our runs,” Solis says. “We tend to live in multigenerational households, so you’ll have a grandma or a new mom with a baby that comes out, and we want to accommodate them, especially because they tend to come out with a family.”

However, there’s also a vibe factor. The Tortugas Run Club (which means “turtles” in Spanish) doesn’t have organized pace groups, but their whole mission is to help new runners get into it and encourage movement, whether you walk or run the whole time or don’t even finish the route, says founder David Ruiz. It’s community-centered and a lot of people just come out to drink coffee after the runs and be together. If a runner really begins to outpace the other Tortugas as they get speedier, they may switch to another run club, but still come to the drinks portion and hang out.

With the Tortugas, “all paces welcome” is not a performative term — which can happen often in run clubs, according to Evans. That’s why he urges run groups to be honest about what kind of pace groups they’re offering to prospective runners — that way people can self-select and figure out what’s right for them.

How to Find a Run Club That Sees You

If you’re looking to find an inclusive run club, a good place to start is with the RIDC, which created and is updating a list of inclusive, BIPOC-led-and-centered run clubs broken down by city and state, that includes organizations such as the national Black Girls RUN!, WEOFFTHECOUCH in Virginia, Native Women Running in Minnesota, Peace Runners 773 in Chicago, and WeRun313 in Detroit.

Solis adds that you can also search for groups on Instagram or check out your local running store, which likely has info on run groups and free events. “They usually have the lay of the land,” Evans adds. Of course, there are folks in rural areas who may not have access to a run club. “I encourage them to find an online platform,” Solis adds. “We have virtual events, and so do a lot of companies.” You can also link up with Evans’ Slow AF Run club digitally, though he also recommends asking around in your community at local coffee shops or football games to see if you can find at least one IRL running buddy.

When you do find a club you’re interested in, ask what their “no runner left behind” policy is and about what resources they offer members, he adds. Also, try not to get discouraged if you don’t find a good fit on your first try. The benefits of finding the right club are worth it, Smalls says.

Melissa Castillo, a Latinas Run club member, would agree. Castillo wasn’t encouraged to run in her home growing up, and when she decided to get into it about five years ago, she had a fairly toxic relationship with exercise. She was forcing herself to lace up her running shoes largely for aesthetic reasons. She was also often the only Latina at the run club jogs or races she attended. That is, until her first workout with Latinas Run. “I saw women of all body types and sizes running and embracing athletic challenges and setting goals,” she remembers. That’s when running stopped being a punishment and became about challenging herself physically and mentally. Since her first Latinas Run five years ago, Castillo has completed 26 marathons and counting, and cheered on her crew at many more.

“Now, running is about community,” she says. “It’s about seeing my body not for what it looks like, but for what it can do.”

That said, having more diverse run clubs is only the first step towards making running a safer and more welcoming sport for people of color. “It takes brands creating more visibility for our community and highlighting them,” Solis says. For example, Nike sponsors the Tortugas Run Club and last May, Strava had a special focus on equitable access to movement at their annual summit. Evans also mentions the New York Road Runners’ Race Free program, where you can apply and run the NYC Marathon and other local races at no cost.

To make running a truly safe and equitable sport for all, everyone needs to buy into the concept and importance of inclusivity. “Run clubs have been a little part of changing things,” Solis says, “but running demographics should be reflective of the country we live in. We’re getting to that point — but we’re not there yet.”

Image Sources: Courtesy of Martinus Evans / Melissa Castillo and Photo illustration by: Keila Gonzalez

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