Expanding the Idea of National Run Safety Month
One of the RIA’s core missions is to inform and raise awareness, and for this year’s National Run Safety Month, we feel it is important to recognize there are different experiences surrounding run safety that we have not yet explored. While topics like visibility, situational awareness, and self-defense remain important to the concept of run safety, this year we're exploring an important new direction, in keeping with the RIA’s support of DEI initiatives.
Specifically, the RIA is expanding the 2023 NRSM conversation with an examination of what run safety means for the BIPOC community, with multiple points of view designed to help members better understand the challenges BIPOC runners face. Our goal is to foster conversations on the path toward substantive action and productive solutions.
Learn What Safety Means for BIPOC Runners
As a Black man and a runner in San Francisco, Justin Williams said he has to be constantly aware of how he presents himself in the neighborhoods and environments where he runs. He is always cognizant of whether he looks like someone who belongs in those spaces or surroundings.
“I don’t want to appear like someone who looks negative or up to no good, especially around strangers when I’m out alone. Even if I do, though, there’s no promise or guarantee that something bad won’t happen,” explained Williams.
Being a Black runner in North Carolina, Harry Chandler said he is always conscious of negative stereotypes about minorities being aggressive, unhinged, or unable to navigate their emotions and words. He prepares himself for being confronted by Caucasians and others who question his right to run through areas, by playing scenarios in his head and coming up with answers to their unjust inquiries or worse reactions.
“Is running safe for the majority of the African American community? Absolutely not. You hear the stories everywhere of violence against innocent African Americans. It’s not breaking news,” Chandler observed. “I do think safety is a problem. The majority culture asks, ‘Why are we running? What from?’ When the majority see a minority running, they want to know why.”
Black people make up only 11 percent of runners, according to a 2021 Sports and Fitness Industry Association study. Concerted efforts to welcome more people of color as runners are needed to improve both accessibility and safety, and overcome historic circumstances, ignorance, and prejudice that have contributed to keeping the number of Black runners small.
Research Shows Why Safety is an Issue for Runners of Color
Kiera Smalls has been working on improving access to running ever since co-founding a running club in Pennsylvania over a decade ago. Growing up as a Black kid in her Philadelphia neighborhood, she never saw runners. Today, she is the executive director of the nonprofit educational organization, the Running Industry Diversity Coalition (RIDC).
During her childhood, “You ran because you were in danger or because you thought you were in danger. There were no school programs or resources for sports, our teachers didn't take gym class seriously, and my parents and grandparents didn't have time to think about running for fun or for health while fighting for our basic needs,” Smalls wrote in the preface of 2023 reports about running diversity released by the RIDC.
“It wasn't until college that I started learning about—and experiencing—the benefits of running. Since then I’ve run every distance up to and including the 26.2-mile marathon. Running gave me the freedom to rise above some of the challenges from my upbringing and exposed me to endless opportunities for my health and career goals,” she recalled.
Despite her success, she emphasized that the majority of Black people and other people of color are prevented from participating and advancing in running and the industry due to systemic racism, implicit bias, discriminatory practices, and arbitrary barriers. RIDC is dedicated to championing transformative change within the sport.
To establish a baseline for measuring collective progress in increasing diversity in running and the industry, the coalition conducted studies in collaboration with Bentley University, with funding from Altra, Brooks, New Balance, On, Patagonia, Salomon, Saucony, Smartwool, and Strava. As a result, three reports were released in June with quantitative and qualitative baseline measures for racial diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in the running industry. They are available at https://www.runningdiversity.com/research.
“More than anything, these research studies are a call to action. We need leaders and community members—of all identities, geographies, and positions of power—to not only speak up about the importance of achieving racial justice but to also use RIDC’s research findings to make the running industry more accessible, inclusive, and safe for all runners,” Smalls wrote.
She strongly urges the entire running industry, encompassing brands, race events, run clubs, and retailers, to “not only visit but thoroughly engage with the final pages of all three reports, which contain critical discussion topics designed to spark intentional and impactful conversations, leading to actionable takeaways and clear next steps. I emphasize that this is not a one-time request but an ongoing commitment that needs to be repeated.”
Awareness Only First Step in Reducing Fear & Danger
Chandler also turned his passion for running into a career. He is co-owner of Charlotte Running Company and a board member of the Running Industry Association. He wholeheartedly agreed with the importance of not just conversation but brainstorming and actions that develop environments where people of color feel safer as runners.
“The conversation will never be outdated, because as long as you have anyone in the minority trying to make our way into another industry, club, sport, or room, it’s going to be something to talk about,” he said. “Safety aside, when a minority arrives, there’s always a brief gasp of air. ‘Oh that’s odd.’ Someone in the majority is surprised to see one of the minority in a space that should be open to everybody whether running or any other sport.”
Though a very active endurance sports community of runners and cyclists has developed in Charlotte, he said that minorities are not represented equal to population numbers. Minorities prefer to run in clubs for safety in numbers and inclusiveness.
“We want that feeling of safety in a group and having allies to potentially face the discrimination together. I would go as far to say we run in groups like that so it is obvious we are running as a sport, exercising, and not there to cause a ruckus,” he commented.
He calls on other Black runners as well as all store managers, club leaders, and others in the industry to play a role in making running a less fearful place for minorities. “I think safety can be synonymous with comfortable, welcome, and a feeling of belonging. What is the running community doing to make that the emotion?”
Though he feels fortunate to have been mostly sheltered by family and community from experiencing danger while running, he has experienced bigotry that many would have found threatening. In 2021, while walking to meet friends, he passed two white males and two white females in a parked pickup truck.
“I hear some dude barking, but I kept walking. Then I hear, ‘OMG, I thought they were all afraid of dogs.’ Until moving to Charlotte, I had never had an experience like that in my life, but thousands of stories are worse than mine,” he said.
In fact, he turned around, approached them, and had a conversation with them about “how unbelievably whack it was that someone would perpetrate a joke about a minority in 2021,” he added. “Was I upset? Absolutely. Did I feel safe? Because I stayed calm and we were in a social area, I was not threatened and the situation didn’t escalate.”
He believes there’s always time to educate.
Erin Flynn, the Bentley University professor who collaborated on the RIDC studies, points to education and community building as two important steps that the running industry can take to address safety needs of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) runners. Brands and retailers could help increase safety through education about how to navigate trails, and the creation of trail and road running groups that foster a sense of belonging for BIPOC runners.
Flynn noted that one of the most important takeaways from the RIDC research is that the longstanding mantra in the running industry – “all you need is a pair of shoes and you can run” – is actually a myth.
“In theory, running is an accessible sport. In reality, it is laden with barriers to safety, access and inclusion for BIPOC runners,” she said. “Additionally, we must address the whiteness of the industry. Barriers to safety, access, and inclusion cannot be eliminated without true systemic change.”
“In our study, 80% of white runners reported feeling safe at trail and road races whereas only 50% (approximated) of BIPOC runners reported feeling safe at races,” Flynn explained. “The key reasons for this gap are: lack of diversity at races – races are extremely white, from participants to staff to sponsors; the experience for beginners is negative – water runs out, food/swag are packed up, cutoff times are discouraging; racing – trail racing, in particular – is perceived to be expensive, with high costs of gear and entry fees in addition to a significant time investment required to train; safety concerns – fear of wild animals, running alone and getting lost are top safety concerns for BIPOC runners during races.”
Welcoming Environments Key to Physical & Emotional Safety
Williams has thought about safety more often recently, especially since moving from Los Angeles to San Francisco. In March 2023, he founded the Unseen Run Club to counter the lack of diversity that he observed in the running community. The club’s approach revolves around inclusivity in all its forms – ethnicity, body type, and ability level, “shattering the conventional image of who a runner should be.”
He makes sure to get feedback from run club members on whether they feel safe and comfortable. “It’s hard to have a good time when you’re constantly worried about your own physical safety,” he said.
He also makes an effort to get to the back of the pack during runs to make sure the runners who aren’t as fast are having a good time.
“If a person gets left behind to run by themselves and that person is new and doesn’t know the route, what are they supposed to do? I’ve experienced that myself. I had to keep up, and could not relax. It doesn’t matter if it is a suburb or an urban neighborhood, things can happen in both.
Dangerous situations can happen anywhere. Very normal situations can turn dangerous with no warning. They are out of our control,” he explained.
He admitted that his fear for his physical safety during running is not really different than during his everyday life. His experience is that normal, everyday situations can turn dangerous so he has to be hyper vigilant and hyper aware whether running or doing anything.
“Some people wear bright colors, and some people wear race shirts so people know they are experienced runners, and look like they belong there,” he said.
He suggested that one way to increase physical safety is if brands would make more shorts and running tights with pockets that could hold phones, pepper spray, or other safety devices. Those can especially be important for people whose schedules mostly allow them to run in the evenings when the risk factor goes up.
What is more prevalent than his fear for his physical safety is the difficulty in feeling emotionally comfortable as a runner. “Do I feel comfortable showing up as my whole self? I have looked at certain running events or races, and sometimes I want to show up and be a representative of people of color. Other times, I feel like I don’t know if I want to put myself in a situation where I’m the only Black one there. It feels uncomfortable,” he said.
He believes that local governments should invest in trails and running infrastructure in urban areas and neighborhoods with high minority populations, rather than only building trails in affluent suburban areas. At the same time, brands could hold running events in areas with higher diversity and encourage cities to invest there. Sometimes the wealthier areas where races are held don’t even have good public transit for people from other areas to get there easily.
“A brand can change the perception of a neighborhood very easily. Every city can do better. The sport itself will thrive more when we start seeing more diversity, and we will only see more diversity if we have diversity where the activity takes place,” he explained.
“That can galvanize a neighborhood. They will feel like they belong, and know that they are at the top of mind when putting together runs. That’s the main thing, you know, when you show up to a run in a certain area led by certain people, knowing you are at top of mind, not an afterthought,” he concluded.
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