One of the most attractive aspects of running is its simplicity: you only need one good pair of shoes to get started. But for black women, a lack of high-profile distance runners who look like them can create an unseen barrier to the sport. As the saying goes, you can’t be what you can’t see.
After meeting at a diverse coed running collective in the Washington, D.C., area, six runners—Dominique Burton, Stephani Franklin, Na’Tasha Jones, Ashlee Lawson, Jasmine Nesi, and Natalie Robinson—realized they could provide this vital support and visibility for other black female runners. “We didn’t see ourselves in the media,” Nesi says. “We didn’t see enough resources, tools, or really any community talking about distance running with challenges specific to black women. We knew there was potential to create that space, to show what was possible.” That space, founded in 2017, is called RunGrl.
RunGrl is a website and community for black female distance runners to share experiences, information, and support. The group provides running tips, a half marathon training plan, information on strength- and cross-training, and lifestyle and beauty guidance, both online and at live events.
The creators of RunGrl felt compelled to start with one of the greatest needs in their community: opening up the dialogue around black hair. A 2013 study found that nearly 40 percent of the African American women surveyed avoided exercise due to hair-related issues, a problem the six women had witnessed in their own social circles. “I think we can all relate as black women,” Nesi says. “We’ve all been on the receiving end of trauma from being made fun of. We knew our very first initiative had to put a spotlight on [black hair] and address it head-on.”
RunGrl’s website, which launched in April, helps readers navigate these obstacles. Along with advice articles for a range of hairstyles, the site's “ambassador” profiles feature women sharing their before and after run beauty routines and favorite grooming products. Since the start of RunGrl’s #myrunninghair campaign in mid-July, the hashtag has appeared in more than 150 posts on Instagram.
The dialogue sparked online continued at one of RunGrl’s in-person events in D.C. in August; around 35 women gathered at the black-owned hair salon Taylor and York for a casual conversation over wine, featuring advice from one of the salon’s lead stylists. “We had all different hair types represented: relaxed hair, natural and straightened, natural and curly locks, braids, weaves, and other protective styles. It takes a lot to maintain your hair routine and an active lifestyle, in addition to work and all the other responsibilities we have on our plate,” Nesi says.
RunGrl is less than two years old, but its influence has grown both online and off. In July, Nesi sat on a panel—moderated by Lawson—at the Essence Festival in New Orleans about hair maintenance and staying active. It also hosted two runs at the festival, and organizers were pleasantly surprised by the turnout, given the city's hot summer weather. “That felt really good, for that to come together so quickly, with us being so new,” Nesi says. In early October, RunGrl announced its first running tour, which will include group runs in six East Coast cities through November.
With their website and events, the founders hope to increase the number of black women distance runners in the running community and include black women in broader discussions about wellness and distance running. But their biggest goal is to get more black women moving for their overall health. “We know black women are especially at risk for heart disease and certain types of cancer, and for maternal-health concerns,” Nesi says.
This means reaching more black women with the initial message: you don’t need a whole closet of gear to get moving. “We knew there was potential to create that space, to help women who had run a 5K but were scared to run a 10K, or who had run a marathon but hadn’t thought about an ultramarathon, because the people where they ran didn’t look like them. They didn’t know that was a thing that we do,” Nesi says. “We want other women of color to know that they’re not the only ones doing this, that they’re not one of the few—a whole community of people is out there.”
So far, the founders say that they have been blown away by the response to RunGrl. “It meant a lot, especially for the women who have come out to our past events, who believe in us, who take their time and money to spend time with us and talk about these important issues. It’s opened up such a huge community that we knew was there, but we didn’t know how quickly would mobilize,” Nesi says.