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Jun 10, 2020

Running While Black in New York

Coffey shares his story of falling in love with running in NYC, his perspective on the pain and upheaval of recent weeks, and his bold idea for harnessing the positive energy of runners to make a difference. (Photo: Courtesy Coffey/Instagram)
Coffey shares his story of falling in love with running in NYC, his perspective on the pain and upheaval of recent weeks, and his bold idea for harnessing the positive energy of runners to make a difference.

There’s been a running boom in the age of coronavirus, with veteran runners and newbies alike lacing up their shoes to get outside. But the experience has not been the same for everyone. Coffey, a well-known figure in New York City’s vibrant running scene as well as a multitalented creative artist, has continued to get his miles in during the pandemic. And like other runners whose skin is black or brown, he has faced the same risks of harassment and violence that were present before the virus arrived—along with new dangers. Coffey also has a deeply considered response to the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd: last week, he released the short film About the People, which examines social injustice and racial inequality in America through a powerful conversation between men who are pillars in the black community. In this episode, Coffey shares his story of falling in love with running in NYC, his perspective on the pain and upheaval of recent weeks, and his bold idea for harnessing the positive energy of runners to make a difference.


This episode of the Outside Podcast is brought to you by Tracksmith, an independent running brand with a deep love for the sport. Tracksmith is offering Outside Podcast listeners $15 off your first product purchase of $75 or more. Go to Tracksmith.com/outside and enter the code OutsidePod at checkout.

Podcast Transcript

Editor’s Note: Transcriptions of episodes of the Outside Podcast are created with a mix of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain some grammatical errors or slight deviations from the audio.

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EPISODE BEGINS 

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Coffey: I haven't ran yet today, but I will get out there before eight o'clock and I'm definitely not going to be out there at the eight o'clock because like I said -- I already been stopped a couple of times so can you imagine what they will try to do to me or say to me if they catch a black man running during these crazy times after curfew?

Michael Roberts (host): That’s Coffey. He lives in Brooklyn, New York, and is a well-known figure in the city's vibrant running scene. Like so many runners in New York and across the country, he has continued to get his miles in during the COVID-19 pandemic. And like every runner whose skin is black or brown, he has faced the same risks of harassment and violence that were present before the virus arrived—along with new dangers. In the last two weeks, after protests erupted in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, the threats have multiplied. 

If you haven’t noticed, there’s been a running boom in the age of coronavirus, with all kinds of people deciding to lace up their shoes and get outside because, well, the Cross Fit gyms and Soul Cycle studios have been closed and being stuck inside sucks. Even in areas that have endured strict shelter-in-place orders, outdoor exercise has been allowed—if not encouraged. At one press conference, New York governor Andrew Cuomo announced his intention to return to running. He wasn’t worried about contagions or the challenges of breathing hard through a mask, and certainly not about being attacked—his concern was keeping up with his daughter.

Audio clip of Andrew Cuomo: I’m going to take up running again. My daughter Cara, we’re gonna run as a family. We’re gonna go out there. Cara’s got a head start, she’s out there doing 5 miles a day. She thinks she can beat me -- give me a few weeks, and I’m gonna be right there, right there! Just like lightning. 

Roberts: It wasn’t too long after that press conference, that a viral video revealed the tragic shooting of Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year black man who was running near his home in Georgia back in February, when two white men in a truck chased him down and killed him. 

Not surprisingly, that tragedy hit Coffey really hard. He’d grown up in the rural South and had had enough encounters while running over the year to know it could easily have been him. Or one of his four kids. 

But it was also an incident for which he has a deeply considered response—one that could not be more timely. Last Wednesday, a short film that Coffey co-wrote, produced, and plays a role in called, About the People premiered online at aboutthepeoplefilm.com. Spurred by real-life experiences, it examines the social injustice and racial inequality in America through an often volatile conservation between men who are pillars in the African American black community. They gather in a conference room to develop a plan to re-engineer the country’s power structures.

Audio from About the People: With a large enough concentration, I can convince a black bank to open up a branch. But, understand something guys, this is not a five year game. It’s not even a ten year game. This is a twenty year long plan that we have to implement. We all have to be committed and be on the same page with this. 

Roberts: For Coffey, crafting such a heavy film is just the latest turn in a long and winding professional career that has depended on his unique set of talents—and his running. Since arriving in New York more than 20 years ago, he’s been a professional model, a fashion editor and brand consultant, an actor, a writer, and a filmmaker. 

Coffey: I knew that running would be that one thing that will keep me neutral and it will be that one time where I can spend time to myself and try to figure things out, whether it was what's next in life, whether it was a problem that I had to figure out on my own and try to come up with the answer. Or if it did have to do with work, I can also do my job while working by thinking about what that problem is within my mind. So that's why I love running because it's kinda like my medicine, and that’s the one medicine that I pay attention to and that I know that I need so much -- it's my therapy.

Roberts: It didn’t start that way, though. After a childhood in smalltown Aurora, North Carolina, Coffey played college basketball at Virginia Union University, where he studied speech and drama. He came to New York with dreams of being an actor but instead found his way into modeling and fashion. He started running because he needed to stay in shape.

Coffey: I think graduating and coming to New York -- I was in shape moving here but you kind of eat all the times a night and everything else that you weren't accustomed to in the South. So you come here and you take advantage of that. 

Roberts: In the early 2000s, Coffey turned to a trainer and nutritionist named Calvin Dukes, who got him to adjust his eating habits and start running on a treadmill on a nice, low setting for an hour at a time.

Coffey: And then he told me, he said once your body knows that that is too slow, trust me, you're going to know, and you're going to speed it up two notches each and every time. And I did that on the treadmill for like, a year and a half or two years. And I lost, man -- I was a solid 200 pounds. I lost literally 30 pounds in like three and a half to four months.

Roberts: He kept pounding away on the treadmill for a couple years. He got the point where he was running 16 miles a day—8 in the morning and then 8 more at night before bed. Then a friend started pushing him to get outside for a group run, and eventually, Coffey relented, showing up to meet a crew for a 7-mile run that began at a Niketown in Manhattan.

Coffey: And when we ran to seven miles, this is no lie -- when we first ran in to seven miles, we was done so quickly, man, that I was like, wait, we ran seven miles already? And then I realized it wasn't that it was so quick. It was that you was actually having conversation with other people while running and you was enjoying the run together and that took your mind off of running. And that's when I was like, Oh, I have to keep coming.  Like that was different. And I kept going, I kept going and kept going. It didn’t matter what day -- like they serve these things every Tuesday, Thursday, and the long runs was Saturday. And I would go each and every time. And as I was going, I was just like loving the fact of sharing miles with other people.

Roberts: But there was something different about Coffey than the other people. And one evening before a run, one of the running leaders pointed it out to him.

Coffey: There was this lady who was a pacer, Nike pacer, and she brought it to my attention, her name is Angela. When she asked me, she was used to me coming every time that they offer these runs. And she told me to look around and tell her what I see. And I looked around and at first I didn't really realize what she was talking about. And then she asked me again, and then I looked around and I gave her some crazy answer. And then she said, no, look in the mirror, take a look in the mirror and look at yourself. And when I looked at myself, she said: understand that you're the only black person here and don't stop coming because we need more of you here. 

And I looked around again and I was just like, Oh my God. She's so right. And when that hit me, I said to myself right then and there, I never stopped running. And it's my job to get more of us out here to run.

Roberts: He took that job seriously, working to become a Nike pacer himself 

Coffey: I wasn't going to just be a member of the team. That's how I was going to use my influence to get more black people to come and take these roads and streets and get some hours up. I knew it was a challenge. I love challenges like anybody that challenged me to do anything, I love to tackle that and prove them wrong. And for this, the challenge was for me to get my own people out there to make sure that they become healthy and to also make sure that they loved this thing so much that they eat, shit, and sleep it. I wanted them to breathe this thing, like so much that if they don't get a run into their day, then their day isn't completed.

And you know, now we send a lot more African-Americans here in New York, as well as Hispanics and Asians that are joining and running marathons. And yes, I'm in charge of training them to get to 26.2 miles. And when they cross that line, man, it's an amazing feeling. And I never take credit for any of that because they're the ones that actually run this thing. And they're the ones that actually have to believe that they can finish this thing. I'm just the one to help them believe they always had the miles within them. They just needed to be encouraged the appropriate way. And that's where I come in at.

Roberts: One of the things Coffey became known for was leading his runners off route. He was tired of seeing the same streets over and over again, especially in a city that offered so much variety. For him, running was an opportunity for exploration. It was in that spirit that he created the Define New York Run Club at the beginning of 2020. He invited runners to meet him at a speakeasy in Brooklyn on Saturday mornings... and he wouldn’t tell them how far they’d be running.

Coffey: But the main surprise was to tell them not where we was running because that would actually help them more to get out of bed early Saturday morning, because they will be so excited to see where Coffey was actually be taking them. And a lot of things that I'm thrilled by is graffiti, art, abandoned buildings,these murals that are all different places in New York, but also black history. Like where Jackie Robinson used to play with the Brooklyn Dodgers; where Weeksville is at Weeksville was actually the first black community here in Brooklyn. Those are the things that thrill my runners to come run with me. And I’m an adventurous runner -- I love seeing different things. I’d never take them to the same destination. 

And that's how I wanted to define New York totally different. I didn't want to run from a coffee shop. I didn't want to run from  any type of brand shop or a running shop. I wanted everything to be different from A to Z. 

Roberts: In his own solo running, Coffey does more than vary his routes. Over the years, he has found that his favorite time to explore the city is at midnight. 

Coffey: For me, New York is different when it's sleeping than when it is when it's awake. Traffic could be on one block and this block will look totally different than midnight than it did earlier in the daytime when the sun was shining. And it smells different too. New York is a character to me and I'm steady trying to figure out which character it is the night that I run, because it can be Santa Claus one night, but then the next night it could be just as evil as a devil, depending on where you run. And I just feel like being outside at midnight is something about midnight that I'm fascinated by. I mean, just seeing the different buildings, man, and the brownstones, and then depending on where you run and just seeing the trains go over the bridge, like all of that is a story to me. And I'm still trying to figure out that story. I'm still a little kid in the candy store trying to figure out what flavor lollipop it is that I want to take, that my mother is allowing me to purchase. 

Roberts: But Coffey had another motivation for putting in his miles when the streets were empty.

Coffey: When I did run in the daytime by myself, I will always get crazy stares. And I know why I get it. Here's this black man, big black, tall black man, and he's running. So at that time it looked awkward. It still feels awkward today. So to avoid that type of feeling is another reason why I ran me at midnight night because I'm the only thing out there running at midnight. No one else is. I barely saw anyone else out there at midnight. It will always just be me. And when I would go out to run at midnight, my wife will always say, I love you. That's a given, right. But because she knows that I'm a black man out there running at midnight, she worries. So her most important words to me weren'tI love you anymore. It was “please be careful” because she wanted to make sure that I got came back in one piece

Roberts: Coffey has been trailed and stopped by the police a number of times.

Coffey: First question is, let me see your ID. Well, who really runs with their ID? I don't know too many people that do. If so then I would say that I'm in the wrong, but I never run with the ID. And then, my questions would be, why are you stopping me? And I've had a couple where, why are you in this neighborhood at this time? And I will come back and tell him, well, why are you asking me why I'm here? You see what I'm doing, you follow me, I didn’t follow you. And I've been followed a couple of times or down a couple blocks and I knew, okay, the light's gonna come on soon.

But the one thing that I can't let happen is something that my grandfather told me: don't ever let anybody put fear in you, because once that person sees fear, there you become a whole totally different person. And I'm not about to allow what they feel or how they see me, stop me from doing something that I actually enjoy. And if they feel like, their fear is coming from the fact that I'm black, then that's their problem.

Roberts: We’ll be right back.

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Roberts: After COVID-19 took hold of New York in March, Coffey says he never took a break from running. This despite some very legitimate reasons to stay home. Besides the small risk of contagion, there has been a lot of anger and fear directed at runners. Profane signs popped up around the city telling runners to mask up. A series of articles in the New York media targeted runners as selfish spreaders of the virus, with one labeling joggers “angels of death”.

Coffey’s preference for midnight running meant that he avoided most of those conflicts. He also wore a bandana over his face, though that choice came with its own set of dangers.

Coffee: I already look like troubling because I'm black with a beard, with an Afro, depending on what I look like that day. Now, here you go with this same guy with a mask or a bandana on his face. I run with bandanas. So imagine me being covered up. I’m giving you an example, I got the banada on now. With the bandana on me covered up, now I look like I'm about to rob the bank. So I know there's fear to white America because that's how they labeled us from the beginning. But I don't think that's my problem because that person is afraid of how I look. I think the problem belongs to the person and whoever the people are that raised that person to believe that a black person is a threat and that this is all they do and they are violent and everything else under the sun. So whoever looks at me like a thug or a criminal, again, that's their problem.

Roberts: Coffey is very clear on the fact that racism would not prevent him from running where and when he wanted. But it was a conversation about the harsh realities of racial violence in his own family a few years ago that spurred him to create the story that became About the People.  

Coffey: I had a teenage son who was about to be a senior in high school. And his freshmen, sophomore and junior year, his curfew was 10 o'clock. It should have been earlier, but we in New York and New York is full of basketball courts and parks and all that. So I wasn't hard on him. I was just telling him to be home by 10 o'clock and he made sure he was home at 10 o'clock, but you know, at 10 o’clock, it was dark. So him and his friends knew what time to leave so they can make the stop to get something to eat so he will be here in the house by 10. His senior year, when he asked me for a curfew, I didn't give him one. I felt like he was older. He was wiser. Let me see what time he feels like is a good time to come home, pretty much giving him a challenge, but also testing them just to see know what's up his sleave. Letting him live, letting him breathe, because at this time now we talking he's about to be 18. So I didn't give him a time. 

And for three straight nights, man, he comes home at eight o'clock. And here in the summertime, eight o'clock, the sun is still bright and shiny. And that made me question myself. Well damn, should I have not given him a curfew, his freshman, sophomore and junior year, because he's coming on at eight o'clock and then I started cracking jokes with him or whatnot. And then he was like laughing it off the first and second day. And the third day that's when I was like, somebody must be fucking with him. Let me see what the deal is by asking him, and if this is the case, then I’ll go wherever he's playing ball at and have a conversation and that's strictly it, just have a conversation in hopes that it won't spark into anything else, you know? So him and his friends could play ball without having to worry about anything. But after the conversation, he was just straight forward and he was just like, nah, dad, me and my friends are making sure we get home before dark, so we won't get killed by the cops.

And when he said that, that was the first time I didn't have an answer. And it bothered me, man. Like it bothered me. And I didn't know what to do. So from there, I couldn't even look at him eye to eye. He didn't know that, but I couldn't even look at him eye to eye because I couldn't sugarcoat that. I couldn't say, it's not going to happen to you. I couldn't do that. I don't believe in being fake when it comes to those types of things. If he had had a fight, gotten beat up, I could have easily said, you know what, don't worry about it. You'll get them next time. Or if he fell off a bike, I could at least, man, don't worry about that. You're gonna fall a lot more times. So just get up, wipe yourself off. 

In this situation, I couldn't do that. And me being creative, I figured, you know what, let me respond to not just him, but respond to all of America because here I have this boy going through that. Can you imagine how many other black kids or people of color going through the exact same thing? So if I respond to him verbally here, the only person that's going to hear it is him and my wife and my other kids. And let me do something where everybody can get the answer to that. 

And About the People, on its surface, I didn't tackle it from the conversations that him and I had. And I also didn't want to showcase a cop killing somebody else, which is a lot of other films was already showing that I wanted to be as real as possible. Think 12 Angry Men. I love that movie. So I was thinking, okay, let me take 12 Angry Men and put all these men in one room and hash it out.

(audio from About the People plays in background)

But also let's make it like a college lecture. But also these people have to know what they talking about. So that's where the dialogue comes from. That's why the dialogue is the way it is. Me running at midnight is where I built these characters in and decided, okay, this is who we want inside of this room. I didn’t want to give these characters names -- let’s give them jobs, let’s give them professions. Let the audience come in and figure out who’s who without them having to say who’s who. 

And it had to be real and it had to be meaningful. And it had to let people know that this is one of the things that has to be done in order for us to survive. And basically it comes down to buying back into your community. 

Roberts: As Coffey was gearing up to release of the film, the video of Ahmaud Arbery’s murder went viral. I asked Coffey what he went through during his first run after seeing the video, and if that run was able to provide him the kind of medicine and therapy that it usually does. It was the only time in our long interview that he got emotional.  

Coffey: It calmed me down. (silent for a bit)

Yeah. It calmed me down because to be honest, if I didn't run -- there's a lot of people that know once I lose control, I lose control and I lost control. Once that happened, because I know that could have been me. From running in the country myself. I know that feeling when I'm in the country running, I made sure that my sister follows me because of those types of situations. So when that happened  I knew about it in February. It didn't become nationwide until two months later, which I felt like was disrespectful to him and his family especially being there was a video. But that run after seeing that video calmed me down, because at that point I could have easily went down the wrong path and did whatever to whoever that was looking at me the wrong way. And to certain people that I know are racist here. 

I was just pissed off just like the rest of the world. Just pissed off that these cowards could do such a thing and get away with it. So that was hard for me. That was hard for me. That was hard for me as an individual. And that was hard for me as a parent and then George Floyd and Breona Taylor comes right after that. 

Roberts: On Friday evening, May 29th, five days before I spoke to Coffey, he was at his home when a protest started outside the Barclay’s Center, the arena that’s the home of the Brooklyn Nets. The protestors made their way to his neighborhood of Fort Green, and he went outside with his phone and began streaming what he was seeing on Instagram Live.

Coffey says the protest remained peaceful, with only vulgar chants at the police until things took a sudden turn after the police threw a black teenager up against a wall in Fort Green Park. 

(audio from protest starts in background)

Coffey: And everybody came over and they just took the cops and threw the cops off the boy and the boy got away. Cause he wasn't really doing anything. He was just one of the ones that was chanting like everybody else. But because I guess, he was a black teenager, and because he was right there, he was small. So once the crowd threw the cops off of him,  the cops grabbed somebody else. And then the crowd threw the cops off of them. And then that's when the cops realized that's when you heard people say, Oh shit, they left a van. Let’s fuck that van up. That's when they start shattering the windows of the van. Some of the windows was already cracked because the guy was already throwing bottles when they left the first time. But then they lit the van on fire and that made headlines and that’s how the peaceful protests turned into like a small riot.

Roberts: The next morning was Saturday, so Coffey went out for his usual long exploratory run. This time, without planning to, he ran just over the length of a marathon. He says he had a lot to think about. When he ran by the spot where the van had been burned the night before, he noticed that someone had used the ashes to write ‘Black Lives Matter” on the sidewalk. 

And while he was out there, he came up with an idea for a different kind of protest that would bring the New York run crews that have been isolated since the pandemic began back together, safely, to do something positive. 

Coffey: And so what I figured is that I would call on all run crews here in New York city. And we'll all meet up at a destination and we will be social distancing, and we’re gonna get together, and we’re gonna do a one mile run protest. And then when we get back, the run crew captains, we're all gonna talk to everyone that's there and tell them how they can help. And being that the majority of the people have texted and emailed me that have asked me, that are white, that asked me that they want to know how they can help. I would be telling them t how they can help because truthfully, they can help. There's a lot of ways that they can help. And the fact that they're willing to take that stand, that's a stance in the right direction there that lets you know, okay, this world is about to change 

Roberts: At the end of our conversation, I asked Coffey if there was anything else he wanted to share. This is what he said.

Coffey: My name is Coffey. I'm a boy from Aurora, North Carolina who had a dream to make it out because my town was like 500 people. And due to sports, I made it out. And now I live in New York City, which I think at least was the best city to ever be a part of. I run miles. I have a great family and I'm a black man. And no one will never, ever be able to put fear in me because of the color of my skin. And I would never, ever put fear in you because of the color of yours.

Music

Roberts: The protest run that Coffey is organizing is scheduled for Sunday, June 14, at 10am. It will begin at the East River Amphitheater, in Lower Manhattan. You can learn more details by following Coffey on Instagram. He’s @thatcoffeyboy… coffey is spelled c-o-f-f-e-y. 

The short film About the People is available online at AboutThePeopleFilm.com

This episode was produced by me, Michael Roberts, with music by Robbie Carver. Special thanks to Coffey for recording his side of our conversation.

This episode was brought to you by Tracksmith, a proudly independent running brand that makes high-performance products for real-world athletes. Right now, Tracksmith is offering Outside Podcast listeners $15 off your first purchase of $75 or more. Go to Trackmsith.com/outside and enter the code OutsidePod at checkout. That’s Trackmsith.com/outside and code OutsidePod, all one word. 

We’ll be back next week.

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Outside’s longstanding literary storytelling tradition comes to life in audio with features that will both entertain and inform listeners. We launched in March 2016 with our first series, Science of Survival, which was developed in partnership with PRX, distributors of the idolized This American Life and The Moth Radio Hour, among others. We have since expanded our show and now offer a range of story formats, including interviews with the biggest figures in sports, adventure, and politics, as well as reports from our correspondents in the field.