On July 31, Ben Chan, a recreational runner from New York City, finished a 635-mile virtual ultramarathon, known as The Great Virtual Race Across Tennessee (GVRAT). The event was organized by noted race director Gary “Lazarus Lake” Cantrell and required participants to complete the requisite distance between May 1 and August 31, while logging their daily mileage on the GVRAT website.
After crossing the virtual finish line with an 8-mile run in his NYC neighborhood of Elmhurst, Chan—whose Facebook moniker is “Ben Asian Sensation Chan”—followed the example of other participants and posted a race recap on the GVRAT Facebook Group page. In the post, Chan noted that he’d done most of his running between 2 and 8 a.m. and that there were times during these nocturnal jaunts when a passing motorist would subject him to racist and homophobic slurs. He wasn’t bringing this up to elicit sympathy, Chan wrote, but to call attention to the fact that other runners had to endure much worse on a regular basis—including his wife, who is Black. The post included a photo of Chan hoisting a championship belt in triumph (something he apparently had lying around the house) and wearing a “Black Lives Matter” singlet.
The next morning, however, Chan noticed that his post had been deleted. There was a note from Cantrell: “I am 1000% in agreement, but this is not a political site.”
Chan responded with a series of Instagram posts in which he asserted that Cantrell’s insistence on neutrality was hypocritical. For instance: other GVRAT participants had posted photos of themselves waving “Blue Lives Matter” flags and had not been similarly reprimanded. “Deciding what is and is not political, and always catering to one group of runners, is white privilege,” Chan wrote. Cantrell replied with a post in which he stated that the GVRAT forum was not the place “to solve the world’s problems,” or to “change society.” He added that his decision to delete Chan’s initial post had been prompted by the comment vitriol and complaints that the post had inspired, rather than the post itself.
The dispute might have fizzled out if it hadn’t been for a separate, more recent, incident. On September 1, another Cantrell event kicked off: the Circumpolar Race Around the World (CRAW)—a virtual relay race in which teams attempt to run or cycle a combined 30,000 miles. Chan had initially intended to participate, but he and his nine teammates changed their minds after Cantrell informed them that they could not use “Black Lives Matter” as their team name. In an email to the group, Cantrell stated that he was unwilling to allow a team to call itself Black Lives Matter, just as he would be unwilling to let a team use the “MAGA” acronym. “If I thought one heart would be changed, it would be different,” Cantrell wrote, “But all that would happen is the race would fill up with the same crap that permeates everything.”
On the one hand, the tension between Chan and Cantrell’s respective positions mirrors the broader reality that, in the United States in 2020, the words “Black Lives Matter” will have very different connotations depending on whom you ask (or which horrible cable news program you watch). The resulting arguments are, in essence, the all-permeating “crap,” which Cantrell wants his races to provide a respite from. But this points to another issue, one that probably gets more to the heart of what’s at stake here: there are members of the BIPOC running community who could not insulate themselves from the reality of racial injustice even if they wanted to. To runners like Chan, Cantrell’s insistence on political neutrality is, in effect, a tacit perpetuation of an unacceptable status quo—and therefore not a neutral act at all.
There are members of the BIPOC running community who could not insulate themselves from the reality of racial injustice even if they wanted to.
“The race director and many of his white customers have declared that running is their refuge,” Chan wrote in an Instagram post earlier this week. “What are they seeking refuge from, if the mere presence of an image of the words “Black Lives Matter” with no further commentary offends them and must be deleted in order to protect the sanctity of their refuge?”
When I asked Cantrell about this, he insisted that his virtual events were meant to be a refuge for everyone and that he rejected the idea that it was only his white customers who were looking to escape some of the more polarizing issues of the day. (Cantrell claims that the first person to submit a complaint about Chan’s GVRAT post was a Black man.) He maintained that the purpose of controlling the language of team names and race forums didn’t reflect a personal ideology, but an honest attempt to keep things from devolving into, as he put it, “pointless” arguments. He had deleted countless posts that he had deemed irrelevant: from diatribes about the “existential threat” of Islamic terrorism to posts about a charity for multiple sclerosis. (He told me that he didn’t see the aforementioned “Blue Lives Matter” posts, but if he had, he would have removed them as well.)
I pressed Cantrell about his specific aversion to Black Lives Matter. It seemed strange that a slogan that was now being embraced by much of corporate America should at the same time be too provocative for a virtual ultra and a race director with a self-consciously hardcore persona. Cantrell replied that while he unequivocally believed that racism and police violence were major problems in this country, he “didn’t have any love” for the BLM movement, which, he suggested, occasionally inspired actions that were detrimental to the cause of ending racial injustice. (For example, Cantrell believes that toppling Confederate statues “gives ammunition to people who want to protect the status quo.”) Cantrell mentioned that there was another CRAW team who wanted to use the BLM moniker but who, after being told that it was against the “no politics” rule, went with “Breanna [sic], George & Ahmaud” instead—while still “political” Cantrell believed it was less likely to generate a reaction and therefore deemed it OK.
For his part, Chan thinks that people like Cantrell are letting their perception of the BLM movement be too heavily influenced by a media environment that puts a disproportionate focus on violent protests, when the majority of protests are peaceful. An unfortunate consequence of this, Chan argues, is that he and his would-be teammates end up being censored because of the ignorance of others. While he is adamant that he doesn’t think that Cantrell is a racist person, he fears that the race director’s anti-BLM stance will make Black runners feel unwelcome.
“We are not coming into these races and asking that people sign petitions or agree with us,” Chan says. “We’re just saying ‘Black Lives Matter’ as an affirmative statement and saying that this is our team name. So when Laz says that we are bringing politics into it—I actually think that’s what he’s doing. He’s imposing his definition of BLM on us and, frankly, catering to the people in his races who are uncomfortable with BLM.”
Semantic arguments aside, the larger disagreement here might be about whether a virtual running event can effectively address racial injustice. Is it a “refuge,” or a potential platform to call attention to the evils in American society and, if so, to what end? For runners like Chan at least, the need to engage in difficult conversations feels consistent with an athletic ethos that celebrates discomfort.
“Isn’t the whole idea behind ultrarunning that you run to a point when you get uncomfortable?” Chan says. “If so, why is it OK for runners to push their limits and test themselves mentally and physically, but when it comes to their beliefs about who belongs here and who doesn’t, why can’t we test those beliefs?”
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