(Photo: Maria Oswalt)

Running In Harmony: Activism For Runners

How to use your ability to endure to change the world for the better by working to dismantle racism.

Maria Oswalt

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Runners harness massive amounts of energy and willpower to do the hard work of training and racing. Runners sustain incredible focus to accomplish goals. What if we re-directed, or merely shared, those resources and skills? 

We could make a powerful difference in the world. In fact, the running community is primed to be a collective agent for change. Right now, it’s more clear than ever that the world could use runners’ commitment, resources, and skills to combat social injustice, including individual and systemic racism

Even in my so-called progressive hometown, the running hotbed of Boulder, Colorado, hatred is hurled at Black people. One day after coaching youth running club practice, I was standing with two Black athletes. A car full of young white people drove by; the passengers yelled a racial slur before speeding away. 

Of course, this upset my athletes. Of course, this upset me. It better upset all of us. As should the harrowing stories of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and countless other Black people who’ve faced oppression and violence. 

Our Moral Responsibility

We cannot tolerate mistreatment, whether blatant or more subtle, of Black, Indigenous and other people of color (BIPOC). Even if it seems inconceivable or surprising to those of us who are insulated by white privilege. As Alison Désir, mental health coach, founder of Harlem Run, and runner, told Women’s Running, “People who are shocked by what happened to Ahmaud Arbery are in the beginning of their white racial identity, just realizing, ‘Oh my god, my whiteness carries meaning.’”

As a white woman, I’m called to take responsibility and use my power in and outside of running. I must open my ears and eyes, and welcome discomfort — with no desire for praise for speaking out or standing up for what’s right. This includes researching, reflecting, and respecting BIPOC leaders who’ve been having these conversations and pushing for change for a very long time. 

We only have one planet with one messy, giant human family, and one chance to coexist. Positive role models who walk (er, run) their talk help us all move forward stronger, together. 

Activist Role Models

For our book Girls Running, we talked to athletes who are activist role models. They exemplify how to serve a purpose greater than ourselves, even while training and competing seriously. They do so with purpose, calling attention to a range of issues. 

Jordan Marie Brings Three White Horses Daniel, for example, has completed prayer runs to raise awareness for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW), among other movements. Last year, she raced the Boston Marathon with symbolic red paint across her mouth and legs while praying for lost and stolen relatives. Her activism inspired then-high schooler Rosalie Fish to dedicate her races at the Washington state high school track and field championships to MMIW. 

Currently, Désir is hosting a series of virtual fitness and mental health events called Meaning Through Movement. Pro runner Aisha Praught Leer and her training team are chasing a record in the mile and raising funds for the Sachs Foundation, which provides educational opportunities to Black high schoolers in Colorado. Gold medalist sprinter and jumper Tianna Bartoletta shared her experiences, insights, and a call to action for people to register to vote and pay attention to local politics, on her blog. 

Time to Mobilize

Black Lives Matter march in Denver, Colorado
Black Lives Matter march in Denver, Colorado. Marchers walk by a mural of George Floyd who was murdered by a Minneapolis police officer. Photo: Helen H. Richardson/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images

I’m putting my feet to the pavement. Most runners want to get a long run in on Sundays. To add meaning into that Sunday “long run,” I am committed to marching on a path that parallels the highway to Denver every other Sunday until election day on November 3. My goal is to mobilize my running community to show up in support of Black Lives Matter and racial justice, to get out the vote, and to keep the momentum going towards changing the systems that are failing our country. 

What moves you, as a runner and agent for change? Is it a virtual race to raise funds, like 1 Million Mile For Justice or to support indigenous communities facing the coronavirus? Is it calling out your coach if they use racist language? Is it organizing your running team or club to register to vote? Or is it dedicating your off day to reading about antiracism?

Whatever inspires you to move, know that as a runner you’re primed to be a change-maker, and maybe even a leader. 

GIRLS RUNNING (VeloPress), by Melody Fairchild and Elizabeth Carey, is available for pre-order now. Melody Fairchild is a running coach, director of Boulder Mountain Warriors Youth Run Club, founder of Melody Fairchild’s Girls Running Camp, and a master’s athlete in Boulder, Colorado. Elizabeth Carey is a freelance writer and running coach in Seattle, Washington.

From PodiumRunner Lead Photo: Maria Oswalt