Setting a Pace for Black Women Distance Runners
Six Black women came together to build a running community, but what they created was a foundation for so much more
When Ashlee Green was at a running race and she’d see another Black woman on the course, the two would often exchange a knowing look: I see you.
That mutual feeling of familiarity, understanding, and camaraderie—that feeling of being seen—was a feeling she hoped to “bottle” when she and Jasmine Nesi began creating a space for Black women distance runners like themselves.
Presented in partnership with Under Armour as part of the Limitless series
Nesi and Green, who met at the District Running Collective, a running club in Washington, D.C., recruited a powerhouse team of other Black women from the club to bring that seed of an idea to life. That team included Stephani Franklin, who, like Green, worked in the creative industry and could help with graphics and a visual presence. Na’Tasha Jones was a writer and editor who could oversee content strategy. Natalie Robinson was a digital media specialist who would bring social media expertise. Dominique Burton was a researcher who brought the perspective of an accomplished multisport athlete to optimize members’ experiences. And Nesi, who worked at a PR agency, brought communications prowess.
The six women met for an all-day summit at Jones’s house to hammer out the vision. “We knew so many Black women running half-marathons, ultras, full marathons, and they were crushing it, but we’d turn to mainstream publications and we never saw people like us featured in those stories or on the covers,” says Jones. The women decided to create an outlet for the representation they felt was missing.
In April 2018, they launched RUNGRL, a digital media and events platform for Black women distance runners. Today, RUNGRL consists of a vibrant website full of running advice, stories, and downloadables; real-life events like a “Miles and Mimosas” morning-run series; and an Instagram community of over 10,000 followers. The name originated from a sentiment that began as something of a joke between Green and a friend from District Running Collective: You better run, girl. There’s a spirit of encouragement, inspiration, and empowerment in the quip, she says, “but it’s also delivered in a way that is unique and familiar to the Black community.”
In its first campaign, RUNGRL led with hair care for Black runners. A history of discrimination in workplaces and schools—both codified and subtle—against natural hairstyles like afros, braids, and locs has meant that Black women feel significantly more anxiety about their hair than their non-Black counterparts. A study by the Perception Institute found that one in three Black women avoid exercise out of concerns about getting their hair sweaty or wet, compared to one in ten white women. “A lot of people who haven’t experienced it may not understand the nuance,” says Jones. It’s not about vanity: “You take a deeper look at it and you understand that we’re judged by how we look at work, differently.” Encouraging Black women to run despite these concerns, then, means providing education and practical advice. To that end, RUNGRL has published articles like “The Importance of Scalp Care for Sweaty Naturals” and “The Best Natural Hair Tips for Sweaty Workouts,” and encouraged followers to post photos of their natural hair while running on the hashtag #MyRunningHair. Some of these hair articles continue to be among RUNGRL’s most popular content.
Besides covering issues that are specific to Black women, RUNGRL also explores popular running topics through a Black lens. For example, “All women runners think about running and safety,” says Jones. But when you’re a Black woman, she says, there’s another dimension to it—the reality of racial profiling and violence. “We had a whole conversation sparked around Ahmaud Arbery specifically. The conversation becomes a little different.” Finally, RUNGRL simply aims to show Black women runners who look like them. “If you look at certain magazines and all you see is skinny white men in split shorts, you might think, I can’t be a runner,” she says.
The group’s latest campaign, called the Legacy of Movement, reflects a new, more holistic direction for RUNGRL. “Running is the vehicle, but ultimately we’re pushing for wellness in the community at large,” Jones explains. Because women play such a powerful role in establishing healthy habits for families, the campaign celebrates the Black woman runner’s role as the “legacy bearer” of her family’s wellness. Due to systemic problems like income disparities, discrimination, and a scarcity of safe places to work out, it may well be that some of RUNGRL’s readers may be the first generation in their families to bear that legacy. Or they may come from families with long legacies of serious fitness: one of the campaign videos features the mother of cofounder Natalie Robinson, Gail Robinson, reading a letter to her daughter about their family’s history of prioritizing sports and exercise, starting from Gail’s father’s aspirations to play baseball in the Negro National League. The campaign celebrates the entire breadth of these experiences among Black families. “We have begun to really beautifully tell this story about how wellness is a part of generational wealth,” says Green. Breaking down barriers to running for Black women, she says, can be one way to help Black families turn wellness into “a wealth-building tool.”
The six cofounders have full-time jobs, and operating RUNGRL is essentially like having a second one, Jones admits. But seeing the impact of the work makes it worthwhile. Early in the pandemic, for example, RUNGRL created a daily training calendar to help community members work out at home. Seeing that people still wanted to connect, even though they couldn’t run together in real life, was “really beautiful,” she recalls. And it’s rewarding to hear women tell her they ran for the first time, or went from running 5Ks to longer distances, because of the group.
For Green, the work feels most meaningful during moments with members of her community who aren’t runners—yet. Once, when she and cofounder Stephani Franklin were about 13 miles into a long training run for the New York Marathon, they passed a little Black girl and her mother. “She just stopped and looked at us, and was like, ‘Mommy, look at what they’re doing,’” she recalls. “It just felt like we were an inspiration to her. You could see the spark in her eyes.” She feels a similar dynamic when she’s running through historically Black neighborhoods in D.C. and older women cheer her on. There’s a sense of pride and collective triumph, “because I’m doing this thing that they either never knew they could do or never had the opportunity to.”
Both Green and Jones emphasized that Black women are not just participating in running culture; they’re shaping it. Green shows a photo of cofounder Dominique Burton stretching in her running shoes, wearing a silver bracelet and long, sculpted nails with pastel-toned nail art. “It’s this sort of authentic Black-woman-ness that we bring to the sport and we want to see more of,” she said. RUNGRL wants to highlight that this, too, is running culture. And they want other outlets to do it also.
“Black women deserve to be well,” Jones said. They deserve to know they can do anything they want, she continued, including running long distances—and not only that, but she wants Black women to know that “you should be celebrated when you do. People should be excited to have you there, running with them and sharing your story. You elevate that experience just by showing up.”
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