Runner Reads: “Running While Black” by Alison Mariella Désir

Vanessa Junkin sitting on the couch reading "Running While Black" by Alison Mariella Désir.

I’ve always found the running community to be extremely welcoming. If you’re white, like I am, that may be your experience, too. But that isn’t the case for everyone. I thought Alison Mariella Désir’s new book, “Running While Black: Finding Freedom in a Sport That Wasn’t Built for Us,” was an insightful read that gave me a different perspective.

It’s not like I’d never thought about running and race before; it would be hard not to notice that the races and group runs I participate in are primarily made up of white people. However, reading about Désir’s experiences and insights forced me to think about the topic more deeply. I also really enjoyed Désir’s writing style; it was engaging.

This book was connected to both of the ambassador communities I’m part of — BibRave and Brooks. As a member of the Brooks Run Happy Team, I received a copy of this book, but I’d already preordered one, so I passed my free copy along to a friend. As a BibRave Ambassador, I was able to participate in a Zoom book club with Désir — a really cool opportunity.

The book starts out with a timeline titled “Timeline: Freedom of Movement,” which featured U.S. running history down one column and Black People’s History on a column beside it. From the Zoom and BibRave chats, the timeline certainly seemed to make an impression on people. Something that Désir wrote in her book is that white people don’t have to think about race all the time — Black people do. It’s hard to see the growth of running alongside incidences such as segregation and violence against Black people.

Désir first got into distance running after seeing a Facebook post from a Black friend who was training for a marathon, she writes. She didn’t feel she fit in with the Team in Training group she joined, and she later created Harlem Run. When training for that first marathon, she was also fighting mental health struggles.

Something that she wrote about Team in Training resonated with me, as I always try to make new runners feel welcome when they come to Eastern Shore Running Club group runs, no matter what their pace is. I’m the president of the club, and I have heard from many people that they assume we’re all fast and they wouldn’t be able to keep up. That’s not true; we really do welcome all paces and when I’m at a group run, I stay with whoever is at the slowest pace (especially if this person is a newcomer).

White hand holding the book "Running While Black" outside so that the cover is fully shown.

“At Team in Training, what would my experience have been like if someone had said hello that first day? If an effort had been made to make all of us feel like stars, not just the fast or experienced runners?” Désir writes on page 85.

When she started Harlem Run, she writes that she made sure to greet new runners and welcome them to the group.

She also shared a story about how Harlem Run impacted an 11-year-old boy named Aubrey, who started running with the group and went on to run in high school.

“For decades, Black kids have grown up thinking that distance running was only for white kids; Harlem Run showed Aubrey it was for him, too,” Désir writes on page 111. “We’d changed the trajectory of a kid’s life through the simplest of means: existing in his community.”

She also writes about growing up Black in a primarily white environment, feeling like people expected her to represent her whole race, and about how growing up in a white supremacist country had a major impact on how she saw herself and others.

Désir also included running history in her book, and I was surprised to learn about Ted Corbitt, who I’d never heard of before reading this book (something I mentioned during the Zoom chat). He was a Black man who was instrumental to the sport. Just a couple of his accolades included being the first Black man to run the marathon for the U.S. in the Olympics and serving as the New York Road Runners’ first president (page 136).

“I knew the traditional (read: white) telling of the running boom, the one I’d read about, the one featured in the film Free to Run that highlights Frank Shorter, Steve Prefontaine, Kathrine Switzer, and others as the architects of the sport,” Désir writes on page 141. “The film celebrates the freedom of the 1960s but frames it as the summer of love and women’s lib, not civil rights. Corbitt isn’t mentioned, and neither is the Pioneer Club. I stared at the screen a moment, then sat back in my chair. We were there, I thought. We were part of this, and I didn’t even know it.”

A focus on white runners continues today. For example, in coverage of the 2020 Olympic Marathon Trials, Molly Seidel, who finished second and is white, was given more media coverage than the winner, Aliphine Tuliamuk, who is Black, she writes. The third-place runner, Sally Kipyego, and Tuliamuk would be the first two Black women to run the Olympic marathon for the U.S., but that was not the story the media chose to tell, she writes (pages 201-202).

“It is this invisibility that makes running’s whiteness unbearable,” Désir writes on page 202. “We are here, but we are not seen. White people’s accomplishments are celebrated above our own. We are exoticized. Or we are whitewashed. ‘Nike,’ Alysia (Montaño) told Runner’s World, ‘was always marketing the lighter, whiter version of anything that was me.'”

I would definitely recommend this book, and there are many more quotes I could have pulled. It was awesome that Désir also joined us for the Zoom. As a running club leader, I wanted to know Désir’s opinion on what I could do to make our club more welcoming to people of color. Désir suggested thinking about the group run meeting locations and times. Maybe we could attract more diverse runners if we were meeting in non-white spaces. I hope to bring what I’ve learned into my leadership of ESRC.