Running community cites boom among black Americans
February 9, 2015
Terrance Lyles knows the satisfaction of feeling one's feet hit the pavement while a river, apartment buildings or trees move by.
This is what saved the black Chicagoan and engineer as he battled financial problems and tensions with the mother of his not-yet-born baby. He'd grown up watching his father run marathons.
"Instead of resorting to negative things like having drinks, I just woke up one day and said, 'Hey, I need to run,' " said Lyles, 40.
Just like that Lyles found a new religion, signing up in 2006 to run the Bank of America Chicago Marathon. "I said, 'If I can get through a marathon then I can conquer whatever's going on in my life.' "
Several marathons later, Lyles is founder of Men Run Deez Streets. The year-old group now has about 130 members online and about 25 who show up to runs.
"It's really a history-making moment for black athletes," Lyles says.
Lyles is part of a growing movement of black Americans who run. Black Girls RUN!,Black Men Run, Men Run Deez Streets, Run2Live and others have joined the growing National Black Marathoners Association in supporting more black runners, according to statistics and what running group leaders report.
Mary Wittenberg, president and CEO of New York Road Runners, said she believes running is seeing a diversity boom that started about five years ago. "I'm telling you, I see it – I see it all the time," says Wittenberg, a fixture at the start and finish lines of races.
Consider the statistics:
• Members of the National Black Marathoners Association, a group based in Dallas, have increased from 1,200 in 2010 to 3,600 this year.
• Black Girls RUN!, a national organization that promotes fitness among black women, started from a 2011 lunch of 15-20 in Atlanta and now says it has 150,000 active members.
• Black Men Run, a national organization not affiliated with Black Girls RUN!, started out with four or five men meeting in Atlanta's Grant Park in 2013, and now says it has 6,000 members.
• New York Road Runners says that between 2012 and 2014, women registering for races as Black Girls RUN! members grew from 915 to 2,501, and men registering as Black Men Run members grew from eight to 148.
This is the atmosphere in which Desiree Peterkin Bell, a black woman, serves as race director of the GORE-TEX Philadelphia Marathon. She is one of the first black Americans to lead a major marathon and the only one doing so right now.
The five-time NCAA All-American in track and field says she believes students are driving the numbers and those students' associates are seeing how running "is impacting everything, their perceptions of themselves, schoolwork."
While social media and the Internet have helped boost news about the newer running organizations, primarily black and/or diverse running clubs are not new. Many such clubs in major cities emerged in the 1980s. Among them: South Fulton Running Partners in the Atlanta area, Team Marathon in metropolitan Cleveland and the Avondale Running Club in the Cincinnati area.
A survey last November by the National Black Marathoners Association of 329 members suggests the larger numbers are a mix of veterans and newcomers.
The survey showed almost 95 have been running five years or more while 107 have been running two years or less. The largest segment – 110 or 33.54% - run 15 to 21 miles per week. Most marathoners log 30-50 miles per week or more. Of the group, 230 said they run three or four days a week, while 57 said they run five or six days a week, the norm for marathon training.
Groups newer than the NBMA say veterans launched them and newcomers poured in.
The Atlanta-based Black Girls RUN! came about after a lunch before the Publix Georgia Marathon & Half Marathon in 2011. Toni Carey and Ashley Hicks, former sorority sisters, wanted to connect with other black women runners. They felt unwelcomed by existing running clubs.
"No one spoke to us; no one greeted us," says Carey, 31. BGR started with 30 Facebook/running groups across the country. Today, it has 70 groups and a yearly conference, Carey said.
"For African-American women, I think it's very difficult to find environments or places that are safe for us," Carey says.
Jason Russell, founder of the Atlanta-based Black Men Run, says his group has gone from small meetup to global, and recently launched a mobile workout app.
"Our runners have now become pillars in their communities and local leaders just by virtue of the fact that they are a part of this organization," says Russell, a 40-year-old account manager.
Michael Stinson, an insurance broker and Black Men Run captain in Philadelphia, is one of them. Three years ago, he realized he was the "fat guy" in pictures from an office get together.
"I went home and got on the scale," says Stinson, 40. "I topped out at 330 pounds and literally cried."
Since then, Stinson has gone from a few minutes on the treadmill to running the marathon in Philadelphia on Nov. 23.
People in Stinson's age group are a large part of the boom, says Anthony Reed, cofounder of the National Black Marathoners Association.
"A lot of people between 40 and 50 are at that age where their children have left the house, but on the other hand, looking at their parents as they take care of them," says Reed, 59, of Dallas. "They're looking at their parents' diabetes, high blood pressure, and they realize it's preventable."
The surge is bringing attention to unsung pioneers. Last year, the NBMA held its first ever Hall of Fame banquet. This year,a fitness-promotion organization called Run2Live recognized New York's Pioneer Club and the late Ted Corbitt, the "father of long distance running" and first president of New York Road Runners.
Runners in historic organizations say they believe the boom is concentrated largely online, where people can interact but advance at their own pace.
Cleveland's Team Marathon has drawn admiration and placed often at races, but these days, struggles to attract new members, says cofounder and captain Warren Elzy, who began running in his 30s to stay in shape. He founded Team Marathon with his barber, the late Robert Dexter, when they found they both loved the sport.
"It was about running fast," says Elzy, 61, of Bedford Heights, Ohio. "Now it's more about people just doing it," which also, he says, is good.
Frances Gilbert, who helped found the Avondale Running Club in Cincinnati and has earned 150 trophies, says would-be runners should not be intimdated.
"It's OK to walk," says Gilbert, 77, who is on the board of the Cincinnati Flying Pig Marathon. "You need to be physically active because it helps our blood circulation."
Gary Corbitt hopes to move more black Americans to run competitively. The retiree who lives in Jacksonville, Fla., is the son of Ted Corbitt, an Olympian and four-time winner of the Philadelphia Marathon. After his father died in 2007, Corbitt found a treasure trove of history in the papers and memorabilia packed into his dad's Bronx apartment. He is sharing his finds with the Internet and public.
Said Corbitt, 63, "It's another boom waiting to happen."