Running While Black Book Sheds Light On Important Issues

Photo Credit: Alyssa Keown/Battle Creek

By Lilah Drafts-Johnson - MileSplit Correspondent

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    WASHINGTON, D.C. -- "There are no shortage of running books, but there are very few written by Black people, let alone Black women, and none of which tell the story of the joy, but also the fear, that comes from running."

    These were the words of Alison Mariella Désir at the D.C. location of Pacers Running store on Friday, October 21. She joined Chris Farley, the owner and president of Pacers Running stores, in conversation about her new book, "Running While Black: Finding Freedom in a Sport That Wasn't Built for Us," which was released by Penguin Random House on October 18.

    Désir, the founder of Harlem Run and Run 4 All Women as well as the co-chair of the newly formed Running Industry Diversity Coalition, is a long-time runner and an activist for Black athletes in distance running. But it was the murder of Ahmaud Arbery in 2020, coupled with the fear that Désir felt for her then 10-month-old son, that catalyzed her idea for the book.

    "I published this op-ed in Outside Magazine where I drew attention to the racial divide that has always existed in running and the fact that my freedom of movement is really connected to historical and present practices that keep Black people from moving freely through space," Désir said.

    The initial response to her op-ed was overwhelming. In drawing attention to the racism that many Black runners face on a regular basis, Désir also busted one of running's biggest myths -- that its only barrier was a pair of sneakers and a little bit of willpower.

    "I got so many emails from Black folks and other marginalized people saying, 'Thank you for saying the thing that needs to be said,' and from white people saying, 'I never realized that this could be the experience of someone in running, the [sport] that I love so much,'" she said. 

    In "Running While Black," Désir weaves her personal journey of transformation through running alongside an in-depth history of the sport and sharp critique of the industry.

    Even die-hard fans of the sport will have something to learn as Désir highlights the experiences and contributions of Black distance runners whose narratives have been systematically edited, intentionally or not, from much of running's origin story.

    "One of the biggest impacts on my life was my father, who instilled in me that what you learn in history books was written by those who were in power, and that it is your responsibility to get to the truth and then share it," Désir said.

    Désir was born in Harlem, grew up in Teaneck, New Jersey, and ran the 400m and 400m hurdles at Dwight-Englewood High School. She often wondered why she didn't see more Black runners represented in the distance events across all levels of the sport.

    In her book, she illuminates how factors like racist street harassment, discriminatory housing practices limiting access to safe outdoor spaces and inequitable media coverage of Black distance runners have restricted Black athletes' participation and visibility in the sport.

    But Desir's book is for everyone. She wanted to write something that would validate the experiences of Black and other marginalized runners, but also create a resource for white people to educate themselves, build empathy, and take intentional action.

    Désir's book is laden with running metaphors that she aptly applies to the difficult work of confronting racism in our communities. She points out that Black runners have long led and held coalitions when it comes to combatting racism in the sport and she believes that this book can help usher in needed reform.

    "When you're talking about issues like race, [white] people want to say, 'Oh, but I'm a good person.' And it's not a matter of good or bad," Désir explained. "It's a matter of the power that you have and the ways that the system prioritizes you, sees you as the default, and makes sure that your needs are catered to."

    Photo Credit: Brian Powers/USA Today

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    For coaches and leaders in youth sport wanting to make a difference, Désir emphasized the importance of challenging stereotypes.

    "Black kids often get pushed into track and field and white kids get pushed into cross country," Désir explained. "On the youth level, it has so much to do with what opportunities kids see are available and whether they see themselves in those spaces."

    Désir also urged coaches to ask questions instead of making assumptions.

    "Get curious and have conversations with kids and parents about what the obstacles are. Once you know, you can address them," she said. 

    Désir gave the example of a coach who instituted a carpool system for his team when he learned that getting rides home after practice was a barrier for some of his athletes. Désir noted that it was one of her teachers inviting her to try out for the track team that initially got her involved in the sport.

    "Recognize your power as a coach and teacher. Whether you see something in them or not, telling someone you see a spark in them can change their world."

    Although Désir's book covers difficult topics, it is a story rooted in the joy of running and a rallying call for all runners to contribute to building a better and more inclusive running culture.

    "This is why I'm on this earth," Désir said. "I'm here to build community, to get people excited about movement and taking care of themselves, and to show people that you can make an impact no matter how big or how small."

    You can learn more about Alison Mariella Désir at her website here, and order her book at the link here or find it wherever books are sold.