About ten years ago, I decided I would train for a 5K. I did this on a whim, because Steve was running at the time and I thought “if he can do it, I can too.” This from the person who once declared, “I’d rather have a root canal than run.”
I downloaded a Couch to 5K program that started – I kid you not – with running in 20 second intervals. I found even that to be a massive challenge. I literally would look at my iPod during those intervals, convinced the cueing was wrong, and find a whopping nine seconds had passed. That’s right – not even half the interval, and I was winded. The first time I ran 20 minutes without stopping, through Greenough Park, I felt like the most powerful person in the world.
My first ever run was the Missoula 5K on the marathon weekend of 2010. I hadn’t even registered, that’s how little I knew about what I was supposed to do. I just showed up, walked into the tent in Caras Park, and told a volunteer I wanted to sign up. She said I was too late to get any race swag and I replied – me – “it’s ok. I just want to run.”
If I was determined to start running, I was also terrified. Right before my first ever run outside, I said to Steve “this is going to be really hard. People are going to make fun of me.” That’s years’ worth of being-picked-last-in-gym-class talking. I can still remember the shame of trying to connect with a kickball and catching only air.
I also remember what Steve said to me before that first outside run: “Nah. This is Missoula. You’ll be surprised.”
He was right.
Working up to those 20 minutes, I was running in the University district one afternoon. As I drug myself down the sidewalk, a guy walking to his car started clapping and said “Good job! Way to go! Keep going!” Now, I am highly attuned to street harassment and, as a female runner, have had my fair share. This wasn’t that, though. This was some crunchy, health-conscious, outdoorsy Missoulian encouraging a newbie. I’ve never forgotten it.
The first time I ran in the rain, I laughed out loud from the sheer pleasure of it. I’ve run up mountains with my sister, and in National Parks, and on treadmills. I’ve dragged myself out of bed on early mornings and run at dusk during Missoula’s long summer evenings. I’ve run in the snow and the heat. I’ve thrown up, had wicked runner’s tummy, lost a good chunk of a toenail, inhaled bugs, and been shat on by birds. I’ve run to raise money for cancer hospitals and food banks. I superstitiously wear the same shirt for every 1/2 marathon. Somewhere in all of that, I began to think of myself as a runner.
The only reason I’m a runner – the only reason I can say I’m a runner and believe it – is because of this community. People like that guy in the University district cheer me on all the time. I exchange knowing looks with other runners now. I participate in races filled with new newbies and elite athletes. I ran part of a 1/2 behind a guy whose t-shirt announced that he’d just given up smoking, and a woman whose t-shirt announced she’d donated a kidney to her husband six weeks before the race. For years I was passed by the legend Bob Hayes (then in his late 80s) in nearly every race.
I limped away from the finish line of one of the Missoula 1/2s and came across the male first place finisher. “Great race,” I said. “You were awesome.” He looked at me, full of the same sincerity as University-district-guy, and said “You too! You too!”
That’s my community.
I think it’s probably like that in all running communities. Maybe not – Missoula is special – but I’ve come to learn that runners are an awfully kind bunch. It’s a big club, encompassing everyone from the most spectacular athletes to new moms pushing strollers (oftentimes, in Missoula, those are the same person).
I’m currently training for my seventh (yeah, you read that right) 1/2 marathon. It’s a big one for me – the first since I came back from Botswana. The first since I broke my leg and foot there. It’s been cancelled because of coronavirus, but there’s a virtual option and I’m taking it. I’ll miss the energy and camaraderie of that weekend, but I run for me.
Running has gotten me out of the house nearly every day during these strange times we’re living in. Lacing up my shoes, even when I don’t want to, is one of the few things I can control. I’m slow, and awkward, and it’s downright ugly sometimes. I hate it sometimes. But I can’t imagine not running.
* * *
Yesterday I did a nine mile training run. I worry about a lot of things when I’m running: cars, bears (because, Montana), injuries. But I have never, ever worried that I would be targeted, tracked, and killed by men with a shotgun in my own town. I spent some of those miles thinking about Ahmaud Arbery. A fellow runner. A member of the running community. I thought, “someone could throw me in a truck way out here and I’d have to put up a fight, but no one would even notice.” I wondered if that’s what it feels like to run as a black man in America.
The vigilantism and racism is shocking – stupidly shocking given the frequency with which black people are targeted and killed in this country. But I’m still shocked, and shaken, I think because his daily jog reminds me of my own. Ahmaud wanted to run. He wanted to be fit. He wanted to get some exercise outside, in his own town. I do the same thing. Every. Single. Day.
If #runningwhileblack is not a crime, then those of us #runningwhilewhite ought to take a deep long look at our privilege. I don’t think very many of us in this mountain town worry overmuch about our safety when we hit the roads and trails in our community (even when I do worry, it’s more hypothetical than anything). I’d put money down on the fact that no one worries about being targeted and shot.
In honor of Ahmaud’s birthday (he would have been 26), runners all over the world are running 2.23 miles in solidarity. That 2.23, an odd distance, commemorates February 23 – the day Ahmaud was killed.
I emailed my local running store and asked if they would send out a notice about this virtual event. I hadn’t heard a word of it until a friend emailed me an article from Runner’s World (Ahmaud’s is the only black face on a very, very white website). They got back immediately and said they were already on it. An Instagram story appeared a few hours later.
I emailed my local running club with the same request. I’m a member; a volunteer. I love our club races and challenges. They do tremendous work in this community.
They wrote back and said given the upheaval over this week’s change of the marathon from a physical to a virtual event, they didn’t have the bandwidth to post. I wrote back saying that it was an awfully easy gesture and an important one, given what is going on in this country. It would have taken seconds to post. Nothing appeared.
So, for the first time in my life as a runner, I’m quitting. I’ve never walked away from a race. I make it a point of pride, dignity, and determination to make it to the finish line. I owe it to myself. But I’m deeply hurt by the decision of my running club, and I have to step away from that community, at least for a while. No more club races for me. No more volunteering.
It makes me sad. Really, really sad. And in some ways it seems like cutting my nose off to spite my face. But I have to do something and, in the face of such monstrous racism in this country, white silence is white complicity (if anyone knows who should get credit for that, let me know).
I was working on the Seven Races for a Goodie challenge – run seven club races, get a prize. I still wear the hoodie I got the first year I completed the challenge. I think what I’ll do is donate the money I would have spent on the races I have left to register for racial justice and equity projects instead. It’s barely a drop in the bucket, but it’s my stance against silence.
I love this club, but I’m calling it out, because the truth is, they could have posted. And in truth, as a white runner I have an obligation to call them out. It would have taken nothing to post about the run. It would have taken less time than it took for Ahmaud to be killed. Hell, I tagged them in my post, which they could have reposted. This is a matter of lack of will, not lack of time.
Ahmaud Arbery was a runner. He was one of us. We owe his death, and the safety of other black runners, attention. Because every time we lace up and hit the road here in Missoula, black runners have to think twice about doing the exact same thing.