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Running for Justice

A collage of runners from the civil rights race series
Longtime friends work together to inspire walkers, runners and cyclists to live healthier lives and create change

Raynard Lawler, originally from Talladega, AL, who now resides in Anniston, AL, and Vergil Chames, of Montgomery, AL, have been friends for three decades, ever since attending Alabama State University together in the mid ‘80s.

When Chames joined the army at 17, finished basic training and started his freshman year in college, Lawler had just begun his senior year. The two became friends and were connected in two collegiate organizations.

After graduation, as Lawler dove into his career and family life, he slipped into a sedentary lifestyle, a stark contrast to his active youth. After a pretty major health scare in 2008 (Lawler thought he was having a heart attack), he vowed to make a change. So, he started running.

“I started with mostly walking and a little bit of jogging to get my pace and breathing in sync,” says Lawler. He worked his way up to two miles of running, and then signed up for a 5K in 2008, which led him to a half marathon and then a full marathon.

It was after the half marathon, though, that Lawler really got serious about training, cross training and nutrition.

“I signed up for Zumba, Step Aerobics and other classes at the gym with a friend, Mary Gooden. After those classes, I went running around a graveyard right behind the gym,” says Lawler. “Some ladies from the gym saw me running every day, and they asked if I could teach them how to run.”

Lawler chuckles a bit at the memory. “I wasn't a qualified instructor,” he says. “So I said, ‘Just join me.’”

Runners in red shirts gather together after finishing a race

Soon it was Lawler, Gooden and 20 women running loops around the graveyard and on the Woodstock 5K course. After a few weeks, though, the numbers dwindled. Pretty soon, it was just Lawler, Gooden and a few others.

The more they ran, the more they talked about how they could convince more people to come back out and stay out. Running had transformed Lawler’s life, and he wanted to share it with the world.

“Running changed everything about how I felt physically and mentally,” says Lawler. “And it wasn't about speed; it was about completing the journey.”

He made a running bucket list that included completing several half marathons including the Chicago Marathon, the Marine Corp Marathon and the Boston Marathon.

The Walk Jog Run Club is born

After countless hours running and talking, Gooden and Lawler (along with Patrick Towns, who Lawler met at a local 5K), and the Walk Jog Run Club (WJR Club) was born.

The club’s mission was, and still is, to promote healthy living among a diverse group of people. According to their website, WJR Club “accepts members of all walks of life. [Its] members are dedicated to each other and provide positive support and encouragement.”

Lawler, Gooden and Towns brought in one more member, David Mahaffey, to round out the newly-formed club’s leadership team. At the time, Chames was deployed in Iraq, with no knowledge about the WJR Club, or even that Lawler was spending a lot of his time running.

“When I came home, I noticed that Ray had slimmed down quite considerably,” Chames says. The friends talked about Lawler’s running journey and life transformation. It was enough to entice Chames to join the club as the membership coordinator (membership is free, by the way).

“Our numbers were low in the beginning,” Chames says. He speaks with enthusiasm and passion about their work. “So we really just started thinking about what else we could do to create a unique and valuable experience for our members, for the endurance community as a whole.”

The Civil Rights Race Series was born.

Runners in white jerseys cross a finish line together

50 Miles from Selma to Montogmery

Alabama was a key state during the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 60s. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Civil Rights campaigns kicked off in Alabama. Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat there; the ensuing Montgomery bus boycott took place in Alabama, as did the Freedom Rides and the Selma to Montogmery march, to name just a few.

It was early March in 2018 when the WJR Club decided to put on an event. “One of the most significant events during the Civil Rights movement was the bridge crossing down in Selma,” says Chames. And, in commemoration, tourists were pouring in from around the globe to cross the bridge themselves. So they decided it was the perfect time to put on a relay event that spanned the 50 miles from Selma to Montgomery, too.

“It was baptism by fire,” says Chames, shaking his head and laughing. “We were trying to figure out how to execute a 50-mile road race on a highway, with multiple entry points, multiple drivers, jurisdictions, three counties and five cities.” He pauses, then says, “We didn’t know what we didn’t know.”

But they did it. To their surprise, participants loved it, too. They wanted to come back, and they wanted to bring their friends.

In January of 2019, WJR Club created the Civil Rights Race Series (CRRS). Today, CRRS holds four races, including the Selma to Montgomery relay (which can also be biked). Due to the pandemic, though, it’s unclear which events will be held in person this year or next. For now, registration is open for the “1 Million Miles for Justice” virtual challenge, which kicks off Monday, June 15, 2020 (learn more below).

Runners begin a race together

History and Movement

“Most folks who travel to Civil Rights sites are history buffs. And our diverse community of endurance athletes are not,” says Chames. “We select our sites based on an event, a destination, not a historical landmark.”

By combining endurance sports with history, the club found the perfect way to not only spread awareness about the club and increase participation, but also to provide a tactical education in the modern Civil Rights movement and help to inspire change.

“Based on feedback from participants—of all races and backgrounds—the resounding sentiment was that they had learned something new, something they didn’t know about the Civil Rights Movement,” says Chames.

Lawler picks up on Chames’s train of thought and continues: “People realize that they are not just running to get a medal, they are running to understand history.”

Moving Ahead

And it’s not just about history either. It’s also about the present and the future, too. Perhaps now more than ever, as we sit on the precipice of change. And so, it’s rather fitting that their tagline says their Civil Rights Race series is “a movement inside of a movement.”

“The norm we’ve been accustomed to will be no more,” says Lawler. “The issues within the communities, institutions, governmental policies, they have to change. And people are going to want more from organizations like us moving forward, they’re going to want more from corporate America.”

We’re far from equality in this country, and it’s going to take all of us working together to truly create lasting change.

“The collective is more important than the individual component,” says Chames. “If this community of endurance athletes can create an agenda now, and move forward for social justice and economic inclusion, then we have made a difference.”

One Million Miles for Justice logo

Making a difference now

How can you make a difference now by doing the very thing you already love to do? Sign up for 1 Million Miles for Justice Virtual Walk, Run and Bike Ride #WeAreDoneDying event. This national event is intended to raise money to fight injustices against Black communities. Net profits will be donated to the NAACP.

It’s $25 for up to 25 miles (to be completed in a one-month period between June 15 and July 15). Want to run more? No problem. Simply pledge additional miles for $1 per mile. And if you can’t run, that’s fine. The event accepts walking miles, cycling miles, even indoor exercise machine miles (think stationary bike or elliptical). They just all need to be tracked through the Run Sign Up account you used to register for the event.

By Ashley Arnold. Ashley has been running competitively since 2000. She went from winning the high school 300m hurdle state championship as a sophomore in 2002 to breaking the tape at the Leadville Trail 100 in 2013. Now, her full time role is managing content as the Senior Content Marketing Manger at Fleet Feet.

Register for One Million Miles for Justice

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