Running While Black: An Excerpt from the New Book by Alison Mariella Désir

Alison Mariella Desir stands, smiling with a group of friends wearing Brooks running gear

Alison Mariella Désir is a runner, founder, activist, mother and advocate for racial justice in the running community. More recently, she’s an author who has taken her personal experiences in the running community and channeled them into her new book, “Running While Black.”

“Running While Black” examines the ways in which the sport of running excludes runners of color, and what we can do to change that. Désir, who fell in love with running during a rough patch in life, has led the charge toward racial diversity and inclusion in a number of ways. One of the first was to create Harlem Run, a New York running group that makes space for Black runners in a predominantly white sport.

The following excerpt describes Désir’s experience of finally seeing Harlem Run become the Black running space she had dreamed of, after months of struggle to bring it to life.

Alison Mariella Desir kneels on the ground, smiling, wearing a blue running top

Harlem Run grew steadily over the next six months—70 people, then 100.

I added pace-group leaders to share the responsibility of both leading the runs and creating an inclusive culture, what we would eventually call the Harlem Run Way. One night, 150 people came. It was unbelievable, but we were ready. We’d mapped out the routes, had the leaders and logistics in place, and had mentally prepared for the energy necessary to manage and motivate such a crowd.

That night, it seemed to me, we set the world on fire. We ran the Classic and made a cheer tunnel for folks as they made their way back to home base. It felt like the high fives were endless as the last runners and walkers made their way back.

After that, every Monday night felt like a special event, a reunion. For a brief moment at 6:45 p.m., I would worry that no one would show. Then, suddenly, people would be coming from every direction and the space would be filled with predominantly Black and brown runners, people with large bodies and small ones, older adults as well as parents with jogging strollers and school-aged kids. People were talking to each other and greeting each other, and the magnitude of what I created hit me. I thought:

I have created a space where Black people feel comfortable, a place people want to come to, a place where people are forming connections and friendships. A Black space, a place for us. These runners would never have to wonder if running was for them because we’d created a space that was.

An image of the Running While Black book jacket. A Black background with a Black runner's legs pushing off from the ground wearing white shoes

After the group assembled, we were off, moving through the neighborhood. The pace leaders pointed out the history. That’s where Malcom X spoke. That’s where Louis Armstrong played. That’s where Langston Hughes lived. Sometimes, we’d have scavenger hunt runs where runners stopped at historic places and took a photo: You and the bronze bust of MLK Jr. You and the abolitionist Frederick Douglass. You and the towering figure of Harriet Tubman. Each week we set off into the neighborhood. Everywhere we went, history was alive in the present. There was so much comradery and excitement. It felt like we were doing the most important thing in the world for Black people, in the most important city in the world for Black culture.

And then there was this: No matter where we ran, white places—the West Side Highway, Central Park, the New York City Marathon—became our places, too. With every stride, we were in a community. This was the power of the third space, a sociocultural term used to describe a transformative place where oppressed people plot or find their liberation. A place of unity. A place where folks like me can exhale. A place where we belong.

From the book RUNNING WHILE BLACK by Alison Mariella Désir, published by Portfolio, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2022 by Alison Mariela Désir.

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