Lacking Diversity… and How to Change That

Most of the best friends I have in this world are trail runners. I, of course, know a lot of great people who are not trail runners, but when I meet people who are a part of the trail running community, they are almost always people who are enjoyable to be around. I think it’s easy to feel this way about any community that we ourselves have chosen to be such an active part of, but I also think that running in the mountains helps to nurture a happy, healthy, and compassionate personality.

All of this said, I do think there is something lacking in the trail running culture: diversity. Specifically financial and ethnic diversity. Next time you’re at a race look around. Yes, there are a lot of middle and upper middle class white people in this country, but not to the tune of the 90%+ that the demographic at a trail race might indicate. I know there are a lot of lower income trail runners out there, but most of these are people that are choosing to work very little, or work very flexible jobs so that they can focus more on their running. i.e., the “run bums.” Sometimes it might seem like these types are higher in numbers than they really are because with all this focus on running they tend to make up a large percentage of the runners who regularly place near the front of the pack. When you really look closely though, there just aren’t that many non-white and/or lower economic class individuals taking part in this sport.

It’s easy to say that this is just the way it is, and that there are thousands of interests in this world which seem for one reason or another to be class or race dominated. To some extent, I think this is true. The modern culture of running has always kind of been this way, and maybe it always will be this way. Certainly, I don’t think that any of this is a result of any kind of intentional exclusion or discrimination. I do however feel that this dynamic is unfortunate.

As I said above, I think running is an activity that tends to nurture happiness, health, and compassion (among other things). I also think that running is a very accessible activity. Almost every person on this planet knows how to run. It is something that our species has done with regularity for thousands of years, and it is something nearly everyone does extensively as a child. The other thing about running is that it is essentially the most affordable athletic activity one can take part in. Nearly everyone already owns everything they would need to go out for a run.

For these reasons, I feel like it’s unfortunate that running has such an homogenized culture. I think most people who run regularly are better people because of it, and I wish this were something that was regularly practiced by a larger variety of people. Not to say that I think running is necessary to become a better person, but just that those who do become passionately involved in running seem to benefit from that involvement, and it would be great to see more diversity among these people. I think we could all learn a lot if this were the case.

What can be done then to encourage people outside of the normal demographic to consider giving it a try? Probably all we really can do is to encourage and support people who might not come across as the type who would ever be interested in running themselves. I have done this by accident a couple times recently, and was really encouraged by the way they responded. I even had a women who likely hasn’t run in decades ask me if I thought it would be okay for her to run even though she smokes. Jokingly, I told her that if she takes up running she could use it as an excuse to smoke even more. Hopefully she didn’t take me too seriously, but maybe seriously enough that she decides to go out for a run soon.

Typically, I don’t like talking to strangers about my running, especially if they don’t look like the “running type.” Lately though, I’ve found myself more interested in the “non running type,” because what I think the running community could use more than anything are a whole lot more “non-runners.” If you get a chance, help me spread the word. In the end, we might see this really great community evolve into an even greater, more diverse community, something which I think we would all benefit from.

There are 98 comments

  1. Abran

    Unfortuantely groups of people are only going to do things their peers are doing.This applies to areas beyond race and financial background. Hockey's not that big in the south (relative to Cananda), and some towns have very few actual trail running groups relative to road runners. Why, it's not what everyone else is doing. Applying the theme to race, you can see why groups like "Black Girl's on the Run" have taken off. But…the same can be said about the majority as well. How often do we see Marshall Mathers, Robin Thicke or the Beastie Boys (Vanilla Ice?) choosing hip-hop or R&B over alternative or rock music. Ask yourself, outside of work or volunteering, how often do you voluntarily hang out with groups of people from a different ethnic or financial background? Until groups of hispanics, african americans ( or whomever) start doing certain activities, expect to only see those minorities who grew up being the only "other" race in school, church, the neighborhood or college. Also, if you take the percentages of races across america, and apply their same proportions to the 0.01% of people who've run an ultra, I think today's makeup in the ultra scene is probably accurate.

  2. LONELEY TRAILRUNNER

    I have a white mother and cape verdian father(black) and also love running in the woods.Its tough to break into things like running groups and other cliques.I played hockey as a kid I lived next to a cranberry bog that used to get frozen every winter.But as a kid clueless too the facts watching my father sitting alone watching me play hockey was a very sad site.My mother didnt ever come to games(alcholic) and wasnt with my father.Had friends who played hockey but never really felt like them.Later on in life after drugs/alchol/jail/rehab and all kinds of other stuff took up golfing became quite good but there was always me the outsider looking in.After marriage and kids and over 15 yrs of sobriety decided to make my family the first priority.So worked stopped golfing and gained tons of weight thats were cycling and running came in.To inspire my kids told them i would lose weight and climb a mountain on my bike(mt washington)whoops.Then that lead to running in the woods thinking about doing one of the vermont trail runs.I think I had a point oh yeah.All the things I mentioned hockey/jail/rehab/golf/cycling even playing in a rock band as a kid I could always be ready for the racial slurs and hatred to come out whether it was taught by there parents or they just didnt like a way certain people acted.Way to many stories to tell or the uncomfortable silence of me telling a person I thought could be a friend that I was black.It sucks.Im sure alot of you have been around those people where everybodys laughing and its said not realizing the pain words can carry.Well really I think I found trailrunning because alone is were Im most comfortable.In the middle of runs Ill be so happy and crying trying to figure out how I can be the best person I can be and cant not let others bring me down.I used to live by the motto(u either take or be taken) now its (good things happen to good people).Im Rambling.Maybe ill try a trail race and could sit down just one time and feel comfortable and not have to worry about when its coming maybe the world can change……….lets hope

    LONELY TRAIL RUNNER

    MASSACHUSETTS

  3. Step Up

    GR,

    It would be exciting to see you take this one step further and offer subsidized spots in your running camps. I will put my money where my mouth is and offer to donate $100 to the first "scholarship" recipient. Contact Bryon for my contact information if you'd like to take me up on the offer.

  4. Seamus Foy

    Great article, Geoff!

    I work in an urban school in Boston, and I take kids on field trips to a local reservation. We do a challenging 5 mile hike (Ben Nephew owns the FKT on this trail; the fact that he'd bother proves it is legit terrain).

    Almost every kid loves it! Last year, there were some guys who were fit enough to run a good amount. We had a great day, running technical trails and even doing some fast scrambling. They still talk about it now! I am trying to get kids to do XC, but there is only one team for the whole city, and they have to travel so far to train on any kind of terrain.

    My Peruvian wife just ran her first ultra, so that's a start. There are ultras popping up down there, too, and trail races are becoming more popular. There is some serious running talent in the Andes, people who live at 4000 meters. I hope the expansion of the sport heads to S. America. There is so much rugged natural beauty that would be ideal for ultrarunning.

  5. Diesel

    Interesting topic, thanks for bringing it to the front burner. There are many interests and activities in life that are non-diverse like bocci, classical music and sushi. And that's just fine. Folks tend opt in to do what they like – are drawn to. Indeed access and/or cost can be a mitigating factor, but in the case of running, the barrier to both these hurtles is pretty darn low. I believe those that choose to run, do so out of interest, or lack thereof. That said, we have a trail running club in New England, the Trail Animals, that thrives on the concept of being a welcoming community that encourages people from all walks of life, with varying skills and very diverse interests, to join, share, enjoy. How? Entry fees (zero), race fees (~$20) and community (volunteerism and give most fees back to help preserve and maintain trails). We subscribe to the K.I.S.S. principle (Keep It Simple Stupid!) so that whether it's our social network (Facebook) or organizing training runs or holding over 10 races a year, we can get as many members involved as possible with the least amount of drama or hassle. This has led to a VERY diverse membership over 1,500 strong. And they have in common is they all run like a TRAIL animal ;-)

  6. Marcus

    There are more than enough non-runners to talk to- you can find them at McDonald's and behind the wheel of diesel dualie trucks. You can also recognize them when they shout from the vehicle's window in the direction of those who are running and, they typically shout pejorative epithets.

  7. keyalus

    I am a black female ultrarunner. Even though I live in Atlanta, I can typically count on half of one hand the number of other black people I see at trail races. I was VERY intimidated initially. Not only because I was the only black person, but I was surrounded by mostly men and also people who way out-distanced me at running. I'm glad I stuck with it though because our local community is great and I've made so many friends that I kind of forget that I'm the only black girl. We all just become runners gutting it out on the trails.

    I would still love to see some more diversity in this sport. I sometimes run with a huge group of women called "Black Girls Run!" This group is doing awesome things encouraging black women to run period. I hope to one day lead a weekly run for them that will explore local trails. I think exposing people to trailrunning will help. I know that I just fell in love with trails and wanted to do bigger things.

  8. Dave

    Hmm… the friends I run with are all over the spectrum. 50/50 in terms of men/women. 2 have incomes below the poverty line. One other is about middle income. A couple are reasonably affluent. Most, I'm not sure. One works as a social worker, one is a personal trainer at a gym, one is a successful lawyer, one has her own business. Certainly diverse in terms of gender, income, type of work. So.. I don't see what Geoff sees.

    I will concede that we are all white. There used to be a black guy (and to the woman who posted right before me – I am SOOOO glad she said "black" and not African-American – my friend is from Haiti – and "African American" really gets his blood boiling) but he moved to a warmer climate. We do have a guy who is Hispanic now that I think about it (didn't come to mind at first; because I think of people as runners – not as a member of a particular race).

    Anyway… maybe Geoff's right in general – but definitely not with the ragtag group I run with.

  9. Tony Covarrubias

    When you say diverse, I'm guessing you mean American blacks for the most part. I would guess that there are not a lot of blacks in our sport because in this country they gravitate (or are pushed, goaded, peer-pressured) into other sports.

    If we are talking about trail running (as opposed to trail ultras in particular) I imagine this is a more diverse crowd. Personally, I'm not fond of trail running (I love the road) but fell into it because you have to run trails in order to run 100 milers (mostly).

    Anyway, I don't imagine you will see more blacks in ultra running any time soon. To be quite frank, it's not in their culture (again, I'm speaking of American blacks and only of what I have seen, experienced, etc., I don't have facts to point to). To that end, I am not aware of too many American browns (hispanics) in the sport either.

    Being one of the American browns (mexican) in ultra running, one would think I could speak to that culture. However, I was not brought up in that culture. I was brought up in a white (mother only) poverty level home; as well as in some white, middle class foster homes as a teen. I started running because I was too short/small to do anything else in high school (4'-10", 82 lbs). Found out I could run a marathon on no training and was hooked – that was back in 1976.

    I guess I was "lucky" that I fell into this sport. I really think that it takes a certain type of person to run and enjoy long distances – and I mean personality type not race. I mostly don't talk about running outside of running groups because people either dilute or make fun of my running ("why would you do that") or make too much of a fuss ("wow, you're incredible") – which is just embarrassing.

    If I find someone who is interested in talking about running, I will chime up. Running is my favorite thing to talk about. Computer technology (mostly databases) is a close second. Talk about a diversity – a lack thereof that is. Here class, race and gender diversity is limited.

    See you at the ITI Geoff!

  10. Tony Covarrubias

    Bobby, "just run," is my advice. You will have the BS no matter where you go or what you do. Sorry you weren't made to feel welcome … sometimes ultra running is lonely. But stick to what you love. I love it and no one and nothing will deter me from runing. I've competed in ultras since 1998 (marathons since 1976) and let my love for the sport live on my face (I tend to smile a lot while running). I think the smile invites people to smile back cause I get a lot in return.

  11. Tony Covarrubias

    Interesting and good to note. I used to say, "running is a cheap sport," cause it was when I started running (mid-70s). I would buy a $5 pair of no name shoes and run in them until they fell apart. Bought my own shoes with money I earned from my paper route so $5 was a lot of money to me. My first marathon back in 1976 cost $3 and I remember complaining to my friends saying, "what do they need to money for, all I get is water?" (I was only 15 so I didn't understand/know about the cost that goes into a race).

    Gear is rediculous these days. Even so, you don't have to buy all the gear that people do. Just sayin'. For example, GU – make your own.

  12. Tony Covarrubias

    Agreed Bryon. Table salt, regular food, cheap (inexpensive) shoes, shorts that will last for many years, put on a FA style race … money doesn't have to be the reason. I pay too much for races now (and there are some, like BW, that I refuse to pay entry for), but I now can aford it – and it's my only hobby.

  13. Tony Covarrubias

    Merrie, I think the "pioneers" have to come from within the culture. Not sure how old your son is but I can imagine a child watching what all the other kids are doing … why would he want to go running?

  14. Tony Covarrubias

    Wayne, most of the best ultra runners from history (late 1800s, early 1900s) were the type you describe. Not the "8 hours on my feet" type but farmers, ranchers, etc. I think they were better because they were stronger. My hypothesis is that I have to work harder because I'm on my butt more than 8 hours a day. One of the toughest things to do from an office worker's perspective is to go exercise after coming home – which is why I either run during lunch or head out for a run BEFORE heading home. If you sit on your butt in front of the TV, it's all over.

  15. Tony Covarrubias

    YES – This is very cool. I just wish Anchorage had more ultras (50Ks and such) and on the road. Guess I'm gonna have to put on some FA style races next summer. BTW: just got back from a run with my wife … now it's snowing (Oct 13th). It's gonna be a long winter.

  16. Marco

    I've been looking at thread for awhile. It's difficult to comment without getting political. I'll try not too.

    I'm not for diversity, but I'm for whichever people will love the sport, clean the trails, teach and recruit, take the initiative to cut trail, chainsaw blow downs, etc.

    I'm colorblind. I'm non-white but that means more to some others than it does to me. I'm more interested in character and worldview; another biggie for me is work ethic. See you on the trails.

  17. Kimmy Swain

    Thanks for the great articles. The name is Kimmy Swain i am here in Austin Texas looking to run until the day i die. 7863870767

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