"Running While Black" by Alison Mariella Désir is a compelling and timely exploration of the intersection between running, race, and social justice. Désir masterfully weaves together personal narratives, historical perspectives, and contemporary issues to create a powerful narrative that goes beyond the realms of a typical running memoir.
The book delves into the historical significance of running as a form of resistance and empowerment for Black individuals. Désir skillfully traces the roots of this connection by including stories of influential Black runners in her story. For example, Ted “The Father of Long-Distance Running” Corbitt and co-founder of the New York Road Runner’s is one runner discussed. Another runner we read about is Wyomia Tyus who was the first Olympic Athlete (male or female) to retain the Olympic title in the 100-meter dash. As a Black female athlete, Tyus was also an activist in addition to her Track & Field accolades. Additionally, Marilyn Bevans, the first Black female runner to both win a marathon and break 3-hours for the distance is discussed. For many of these Black athletes, running became not only a symbol of endurance but also a form of defiance against the racial and social injustices they faced. By bringing these stories together, Désir sheds light on the often-overlooked contributions of Black runners to the broader struggle for equality.
Désir's personal journey as a runner is also covered. Désir’s notion that all runners are simply thin white people is challenged when she learns that her friend, who is a 200-lb black man, is training for his first marathon. This provides Désir with the motivation needed to sign up for her first marathon, which serves to help her breakthrough a persistent bout of depression. Désir not only runs her first marathon, but like many in this club, is hooked on running after this achievement. Désir also shares her own experiences navigating the predominantly white spaces of the running community, highlighting the challenges and triumphs of being a Black woman in this world. Her vulnerability invites readers to empathize with her journey and reflect on their own perspectives.
This book is not just for running enthusiasts; it's a read for anyone interested in understanding the complexities of race and athleticism in America. "Running While Black" serves as a call to action, challenging readers to confront systemic issues within the running community and society at large. By exploring the historical and social dimensions of running, Désir encourages readers to consider the broader implications of their actions and to contribute to a more inclusive and equitable future. Since picking up running, Désir has been active on multiple fronts. In addition to writing about the historical significance of Black athletes in the sport of running, Désir co-founded the nonprofit Running Industry Diversity Coalition in the summer of 2020. Through both this non-profit and her book, Désir advocates for ways to make the sport of running more inclusive.
In essence, "Running While Black" is a thought-provoking and impactful book that bridges the gap between personal narrative and historical analysis. It invites readers to engage in important conversations about race, privilege, and activism while celebrating the resilience and power of Black runners throughout history.
Tom O'Grady is a runner, coach, and public health professional. In addition to being the new Editor of The Pace Setter, Tom also writes book reviews and covers a variety of topic areas in The Pace Setter.