We runners often like to think that our community is free and open to all, but a quick glance around the starting pen of any city race will quickly tell you just how diverse it really is. Sabrina Pace-Humphreys, co-founder of Black Trail Runners, sets out the scale of the challenge.

Running is simple: all you have to do is sling on a pair of trainers and head out – putting one foot in front of the other. On paper, it’s the most accessible, cheapest sport going. But anyone who’s ever actually tried running on a semi-regular basis knows that you need good shoes, have access to weights or a pilates course and own kit that doesn’t make you feel vulnerable.

Now, with a little upfront cash, you can tick off all of those things and jog on. But there’s one crucial factor that many of us non-white folk need in order to join the running community: seeing other Black and brown people recreationally running. And that isn’t really happening.

Sure, Dina Asher-Smith and Eliud Kipchoge might be out there setting British and world records respectively, but the amateur scene looks rather different. As a long-time runner with umpteen races under my belt, I’ve long been aware that my enclave of east London isn’t representative of the wider running community. Turn up to the start line of a marathon, your local Parkrun or a Run Through event and non-white faces are overwhelmingly in the minority.  

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In fact, it wasn’t until I went to a trail race organised by Dora Atim, the legendary founder of Ultra Black Running, that I realised just how rare it is to see Black folk running en masse.

Running in the UK is overwhelmingly white. And it can’t just be a financial thing: even at free running events such as Parkrun, marginalised communities seem to be underrepresented. So, what’s going on?

Where are all the Black runners?

“Parkrun does have a problem with diversity,” says Sabrina Pace-Humphreys, the co-founder of Black Trail Runners and author of Black Sheep: A Story Of Rural Racism, Identity And Hope, “and surely they know it. Whenever you go to Parkrun that’s held in a location with a large ethnic (or what we like to call the ‘global majority’) community, you don’t see that community properly represented on a Saturday morning.”

“My question would be: are people at the senior decision making level consulting with community leaders to work out the reasons why Parkrun isn’t attracting people from Black and brown communities? If they are, then why isn’t decisive action being taken to address inequalities? Why is the lack of representation not seen as a massive problem that resources need to be aimed at?

“Do those in power see it as a problem that needs to be addressed? And if so, how?”

Of course, in recent years, representation across marketing as a whole has improved. When it comes to sports brands, however, that’s simply not enough. “What we know, with Black Trail Runners, is that [representation] is about so much more than appearing in a marketing campaign. You can’t just stick a Black and brown people in a photo and think that that’s going to drive a load of Black and brown people to follow you or buy your products or services.

“The work needs to start at the grassroots level. And if you don’t have representatives of that community involved in the decision making process, then you’re fighting a losing battle because you will never understand what stops communities participating.”

Plenty of Black elite athletes exist… so why isn’t there any trickle-down?

Given how prolific Black athletes are on the international stage, you might be wondering why there’s such a disconnect between the elite and amateur scenes. “People say to me, ‘How can you say that road running has a problem with diversity? Look at the stars of the London Marathon!’ What you’re telling me there is that, as a person of colour, I have to be an elite to see myself represented,” says Pace-Humphries. “What about the 44-year-old mums and grannies like me who are just trying to be the best version of themselves?”

At the Manchester Marathon earlier this year, Pace-Humphreys stood warming up in the 3:45 pen. “I looked around me in the pen and there was not one Black or brown person that I could identify. Not one.

“A friend of mine, another community leader, was in a road race and she said that when she looked at the race photos, it lookedlike she was being chased by white people.”

She says that when people point to Mo Farah and Brigid Kosegei, they’re affirming what lots of us have been told throughout our lives: that we have to be the best. While the ethnic majority in this country get away with enjoying doing the bare minimum or working to the best of their abilities, Black folk are expected to win marathons. 

Running isn’t immune to wider racial issues

One thing many of us runners suffer from is the idea that our community is immune to the socio-political shitshow going on elsewhere. I tend to assume that anyone involved in long-distance running is automatically liberal, antiracist and pro-LGBTQ+. But it was after seeing the comments on an article on antiracism, published on a well-known running platform, that I realised just how naïve that idea is. 

Pace-Humphreys explains: “Running is a microcosm of a shared experience; it’s mostly people living with white privilege who say it’s for everyone and that all you need is a pair of trainers. They believe it so strongly that they can’t imagine there being any barriers.”

She gives me an example of another friend and community group leader who attended his local Parkrun every week when it resumed after Covid restrictions ended. One meet, a white volunteer followed him and demanded to know what ‘his people’ in ‘his’ community were doing “in order to keep the rest of us safe”. “There had been an article in the press about the spread of Covid within the Black community and how, you know, we weren’t getting vaccinated. My friend, a Black man, just wanted to run and participate in a community event but here he was being accosted by a middle class white volunteer who wanted him to justify why the Black community was putting white people at risk.”

George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbury and the fallout from BLM

We’re now two years on from George Floyd and from the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, the 25-year-old runner from Georgia who was shot dead while out on a run. While the former sparked revolution around the global north, it was the latter incident that sent ripples through the running community. For people like me with Black fathers, cousins and friends who run, Arbery’s death was painful on a whole different level. But how much has actually changed within the running community since that awful day in August 2020? Not much, argues Pace-Humphreys.

“I received an email yesterday from a massive corporate brand who wanted me to write a 1,100 word piece about my personal story and the Black Trail Runners community. When I asked what the fee would be for my time, they came back offering me a link. A link to a website of my choice. I went back and I said, I’m a self-employed woman – your link doesn’t pay my mortgage. Asking people of colour to work for you for free is not OK.

“I’m all about having uncomfortable conversations as I really believe they can lead to lightbulb moments and, if people want it, change. But many people don’t want to have those conversations (about race) anymore.”

Black Trail Runners: a new frontier in genuine representation

In 2009, following a bout of post-natal depression, Pace-Humphreys’ GP suggested she try running. Fast forward a decade, and she was in the Alps training to take part in one of the mountain races at UTMB (as you do!).It was at a practice race, navigating tricky turns, ridiculous elevation and uneven paving, that she slipped and ended up hanging on to the cliff edge for dear life.

“I really thought I was going to die,” she says. Over the course of 10 minutes (which must have felt like half a lifetime), no fewer than five white men ran past her as she screamed for help. Eventually, an Italian runner came to her rescue.

“It really messed with me; I realised that running (in these environments) isn’t safe for me. Why did nobody try to help me?” She wonders if she’d looked more like those men’s family members – if she been blonde and blue eyed – whether she’d have received help quicker. “My lived experience told me yes, because I’ve constantly had to be the best and work harder. I’ve not received the help other people have been given.”

What followed was six months of feeling scared to go out and run, knowing that no one would come to her aid again if she fell or got hurt. “And then Aubrey was murdered while he went on a run, and that sent ripples through the running community, especially within the Black running community. This guy was out doing what we do. And that was the first moment I started to see more conversations online around what it was to be a person of colour who runs.

“Every time we put our trainers on, it brought out fear and joy. I started to ask why it was, when I’m on the start line of a trail race, that I don’t see anyone that looks like me.” And it was around this time that Pace-Humphreys came across a podcast with Sonny Peart, chatting about the audit he’d just done on how people of colour were being represented by major sporting brands and trying to gain access to data on ethnicity when registering for races.

Black Trail Runners launched in June 2020 and today they run trail running workshops, social runs, challenges, virtual 5Ks and offer members kit loan and race grants amongst many other initiatives aimed at addressing the barriers that exist for Black people in trail running. In May 2023, they will hold what is due to be the UKs most diverse trail running event – Black to the Trails.

A UK charity with hundreds of active members, they also have thousands of members globally on Strava and on Instagram. “It’s snowballed since launch. It was needed. We are the only community and campaigning charity that’s focused on increasing participation, inclusion and representation of Black people in trail running. Everything we do is about addressing the barriers that we know exist and doing the work on the ground to make that happen.”

How to get involved with Black Trail Runners

Join Black Trail Runners

If you’re interested in trail running, then BTR is open to all people of colour and white allies. You can join here, and by signing up for the group on Facebook, Instagram and/or Strava, you’ll be able to see what events and challenges are coming up.

Be an outspoken ally

The next time you attend a running event, be that a small weekly 5K or a big old city race, have a look around you and see how many non-white faces you see. If you don’t see any, you can make a difference by speaking or writing to the course directors or talking to the volunteers about increasing participation. It’s not on us to force our communities to attend these events, but if the people in charge know that Black, brown, mixed, and white runners are aware that they’re failing to diversify, we might just see change.

Sabrina’s first book, Black Sheep: A Story of Rural Racism, Identity and Hope, is on sale now. 

We reached out to Parkrun for comment, but at the time of publication we’re yet to receive a response.

Images: Black Trail Runners/Getty

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