Running With The Wicked
A costumed race unmasked
It's one of those crazy costume races held near Halloween. I'm dressed as a vintage pilot, sans leather jacket, but with flying cap, open cockpit goggles, and obligatory white silk scarf. Mindy has gone the kitty-cat route. She's got kitty-cat ears, a kitty-cat tail, and a leopard print skirt because a leopard is a big kitty-cat. We've met up with Meagan and Karen, who have come as Laverne and Shirley. Yes, that Laverne and Shirley, so they've dated themselves, but that's okay, since their costumes feature appropriate matching pink factory jackets with perfect Shotz Beer logos. We're already enjoying younger runners trying to figure out their outfits. It's a spectacular morning and the corrals are packed. The annual zaniness of this run known as “The Wicked” has become an area favorite. Almost 5000 of us have crammed the street in front of our city's Convention Center. Looking around the vast array of costumes with everything from giant monsters, wild animals, fruits, vegetables, cartoon characters and movie stars, I'm struck by a stark fact:
We all the look the same.
I look like them and they look like me. The Abe Lincoln character looks like me. The folks who have somehow made themselves into huge jelly fish, complete with floating tentacles, I look just like them. The dude in the full hot-dog suit looks like me. The three witches, with their weird steam punk and whisk brooms, look like me as well. And I look just like the guy in the James Caan, Rollerball get up. By the way he wears the vintage football helmet, I'd say he's seen the film more than once. And that woman in the black dress and pearls, a gracefully audacious Audrey in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, she looks like me, too. I look like them and they look like me.
We are all white.
I do see runners who aren't white, but not many. This is a popular race in our area, with the costume competition as serious as trying to run 6.2 miles in our masquerades. The crowd is pulled from a wide range of Hampton Roads neighborhoods. Since the region's weather is usually very nice this time of year, a large number of runners have also traveled from out of town, enjoying the race along with a few nights at the beach. The sheer numbers make our whiteness unmistakable.
The reported average household income for participants in the New York City Marathon is 130K. That’s the average. Reliable running sources share the same kind of results for other parts of the US. A Runner’s World subscriber audit revealed their followers held an average household income of 139K, and an average net worth of $943K. But the misguided, racist assumption the running industry keeps repeating is only white people have this money. Black travelers spent almost 110 billion dollars on their adventures last year. Hispanics spent 73 billion dollars. Almost 7% of air travel passengers in the United States are Asian American.
Depending on the source, 75% to 90% of runners are white. The whiteness of running isn't a secret. There's a library of articles on the issue going back decades. The question isn't about whether running is too white, it's about what we, the running community, are going to do about it. As I stand at this starting line with nearly 5000 of my white running friends, it doesn't seem we've done very much. My home is Virginia Beach, Virginia. The city currently has about 500,000 residents, and only around 60% of us are white. My regional area is called Hampton Roads, a nautical term referring to the navigable waters flowing into one of the most important ports to the nation's economy. Hampton Roads currently has around 1.8 million residents, and almost half are, you guessed it, not white. Half. Not. White.
The whiteness surrounding me this morning does not reflect my community at all. Instead, I'm at white person party.
It's a problem running needs to face. This long-known truth is not often shared in the running industry numbers. The industry loves to analyze the wealth of their customer base, splitting runners into male and female, breaking down the favorite type of events, with beautifully color coated graphs sharing the numbers in non color coated ways. Conveniently forgetting to report our whiteness.
The immediate and expected answer is the obviously excluded minorities create running clubs. My area has a growing chapter of the BMR, or Black Men Run. With groups in almost 60 US cities, their success is well needed and long overdue. The clubs are based on separation for safety, so the entrenched racist exclusion built into running isn't changing. And white runners making annual social media posts on the date of Ahmaud Arbery's murder isn't effecting change either. The issue is certainly far from being only about black and white. In the time spent creating this memoir, Asian hate crimes increased 73% in the United States. The number isn't a typo. The time for big players to step up is long overdue. A lot can happen through grassroots movements, but real change will never occur until the mega-company sponsors that enjoy huge profits make the choice to market running to folks who aren't white. Yes, all of the companies have very inclusive language in their media, but are they actually reaching out to runners who aren't white to get them to show up at the races?
I hope race organizers take a hard look at their mailing lists. Not only do we need to be approaching everyone with the expendable income needed to race, but we need to figure out more ways to open the sport to folks who don't have the extra money. This wonderful, joyous celebration of fitness, of health, of good spirit, of community, should be available to all. We’ve been babbling how inexpensive running is for years. Why not, for the first time, make it a reality. This amazing sport needs to be available to all. All colors. All incomes.
And as I run through my beautifully diverse, wonderfully complex, culturally rich community with all my white running friends, it makes me very sad. For I must acknowledge the main reason I have found this sport, this joy, this arena of health so inviting and so accepting is because I look exactly like that dude sprinting past in the superhero underpants.
The above essay is a book excerpt from Running To Zen - A Marathon Journey
Available at Amazon Books.
1. Jennings, Jay., Why Is Running So White? Runners World, Nov 15, 2011, runnersworld.com/runners-stories/.
2. Black Men Running, blackmenrun.com.
3. Statistica, Share of adults in the United States by how often they go on vacation within the U.S. as of January 2017, by ethnicity,Travel, Tourism and hospitality. statista.com/statistics/667508/frequency-us-adults-go-on-a-vacation-by-ethnicity/.
4. Turner, Matt., Black U.S. Leisure Travelers Spent $109.4 Billion in 2019.,Travel Agent Central, Nov 19, 2020, travelagentcentral.com/your-business/stats.
5. Faucett, Richard, What We Know About the Shooting Death of Ahmaud Arbery., The New York Times, Feb 7, 2022, nytimes.com/article/ahmaud-arbery-shooting-georgia.html
6. Venkatraman, Sakshi, Asian hate crimes rose 73% last year, updated FBI data says. NBC News, Oct 25, 2021, nbcnews.com/news/asian-america/anti-asian-hate-crimes-rose-73-last-year-updated-fbi-data-says-rcna3741.
© Copyright William Hazel, 2022