NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE ‘R un Forrest, Run!”
When I’m running, that’s about the most annoying thing that happens to me: Some smartass hooligan shouts the famous line from Forrest Gump at me. He usually doesn’t expect me to heckle back, but I almost always do. “Haven’t heard that one before!” is my stock response. It comes so quickly now that it’s a reflex almost as natural as running itself, after training and competing as a serious long-distance runner for half of my life.
Of course, not everyone is as lucky as I am. On February 23, Ahmaud Arbery, a young man about my age, was shot and killed while running in a Georgia neighborhood. Video of his death became public just recently. It sparked widespread outrage, leading to a reinvestigation of the case and the arrests of Gregory and Travis McMichael, the father–son pair responsible. And it has forced many runners to consider their pastime in certain uncomfortable ways. I myself have been in mild peril on runs before. I’ve gotten lost more times than I’d like to admit, even once in another country where I didn’t speak the language. I’ve been chased by many dogs. I’ve crossed into areas I shouldn’t have, sometimes on purpose and sometimes accidentally. But I’ve never truly felt in danger.
In Natalia Mehlman Petrzela’s telling, one of the main reasons for this is that I am white, and Ahmaud Arbery was not. Earlier this week, the New York Times ran an article by Petrzela, a historian and marathon runner, originally headlined “Running Has Always Excluded Black People” (with the first word changed since publication to “Jogging”). It is as advertised. “Free! Easy! Relaxing! That’s how jogging was marketed in the late 1960s, when the idea of heading out on a regular run was unfamiliar to most Americans,” she writes. “But history shows how untrue that is, and how long the sport of running has maintained this fiction.” It is tempting to scoff at Petrzela’s misleading presentation, though some of her assertions do deserve clear rebuttal. What’s sad to me is that she unfairly lumps running into a category including some of society’s very real ills, and ignores its power to bring people together.
Some of Petrzela’s more readily objectionable claims arise from her choice of focus: the American “running boom” that sent millions of casual joggers outdoors for the first time starting in the late 1960s. A different history or focus could yield some striking counterexamples. The most famous of these, almost a cliché now but no less inspiring because of it, would be Jesse Owens’s track triumphs at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. At what was intended as a showcase for Hitler’s racist fiction of Aryan superiority, Owens won four gold medals (three in sprinting events, one in the long jump) and broke three world records. “We destroyed [Hitler’s] master-race theory whenever we [started] winning those gold medals,” said John Woodruff, another African American who won that year’s 800-meter race, in a 1996 interview. It was these athletes’ misfortune, of course, to return to a country still defaulting on its promises to them, and those who followed in their footsteps did not always remain content with symbolic victories in the struggle for civil rights. Three decades later, after finishing first and third for the U.S. in the 1968 Olympics’ 200-meter dash, African Americans Tommie Smith and John Carlos famously raised their hands in protest of American injustice. But their achievements, and the sport in which they earned them, shouldn’t be overshadowed by the imperfections of the society that produced them.
Indeed, at the elite level, it’s only become truer over time that America produces champion runners of all races and ethnic backgrounds. This is no accident, because there are few simpler or more universal human endeavors than running. Christopher McDougall argues in his book Born to Run that mankind evolved a body perfect for running to chase down prey to exhaustion, which then developed our brains in a manner that separated us from our prey as well.
These and other reasons make Petrzela’s decision to focus her history of running on Bill Bowerman and his late-1960s University of Oregon track teams a bit suspect. It is at least somewhat true that recreational running culture in its modern incarnation originated there. But when she gets down to explaining why and how, she begins her unfortunate conflation of running with larger societal defects. Noting that Eugene, Ore. was then very white, she asserts that, in those early days, “joggers were almost uniformly depicted as white” and that jogging eventually became a “yuppie” affectation, despite valiant attempts by black Americans to be included. And, in her view, this disparity manifested both in the form of incidents over the decades that supply approximate precedents to the Aubery case, and in the form of a nagging caution that black Americans have employed while running out of a fear that they might end up somewhere they are not welcome.
It is beyond me to perform an exhaustive analysis of running-based advertising and media from their early decades. But I take her at her word on this, and cannot deny the historical reality of the cases she cites. Even though running has taken me to some places where I have felt threatened, the mere fact of my skin color prevents me from ever fully understanding what “running while black” feels like. Yet the question remains: Need we blame running for the tragic ways in which it has sometimes interfaced with societal racism? The ever-unfolding narrative of American history is the quest to live up to our nation’s ideals. It is unfortunate that running’s public perception has always reflected the national self-perception inherent to that quest. But it is not running’s fault. In fact, the running boom created a new institution, one it was virtually impossible to shut anyone out from entirely. You can, say, keep women out of the Boston Marathon, as that race once did, but you can’t stop them from simply running (or, eventually, from entering the race itself). The face of running is, and always has been, the face of whoever is out there doing it. That the sport has failed to transcend the lingering prejudices of the humans who engage in it is not an indictment of the sport, but of society’s lingering prejudices. Bill Bowerman did not kill Ahmaud Arbery.
Running, at its best, is both a simple and unifying enterprise. Petrzela attempts to discount its proclaimed simplicity. She claims, for example, that one of the reasons black Americans were shut out from it in the first place was that “a white middle class exodus to the suburbs had sapped big cities of a vital tax base,” rendering city neighborhoods unsafe for even a simple jog. But in all other senses — and even, I suspect in this one, if not universally — running’s accessibility reigns supreme. All you need are a pair of shoes — maybe not even that, McDougall argues — and the will to get yourself out the door. It can, and has, been done in a dizzying array of conditions and locations. If it poses a unique socioeconomic barrier to entry, then virtually the entire rest of athletics is a damned enterprise as well.
Don’t believe me? Well, the numbers speak for themselves. Together, cross country and track would be the most popular high-school sport, outranking even football. Separately, track and field (with some non-running events) is the most popular, and cross-country is the sixth-most popular. Petrzela is right that running remains imperfectly representative, to be sure. But it’s telling that when she asserts only 10 percent of self-described frequent runners identify as African American, the data point comes from a Wall Street Journal article noting that running groups and competitions are becoming increasingly diverse. That is a sign of progress, not an indictment of running’s exclusionary tendencies.
Why might running’s popularity be growing? Aside from its sheer accessibility, it is also a powerful unifier. Anyone who has spent time on a cross-country or track team knows how quickly and deeply the miles run, the workouts done, and the races won (or lost) can bring together people of very different backgrounds. Anyone who has melted into a crowd of thousands united for the single purpose of completing the same race, often on behalf of a chosen charitable cause, knows how quickly the things that separate us can vanish. Anyone who has started a run with another person for the first time knows how this simple activity can turn a stranger into a friend. Heck, anyone who has gone for a simple jog down the street, seen another runner across the way, and exchanged a few words or an unspoken gesture knows how running can create a bond between the otherwise completely alien. It is an unsung force for communion, and community, in a country that desperately needs both.
Natalia Mehlman Petrzela is a marathon runner. So I like to think that she has experienced at least some of the sport’s unifying power, even as she proclaims that it offers an “enticing illusion of universalism” but “has never been, and still is far from, an equal-opportunity endeavor.” I fear that her cultural denunciation of one of her chosen pastimes may lead her to discount running as a means to bring America closer together, something we desperately need. I do not doubt that she and I both want to live in an America where no runners have to worry about sharing Ahmaud Arbery’s fate when they step out the door for a jog. So do the many runners now dedicating their runs to Arbery’s memory with the hashtag “#irunwithahmaud.” While it is true that Arbery might still be alive today if he had not gone for a run on February 23, running itself did not kill him; individuals caught up in a society of stubborn prejudice did. We may never get to a place where such prejudice disappears entirely. But it is my belief and hope that running can help to point us in the right direction.
Maybe she and I can talk about it on a run sometime.