Health + Wellness

Black Running Group Want Others to Follow in Their Healthy Footsteps

D. L. Dean runs a race in 2019. (Photo courtesy of D. L. Dean)

No matter how you look at them, Janita Poe and D. L. Dean are standout long-distance runners.

Poe, 58, of Atlanta, estimates she’s completed 17 half-marathons, three full marathons, four half Ironman triathlons and one full Ironman. Dean, 52, of Marshalltown, Iowa, has done eight marathons, plus more than 350 half-marathons.

They also stand out because they are Black participants in an overwhelmingly white sport. That is why both also have found purpose in Black running clubs that help them spread the word about how running keeps them physically and mentally healthy.

“When I’m out there, I don’t care what anybody says,” says Poe, a member of South Fulton Running Partners, which was one of the nation’s first Black running clubs when it started in 1979. In running, “I’m doing something really good for my body. I’m out here with nature. There’s no better thing that I could do.”

The benefits of running

Running’s health benefits are clear. A 2017 review in the journal Progress in Cardiovascular Diseases found runners may have at least a 30% lower risk of death from all causes compared to non-runners and at least a 45% reduced risk of death from cardiovascular disease. (Any regular physical activity, even walking, can benefit health. Federal guidelines recommend adults get at least 150 minutes a week of moderate-intensity aerobic activity or at least 75 minutes a week of vigorous aerobic activity, or a combination of both.)

Data shows Black people in the U.S. have disproportionate levels of obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure, which could be helped through physical activity such as running. But surveys, and a glance at the crowd in many big races, show Black runners are relatively rare.

RELATED: Runner Diagnosed With Heart Failure: “Running is one of my medications.”

A lack of representation

What’s behind the gap? For Poe, it starts with the lack of role models.

“You don’t see us,” she says. And when you don’t see Black people participating in running, “it’s almost like the message is, ‘It’s for white people.’” Recreational running has a long history of being marketed just that way.

Another barrier, Dean says, is that Black men were stereotyped as sprinters, not distance runners. “The truth of the matter is, it wasn’t really introduced to us,” says Dean, captain of the Central Iowa chapter of Black Men Run, a national organization that encourages Black men to run for the sake of their health.

A lack of safe neighborhoods

Researchers say a lack of safe neighborhoods or sidewalks can be a barrier to exercise for some Black people. And the 2020 murder of Black runner Ahmaud Arbery drew national attention to the dangerous realities of racism. That same year, a survey of runners by the trade group Running USA found 39% of Black runners have safety concerns related to systemic racism, compared with 2% of white runners.

Distance events sometimes involve isolated country roads, and Poe and Dean each have received clear messages of, “You don’t belong here.” In rural Georgia, Poe has seen Confederate flags flying as she went to pick up a race packet. During a triathlon, a pickup truck once

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