I’ve always been a runner. A solo runner. The value of a running community never registered with me until I found myself in New York’s East River Park on Sunday, June 14, in the middle of Running to Protest, a movement of runners all wearing white tees and protective masks, hamstrings stretched, ready to show solidarity and action. The organizers expected 40 runners to show up—60 max. I stood in a crowd of 700. Most had come with a partner or knew other members of various running groups from around New York. I was alone. But it didn’t feel that way in a crowd of sneaker-clad individuals preparing to stand up against racial injustice and police brutality in the best way they knew how. This scene, this camaraderie, this call to action answered, was one of the most powerful messages I had seen in the first six weeks of Black Lives Matter protests.
The running community doesn’t care about where you’re from, what you do, your race, religion, or sexual identity. If you lace up, you’re one of them. Miles don’t discriminate. They value the fact that it’s never easy but you do it anyway. As part of a running club and community, we “check on our friends and teammates, not to shame or judge them, but to support them. The same applies to the movement. We need to carry that accountability and support over,” said Running to Protest organizer, Power Malu, before we took off. A running community, a run to protest, is only as powerful as every foot pounding on that concrete. No matter how hard it may be, physically or emotionally, if you’re there, you’re part of something bigger.
We ran in a sea of white tees. I sprinted to relieve frustration, moving to the front to lead the chants. “Show me what community looks like!” I belted through my mask, louder than I thought I could be. “This is what community looks like!” the crowd roared. We took over the park. “Something running can teach us is that we have so much more power than we think we do. We have strength—in our bodies and in our community,” said Power Malu. I had never thought about it that way, but it’s true. We have determination and drive in spades. If we can commit to a marathon, we can commit ourselves with that same fervor to a cause and a movement.
“Something running can teach us is that we have so much more power than we think we do. We have strength—in our bodies and in our community,” — Power Malu, Running to Protest Organizer
At the end of our run, we gathered in the park’s historic amphitheater. A black-owned restaurant handed out coconut and aloe juices as we crossed the finish line. Organizers Coffey and Power Malu led a forum for the crowd; anyone who wanted to speak was welcome. “If running has taught us anything, it has taught us to stay active. You keep moving. You don’t stop!” Dao-Yi Chow of Old Man Run Club preached. The sweaty crowd roared. “Once you stop, you lose progress. You get complacent.” This movement can’t become another hashtag, I thought. Another memory that we recall the next time a black person is murdered. Enough is enough. That’s why we’re here. “The last thing we need is to stop and accept the status quo… We are witnessing history right now. But if you don’t catch the moment right now, you’re never going to get the moment to catch it again. Understand that in 50 years when they look at this time, they can say, ‘Some real change happened during this time.’ That’s only if we stay active,” Chow shouted.
His words made me understand that running is a movement and a metaphor in and of itself. The discipline that running teaches supersedes the track or the confines of a race. It can be the catalyst for change if we harness it and use our (sometimes panting) voices to speak up. The accountability that runners hold each other to in these groups stretches past miles and cold mornings to other aspects of life. The runner mentality of “just keep going” applies to the movement now more than ever. As a community, it’s our responsibility to hold each other to our promise to continue the fight. Protest running means feeding off of each other’s energy to spark something bigger than ourselves. Runners have the power to take back the streets. To take up space. To use strength and movement to peacefully protest and share a message. To quote the recently departed John Lewis, “Do not get lost in a sea of despair. Be hopeful. Be optimistic. Our struggle is not the struggle of a day, a week, a month, or a year, it is the struggle of a lifetime. Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble.”
In the weeks since, I’ve become part of this community. My name isn’t on a sheet. I’m not part of a long email chain or active in a Facebook group, but I go to every protest run I can find and see the same faces each time. We didn’t make this realization alone. This promise to be physically active, to use what we love to keep up the fight, the promise to hold each other accountable and not let the fire die. And so we keep running. Shouting through masked faces. Sweating for what we believe in.
I’ll always be a runner, but I’m definitely not a solo runner anymore.
We were hundreds of runners that day back in June—all ages, races, backgrounds, and experiences—with one intention. “We may be diverse but not divided,” Malu said. “It’s on us to get away from the ego-system and get with this ecosystem.”