Why Are U.S. Black Distance Runners So Rare?

And how overcoming obstacles could have a huge impact

The Active Pursuit/Tony Reed and the NBMA

Seventy-five members of the National Black Marathoners Association gathered and encouraged each other in Madison.

Among the materials on my desk is a brochure from the Road Runners Club of America, with a cover photograph of runners waving at the start line of a race.

I’ve studied it and searched the mass of faces, and see only one that appears to be black.

The photo and statistics confirm my perception built over 20 years: African Americans are a super minority in U.S. distance running.

Why that is has been a question I considered often but only recently explored, thanks to the National Black Marathoners Association and its participation in the recent Madison Marathon. Seventy members ran on Sunday, and another five in the 10K on Saturday, as part of their annual gathering.

With that number, blacks represented roughly 2 percent of the field—a miniscule percentage, but still twice the norm, based on rough estimates from the NBMA.

A national runner survey conducted by Running USA puts the share of black runners at 1.2 percent.

Tony Reed, the association’s executive director, knows what it’s like to be not just the lonely black runner in a marathon, but the only one. Like me, he wondered why the sport dominated by Africans remains so foreign to millions of blacks in America.

“We believe there are a number of reasons,” Reed shared in an interview prior to the Madison race. “One of them is that distance running and endurance sports aren’t considered the glamour events in the black community.

“Cross-country running in high school does not get as much media attention as football and basketball.

“Even in track and field, something over 800 meters doesn’t get a lot of attention. Our youth don’t see it as normal for us to participate in. Really, it’s a lack of exposure in general.”

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