Ferguson, Missouri captured national attention in the violent aftermath of the fatal shooting by police of 18-year old Michael Brown. Dwayne James is a local councilman who is race director of what has become the largest annual 5K/10K event in the St. Louis suburb, the Ferguson Twilight Run which he co-founded in 2010. James answered 15 of our questions about how runners in the city have responded to the recent unrest on its streets, and the role next year's races can play in bridging the city's divides.
The Active Times: How large is the running community in Ferguson and how have local runners responded to the city’s recent unrest?
Dwayne James: The running community in Ferguson continues to grow with each year of the Ferguson Twilight Run. Each year, groups and teams are formed to participate and encourage others to run including the Couch to 5K group and other groups formed at various schools. Some runners have used running as a means to release the stress built up by the unrest. They have shared that running helped them regroup and refocus.
How can running help the city get through this period?
We cannot kid ourselves by thinking there will be one or two things that will be the savior in getting us through this tough period. Running and other community building events will be keys in finding common bonds to build trust and rebuild the community
Has there been anything special that runners are planning to do in the near future to help that process?
Group runs are being planned to showcase the community spirit which is Ferguson. Our run has been so successful because of the community – each person pushes for the next person to participate and to finish. That encouragement and that bond will help us heal in this bigger and tougher time.
Give us a sense of who runs in Ferguson, and what running conditions are like.
Race day brings participants from across the St. Louis region. Runners of all ages, from youth to ages 70 and up, show up to be part of what's grown into an annual, family-friendly event in North St. Louis County. The diversity represents ethnicity, fitness levels, body types, amateurs and experienced runners.
The running community in Ferguson is as diverse as the running community in cities across the country. There isn't a typical place for people to run in Ferguson. There are street routes, parks and shared walking and bike paths within the community and the county. St. Louis Community College-Florissant Valley has a track that's open to anyone, and the campus is large enough to run routes around the campus. In the metro, you can run at Forest Park, Creve Coeur Lake or the Katy Trail in St. Charles. There are plenty of places to run, and you can find runners everywhere in St. Louis. As part of the community effort to promote health and wellness, there is a volunteer group that organizes the Ferguson Couch to 5K program, and volunteers organize the Ferguson Running Club. Both are free and open to participants of all skill levels.
Weather conditions are variable. In the summer and fall, it's hot and humid, then the weather will be mild, but not for long. In the winter, the temps can range from the 30s and 40s to single digits and bitter cold. Snow and ice are always a potential problem. The wind chill factor can be harsh and the weather reports will warn you of the potential for frostbite. The spring is anyone's guess -- chilly and damp, cool and breezy or warm and comfortable. You can start a spring day in a coat and scarf and end it in shorts and sandals. As we say in the Midwest, if you don't like the weather, wait five minutes...it'll change.
How disruptive were the protests for runners? Did habitual routes get changed for safety reasons, was there an effect on regular club runs, or did runners just stay home?
Protests were not disruptive to people running and doing their daily activities. Most protest were peaceful and very respective. The unrest that was displayed was a small period of the overall protest that happened during scheduled times and at scheduled locations.
As a moving force behind the creation of the Ferguson Twilight Run in 2010, what were you hoping it would do to narrow the divides in the city?
We started the race to bring the community together and to showcase our historic community. That continues to be the focus. We have attracted runners and participants from all that have seen our community, and now they are the ones that know and understand that Ferguson is a great community that is going through a difficult period – but will be able to learn and grow. I am glad that we were able to host this event in previous years to allow people to see Ferguson personally and as different than what has been the main focus lately.
To what extent has it succeeded, and what more would you like to see it do?
We went from a goal of 300 people that first year to 2,100+ registered last year. We currently have more than 100 registered for next year’s race with a several people registering during the unrest. I would say that we have succeeded in showcasing Ferguson as a community for which to visit and run. The committee would like to see the event grow and continue to showcase the fun aspects of being healthy and active. We want to keep encouraging people that they can run a 5K or 10K and cross the finish.
Have you got feedback from the businesses and church groups that sponsor the race that it should be taking a more prominent role?
All of our sponsors and supporters have been great during this time. With most of them being local to Ferguson or in the St. Louis region, we share the need to start rebuilding our community and to start to heal.
How proactive has the city been in promoting public exercise in general and running in particular as a way to bring together its communities?
The city has been very proactive in setting the stage for living more healthy lifestyles and has worked closely with other groups to make this happen. There has been a resultant steady increase in the number of people participating in fitness activities and more healthy lifestyles.
Are there communities in the city that you want to reach out to more to get them into the running mainstream, and how can that be done? Is there a bigger role for the schools there?
Schools are doing a great job of catching the Ferguson fitness bug. We have teams from several of the local schools and churches. Our neighborhood groups are doing a great job in participating in the event either by running, marketing, or volunteering. Of course, we will continue to engage all of our residents, and neighboring communities to participate and hopefully enjoy this event.
Is anything special being considered to be added to next May’s Twilight Run in the light of recent events?
We have not discussed anything special as of yet but this event will of course be discussed as we start our planning for next year’s race. We want to be sure to be as inclusive and engaging as possible so all residents and runners of every ability feel that this event is also their event.
Are there other ways that running can be used as a unifying force in the city, or other active recreational pursuits like cycling and walking be involved more?
Some of our residents have formed walking groups as a way to engage and get to know their neighbors and their neighborhood. That has helped with getting the word out on events happening in the area as well as building bonds and friendships among neighbors.
Is there anything you think runners nationally could do to show their support for the city; and is any effort being made to organize that?
We have not thought of a national campaign to show their support. We would always welcome runners to come to Ferguson and see our city as well to participate in the 6th Annual Ferguson Twilight Run on May 16, 2015.
Will you be running the Twilight in 2015, and if so, what slogan would you put on your running vest?
As race director, I have yet to be able to run the course on race day, but this year I hope to be able to run with a team that I will gather and call "Keep On Keeping On."
What is the greatest joy you get from running?
The greatest joy our runners get from running is staying fit, being free with nature, enjoying their community on a personal relationship, and being able to regroup and refocus.
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