SF Runners for Equality: racial justice is a marathon, not a sprint

Blog by Dirtbag Runners Ambassador Melanie Colburn It’s 10 am on a Sunday morning and people in masks and running clothes are starting to gather…


Blog by Dirtbag Runners Ambassador Melanie Colburn

It’s 10 am on a Sunday morning and people in masks and running clothes are starting to gather around the big Willie Mays Jr. statue at the Giants’ ballpark. Strangers, socially-distancing, are scattered under the towering palm trees. A woman hands out cloth masks, donated by Athleta. Another organizer lets us know that there are Justice for Breonna Taylor race bibs, if we want one. 

Photo by Emilie Bers Photography

I pin on a bib, supplied by a group called Run for Breonna (@runforbreonna) and make small talk, as I wait for more people to arrive. All the attendees are wearing white shirts, as we were asked, and so the gathering crowd looks like it’s all on the same team. 

My friends from November Project San Francisco arrive. Happy to see each other but also somewhat somber, given the gravity of the gathering. While it’s a relief to see friends after more than 120 days of shelter-in-place, instituted in San Francisco to contain the pandemic, we’re here for more than a run in the park today. 

A grassroots group called SF Runners for Equality (@sfrunnersforequality) is having its second short group run followed by a talk on racial justice and equity today. Augustine Wish, a speaker and coach, comes out to the center of the circle and leads us in two minutes of reverent silence, as we remember George Floyd and all the other Black Americans who needlessly and unjustly lost their lives this year. 

Augustine Wish leads a group conversation.
Photo by Emilie Bers Photography

Then we head out on a flat 3 mile run along the San Francisco shoreline. Full of these heavy thoughts, we gain momentum, air rushing around us, and breathe it out. 

Photo by Emilie Bers Photography

The route is typically the scenic final stretch of the San Francisco Marathon, bordered by SF’s skyline and glistening Bay water. The temperature rises as we run and, by the time I get to the finishers’ tunnel, I’m hot and sweaty despite the short distance.  

After a stretch-out, Augustine asks us to split up in small groups for a discussion. Our prompts are: What have you learned recently about racism and racial justice? And what are you doing personally to make change?

Photo by Emilie Bers Photography

No soft-ball questions here. Warm and loose after the group run, and bonded from the lap, we gather into groups of 5 with people we don’t already know. The discussion is surprisingly frank and safe, perhaps eased by the fatigue of our run and the endorphins pumping through our bodies. We listen to each other without judgement, or so it felt. 

Issues around race aren’t easy and there are many missteps to make. But as Akilah Hughes (@AkilahObviously), co-host of What A Day podcast said: “If you want to play piano, but you’re bad at playing piano, you practice and you get better. Don’t be the kind of white person who doesn’t post out of fear of fucking up. If you want to support Black people, but you’re bad at supporting Black people, practice and get better.”

What’s terrific about SF Runners for Equity’s gathering is that it feels authentic. The participants are people who already identify as runners as part of their identity. The run has brought together a wonderful cross section of people in a disarming way to grapple with an otherwise (or yet still) emotional topic, particularly in these times loaded with news of tragic deaths and hate crimes. 

Like Ahmaud Arbery, we all just want to go out for a run. No one should be burdened with fear for or threat to their life to do so. But until that is the case, SF Runners for Equity will be hosting monthly runs to decompress and work through the issues of racial inequality to get us there. 

SF Runners for Equity came together by word of mouth, after Shelby Rhodes was inspired by a New York City based run club led by @thatcoffeyboy, to “take ownership personally of today’s racial injustices.” Various local San Francisco Bay Area running groups have been gathering to help spread the word, including N° degree, Concrete Runners, November Project, Bounce Bay Area, and Hella Bae Running. Then Athleta stepped in to donate $1500 to the Equal Justice Initiative (if you haven’t already, watch “Just Mercy” which features @EJI_org). Shelby tells me that the Run for Breonna group that sent the race bibs is based in San Diego and is committed to running together every morning at 8am until Breonna Taylor’s killers are arrested.

There is something truly magical about people coming together like this, even if they are socially distancing with masks on. You can feel the commitment, the hope, the very serious yet emotional demand for equity amid the group.  

As a Dirtbag Running Ambassador, my running community is mostly based on the trails where Black Americans and other people of color are represented in fewer numbers. Whether you’re on trails, tarmac, or social media, consider how you can create space and have a constructive conversation on racial issues. You may not have the right words at first, but better to practice than remain silent. 

Dirtbag Runners Ambassador Melanie Colburn and friends.

(Sidenote: Faith E. Briggs (@faithevebee) is a trail runner with an intersectional environmentalist documentary called, This Land, if you’re looking for a new and under-represented perspective in the trail running community.)

SF Runners for Equity’s next run is August 9 will be held virtually (check out their Instagram to stay up to date). They hope to hold it on the second Sunday of every month moving forward.

I’ll wear my DBR cap and NP buff when I run, but more importantly, I hope to bring an open mind for the discussion afterward. If there isn’t a Runners for Equity group in your locale, perhaps you can be the next grassroots organizer to bring one to life.