How a running club aims to improve health and participation in a traditionally white sport.
Each Wednesday at 7 p.m., rain or shine, a running club gathers behind the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
About 15 or 20 members turn out on a good night with the words ‘Black Men Run’ printed across the front and back of their t-shirts.
“Cross your body, loosen up your shoulders,” instructs David Johnson Sr., de facto stretching coach for the club. “We keep a lot of tension in our shoulders when we run, so just make sure we keep them as loose as possible.”
After some toe touches and high leg kicks, the men start out on a five mile jog, falling into small packs based on pace.
“I ran for two years alone before I found these guys,” says Michael Stinson, a 40 year old who works in malpractice insurance.
“And I found them, literally, out of frustration. True story, came home from a run one day out here by myself, and I came home that day, and I googled the term, ‘Do black men run?’ Lo and behold, there is a group called Black Men Run. I didn’t know they existed. And hey, there’s a chapter in Philadelphia. I found these guys, and a month later, bought my shirt and I was with them.”
Black Men Run got its start in Atlanta in 2013, when two friends, Jason Russell and Edward Walton, sought to form a community of runners with a mission of improving health in African American communities.
The idea spread quickly, and there are now chapters in more than 50 cities. The club boasts 6,000 members, including plenty of guys with backstories like Stinson.
“Just out of desperation,” he says. “I was at 330 pounds, and disgusted with myself.”
Stinson began by running just a few minutes each day on a treadmill, but he committed to doing it every day. From there, he worked his way up to ten, then 15 minutes, and eventually pounding pavement for longer distances.
“The rest is history. I dropped 140 pounds, and feel great.”
The next wave?
It’s hard to know exactly how many black men do run because road races typically don’t ask demographic questions. The best guess comes from a 2011 national survey that put the number of African American runners at 1.6 percent of the sport’s total participants, with whites making up 90 percent.
“There are not a lot of role models,” says Tony Reed, co-founder of the National Black Marathoners Association. “Distance running isn’t something people are going to do until they see other people like them doing it.”
Black Men Run isn’t the only national club that targets and encourages a specific group. There are also clubs like Black Girls Run, White Girls Run, and Latinos in Motion. In fact, people like Tony Reed see minorities as the next wave, the same way women swept into road running in the 70s and 80s.
But even while today’s elite distance races are dominated by Kenyans and Ethiopians, blacks retain an outsider status in the middle and back of the pack.
“I’m never alone,” says Gene Collier, another member of the Philadelphia chapter. “I like the fact that we are all we got. That’s our motto: ‘We all we got.’ We take care of each other, we look out for each other, but it’s not a black and white thing, because we have white guys in the group. We have girls who want to join the group. Black Men Run is just a name, but internally, it is a movement to have a healthier lifestyle.”
It’s health, not race or racing, that remains the heart of the club’s focus. African Americans have the highest rates of death caused by heart disease in the country, along with the highest obesity and diabetes rates. Black Men Run, more than anything else, is an attempt to make a dent in those figures.
“This past Sunday, I ran the farthest I’ve ever run in my life. I ran 14 miles, and I’m 52 years old,” boasts Joe Collins, as he comes up on the three-mile mark of tonight’s run. “It is crazy, I’ve never run this far in my life, even when I was 18.”
For Collins, the sport is a simple way to help tackle his high blood pressure, and keep weight off.
“Everytime I see people, ‘Joe you lost weight, you look good, you look good.’ I said, ‘Thanks. Running, that’s all I do.’ This is working for me, I’m going to stick with it, baby. I’m going to stick with it.”
Breaking down stereotypes
Tonight’s runners catch their wind and regroup at Love Park before legging out the final miles along the Parkway. The Black Men Run t-shirts catch people’s attention, but it isn’t clear even to members if there’s a political message embedded in the club name.
“It runs a parallel course,” says Brian Oglesby, 44, a Philadelphia native. “On one hand, we are just a bunch of black guys who like to run. It is a healthy brotherhood. But at the same time, you see the shirts. We want to demonstrate that there is some positivity in our community, that there are men committed to their health, committed to their families, their friends, committed to camaraderie, and doing things in a non-competitive way.
“I mean, you can add the word ‘too’ to the shirt. Black Men Run, Too. It is just one of the many things we do.”
Some of the guys put it more bluntly.
“It is the stereotype, black guys don’t run. You know, we play ball, or run from the cops. But we actually do run without being chased by cops,” says Maurice El Bueno, who has been running since middle school.
He says the only way to get more African Americans showing up to road races, or even just jogging through the neighborhood, is by throwing on the t-shirt and hitting the streets.
“Just lead by example, man. You can’t force anybody’s hand. Only thing you can do is show them the benefits. Good health, good attitude, I mean, who doesn’t want to get involved with something as positive as Black Men Run?”
The runners make their way up the Philadelphia Museum of Art steps, though no one throws up their arms in a tired Rocky salute.
“I’m hurting in places I didn’t even know I have, for real,” says Benjamin Footes, 61, as he paces around the top of the steps, with Philadelphia’s skyline in the background.
“Former smoker, and a lot of other stuff, and I needed to get healthy,” he says. “Running has given me a different outlook on things. I think it has really saved my life.”