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Melanin Coloured Trails

In August I decided to take on a running challenge of completing 170km as part of the Girls Run The World (GRTW) vs Alps Ultra Challenge. The aim of the challenge was to see more women participate in train running and also to highlight the issue of lack of diversity on the trails.

I recruited my female running buddy to sign up with me and we aimed to run about 42.5km a week. But I also felt it was important for me to understand exactly what this campaign was about. My initial thoughts on the matter was that surely the trails are available for everyone – and that running really IS one of those sports that everyone from any background can access. I am myself a woman of mixed heritage (Danish/ Indian), and culturally running was encouraged and very accessible in my family growing up. The barriers for me came later in life with childcare issues, time constraints, lack of self-confidence and proximity to trails.

So, why do so few women from ethnic minorities run on trails?

It got me thinking about the socio economic and ethnic factors associated with running. I remember reading an article about how ‘White’ the sport of running actually is – in spite of this activity being one of the most accessible sports – all you need is a pair of trainers and some road. In 2018 England Athletics stats quoted as little as 11% of runners in the UK were from Black, Asian & Minority Ethnic (BAME) communities and made the link between low number of participants form the lower social economic groups.

In his article “Is Running Too White”, Duncan Craig (Runners World 2018) goes on to talk about the role of media and advertisers – in portraying images of runners that are predominantly ‘white’ and the type of runners (dare I say club runners) mainly concerned with speed, time and distance and not portraying the great diversity of runners out there.

And then there is Trail Running. With 97% of the people from BAME communities living in urban areas in this country, accessibility seems to be the first barrier. It isn’t just as easy as throwing on some trainers and hitting the road. You need to get to the trail first, in the right kit, with the right shoes and the correct nutrition. Trail running usually means money and time.

As a female runner, safety is another aspect I often have to think about – perhaps more than my male counterparts. I tend to go out early, and it is not often I can find a running friend who can come out with me at the same time (due to both of us having childcare issues). I don’t run with weapons myself but I know that in the states it’s not uncommon for female runners to run with weapons such as knives, tasers and even guns. Nowadays, most phones will have a tracking app or other apps you can download like the what3words app. Safety could be an aspect that puts a lot of women off running alone on the trails.

Listening to a Runners World podcast on The Lack of Diversity on Trail Runs – it was really interesting to hear Sabrina Pace-Humphreys and Sonny Peart talk about this issue. ‘People of colour’ tend to look for safe spaces, due to their historical experiences of racism.

If you are going to feel out of place, be challenged or looked at as if you’ve grown three heads – why would you seek to go to this place? Part of the experience of being black in the UK is that you seek out safe spaces. The English countryside, they argue, is not generally seen as a safe space.

There is also another barrier related to the psychological and sociological constructs we live within in this society. The ‘norm’ in the UK is white. Anything other than white is regarded as ‘other’. In fact, how many people question the ‘norm’? We usually tend to just get on with our daily lives – let’s not rock the boat or create challenge. That’s too scary. But then we are colluding with racism and white privilege.

Sunny and Sabrina both state very strongly and I have to agree, that we have to challenge the norm, create awareness and educate. They set up Black Trail Runners UK to do just that. However – WE ALL have a part to play in this re-education. It’s not just down to people from ethnic minority communities. It’s not just enough to hashtag a cool campaign with photos on social media. Yes, it’s cool to talk about anti racism. And then what? You have to be prepared to go the whole mile and that includes asking yourself and others uncomfortable questions. It also includes challenging your own assumptions and judgements.

Out of my 18 runs in doing this challenge I managed to complete 5 trail runs. I have to say that I have found it challenging to do more than 1 trail run per week, due to my timetable of work, childcare. fitting in the other sports and having a partner who also wants to get his running sessions in.

With the issue of lack of diversity on the trails at the back of my mind, I became hyper vigilant to my own feelings when I was out running, and I scoured the Sussex countryside to see if I could find some colour – and to be honest – I didn’t see a lot. I am very aware that I am a person of colour, with my dark hair and all year-round brown skin. But when I run, I’m a runner and I am not necessarily thinking about what colour other runners may be. Most runners I encounter seem super friendly and runners’ smiles are always plenty (yes you do get the odd uber serious runner who doesn’t smile or flinch at anyone or anything). Like most, if not all runners (irrespective of skin colour) I have had dogs attack my legs, lewd comments from men, kids high five me, cyclists shout at me to get out of the way etc.

I tend to feel more comfortable running on familiar routes. I shy away from exploring new routes by myself – but when I run in the Cotswolds with my boyfriend who is white, I feel like a sore thumb sticking out in my melanin skin.

So, what is the issue? Runners are generally friendly right? If you want to run trails – just get on them! If not – stick to roads. So, I’ve been told.

BUT in taking on this challenge and getting to understand the issue a little bit better – I feel I am better able to understand what part I can play in changing the ‘norm’.

If there are inequalities where trail running is concerned – let’s look at those and do something to create a more even playing field. Trail running is a beautiful sport – absolutely amazing for mental health – let’s make this sport more accessible to more people. Let us challenge the ‘norm’ through awareness building and education. Let’s deconstruct (and reconstruct) some of the stereotypes of the English countryside.

Just because your world hasn’t been affected or rocked by an issue – doesn’t mean the issue doesn’t exist. You may be a melanin runner like me and not experienced any issue at all running trails. And that is GREAT! But there are others who have and there are even more who haven’t even been out there in the first place.

To celebrate global trail running day, I make a running pledge to run more trails, not only because I like defying stereotypes, but because I want to promote and highlight this issue more, and hopefully encourage more female runners from ALL ethnic backgrounds, to join me.

Running trails is so much more fun than flat road running. The scenery is beautiful, I love the feeling of getting lost in the vastness of nature and spending time in green spaces has proven to alleviate stress and positively impacts both physical and mental health. And wouldn’t the English countryside look a little bit more beautiful with more melanin coloured hills?

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