Since 1982 I've written a newsletter, Running Commentary. A new issue appears here each week, and material is archived.

Sun, 31 Oct 2004 09:11:26 -0500

Embrace Every Race

RUNNING COMMENTARY 543

(rerun from October 1998 RC)

Beverly, a volunteer at the Crim Races, drew the early shift. She was making her first airport runs at six o'clock on a Sunday morning, and I was the first weekend guest to be escorted away from Flint, Michigan.

We talked about the recent divisive and depressing two-month strike against General Motors that had Flint as its epicenter. We didn't talk about the city's image that took a beating in Michael Moore's documentary "Roger and Me." This portrayal is still a sore point with the city's loyalists.

As we pulled into the airport, Beverly said, "When you talk to people about Flint, tell them we're nice here." And they are.

I'd traveled there for 11 of the Crim's past 13 runnings and never met with anything but niceness. This even extended to the residents who had nothing to do with the running event.

One year I ran through one of the poorer neighborhoods. From a porch I heard the shout, "Run, white boy, run!" The shouter was African-American, as were all of his neighbors.

I've gotten lots of mileage from this story in years since. But in fairness to Flint I note here that the comment was jovial, not menacing. It didn't lead to an adrenaline-charged upping of pace or quick retreat to a paler part of town.

Flint has always welcomed this runner, even where he's in the minority. And the Crim Race has long embraced runners of all nationalities and shadings.

I walked into the hospitality room at the Radisson on race eve. The faces there were mostly dark, and the dominant language was Swahili. I felt again like an outsider, but not an unwelcome one.

Kenyans accounted for the top eight men and top three women at the 1998 Crim. The previous year's leading male was Moroccan, and a Mexican has won earlier. Asians might eventually arrive.

This points out an oddity of U.S. road racing. While the elite level is multiracial, the overall field is quite white.

Talk of "racism" rumbled through the sport in the late 1990s when certain events allegedly tried to limit the number of Kenyans. But the bigger problem went unaddressed in that discussion. That is how to diversify the rest of the pack.

Some racial and ethnic minorities in this country fight an everyday battle against messages telling them they can't keep pace because they look, talk and act differently from the dominant culture. Everyone needs to find ways to win.

Running in races is one of those ways. Go the distance at whatever pace you can handle, and you can feel like just as big a winner as the person who finishes first.

"Everyone can win" has become a cliche in running. But it's still a rare concept in sports and rarer still in life at large.

This running mantra has yet to reach all cultures. So far, the racing that made superstars of black Africans -- as well as Arabs, Asians and Latin Americans -- hasn't transferred widely enough to Americans of similar descent and lesser ability.

U.S. road running resembles a party to which only one ethnic group is invited. This was never the intent but still is the result.

Both sexes now run together, as well as all ages and every ability (and disability). The American sport's continuing need is to embrace every race. We runners, like the people of Flint, all need to put out the word that we're nice folks who welcome everyone to our parties.

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