It typically happens when Claire Green wears workout clothes to the grocery store.
People—most often older men who ran track in high school—stop the tall, muscular, athletic-looking 24-year-old and ask: Are you a runner?
Yes, Green answers. Then, they want to know which event she does: the 200 or the 400?
Green doesn’t run either. Never really has. The only time the HOKA ONE ONE pro and Runners Alliance ambassador ever attempted a sprint event—the 100-meter hurdles back in sixth grade—it didn’t end well. (Green made it through the first four hurdles or so before panicking and walking off the track.)
But these people, these older men, don’t know that. All they know is what they see: A tall, muscular, athletic-looking woman who—most crucially—is Black. And their assumption that she must be a sprinter is one Green knows all too well.
Growing up in Louisville, Colorado, a small town where more than 90% of the population is white, Green’s only exposure to Black women runners came from the faces she saw on TV. Because all of these Black athletes were sprinters, Green automatically believed she would be, too.
“When you’re little, I think you always are looking for people and characters and heroes that look like you,” explains Green. So even though she showed obvious talent for endurance at a young age, clocking a 6:21 mile as an 11-year-old, “it was really hard for me to wrap my head around the fact that that’s what my body was really built to do because I just hadn’t seen it done before.”
Her experiences in high school only reinforced this narrative. “There were just so few runners of color, period, but definitely so few runners of color in the distance events that you’re always getting sideways looks,” remembers Green, who specialized in the 800 meters and was a three-time Colorado state champion. Ultimately, being perceived as an outsider because of her race was a “great thing,” says Green, as it instilled confidence in the young athlete and inspired her to try extra hard at meets to prove she belonged.
But her skin color also brought chronic challenges.
“The trickiest part about being Black in a vastly white community is that the majority of your peers’ associations about Black people come from stereotypes that are perpetuated by white pop culture,” explains Green. “So all of your behaviors are held up and compared to the ways that Black people are portrayed in the media, which is boiled down to one pretty narrow stereotype.”
As a result, Green frequently endured remarks like: You’re Black, but you’re not really Black. Or: You’re pretty white for a Black person, no offense. Or: Why do you only do white sports? (Green also swam in high school.)
“The majority of the time, the comments are not in any way supposed to be offensive, but especially when you’re young, navigating which comments to open a discussion around, and which ones to ignore is really difficult because it’s exhausting and it happens on a daily basis,” says Green. More often that not, she chose option A: ignore.
When Green was recruited to run track and cross country at the University of Arizona, she felt relieved to find a tight-knit Black community on the predominately white campus. The Division-1 athlete joined various Black student groups and developed close friendships with fellow students of color. At meets, however, she continued to endure the tiring, familiar experience of people assuming she didn’t belong in distance events because of her skin color.
But after becoming part of the African American Honorary, a student organization in AU’s business school, Green found herself, for the first time, “surrounded by people who were totally pumped by the idea that I was doing distance running as a Black woman.” She recalls one particular cross country meet her junior year during which about 10 members of the Honorary showed up in support. As Green surged into first place with a little less than a mile to go, the group erupted into cheers, filmed her, and ran along with her down the home stretch.
“It was the coolest experience and that was the first time I felt seen as a distance runner by the Black community,” recalls Green. “It’s one of my favorite memories to this day.”
Feeling seen in this capacity gave Green the confidence to reach out to the few other Black distance runners in the NCAA and ask if they, too, experienced constant shock from coaches and competitors over their participation in distance events. “There was a part of me that wondered if I was overly sensitive, or if I was making a big deal out of nothing,” she says. Turns out, the other athletes could relate all too well. “That was a good wake up call for me,” explains Green, and it prompted her to start important discussions with her peers about these troubling experiences.
Around the same time, Green experienced another big breakthrough: At the 2016 Stanford Invitational, she raced the 5,000-meters for the very first time and clocked a blistering 15:49. With that performance, “I had all of a sudden made the jump into that top group of female collegiate athletes,” says Green. From that point on, she accepted, at last, the fact that despite nearly 10 years of racing middle distance events, she was always destined to be a long distance runner. “The more I’ve done it, the more I’ve fallen in love with it,” she says.
Fast forward to earlier this year. In light of police brutality, systemic racism, and the renewed national spotlight on the Black Lives Matter movement, Green felt compelled to speak publicly for the first time about her own encounters with racism and discrimination—both in running and life.
“I’m tired of being told what I should do and what areas I should be involved in based off of the color of my skin,” says Green, who moved back to Colorado in July and has been speaking out on social media and through her work as a contributing writer for RUNGRL. “I want people to understand that being Black is so much more than the stereotypes that have been traditionally pushed.”
At the same time, she adds, it’s important to understand that there exists a distinct Black community with its own culture. And while she wants people to learn about that culture, it’s also important to respect it and realize it’s not a “trend.”
Part of Green’s mission is to expand the very narrow definition of a runner so that people will realize it’s possible to approach the sport—and be extremely successful at it—from a million different perspectives, backgrounds, training styles, dietary styles, and lifestyles. It’s a reality that Green—who aspires to become one of the best athletes in the country and God willing, the world—wishes she had known at a much younger age.
With that ethos, Green urges all runners to connect with other athletes who appear to be on their own unique path through the sport—something she does often. Ask what inspired them to start running, what keeps them in the sport, and what they hope to gain by being active members of the running community. “The more people you talk to, the broader your perception of who a runner is going to be,” she explains. Another great resource, says Green, is @diversewerun, which shares images and stories about runners of different races, abilites, ages, and backgrounds.
For Black runners seeking community, Green suggests reading Black-centric sites like RUNGRL and joining groups like Black Girls Run and Black Men Run. And for young BIPOC runners struggling with the same issues of representation she faced as a kid, Green shares these words:
“We are out here, runners of color are everywhere, we are a growing part of this community. And if this is something that you love, and something that you want to be successful in, there’s absolutely nothing that should stand in your way.”
It won’t always be easy, Green warns, but perhaps you will be the athlete that sows the seeds of change, that normalizes seeing different types of runners. That, of course, is exactly what Green is trying to do, but if she’s not the one who pulls it off? “Maybe you can.”
Though Green’s regular encounters at the grocery store suggest there is still much work to be done to improve representation, she has been “really impressed” with how the running community has started to address these issues. And if we all can continue to build on the momentum, she adds, “we are headed to brighter and better days for the world.”
Contributing Writer Jenny is a Boulder, Colorado-based health and fitness journalist.
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