When Ben Chan, 38, completed the Great Virtual Race Across Tennessee (GVRAT) on July 31, he was excited to share his accomplishment and recap his run in the race’s Facebook group, as many of the race’s thousands of participants had done over the last couple of weeks.
In doing so, he also shared his experiences of being on the receiving end of racist and homophobic slurs throughout the event. What he wasn’t expecting was for his post to be deemed “political” and removed completely.
The GVRAT is the brainchild of Barkley Marathons founder Gary “Lazarus Lake” Cantrell, who created the virtual event after his signature race was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The race distance is 635 miles, or slightly over 1,000 kilometers, which is the rough equivalent of running from the southeastern corner to the northwestern corner of Tennessee. Participants had to cover the distance between May 1 and August 31, and it averaged out to running a minimum of five miles per day. Cantrell had been expecting roughly 200 people to sign up, but the number of registrants ended up reaching about 13,000 from around the U.S. and across the globe.
Chan, an information technology manager for a family services nonprofit, did most of his running beginning at 3 a.m. in Queens, New York, where he was living at the time. (He has since relocated to Keene, New Hampshire.) He posted his race recap in the GVRAT Facebook group immediately after finishing his final run of the event, which included a photo of himself wearing a Black Lives Matter singlet. Chan noted that he didn’t share his experiences in an effort to elicit sympathy, but to stand in solidarity with those who have dealt with far worse, such as his wife, Chevon, who is Black.
The next morning, he woke up to a notification that his post had been removed, with a note from Cantrell saying that while he “agreed 1,000%” with his sentiment, the group was not a place for political posts.
Although he hadn’t seen the majority of them, other runners informed Chan that his post had received numerous comments both in support of him and other comments in agreement with Cantrell’s sentiment. Cantrell eventually posted his own statement within the group that he had no interest in moderating a political group and that the forum is intended as a “refuge” from such discussions.
“[The GVRAT Facebook group] is not a place for political posts or human rights matters —it is just about a run,” Cantrell told Runner’s World. “I’m not interested in moderating the arguments that these posts bring.”
But for Chan, the derogatory comments he would hear during his runs were actually a part of his GVRAT experience, showcasing that for Black, Indigenous, and people of color, racial discrimination is prevalent in all aspects of life and isn’t something they can choose to escape. While Cantrell allowed other participants to share personal hurdles such as going through divorces, overcoming cancer, or dealing with mental health issues and hitting emotional lows as they completed the race, the topic of racism was not allowed to remain.
“A lot of runners posted in the group looking for words of support, advice, and sympathy, and there was a sense among the thousands of us in the group that vulnerability was welcome,” Chan told Runner’s World. “That’s why I thought my finisher post where I mentioned dealing with bigotry would be welcome.”
Cantrell’s response to Chan’s Facebook post immediately elicited a common question from Chan and other participants and observers: For whom does the forum serve as a refuge? Where does this leave the BIPOC who don’t have a safe space to seek refuge from their lived experiences?
“In his mind, [Cantrell] thinks removing these posts is the fairest thing to do [to avoid fueling arguments about politics amongst participants], and that this is the best way to handle the situation,” Chan said. “Frankly, I disagree—those of us sharing our experiences with racism are not trying to push our views on anyone else or trying to change people’s hearts and minds. We’re just trying to speak our truth and say, ‘this is how we experienced running.’”
When the political is personal
As the U.S. continues to go through a reckoning confronting racial injustice, many people, particularly non-minorities, are starting to see that BIPOC’s experiences with racism aren’t exactly a new phenomenon.
Chan, who grew up in Brooklyn, noted in his Facebook post that the derogatory comments he received during his runs weren’t too much of a surprise due to the anti-Asian sentiment brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic; he has grown used to it, having dealt with racism throughout his life. He and fellow Asian-American friends have exchanged stories about experiencing harassment while running, whether it was from drivers yelling things from their cars or other runners glaring and jumping off shared running paths even though everyone was wearing masks.
“Even before the pandemic, there was a sense amongst Asian Americans in New York that there was increasing apprehension about the atmosphere of racism and violence, so I figured that [running during late-night and early-morning hours] would work best for me,” Chan said.
The running community has a long-held reputation for being overwhelmingly white—and the ultramarathon space is no exception. In fact, according to a 2010 study on trail running by the Outdoor Foundation, 69 percent of respondents who participated in trail running were white, compared to 6.4 percent Black, 9.8 percent Asian or Pacific Islander and 11.1 percent Hispanic.
For BIPOC, the topic of racism is more one of human decency than politics. But even with regard to political systems, it still has a place within all shared spaces, because minorities don’t have the ability to escape their differences and the hardships they’ve caused.
“When a space is marked as a ‘refuge’ from discussions on race, it is essentially communicating ‘whites only’ and denying the impact that race has on the entire personhood and lived experience of a non-white person,” said Carolyn Su, 36, a Boston-based runner and creator of the Diverse We Run Instagram account, which serves to highlight the stories of diverse voices within the running community.
“Race, and the consequential experiences because of it, is a part of a [minority] runner’s identity,” Su continued. “To deny the impact that race has on a BIPOC runner’s participation in the sport is to invalidate who the runner is as a person.”
Telling minorities to keep their experiences to themselves in an effort to keep the peace also further perpetuates the idea that they don’t belong in these spaces. In an interview on the Rich Roll Podcast, Mirna Valerio, 44, a Montpelier, Vermont-based professional ultramarathoner, social media influencer, and author of , recently shared her experience having the police called while she was on a training run in her Rebun Gap, Georgia, neighborhood.
“It’s possible to listen to and acknowledge someone’s experiences without preconceived notions,” Valerio, who is also a trained diversity practitioner, told Runner’s World. “By telling people they can’t share their racism-centered experiences, you’re sending the message that you don’t care and that you don’t see them in those spaces. That’s a problem in every arena, including the outdoor industry as a whole.”
Nia Akins, 22, a professional middle-distance runner with the Brooks Beasts Track Club in Seattle, shared that sentiment.
“Most people, especially women, are familiar with avoiding running at a certain time of day or in a certain area because it’s considered unsafe,” Akins, who recently shared her own experiences with racism while running on her college campus at the University of Pennsylvania, told Runner’s World. “That ‘unsafe’ region is pretty much anywhere and everywhere in the country for Black runners and Black people in general—there’s nowhere to hide from systemic oppression.
“It’s no surprise that there are fewer Black marathoners [than whites or other groups] when you consider the perceived risk Black people face when going for runs and the inherent fear we have to push past in order to do so. Without even knowing it, this turns people away and slows the progression of our sport.”
While these examples highlight the microaggressions and instances of overt racism that have been going on for years, it consequently sheds light on the fact that many just haven’t felt comfortable or been given a platform to speak about them until now.
Rebecca Mehra, 25, a professional middle-distance runner for Oiselle’s Littlewing team in Bend, Oregon, recently wrote a blog post on the brand’s website about her experiences as an athlete with a multiracial background. Mehra, who is half-Indian and half-Jewish, wrote how she has often been mistaken as being Mexican, which led to her being the target of anti-Mexican slurs from drivers while running with her high school teammates in southern California, as well as how she was often asked if she was a “dot or feather Indian.”
“[Before being given a platform to do so], I just never thought to speak about these experiences. It wasn’t until I took the time to reflect that I realized just how bad those things really sounded,” Mehra told Runner’s World. “That was why I felt the need and the want to speak out, because I want other people to feel that they can share their experiences in a safe space and be respected and embraced by allies within the running community.”
More allies choosing to be openly anti-racist
In the weeks that followed the removal of Chan’s post, other runners in the group reported similar incidents of having their posts censored. A common denominator among them all: Evidence of support of the Black Lives Matter movement, whether through signs runners had observed and documented on their runs, or shirts like Chan wore in his initial censored post.
While they are arguably still in the minority, a number of people are choosing to walk away from financially supporting events and organizations that don’t align with their values, such as actively speaking out against racial discrimination.
“I will be more cognizant of where organizations send/spend their dollars and if they have made active strides towards anti-racism—something I honestly should have been doing all along and am ashamed to say I didn’t consider previously,” said Holly Batchelder, 45, a runner in Jacksonville, Florida, who shared that she left the GVRAT Facebook group and stopped logging her miles after reading Cantrell’s Facebook post.
Lela Moore, 44, a GVRAT participant in Brooklyn, shared that she struggled with finishing out the race in light of these events and that in addition to not participating in Cantrell’s events in the future, she committed to making donations to anti-racism focused causes such as the American Civil Liberties Union, Liberty Fund NYC, and the GoFundMe for Jacob Blake, the African-American man who was shot and critically injured by police in Kenosha, Wisconsin, on August 23.
“I made these donations in solidarity with BIPOC runners who want to tell their stories but are silenced,” she said. “I would like to see this conversation continued and to stress the importance of having these conversations in the first place.”
Is Cantrell concerned about the larger impact—making BIPOC runners hesitant to join his events, especially with a lack of diversity and inclusion in the ultra space in general—that his decision to delete Chan’s post might have? When Runner’s World asked, Cantrell said simply, “I don’t think about it in those terms—they’re all just people and anyone who wants to be there should know they’re welcome.”
Continuing the fight
On August 30, Chan shared in an Instagram post that he had tried to register a team for Cantrell’s next virtual event, the Circumpolar Race Around the World (or CRAW, a year-plus-long virtual race), under the team name “Black Lives Matter.” In an email, Cantrell gave Chan an ultimatum: Change their team name, or accept a refund to the race.
“We are not having a team called Black Lives Matter…We are not having a team named MAGA [in reference to President Trump’s longtime campaign slogan, ‘Make America Great Again’]…The ‘culture wars’ can be fought elsewhere,” Cantrell told Chan in an email. “Everyone is going to be welcome as long as they leave their baggage somewhere else.”
“MAGA is a political movement that strives to maintain and reinforce inequality and exclusion, whereas Black Lives Matter is a set of guiding principles that prioritizes inclusion and humanity,” Chan said. “It only makes sense to say ‘Black Lives Matter’ and ‘Make America Great Again’ in the same breath or sentence in order to contrast them.”
Chan and his team decided to take the refund for the CRAW. After getting their money back, the team (since renamed Runners United for Black Lives) used a portion to register for HBCUs Outside’s #BlackToTheTrails5K. HBCUs Outside is a nonprofit dedicated to increasing representation of Black faces on running trails and mountains, as well as in outdoor industry boardrooms, by providing leadership training, outdoor skills courses, and event opportunities to students and alumni of historically Black colleges and universities.
Chan’s team is meeting virtually on a weekly basis to discuss other events and organizations it can support. They are also in the early stages of creating their own virtual race that will celebrate BIPOC history, recognize BIPOC excellence, and acknowledge BIPOC victims of racial violence.
“Cantrell is a legendary race director, and in a lot of ways, still someone that I look up to, who has great influence within the running community. We genuinely want to continue the dialogue and avoid digging a trench between [our team and Cantrell], which is what we feel he did by removing us from his race and banning the words ‘Black Lives Matter’ from the CRAW,” Chan said.
Nonetheless, Chan is committed to moving forward. “My team is as committed as ever to creating more diverse, inclusive running communities and spaces.”
Emilia Benton is a Houston-based freelance writer and editor.
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