The sport of running has many benefits, including the improvement of one’s mental and physical health. For Alison Mariella Désir, running helped to save her life.
However, the sport has not always been as welcoming.
In her new book, “Running While Black,” Désir explores her own relationship with a sport that was not built with her in mind.
OPB’s Paul Marshall sat down with the author to talk about the book. Alison Mariella Désir will be speaking at Powell’s City of Books in downtown Portland on Monday, Jan. 23 at 7 p.m.
Paul Marshall: You detail in the book how much of an additional checklist that you go through when preparing to run. How did you come up with that list and are there times where you may be irritated with that process?
Alison Mariella Désir: The list. I don’t know where it came from — with a lot of the burden that comes with being Black in the United States.
You start receiving messages about what that blackness means to other people and how you’ll be treated as a result. But throughout my life I’ve gotten this sense that being outside in a Black female body means that I am more likely to be attacked, more likely to be looked at as if I’m dangerous or in the wrong place. So that let me know that I have to take precautions to make sure that people understand that I belong.
So that means anything from wearing reflective clothing, wearing clothing that maybe sometimes has the Columbia University across it — lets people know where I went to school and alleviates some of the class assumptions that might come with my blackness, putting on a tracking app because of hearing messages from historically about what happens to Black people when they’re outside or in the outdoors or doing everyday things and wanting to make sure that at least somebody knows where I am at all times. The list grows and changes sometimes.
It is always a burden. I often think about what a luxury it must be to just throw on a pair of shoes and head out for a run and not have to think about all of that.
Marshall: What led you to run your first marathon?
Désir: I was very depressed at the time and I was spending a lot of my time trying to numb myself and sleep as much as I could so that life would pass faster. I didn’t necessarily want to end my life because that idea was scary to me, but I just wanted to sleep for several years and wake up when things were better.
I was spending a lot of time on social media and just looking at people who I graduated Columbia University with who seem to be excelling in their lives and popping bottles.
One day as I was watching people live their best lives, I saw a friend of mine who was training for a marathon and he is a Black guy who’s like 6 feet, 200 pounds — not at all what I envisioned when I thought of marathon runners. So I started following his story.
The way that he was talking about running — which is the way that all of us end up talking about running, we become like evangelists — and that it was changing his life and that he was feeling empowered to do things he had never done before. And I thought to myself, “That’s what I want for me.” And so a year later, I ended up signing up for the same marathon, the San Diego Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon. And that transformed my life.
Marshall: Who was Ted Corbitt and why was it important to feature him in the book?
Désir: Ted Corbitt is arguably the single most important person in long-distance running. He was the type of guy who would run 20 miles in the morning to work and 20 miles back. He was a talented distance runner. He was also a physical therapist. He is the person who’s responsible for standardizing the marathon distance. Before him, you could run a marathon that was 26.1 miles, 26.3 miles. He instituted standardization, which led to the professionalization of the sport because now there was something that was truly a marathon distance and could be competitive. [He’s] an essential, towering figure of our sport who most people have never heard of.
Marshall: Running has so many parallels to other activities that have this class and power dynamic. Did you set out to write about that when working on this book?
Désir: Yes and no. Yes, there were pieces that I absolutely wanted to include like the story of my own realization of who Ted Corbitt was in the New York Pioneer Club when I naively went on a panel about Ted Corbitt’s legacy without ever knowing who he even was.
But then there were other pieces that were unexpected and that the more I researched, the more I realized, as I say in the book, we were there and we were instrumental in the construction of this sport.
I also was blown away in finding and learning more about the history of Oregon and Eugene specifically, and just how hostile and intolerant that environment was during the time that Bill Bowerman and others were saying “just show up and let’s start running together.”
I became even more deeply invested in the history as I was learning things that were shocking to me and that I knew would be shocking to a larger audience of people who consider themselves runners, but would be completely unaware of this history.
Marshall: You mentioned Oregon and I’m curious what jumped out to you when you were looking up Oregon’s history with the sport.
Désir: What shocked me was the timeline of events and what that meant specifically for Black people in Oregon and then Black people around the country.
So thinking about 1963 and what Bill Bowerman was doing in Oregon.
In 1963, we were in the Civil Rights Movement, Martin Luther King was marching on Washington. Martin Luther King was assassinated in 1968.
We didn’t gain access to housing and the right to vote. We couldn’t walk through the front door in places all across the country. Just recognizing that during the same period where white people were being called to the outdoors and being called to move freely through space.
The United States was not a place where Black people had access to those rights, and more specifically in Eugene, Oregon, that Black people were not allowed to own property in Oregon until 1957. So if you think about 1963, who was Bill Bowerman really speaking to six years after Black people were finally allowed to own property [in Eugene]?
There clearly were not a lot of Black people who were there or who would have even felt like they were invited to just show up. This additional historical context made it clear to me how running began to be coded as this white sport.
Marshall: There was another quote you said in the book that I thought about: “White supremacy is not the shark, it’s the water.”
Désir: With things like that, we want to think — or it’s easier to conceptualize — there’s some big, bad boogeyman out there trying to get us, and we just have to take down that shark, but it’s actually everywhere. It’s actually something that we consume every day all day to the point that we don’t even see it and that’s what makes it more difficult to root out.
It’s not just a matter of being nicer to people or, you know, acknowledging people’s presence. It’s a matter of completely shifting systems and policies that will allow certain people to thrive.
Marshall: What would you say to a Black person who may want to get involved in running or who may be interested but hesitant?
Désir: I would first validate their feelings. Anything that takes place outdoors, anything that’s unfamiliar or puts you in unfamiliar places if that is a concern, I completely understand.
But I also want to share that Black people have a rich history of long-distance running. It is our sport and it’s a sport that can transform your life.
Yes, there’s discomfort that comes with it and risk, but unfortunately, that is no different than our existence in general in this country.
I think the more of us that do start to get into this space, the more that we can reclaim it as ours and that we can build these places where we can thrive and feel joy.
In the epilogue, when I talk about the experience of being at that cheer station with all of us around, there’s a lot of beauty that comes from the experience of running.
Listen to the conversation with Alison Mariella Désir in the audio player at the top of the page.