Who do you see? Improving Diversity in the Sport of U.S. Trail Running

By: Amanda McCracken

“I didn't know color was a thing for a long time in my life," says Joseph Gray—the first black American member of the U.S. Mountain Running Team, the first black American to win the U.S. Mountain Running Championships, and the first black American to win the World Mountain Running Championships (helping the U.S. men win their first team gold). Gray, 35, may be a minority in his sport of trail and ultramarathon running, but it hasn't discouraged him. In fact, he actively promotes diversity in what is predominantly a white sport. Whether it's by encouraging young minorities to participate in outdoor sports ("a gateway to trail running," he says) or using the #blackmenrun hashtag in his social media feeds, he works to attract other black Americans to the sport. Still, it's an uphill effort. According to the most recent Outdoor Industry Report on U.S. trail running 69.1 percent of all participants were Caucasian and 6.4 percent were black.

Part of the problem, Gray explains, is that none of the stories about trail running on social media platforms resonate with black people.

“So, for that next generation to be inspired by the sport, they need someone to look up to they can relate to," he says.

For Gray that person was Jesse Owens who decided he belonged on the track despite not seeing other black men participating. Owens modeled what Gray's parents taught him: Don't be a showboat. Stay focused on your goals. Don't worry about celebrating Contently 1 success to draw the public's attention, but do it because you love it.

"For Jesse Owens to compete under the pressures he was under and not do anything outrageous or over-celebratory," Gray says, "it showed me he was a class act because he stayed focused on the task at hand."

Gray first fell in love with running trails when he was 7 years old while playing tag in the forests of Heidelberg, Germany, where his father was stationed in the military. But, during his childhood in America, his peers didn't aspire to long distance trail running.

“Every black kid wanted to be Michael Jordan or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar," he says, "because these were the successful black athletes portrayed in the media. Kids aspire to be people who look like them."

In high school Gray started challenging the dominant images of black athletes represented in the media: he ran cross country AND he ran in short shorts. Gray says that once he was winning races his black youth peers stopped picking on him for not wearing the knee-length basketball shorts portrayed in media-informed culture as “acceptable" athletic wear for black athletes.

Gray went on to become a standout cross country and track runner in college and now trains professionally in Colorado Springs. He has been named U.S Mountain Runner of the Year eight times and raced for the U.S. at the World Championships a record 10 years in a row.

But his success hasn't trumped people's expectations of what a trail runner “should" look like. Gray recalls one post-collegiate race in which he was harassed while running. From the crowd he heard someone shout a racial slur. Gray responded with the laser focus his parents had raised him to develop under such pressure. He kept running.

“I didn't talk about the event in social media. I didn't give it any light," he says. "You can call me the N-word all you want, but it's not going to stop me from doing what I'm doing. I'm not running because I'm black. I'm doing it because I love it."

Images in the media are responsible for both racist expectations of what a trail runner “should" look like and lack of diversity in the sport, Gray says. He points out that when you look at trail and ultra running social media platforms there's little coverage of athletes of color. As a result, sponsorships and development teams continue to pursue supporting white athletes because that's where the media is focused. It affects opportunities at the grass roots level to help black youth develop their skills, he says.

“In order for us to change that narrative," he says, "we have to promote minority athletes in the sport to show that we have the potential to be multicultural."

One leader in the industry Gray credits for making efforts to change that narrative is Brian Metzler, founder of Trail Runner magazine and former senior editor at Runner's World, Running Times, and Competitor.

“Is it the chicken or the egg?" Metzler asks. His point being: If a company's market is primarily skinny white male athletes (i.e. ultramarathon runners), then it is more likely to use images of skinny white men with whom its market can identify. It creates a self-fulfilling cycle.

Metzler said that some shoe companies like Solomon have made strides to hold events in highly dense populations like San Francisco where they can draw a more diverse participant pool and thus introduce more people to the sport. He also believes there needs to be more school and community programs based in metropolitan areas to likewise promote the sport to more diverse populations.

But, ultramarathon runner, educator, and motivational speaker Mirna Valerio (AKA “The Mirnavator") says holding trail shoe demo days in more diverse communities won't help unless you make the trails accessible to the minority population. Show them where the trails are and provide transportation. Offer some reduced-price entries for any runner who needs them, too. Valerio, who does not fit most trail runner stereotypes—not only because she's black, but also because she weighs 250 lbs—runs trail races all over the country. She has become an important reminder that trail runners come in all shapes, sizes, and colors. While this 2018 National Geographic Adventurer of the Year says she hasn't faced racist name calling while racing, she has endured body shaming on the trails and online.

One piece of advice Valerio offers to the trail running community is simple: Be inviting. "We should invite people into our circles we don't typically associate with," she says, "folks from different races and ethnicities, regional backgrounds, or social classes." Extending an invitation and facilitating access, she adds, go a long way.

As more inclusive run clubs develop in culturally diverse neighborhoods around the country, the demographics of the road running scene are changing too—perhaps, a stepping stone to improving diversity on the trails. Take the District Running Collective in D.C and Harlem Run in New York City. Harlem club founder Alison Mariella Désir-Figueroa says her organization actually has a lot of people of color who run trails. Yet, she says, “major brands and magazines most often portray the skinny, lone white male/female runner 'conquering' the outdoors."

“If you don't see yourself in that space," she adds, "it's easy to believe you don't belong there."

To increase diversity in the sport Désir-Figueroa says the entire industry—brands, magazines, and races-has to "truly become invested in the idea that diversity is an important value (not just fiscally beneficial)."

But that change in the industry has to happen at the top, says Valerio. “If there is not buy-in in terms of diversity inclusion at the top level, it's not going to happen anywhere," she says. "The more different types of people have a seat at your table, the better you serve your community and the stronger your bottom line will be."

Some people at "the top" are paying attention. American Trail Running Association (ATRA) founder Nancy Hobbs says they've done a revamp of their website. While examining the topic of "inclusion" during last year's US Trail Running Conference, ATRA realized that the photos on its website "didn't reflect the diversity of participants it seeks to attract to trail running," Hobbs says.

“We decided that we needed to display a more varied collection of photos reflecting the diversity of age, race and genders of people who run on trails," Hobbs says. "We want people to say, 'That looks like me. I could get involved in that sport!'"

While it's great that some conversations are happening in the industry about inclusion, they also need to take place on the field. At the most recent trail race Désir-Figueroa attended, the only people of color there were the folks who brought her.

“This could've been an opportunity for race directors to engage me and my team in a meaningful dialogue," she says. "But most often, conversations remain transactional in nature and do not get to the heart of the issue."

Simply put, representation is the heart of the issue. Major brands need to proactively diversify their sponsored athletes. Gray says he remains hopeful this change will happen: “I have seen a few brands attempt to use black/minority athletes in projects for media," he says. "This opens the door for future athletes."