Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Where Are All The Black Runners?

In 1980 only 11% of marathon finishers in America were women, last year it was 42%. For half-marathon runners women are now in the majority (approximately 60%). While those stats are for American runners I suspect that a similar trend is mirrored here in the UK. The number of women taking part in distance running has grown beyond recognition from when large participatory marathons first started in the 1970’s and 80’s. And let’s not forget it wasn’t until 1984 that women were even allowed to run the marathon at the Olympics.

So while the gender barriers seem to be tumbling down their seems to be another barrier when it comes to distance racing:


This is all the more surprising considering that nearly all the top marathon runners, both male and female, are African. The one statistics that I have found is striking; according to the largest survey of runners in America, the biannual National Runner Survey, only 1.6% of marathon runners are black. While those types of statistics are not kept in Britain it definitely chimes with my own personal experience. I have run four marathons and several smaller distances in the last year and I would be surprised if even 1% of my fellow runners were black – and this includes the Rio de Janerio Marathon – a city with a sizable non-white population.

I am consistently one of only a handful of black people at races and when I read running blogs and running magazines they are clearly aimed at a well healed middleclass white demographic.

The question is “Why?”. Why aren’t more black people running marathons, half marathons or even 5k fun runs? 

The barriers to entry to start running are incredibly low. In fact you could argue that it is the cheapest participatory sport to start, needing only a pair of running shoes, shorts and T-shirt.

I’ve never experienced any racism (overt or otherwise) from my fellow runners. The lack of black runners is definitely not equivalent to the lack of female participation 30 years ago when the sexism was often overt and crude.
No - I think the barriers are cultural and self-perpetuating. Black people don’t run marathons because they don’t see people like them at running clubs where they train. Where there are running clubs that make a conscious effort to attract a multicultural membership like the Run Dem Crew, organised by a black person, black people are disproportionately represented.

Another problem is that black people are often portrayed, and marketed to, as elite athletes. I could wax lyrical about some of the stereotypes in this but the reality is a lot of black people buy into the stereotypes. And so it takes a shift in perception that taking part in a race has almost nothing to do with the position you finish or the time you complete it in. It is a way of taking part in sports that culturally has not been marketed towards black people previously. You are definitely not trying to "Be Like Mike" or any other great sports personality when you are running a marathon, you are just trying to be better than the person you were yesterday and the day before that.
But Black people do want to run. Every black friend I have tells me how they want to run but always have a reason why they can’t (an old sports injury, lack of free time, etc). Running and all the sports we do have a huge cultural dynamic - Why pick cricket over basketball? Or basketball over football? Or even chess over poker?

I believe that black participation in running is a sleeping giant. Right now participation might be only 1% but given the right running clubs and targeting the right races that could easily change and hopefully will.

(The picture today is of me running the Amsterdam marathon feeling very much in a cultural minority)


  1. in the philippines my runner friends who are black (kenyans) harvest trophies and have made it like a business. so they are banned in many runs now.

  2. Hi Winelfred,

    Thanks for the comment. There is no doubt that Kenyans and many East Africans dominate competitive elite distance running. In my blog post I'm asking why there are so few "ordinary" runners who are black.

  3. I think you just caught the attention of the folks at the National Black Marathoners Association and Black Girls Run! Both are on Facebook. Social media is changing the level of Black participation in distance running and running in general. Check it out! Great Article!

    1. Hi Wizerwmn,

      Thanks for reading. Social media is definitely changing our "running community". If you have time check out my other post on how social media helped me run the London marathon http://thesoundofrunning.blogspot.co.uk/2013/04/how-my-twitter-friends-helped-me-run.html

  4. Hi Marcus! I am a board member of the National Black Marathoners Association. We read your article and would love for you to meet hundreds of black marathoners around the world. We even meetup every year (domestically and internationally) at marathoners. www.blacmarathoners.org. Join us on Facebook!

    1. Hi Alexandria,

      Joined the NBMA Facebook group last night and looking forward to running with you guys.

  5. I'm one of the Co-Founders and Executive Director of the National Black Marathoners Association (www.BlackMarathoners.org). We've been addressing this problem since 2004. We're America's largest non-profit organization that supports Black distance runners in the USA. This Runner's World article sheds some insight about our organization.


    1. Hi Anthony,

      Completely inspirational article. Looking forward to learning from NBMA's experience to try and increase the number of distance runners here in the UK.