Making Ultrarunning More Racially Inclusive

The small mountain city of Boulder, Colo. has a self-appointed reputation as a progressive city, priding itself on activity and inclusivity. The active and outdoor-centric lifestyle practiced by those who reside in Boulder is thought to be an equalizer. Everyone is welcome on the trails, no matter your race, gender, sexual orientation, etc.

As a white woman who lives 40 minutes outside of Boulder and often frequents the Boulder Country running paths and trails, my ignorance may have led me to buy into the inclusivity facade projected by the small city. However, an encounter in which a Facebook friend who is both a Black man and an accomplished ultrarunner was harassed with terrible racist slurs quickly put things in perspective.

Of course, racism on the trails and bike paths isn’t felt by white people. I knew I didn’t often see Black people out on my favorite running trails, but I never thought about why that was. More importantly, I never thought about the hostility I may experience if I was a Black woman recreating on the Boulder trails in the same manner I do as a white woman. Would the hostility and hatred wear me down?

Boulder’s roots in racist behavior may not necessarily lay in direct actions, but in the ignorance that the predominantly white city could even be part of the problem. It’s in the belief that the city and its residents, 88 percent of whom are white, aren’t themselves individually racist or responsible for racism in America as a whole.

National Geographic writes that in the happiest places (Boulder was ranked the No. 1 happiest place in the country in 2017), “locals smile and laugh more often, socialize several hours a day, have access to green spaces, and feel that they are making purposeful progress toward achieving life goals.”

Recreating in Boulder is a product of white privilege in itself. Happiness, the article admits, relies upon wealth. What it doesn’t mention outright, however, is that for an entire city to be dubbed “the happiest,” poverty cannot play a significant factor. In Boulder’s case, this is not because the social problems that cause poverty have been fixed, but because the poor have been pushed out.

The same barrier exists in ultrarunning. There has never been a Black winner of the Western States 100 or Ultra Trail Mount Blanc. Yes, there are a lot of middle and upper middle class white people in this country, but not more than 90 percent as the demographics at a trail race might indicate. I know there are a lot of lower income trail runners out there, but many choose to work very little or work very flexible jobs so that they can focus more on their running. (i.e., the “dirtbag runner” trend, which I have been a whole-hearted participant in.)

Research published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that low-income neighborhoods were 4.5 times less likely to have recreational facilities—like pools, gyms, and tennis courts—than high-income neighborhoods. In some low-income areas, less than 20 percent of residents live within a half-mile of a park or within three miles of a recreational facility. These are vastly different environments as compared to the Boulder, Colo. endurance hub.

Running is a sport that tends to nurture happiness, health, and compassion (among other things). I also think that running is a very accessible activity. Almost every person on this planet knows how to run. It is something that our species has done with regularity for thousands of years, and it is something nearly everyone does extensively as a child.

So how do we make road, trail, and ultra running accessible to everyone regardless of socioeconomic status and race? First, we must recognize that racism exists on the trail and on the roads–especially in places like Boulder, where the attitude is liberal, but the trail users are white. We must acknowledge the pain felt by BIPOC athletes such as my Facebook friend mentioned above, and mitigate the horrible, racist encounters by making it clear that there is no room for racism in our outdoor spaces. We must encourage and support nonwhite people to get outside and keep the attitude on start lines and at trailheads inclusive to all.