TXU Energy Turkey Trot
Photo by Neighborhood Centers, Inc. via flickr.com

Each year, millions of people don their running kicks and spandex and tackle 5ks, marathons, or the occasional holiday-themed trot.  But if you’ve ever been a spectator at one of these events, you’ve perhaps wondered what Runner’s World’s Jay Jennings found himself asking: Why is running so white?

That perception has become a truism, and the truism has become a joke. The popular satirical blog “Stuff White People Like,” which spawned a best-selling book, ranked marathons 27th on the original list, just behind farmer’s markets and Wes Anderson movies. More scathing was comedian Daniel Tosh, in a segment on his show, Tosh.0: “The only reason marathons are still around is so 20,000 white people can chase three black guys through the streets of Boston like the good old days.”

But how valid is the idea that running is indeed a predominantly white sport?

Well, pretty darn valid, according to Running USA’s recently released biannual National Runner Survey. Media spokesperson Ryan Lamppa stresses that its methodology is “opt-in” from 60 running organizations and clubs nationwide and “may not be a representative sample” of the actual running population. Still, the numbers, compiled between January and May 2011 from nearly 12,000 respondents, are eye-opening: “Core runners” (who tend to enter running events and train year-round) are 90 percent Caucasian, 5.1 percent Hispanic, 3.9 percent Asian/Pacific Islander, and, in perhaps the most startling figure, only 1.6 percent African-American. (The sample adds up to more than 100 percent because respondents could mark more than one choice.) Those numbers are consistent with ones from other surveys, such as Runner’s World’s, and have remained low even as the number of runners has grown by 56 percent in the past decade, according to the National Sporting Goods Association. (The overall population, from the 2010 U.S. census, is 72 percent white, 16 percent Hispanic or Latino, 13 percent black or African-American, 5 percent Asian, and 1 percent American Indian or Alaska native.)

The next question is, of course, why?  In search of an answer, Jennings spoke with new and well-trod runners, heads of national organizations, race directors, coaches, and academics. Through these conversations, he learned that there are economic and cultural roadblocks for minority runners.

Arguably, a potential runner needs only a pair of shoes (barefoot enthusiasts will say not even that!) and a stretch of pavement, but in reality, dedicated running shoes (which RunnersWorld will tell you elsewhere are critical for injury prevention) and race entrance fees can be expensive, especially over time.  Moreover, poor neighborhoods may lack safe avenues for running.

In fact, ‘Lacking a safe place to exercise’ was the top barrier to physical activity for African-American women age 40 and older in a 2000 study published in the journal Health Psychology. In another study for the American College of Sports Medicine in 2007, Simon J. Marshall, Ph.D., the lead researcher, commented,

“People in poverty are more likely to live in neighborhoods where public recreation is unavailable or dangerous,” but he added, this does not mean that culture does not play a role.

Martin Beatty, an African-American head track and field coach at Middlebury College in Vermon, cites social pressure to participate in football and basketball as a factor resulting in low participation in cross-country.  Another interviewee told Jennings,  “Within African-American culture, if your kids don’t play football and basketball, in a lot of communities, it’s not respected.”  Low minority participation in the sport means that there are few role models, on the street or in ad-campaigns, to inspire non-white runners. And when African-Americans do participate in running, stereotypes tend to funnel them toward short-distance events.

Why does all of this matter?  Health disparities, for one, says Harvard University sociologist, David R. Williams.

[The] professor (and two-time Detroit Marathon finisher) who studies racial differences in health, told Steve Barnes on an Arkansas public-affairs television broadcast, “You cannot take individuals who have been shackled by chains and put them at the start of a line to run a marathon…and expect them, if they haven’t had any training or preparation, to be successful.” He was speaking metaphorically, but a very real fact he cited is that “96,000 African-Americans die every year prematurely from racial disparities in health.”…”All of our institutions,” he said, citing schools, churches, and others, “Need to be encouraging healthy choices.”