My alarm sounds at 6:30 a.m. Even though it’s a Saturday, I roll out of bed and get dressed. My husband slightly opens his eyes to see what’s going on. “I’m meeting my running group,” I tell him, and I can’t help but feel a bit giddy at the sound of that.
Until recently I never considered myself a runner. I never thought I’d ever utter the words “my running group.” I’m no couch potato: I love aerobics classes and even spinning. But running always seemed like an activity for other people, for athletes with perfect bodies. Moreover, I have a connective-tissue disease that leaves my joints aching constantly. So I even have a doctor’s excuse to get me out of running.
That all changed recently thanks to the new Birmingham chapter of Black Girls RUN!
In 2009 Toni Carey and Ashley Hicks started Black Girls RUN! in New York City to tackle the growing obesity epidemic in the African-American community by providing encouragement and resources to both new and veteran runners.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, 45 percent of African-American adults are obese. In August, Dr. Regina M. Benjamin, the current Surgeon General of the United States Public Health Service, called for women, especially women of color, to stop forgoing exercise for because they’re worried it will ruin their hair.
But there are Facebook groups, fitness campaigns and even T-shirts and other merchandise boasting the slogan “Black Girls Do Work Out.” These efforts seek to make people of all races aware that many black women do exercise and to seek to encourage African-American women who do led sedentary lifestyles to get active.
Since its beginnings in New York City, Black Girls RUN! has seen remarkable growth. There are currently groups in 29 states and in the District of Columbia. Most groups use Facebook to organize regular runs.
“I think what attracts people to Black Girls RUN! is it’s real women, taking it one day at a time to reach the same goal — being healthy,” Carey says. “Getting out every day to pound the pavement can be tough, mentally and physically. It’s nice to find a group of women, just like you, with the same goals, who experience the same running woes and ultimately enjoy the sport as much as you do.”
The Birmingham group launched in August with about a half-dozen women but has had up to 20 women show up for scheduled runs, which are held downtown and at what is known as the Lakeshore Trail. More than 140 women are connected to the group through Facebook.
The Birmingham chapter is organized by Olivia Affuso and Jeralyn Powell, both experienced runners.
Powell, a Memphis native, hadn’t run since high school when she decided three years ago to get active again.
“When I moved to Birmingham in 2008, I wanted to start living a healthier life and embarked on a weight loss journey,” Powell says. “So I started walking. Then I tried to run one song, and another, and another. My first race was in September 2009 and I have been hooked ever since.”
Affuso, a life-long athlete, has been running since 1995. She believes groups like Black Girls RUN! provide the support that many women need to take those first steps, literally, toward a healthier lifestyle.
“Having someone to exercise with is very important especially for those who are not experienced exercisers,” she says. “This lack of experience can be paralyzing.”
Many of the women who have joined Black Girls RUN! Birmingham are new to running as group welcomes runners of all levels and walkers too.
“I have the feeling that as more black women see someone that looks like them in our group, at different levels participating then they will come out,” Affuso says. “I noticed that more people came out after we posted our first pictures online. Also, people are posting testimonials about the good time they are having, which may have helped increase the numbers.”
The group usually meets twice a week — Tuesday evenings and Saturday mornings – though some members run together on other days as well. The group may cover four to six miles, running for three to five minutes at a time and then walking for one minute to recover.
If you’re on the Lakeshore Trail on a Saturday morning you’ll probably frequently hear a woman yelling “Walk!” and “Let’s go!” That’s Tiki Merritt. Having completed two half-marathons, Merritt is the timekeeper for the group, telling us when to run and when to take a minute to walk for our recovery. And when we reach the end of our run for the day she turns around to meet those women who are walking to make sure they feel encouraged and supported too.
Merritt started running in January 2010 when she signed up for a Couch to 5K challenge. Her training went so well that when the day of the race arrived she decided to do an 8k instead. One day last October, after running in Railroad Park for an hour and 40 minutes, she decided to sign up for the Mercedes Half-Marathon which she completed this year in February. She went on to run a second half-marathon in April.
During her training for these races, Merritt says she was struck by the lack of black female runners, a story Powell, Affuso and the Black Girls RUN! founders shared as well.
“Traditionally, black women are not represented in recreational running events,” Carey says. “In fact, the Running USA’s Annual Marathon Report found that 90.1 percent of core runners — active adult participants who tend to enter running events and train year round — are Caucasians.”
Merritt says for over a year she’s been trying to recruit more African-American women to start running.
“I’ve had a vision for a women’s running club that would bring women together to run and train for local races,” she says. “So, one can only the imagine the overwhelming joy and excitement I felt when I saw 20 black women gathered early on a Saturday morning to get moving.”
When Lisa Ayers Bradley started running she too was hard pressed to find other black women out training. “And when I talked to friends or co-workers about running they looked at me as if I was crazy,” she says. Then one recent Saturday morning while at the Lakeshore Trail she saw a group of several black women running. That group was Black Girls RUN! of Birmingham. Bradley soon connected with the group via Facebook.
“To see a group of African-American women out running on a Saturday morning, unconcerned about their hair, laughing and talking, getting and staying fit brings tears to my eyes and joy to my heart,” Bradley says. “Most of my life I’ve seen African-American women put their health on the back burner, putting the needs of others before themselves. It’s refreshing to see black women investing in a healthy lifestyle. It says to the world and ourselves that we’re worth it.”
Visit BlackGirlsRun.com for more information.