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Running While Black - In Baltimore And The County

Kyle Pompey

Growing up in Baltimore, Rob Jackson was one of those kids who was always shooting hoops on one of hundreds of basketball courts in the city.

But when he entered the Army in 2000, running was an essential part of the training. He says jogging a dozen or so miles every week changed his life, helping to relieve stress and anxiety.

Back in Baltimore, he started a running group in the city called RIOT, Running Is Our Therapy.  

RIOT has about 100 members of all skill levels genders and races who – before the pandemic – would get together for group runs throughout the week.

As a black man in Baltimore City, Jackson says, he just feels safer running in a group.

Then, news broke of the February death of Ahmaud Arbery, an unarmed black man who was shot while running through a predominately white neighborhood in Georgia. After reading the articles and watching the video, Jackson says he felt like he, himself, narrowly escaped.

“That easily could’ve been me,” he said. “Running down the street in the wrong…well, no neighborhood is the wrong neighborhood because I can run anywhere I want.”

Running is a predominately white sport. In a 2020 survey of 4,000 participants, Running USA, a non-profit trade group for runners, found that 85 % of the runners who responded were white and only 3% were black.  

That’s why Jackson says he feels “exposed” and vulnerable running in a city that is still very segregated.

He says you could look at running like the ultimate lesson in white privilege.

“I move a certain way as a black man in America,” he says. “You never know how somebody is going to react. If you run in certain neighborhoods and you see a black man running down the street it’s like ‘whoa, whoa, whoa what’s going on?’”

Valencia Hike, who lives in White Marsh, says she runs with several diverse groups, but mostly with Black Girls Run, a local chapter of a national organization created to tackle the obesity epidemic among African Americans. She says she likes the friendships and support she finds there.

She says unlike Jackson, her group has had more racially charged encounters when they’re out running.

“We’ve been stopped. We’ve had police drive up and ask us what we’re doing.”

And there have been times when she’s been out for a jog whether by herself or with a group and seen or heard racist reactions.

“Like running in the harbor or the promenade – lots of runners enjoy that route because it’s beautiful and you’re on the water - but people are feeling uncomfortable and grabbing their bags,” she says.

Hike says it’s one of the many times when she’s been questioned. “Why is this big group of people of color running through here? What’s going on? Is something happening?”

Hike also remembers a time when she was by herself, running on a city sidewalk and a driver started backing up her car from the street and almost hit her. Hike called out to catch the driver’s attention.

“She proceeded to say racial slurs to me and got an attitude with me,” Hike recounted. “And my response was ‘she’s in a vehicle. I need to think about my safety at this point.  I need to not say anything. And I need to de-escalate the situation.’”

Hike jogs every day and each time, she says, she is intensely aware of her race. Seeing Ahmaud Arbery’s shooting death was an intense experience that she discussed with her running partners.

“When the issue came about in Georgia, I think a lot of people related because they’ve had similar incidents maybe not that extreme but a moment when it could have gone to that extreme.”

Hike says she wants others to acknowledge the racism that many black runners experience in their own communities, whether it’s in a town in South Georgia or on the streets of Baltimore.

Mary Rose is a reporter and senior news producer for 88.1 WYPR FM, a National Public Radio member station in Baltimore. At the local news desk, she assigns stories, organizes special coverage, edits news stories, develops series and reports.