People rave about the running community but the truth is, it could be much more diverse and inclusive, says Ginnia Cheng
Before the pandemic, I’d always been a casual runner, popping for a quick jog every so often and feeling like I’d climbed Everest when I achieved that rare 5K. But once global lockdowns hit in 2020, like many women, running became my lifeline to the outside world. Whenever I could, I’d muster up the emotional energy, put on my running shoes, lock in my headphones and venture out on to the streets of South London.
Some days, it was a great adventure. A heron at the local pond. A PB on a tough segment. A cute dog deciding I was its new best friend.
Other days, not so much. The quiet streets of London were a harsh reminder of what the world had lost. Suspicion hung in the air. People avoided eye contact more than just the usual London detachment. Whenever it hit me that running was literally the only thing I was doing outside, all I wanted to do was cry. Yet, slowly but surely, as the pandemic progressed, I went from having to walk the last few minutes of every 10K I attempted, to running my first half marathon distance, to completing my first 100-mile month.
Facing my fears
In the depths of winter, I accepted a challenge from my partner to run 10K a day, every day for a month. My friends thought I’d gone insane. I think I just wanted to feel something – anything – other than the tedium of lockdown.
It was one of the toughest challenges I’ve ever taken on, but I came out the other side a stronger person. I learned I could run through my period, something I’d avoided like the plague. I mastered the art of not caring about speed, especially on the days I had to walk to get it done. And, after years of chasing a thigh gap, I embraced my fast-growing tree trunks; they were signs of my strength. Most of all, I had a newfound trust in my mind and body to keep me moving forwards.
Unfortunately, it also solidified some questions I already had about running. I often ran alongside my partner, a white man. The differences quickly became apparent. He had limitless options of where to run at night, as long as he had a head torch. I watched helplessly as the sun set earlier every day, closing the already-small window for my daily 10K. He proudly posted all his runs on Strava, whereas all of mine were hidden for fear of being followed. He’d always get – in his own words – ‘people randomly smiling at him’ and compliments about his tattoos or running gear. When I ran on my own, I’d get cat calls, weird looks and once a man even casually shoved me out onto the road as I ran past. I’m still processing that one.
What stood out in particular, was that, despite living in a very diverse area of south London, I almost never saw any Asian people running, let alone anyone who looked like me. Even after doing 193 miles in 31 days, I still didn’t feel like a real runner. It wasn’t like I felt actively ostracised – after all, I wasn’t part of any running groups, nor had I run any races. So how could an activity that consisted of just me and the open road feel so non-inclusive?
Is the outdoors really free?
In its recent Active Lives report, Sport England acknowledges that the active sector “has failed to engage women of different ethnic backgrounds to the same degree”. 61% of White British women are active, compared to only half (50%) of Black women and 46% of Asian women. I’m surprised to learn that White British women are even more likely to be active than Black and Asian men by 5% and 11% respectively, despite the fact that, overall, men are more active than women.
Nowhere is this racial disparity more obvious in the running world than perhaps trail running. Data from Black Trail Runners shows that a miniscule 0.2% of all trail runners in the UK are black, compared to 3% of the UK’s population being black.
A key barrier is actual access to outdoor space, says Sabrina Pace-Humphreys, co-founder of Black Trail Runners and widely recognised as one of the main trailblazers paving the way for better diversity in running. “A high percentage of our community is urbanised, and that comes from Windrush,” she explains. “It comes from black people being brought over to the UK to help rebuild the country after WW2, and being grouped into large inner city spaces.”
Sabrina, now a mum of four and grandma of two, moved to the countryside as a child. She says: “I’m privileged in the sense that I have always looked out of my window to see trees, hills and woods. That’s not the lived experience of many people in our community. They look out of their windows and see concrete, high rise, urban environments.
“The outdoor space is a white space that’s been set up in order to keep us distant. Racism isn’t necessarily that you’re always called the N-word. It’s just a look sometimes that says that’s not what we do here, that’s not how we behave, therefore if you don’t behave yourself, go and enjoy yourself elsewhere. You must know as an Asian woman,” Sabrina says to me. “It’s more subtle than that.”
I feel myself welling up. While I can’t even begin to understand the depths of the Black experience, oh yes, I know that look. I’ve written articles about that look. I’ve spent countless hours post-run trying to convince myself that look was because I actually did something wrong, not just because I’m Asian.
Even with access, Sabrina believes skills are a huge barrier to running for many Black and Asian communities. “[Growing up, we’re told to] concentrate on education, like Maths, English and Science, the important subjects,” she notes. I hate conforming to stereotypes, but I can literally hear my mother’s voice in my head saying those exact words.
As a result, a large part of Black Trail Runners’ work is in skilling up the Black community in order for them to feel safe outdoors. Sabrina drops another shocking statistic: minority ethnic people make up only 1% of visitors to the UK’s national parks, according to Natural England. “The emphasis was never really placed on enjoying yourself outdoors, so the skills associated with these activities are therefore never learned, like navigation, what to wear. Even using gates! There are gates that you lift up, that you unhook,” she points out.
On top of this, Uroosa Khan, who helps oversee the Muslim women’s running group Hijabi Runners, explains that for many first-generation immigrants, life was literally just about survival. “Our parents’ survival instinct meant they wanted education and stability for their children. Making a home, putting food on the table – those were the priorities. Mental health or exercise isn’t something we have grown up around.”
A podiatrist by day, Uroosa also highlights the importance of education within running. “When I first started,” she remembers, “even as a podiatrist, I had the most terrible trainers.”
Perhaps simplest of all, it’s about the lack of representation. “I grew up never seeing black women on covers of sports magazines,” Sabrina recalls. “You can’t be what you can’t see. When you don’t see yourself represented in the media or on the websites of brands you buy from, you wonder whether that’s because you’re not supposed to be doing it.”
Sabrina suddenly beams at me. “You’re going to be on the cover of the magazine though, aren’t you?” she asks. “Think of all the Asian women and girls who will see you!” I feel the tears coming on again.
Uroosa echoes this sentiment. Despite being into embroidery, she’d never even thought about buying Vogue magazine until she saw a Hijabi woman on the cover. “When you look different, it’s daunting to start running. It’s scary,” she emphasises. Uroosa only started running because Namrah Shahid, founder of Hijabi Runners, was her close friend and role model. “Here was someone who looked like me with similar experiences to me running. It was the encouragement I needed to start running outside.”
After Uroosa pestered Namrah quite a bit to start a running group, Hijabi Runners was born in 2019. The group has since grown to over 60 women. They’re based in Leeds, but the impact has been far reaching. “Since we started the Hijabi Runners Instagram page, we’ve had people from as far as Lebanon reach out,” she shares. “Hijabi Runners all over the world often tag us in posts about their first runs, and many even time their runs at the same time as ours. The most important thing is just having it out there that Hijabis can run.”
It gives me the chills to think about how many underrepresented women have been inspired by groups like Black Trail Runners and Hijabi Runners to step foot outdoors for the first time.
Sabrina says: “If just that one person sees Black Trail Runners and it makes them think ‘I’m going to have a go’, then job done.”
As someone who’s always been nervous about participating in a running group or race, I realise there’s only been one running event I’d seen where I felt like I might belong. The adverts for the Trail Pursuits festival were so attractive to me that I even shared it with some girlfriends, asking if they’d be interested next year.
I feel like a victim of Inception-style mind tricks when I learn from Trail Pursuits’ founder, Edward Flood, that beyond just using a more diverse range of runners in their adverts, they specifically chose teal green, warm pink, and orangey-yellow colours to make it feel more accessible than the serious reds, blacks and blues of many other running events. I’m reassured, however, when I found out he actually works closely with Black Trail Runners and other key experts to ensure all aspects of the event are as inclusive as possible.
Ed introduces me to Marie Cheng, founder of expedition company Three Peaks Adventures, who helped him build inclusivity into the event, including a diverse speakers programme. I’m saddened that, despite sharing the same last name, her initial reaction towards me was suspicion due to a bad experience with an outdoors magazine using diverse faces just for show. “None of us were quoted in the article,” she explains.
For Marie, inclusivity, in running in particular, means on top of just race and gender, we should be putting more ordinary people in the spotlight.
“Ordinary means you’re not a pro athlete and running isn’t your breadwinning job,” she believes. “Ordinary people have jobs, lives, partners, dogs, cats – commitments they have to fit their training around. Most people who go to these events are ordinary people. So when you’re getting people to speak at or be seen at events, they should be mums, dads, doctors, builders; people who just happen to love the sport so much that they will try to fit it in, in their own time.”
Marie, who used to do a corporate job in the City, also notes that brands have a huge part to play, but often get it wrong. While it’s not always from a bad place and can even be well-intentioned, she advocates that brands need to step it up. “[They need to] understand different perspectives straight from the people who are in it. They need to get people like us into organisations to really help push the agenda properly, whether you’re a different size, different sexual orientation, a different race.”
The good news is that she’s beginning to see some brands authentically doing the right things, ‘without being cringey’.
Tasha Thompson, founder of Black Girls Do Run UK, also believes that running groups like hers that focus on niches of underrepresented people, combined with working with sporting brands and the media, will help change the face of running, and make running more accessible and attractive to others – women especially.
Tasha also believes that more visibility of regular women from all walks of life running is key. “One of the off-putting misconceptions about running is the need to be fast and that if you are not fast, you are not a real runner,” she says. “All you need to do to be a runner is run, and if that is interspersed with a little walking it really doesn’t matter.”
I’ve always been inspired by the mentality of Backpackers, a running crew that celebrates ‘warriors at the back of the pack’. They are breaking down the misconceptions about speed that often serves as a barrier for people to start running, regardless of race or gender.
“It doesn’t matter what your pace is, what matters is that you’re getting out there and doing your best,” shares Leeanne Ardu, Captain of Backpackers.
At Backpackers, you have to be prepared to stick to the Backpackers pace, and you can ‘graduate’ from the group, unlike many other running groups where the natural pace of the group speeds up the more they train. Leeanne describes how, for many crews, newer members will look at the people ahead of them and think, this isn’t a space for me. “It’s not intentional, but it’s another barrier. New people don’t see the same support [as when the group was formed].”
Lynne Northcott’s running brand Jog On won Small Business of the Year at the 2020 British Muslim Awards for the work it does to support those who want to run, but think they can’t. “For someone who has mental health problems or is struggling for any reason, hyper positivity can put them off,” Lynne explains. “It’s about being realistic when encouraging people to come into running, so they know they can start anywhere.”
Lynne shares how she was nervous before a recent 10K event because she hadn’t run in a while: “I hadn’t met any of the new club members, and wearing a hijab can sometimes make me lack confidence. I just decided to share how I was feeling on the Facebook group. They gave me so much love back, and it gave other people the opportunity to talk about how they had been struggling recently.”
Lynne wonders why runners love talking about physical injuries but not mental struggles. “If we did the same with mental health, running would feel more accessible to everyone,” she says. Running would then feel more like a community of people who are looking out for one another, on this road, together.
The importance of community
When it comes to community, there’s one group that’s recognised by almost every runner I speak to as the prototype for making everyone feel welcome. Originally set up in 2007 ‘for people who don’t consider themselves runners’, urban running group Run Dem Crew has gained legendary status in London and beyond for how it has changed the face of recreational running.
I’m curious to know how the group broke down so many barriers to build arguably the most accessible and most loved running community in the UK. “Even our application form is ‘out there’,” says Sanchia Lege, Run Dem Crew member. “We have questions like, ‘when’s the last time you cried?’, or ‘tell us a secret’. When we have a question about race times, it’s ‘what’s your slowest race?’ but we often don’t have a question about times at all.”
A core part of what makes Run Dem Crew special is the group’s focus on unearthing the ‘why’ behind people’s motivation to run. They hold medal ceremonies where members can bring a medal they won from a race, along with a story about their ‘why’. “It’s been everything from running because they’ve lost someone to cancer, because of mental demons, or because they were bullied at school and told they’d never amount to anything,” Sanchia shares.
The application form also asks members how willing they are to give their time to someone; not just to young people, but to anyone who might be at a transient stage and could use a helping hand. This works so well that relationships like business partnerships often form. The proof is in the pudding; Sanchia’s partner is the crew’s founder Charlie Dark, who she met through the group. There have even been a couple of Run Dem Crew babies. “Running is the least important thing we do,” says Sanchia and I love this philosophy.
A running crew I’d long been following on Instagram for inspiration is the Running Punks, which connects runners through music. While the group has a ‘punk rock attitude’, Running Punks leader Dr Ashley Morgan insists the type of music isn’t important.
“Some of us even like Justin Timberlake!” she shares. “Running Punks have become the family I needed but didn’t have. What I find fantastic about this group is that we’ve got all social classes, sexualities, ages and ethnicities. Our experiences and the way we look might be very different, but we still bond over music.”
Dr Ashley, a Masculinities Scholar at Cardiff Metropolitan University, also highlights the importance of the community after the murders of Sarah Everard and Sabina Nessa in 2021. She’s grateful that the group rallied together and channelled the high-running emotions by releasing a video to raise awareness of the harassment female runners face.
It’s a grim reminder of why we need community now more than ever. The elephant in the room that unites us. The reality for all and any women who step outside alone; this common hurdle we face disproportionately, no matter our race or background.
Hope for the future
Thank goodness there is some progress to report. It’s finally been announced that public sexual harassment is to be made a crime. It’s not a victory – we know that won’t solve many of the problems faced by women who run and women in general – but at least it’s a tiny step in the right direction.
I’m curious as to what’s being done in schools to address the disparities from the ground up and empower the next generation. “Track and athletics are difficult activities,” says Davinder Jayia, PE teacher and Year 9 Coordinator at Northolt High School. “Students are keen on engagement and love team-based activities, so track and athletics tend to be their least favourite.”
Davinder shares that, prior to starting her job, she had a misconception that students from ethnic backgrounds may not want to participate in PE. While she has seen some parents who are a bit more reserved in letting their daughters engage in extracurriculars with mixed gender groups, at her school, she says that students from minority backgrounds form the majority of those who enjoy being physically active.
It gives me hope that Davinder is working to change some of the imbalances. She’s using the learnings from her Masters on re-engaging disaffected adolescents in physical education to develop her school’s curriculum, tailoring PE to support students. For example, something as simple as asking them which activities they wish to engage in can help build young girls’ enthusiasm for sports.
“I’d love to see progress in the discussions around women’s physiology, both in sport – through school, like in PE – and more generally,” says Kym Crosswell, ultramarathon runner and a new mother of twin girls. I’d last seen Kym over a decade ago – a rather hazy night out at university – but, thanks to her social media, she’s since become one of my biggest running inspirations. “I’d also love to see changes in how men talk and behave towards women’s bodies in the sporting world. Men often feel the need to comment on my body in training because they think it’s funny. And we also need to encourage more girls to take part in sport; you lose a lot of women in their teens to their early 20s.”
Kym already takes the twins out for runs, often alternating with her husband who gets the joy of pushing the pram. So what does she want her daughters to take away from the world of running? “I just want them to know about the community, the joy of sport and to feel safe,” she says.
How can we all be more inclusive?
There are simple things we can all do as runners to help build a more inclusive world for recreational running, no matter our race, gender or ability.
“A smile goes a long way making people feel comfortable,” says Uroosa of Hijabi Runners, who notices that people often do a double take when they see her running in a headscarf. “Just talking about [inclusivity] more, and having these open conversations, can make a difference.” I know for me, a smile exchanged with another runner can turn a run from being just a dull slog, into a worthy mission accomplished.
“[When out running], acknowledge other women, even if it’s a nod, a thumbs up, or a ‘brr, it’s chilly’.” says Sabrina. “That small ‘hi’ can lead to relationships, no matter the colour of your skin.”
If a running event doesn’t feel inclusive, an easy thing to do is directly ask the organisers what they’re doing to increase diversity at their event. If they can’t respond, Sabrina advises we point them in her direction, or to organisations like All The Elements, which specialise in diversity in the UK outdoors.
To support runners new or seasoned for whom speed is not a priority, Leeanne of Backpackers says there’s no room for back-handed compliments like ‘You’re so brave!’ or ‘I can’t believe you finished!’. “You can be genuinely supportive – just mean your compliments. And high fives are awesome,” she suggests.
Leeanne believes that, for running, real inclusivity is about runners letting go of their egos, and understanding that ‘putting in the work’ doesn’t care about gender, race, ability or disability. “It’s about how we can come together,” she says, “no matter who we are, to make sure everybody crosses that finish line and feels good about themselves.”
I want to get this framed and put on my wall. Not only is this the mentality I wish the world of running would adopt, this is the wider world I want to live in.