Tasha Thompson was midway through a race last year when she asked a course marshal which way the route turned next. The attendant, seemingly oblivious to Thompson's large rectangular running bib with runner registration serial-number, running kit, trainers – or the fact she was with another Black racer – asked, after a moment of silence; 'Are you running the race?'.
Speaking with her friend later, runner of 21-years Thompson expressed incredulity that the marshal had, for whatever reason, not believed them to be racing – they weren't carrying shopping bags or wearing non-exercise clothing. There was no reason for them not to be running or taking part in the event.
Of course, whether the marshal questioned Thompson's participation due to her ethnicity is an unknown. But, the reality for Black, Asian and minority ethnic women participating in historically White-majority sports – running, hiking, swimming – is that often, they're the minority in a visual and visceral way.
'Throughout all my time racing I never really saw anybody that looked like me,' Thompson reflects, ruminating on the fact that were races not in Hackney or other urban spaces, she was able to count on two hands the other Black runners amongst hundreds to thousands of other participants. 'It's not that you're personally being left out, but naturally, you can feel a little ostracised because, when you're the minority in a group, it can be quite lonely to be by yourself.'
In the UK, the activity gap between the recommended 150-minutes of exercise per week for UK adults and how many BAME women hit this target, is stark. In fact, one report published by Sport England showed that just 56% of Black people were reaching the weekly guidelines, whilst 2018 Active Lives Survey saw this number drop to 54% for Black women and 50% for Asian women.
And, according to research, Black women are at an increased risk of suffering from mental health afflictions when compared to other ethnic groups – something exercise and fitness has been shown to partially mitigate when undertaken regularly.
For Thompson, the seeds of creating a safe running space for Black women and women of colour had been planted but it wasn't until she stumbled across Black Girls Run – a US running club contingent – that she determined the same opportunity for Black women to run together wasn't available in the UK. Yet.
In April 2019, Thompson founded Black Girls Do Run UK, 'a small running family who are all about encouraging, inspiring and motivating' Black women to run, jog, and take part in events. Steering clear of programmes and plans to improve split times or dive into the relentless side of race training, Thompson has created a community for members to find support, motivation, and most importantly, fun, in the sport they so love.
'We’re just talking about the average female going to work, going to college, that’s got children, that runs slow. We want to showcase them, not the ones that are winning races and medals and money. It’s not about them. It’s about the regular female runner of colour and encouraging them to run.'
Originally an Instagram page to connect Black women, over the past year, Black Girls Do Run UK has become a physical community growing in numbers by 600 per cent and currently keeps connected via Strava and Whatsapp.
'It started with me and two other friends who run and now it’s grown to include people who had never run before, saw us and said "I want to be part of that" and then started running,' Thompson explains. However, with races and events still without a set date to return and social distancing laws making group pursuits untenable, Black Girls Do Run UK have pivoted to be a club that keep each other motivated virtually instead.
'There was a point this year – before COVID-19 turned everything upside down – where five of us would meet up every Thursday at 5am to go running,' Thompson laughs, reflecting on a time before 2-metre separations and face-masks. 'We're still running, just not together at the moment but we do have a Whatsapp group that we keep running related,' she explains.
But, and this is an important caveat, Thompson doesn't believe you need to 'be' a runner to join a run-club: 'I always encourage people to walk. Try walking 5-minutes and then run for 2-5 minutes. The most important thing it to just be consistent,' she says. 'We really try not to be about how many minutes you can run a mile in or what time you're going to finish a race in – our aim is to always just to cross the finish line. We've been told before how happy we look running and it's because we're not putting ourselves under any pressure.'
The happiness Black Girls Do Run UK brings to races has, of course, been temporarily kiboshed whilst events are postponed due to coronavirus, but that doesn't detract from the joy Thompson recalls posting up to races as a crew: 'We're all there together, we have a laugh, we encourage each other, we wait for each other at the finish line – it's such a nice sisterhood.'
Wrapping up, Thompson shares her best, most simple piece of advice for Black women who want to start running but are feeling apprehensive: 'Just get out there,' she tells me with the wisdom of someone who gets out there, day after day, showing up for her community and herself. 'So what if people look at you? It's intimidating but you just have to ignore them.'
How to join Black Girls Do Run UK
Membership is currently free but from 2021 joining fees will be £25. To contact Black Girls Do Run UK, reach out via their Instagram or drop them an email on email@example.com.
Editor's Note: Black Girls Do Run UK is a safe running community for Black women. Please be aware of this before requesting to join – it is integral that safe spaces are reserved for those who they are intended for.
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