Look around the next time you line up for a race or log miles on a trail: Recreational running — in Austin and around the country — draws a predominantly white crowd.
On a recent Saturday morning, though, one boisterous group was doing its best to change that. About 20 members of the local chapter of Black Girls Run! gathered near a downtown trailhead, stretching in advance of their weekly run around Lady Bird Lake.
“We’re doing 4 miles today,” announced Adrian Lipscombe, 31, a shaggy Irish wolfhound at her side. Lipscombe, a project manager for the City of Austin’s bike share program, serves as ambassador for the Austin chapter of the national running organization. “Ready to go? Have a smile on your face?”
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 8.1 percent of Austin’s population is black. That number is about 13 percent nationally. But according to Running USA’s biannual National Runner Survey, just 1.6 percent of people who describe themselves as “core runners” are African-American, while 90 percent are white.
Some blame the disparity on a lack of role models. Others point to a lack of safe streets for running or cultural differences.
Whatever the reasons, Black Girls Run!, which also has chapters in Houston, San Antonio and Dallas, is working to add color to the running scene and counter a growing trend of obesity. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 80 percent of African-American women are overweight.
The national group was started in 2009 by Ashley Hicks and Toni Carey, who met at college in Tennessee. After graduation, Hicks, a former soccer player, started running to stay in shape. Carey saw her transformation and decided to run, too.
“When we’d go to road races, we’d be the only black people there,” said Carey, 29. They joined a running group in Charlotte, N.C., for a workout one day but didn’t feel welcome. “It was almost like, ‘Are you sure you guys are in the right place?’” Then, after she bought a new pair of running shoes, Carey called her mom to share her excitement. “She was like, ‘Black girls don’t run. That’s something white girls do,’” Carey said.
Those experiences galvanized Carey and Hicks to fight the stereotypes. They started a blog, which evolved into the Black Girls Run! organization, which now has 70 chapters and 60,000 members. The group hosts an annual convention, sells merchandise (including T-shirts emblazoned with the motto “Preserve the Sexy”), reviews products and raises money for charity. They plan to expand internationally and launch a family-friendly series of 5K or 10K races, too.
“I think if you don’t see someone like yourself doing something, you automatically assume that’s not for you,” Carey said. “That’s the case for running, skiing, camping and rock climbing. You just don’t see us out there. What we try to do is give women permission to participate in things they normally wouldn’t do.”
The Austin chapter has more than 350 members, from single moms to professors and attorneys. They keep up through a Facebook page, posting information about training runs, nutrition and upcoming events. They gather for happy hours and book discussions, and they meet at races to run and cheer each other on. A second branch of the Austin group meets at Brushy Creek in Williamson County on Saturday mornings. Once a month, the groups merge for a joint run.
On this day, they rambled south across the pedestrian bridge under Loop 1, laughing and breaking into smaller groups based on pace as they made their way toward Auditorium Shores.
“It’s a very different experience to be black in Austin,” said LaSchon Harding, 36, a property manager who says she had a hard time adjusting when she and her husband moved here from Raleigh, N.C. “I feel like this group rescued me. … Austin is a great place, but it’s challenging to make it home. This makes it possible.”
Gina McCauley, 37, an attorney, says she joined mostly for social reasons. “I see people who look like me. If you’re not a native Austinite, you’re always looking for a gathering of black people,” she said.
Keisha Bickham, 36, an administrator for St. David’s Medical Center, wasn’t a runner until she connected with Black Girls Run! “No matter what else is going on, you know that at 7 a.m. you have a place to go and people to run with,” she said.
Terri Givens, 49, who teaches government at the University of Texas, says the group helps black women overcome traditional barriers to running, from cost to culture.
“Unfortunately, African-Americans and Hispanics have the worst issues with cardiovascular disease and diabetes. There just isn’t this culture of staying fit,” she said. “With running, though, all you need is a pair of shoes.”
Givens ran track in college herself. “A lot of us were athletes, but you finish your athletic career and turn into a couch potato,” she said.
That leaves just one hurdle, which the women almost hesitated to bring up. Even hair, they say, especially if it is chemically straightened, can get in the way of a black girl and a hard workout.
“Black women will spend three hours in a salon getting their hair done,” said Ayeesha Green, 42, a student. “They don’t want to ruin it by getting it sweaty.”
Fortunately there’s a quick fix for that. Many of the women in Black Girls Run wear their hair naturally kinky or cut it short.
After they wrapped up their run, the women headed to JuiceLand for smoothies. It turns out they have a tradition: If it’s your first time to run with them, they buy you a shot. Of wheatgrass.
UPDATE: We’ve changed the headline to more accurately reflect the story. Thank you for your comments.