There is a deep awareness that joins me whenever I run. It isn’t something I consciously focus on, but it is part of who I am. It’s a feeling of gratitude, joy, and a sense of thankfulness. I am the beneficiary of the collective efforts of individuals who broke ground and paved the way for people of color to freely enjoy the trails and outdoor spaces.
These groundbreakers paid a very high price. To indulge in travel without fear is something that I do not take for granted. In 1960, my mother was the first black woman to integrate the University dormitory where she earned her bachelor's degree. My aunt, who was a singer, shared stories of touring the U.S. with her band during the Jim Crow era. “The Negro Motorist Green Book” was a publication that listed safe routes and hospitable places where she could get gas, eat, and lodge. They couldn’t just play it by ear and stop at any hotel when they got tired. The book listed which towns to avoid and safe ports of call where black travelers wouldn’t face danger. When I travel for races with my family, I think about what that must have been like for my parents and my aunt.
There have been so many people in our history that were groundbreakers that we don’t hear about. People like Ted Corbitt, the first black ultrarunner. In 1963, at age 50, he ran a 100-miler on track in 13:33. He was the #2 ultrarunner in the world throughout the ’60s. Then there is Mack Robinson, the older brother of baseball Hall of Famer, Jackie Robinson. Mack won the silver medal in the 200m in the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin. He finished 0.4 seconds behind Jesse Owens. Although Mack was an Olympic champion, that meant very little here in the States. Racial conflict in 1936 in Pasadena California cost him his job when city officials fired all-black city workers in retaliation for the desegregation of public swimming pools. Despite racial prejudice looming over the city, Mack always held his head high and gave back to the community throughout his lifetime.
When I think of groundbreakers, Gail Devers immediately comes to mind. I remember watching the Summer Olympics in Barcelona on TV. Seeing Gail run was electrifying. The thing about Gail that inspires me is her work ethic and outlook on life. She didn’t give up when she was diagnosed with Graves’ disease and nearly needed leg amputation. It took more than two years for doctors to make a diagnosis. (It gives a lot of perspective to our races being canceled in 2020 because of the pandemic.) Gail set her mind on running and fought hard to recover. She won three gold medals and in an interview in 2013 had this to say,