GROUNDBREAKERS: Celebrating Black History Month

GROUNDBREAKER: One that innovates

For Black History Month, we’re running a series entitled "Groundbreakers" featuring stories from Black athletes highlighting the people they see as having broken ground before them. New Groundbreakers are born every day. This month, we celebrate a handful of those who have inspired Black athletes of today.




Elizabeth C. running on a trail in Souther California

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,  



“In my race, there are ten hurdles, but in life, there is always a hurdle. There is always something you gotta get over, and it’s what you do. We can’t allow life to beat us down... everything happens for a reason and it bubbles character in us, and it tells us what we are about and how strong we really are when we didn’t think we could be that strong.”  



My hope is that we will start showing up and find a way to get out on the trails and not let anything hold us back. The outdoor spaces belong to all of us. Running and being outdoors has been very healing and keeps me healthy and fit. Often, I am the only black runner I see on the trail in my area and at races, but that will not stop me from showing up. We have such a rich history to remind us that we are strong and brave. There are more groundbreakers out there to be proud of and celebrate! When we acknowledge and condense the achievements of blacks into one month it prolongs the exact thing that our groundbreakers worked hard to overcome. Our history is American history. I believe one day we’ll be at a place where the achievements of runners like Ted Corbitt, Gail Devers, Mack Robinson, and others will be celebrated all throughout the year.  

My favorite route that I have run is the South Downs of England in a 53-mile race from Arundel to Winchester, Cathedral. I enjoyed getting to know runners from all over the world. One thing I learned from them is that we are not very different. Although we come from different ethnicities and various backgrounds, we all have more in common than we think. I love the way Martin Luther King, Jr. put it when he said, 



"We may have all come on different ships, but we are in the same boat now." 



My favorite place to train is on trails by the ocean. Mountain running and hiking is something I had started doing right before the pandemic hit. We have beautiful local mountains and accessible trails that lead up to Mt. Baldy and Mt. San Gorgonio peak.  

Right now, I am training and eating healthy so that I can run my best. My first 100km and Sky Race is in a few months and hopefully my first 100-miler later this year. 


About the author: 

Elizabeth is an Altra R.E.D. Team member, a trail runner, a mom, and so much more. She’s passionate about running, cooking, and traveling, and lives in southern California with her husband and two sons.  

Find her on Instagram: @runthenest