Alison Mariella Désir found distance running at a low point in her life, and it saved her life, she says. But when she started, she explains that she was the "only Black person in a crowd of white people".
"I kept hearing how running was democratic and a sport ‘for everybody’ kept getting repeated: The world’s most democratic sport! All you need are shoes! Just show up!,"
she describes in her book "Running While Black". She says it was "both annoying and funny, because it was clear that this message came from white runners in a white sport inside a white country, and they had no idea what it was like to be a Black body in such a climate.”
Désir wanted Black people to run with, so she started a running club in Harlem called Harlem Run
. Since then, she has also founded Run 4 All Women
and the Meaning Thru Movement Tour
, and become cochair of the nonprofit Running Industry Diversity Coalition
. She is an endurance athlete, activist, and mental health advocate.
Désir wrote "Running While Black" as a story of personal transformation but also as a call to reimagine the industry — so that running can fulfill its promise of accessibility for everyone.
Today, Désir will do a book reading at Gazelle Sports
in Birmingham, and then a run and community shoe giveaway with WeRun313 in Detroit (details below).
Like Désir, Detroiters Lance Woods and Joe Robinson wanted to start a running group where people who looked like them would feel comfortable. They founded WeRun313
“I think that on the one hand, we know that we're underrepresented in this space. But on the other hand, there are still quite a few of us who are building community, and we're not looking for permission to take up space and do things our way,” Désir says. “It's like recognizing that, though the industry has never centered us, that won't stop us from taking care of ourselves and creating communities that are warm and powerful and inclusive and that allow us to show up as our authentic selves.”
Photo supplied / WeRun313
Both Woods and Robinson grew up in Detroit. They didn’t know each other, but they found running and realized it made them feel better, mentally and physically. But, Woods says, “I didn’t see many Black people running in my community.”
They were running in separate parts of Detroit — as well as around the U.S. A mutual friend connected them, and they joined forces. “We had similarities in our stories, and we put our ideas together. We birthed WeRun313 to build community and introduce the power of what running could do for mental and physical wellness,” Woods says.
Robinson says that, growing up, he saw family members and people in his neighborhood dealing with problems like anxiety, depression, obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. “So we were like, well, why don't we share this running thing with our community?” he says.
In the beginning, they were just trying to get people out, Robinson says. “We didn't know anything about running—we just knew that it made us feel better. That's it. We didn't know all these different scientific facts, and we didn't know all the things that experience would one day teach us about it.” But they knew they wanted to share it.
Robinson says he appreciates the mental clarity he gets from running. All the thoughts that go through your mind each day, Robinson says, “running gives you the opportunity to stack them neatly, like a Jenga tower. Because if you don't, those thoughts are just all over the place.”
Running also builds self-esteem and confidence, Robinson says. “It gives you the mental fortitude to really see things through, push past your perceived limits, and to do things that you didn't really think you could do.”
The group’s mission is “connecting like-minded individuals through running to build a healthier and happier community, so we have runners of all levels, all ages, all paces, all races,” Woods says. “Everybody accepts one another as who they are, and that's what we've been able to build. It's judgment free.”
On a typical week that includes three group runs, between 300 and 500 people run with WeRun313. The fact that hundreds of people — many of them Black — run together through Detroit regularly is notable. What do others who see them think?
“It gives them the courage to just try, because when you see the group, you see so many shapes, so many sizes, so many colors, you see so many different people,” Woods says. “It'd be like, ‘Yo, I want to come join, that looks fun.’ That's why people continue to come out.”
The group also invites people who are in town visiting — from all over the world—to run with them. “We've created a space where people view Detroit differently because in media, they don't always see Detroit as this great city — or it's plagued with violence and crime,” Woods says. “We have definitely changed the narrative in how people see Detroit.”
Running While Black
The concept of running while Black “is something that every Black runner has thought about,” Robinson says.
Woods agrees. “Just running through our neighborhoods in itself is just a different experience — different things we think about that we don't think white people have to think about.”
In Michigan, Désir will be in Birmingham, Detroit, Lansing, Okemos, Kalamazoo, and Grand Rapids. Across the country, she is visiting different types of communities on her book tour.
Photo supplied / WeRun313
In broad terms, Désir says, the book’s two audiences are Black people and marginalized people, and white people. “What I'm excited about on my tour is that I'll be able to engage with both audiences—intentionally connecting with Black-led run groups and in Black spaces, but then also having the opportunity to connect with these running stores that are working to be more racially inclusive but have a largely white audience.”
“I think it's an important place for white runners specifically to understand what other people experience with running,” says Chris Lampen-Crowell, who is co-chair of the Running Industry Diversity Coalition with Désir, as well as co-owner of Gazelle Sports, which is WeRun313’s run specialty store partner. Even for non-runners, the book’s message is important, he says.
“Where we're at right now, we have to understand history. And I think Alison does a great job of bringing that forward and interweaving her personal story with the history of white supremacy,” so that people can better understand how to build a more inclusive culture, Lampen-Crowell says.
“My hope in all of this, in terms of the Running Industry Diversity Coalition, in terms of Alison's book, in terms of this tour — is that we open doors to people feeling that running or walking or fitness can be part of their […] that they feel welcome and feel like this is a place for them.”
Désir is looking forward to her time in Michigan. “Detroit is a city that I've always felt a kinship with, because of its similarities to New York, having a large black population being gritty and urban,” she says. “And, for connecting with groups like WeRun313, it's always cool to see how people put their own spin on something as simple as running.”
In her book tour so far, Désir says she has found that “because of the vulnerability of my book, people feel like they can be very vulnerable in the audience and in conversation, and it's bringing up a lot for people on all sides, which is what you hope for with a book.”
And these conversations are happening in many different communities. Désir says she hopes that “me visiting Michigan, and this tour, is a catalyst for bigger change within the running industry and running community.”
Michigan Book Tour
Nov. 10, 2022 – Birmingham and Detroit
Alison Mariella Désir. Photo supplied / Brandon Williams.
11 a.m. – 1 p.m.: In-store book-reading, book-signing and Q&A session with Désir at Gazelle Sports Birmingham (99 W. Maple Rd.).
5 p.m. and 6:30 p.m.: Community Shoe Drop from 5 to 6:30 p.m., where Gazelle Sports and Playmakers will partner with WeRun313 to donate and distribute hundreds of pairs of gently used shoes to those in need in the metro Detroit community. At 6:30 p.m., Désir will offer brief remarks to kick-off the WeRun313 Thursday Night 5k/10k run. Events will take place at Robert C. Valade Park on Atwater Street in Detroit.
Nov. 11, 2022 – Lansing and Okemos
8:30 a.m.: Community run/walk with Run Tha City 517, leaving from Uncovered Beauty Studio in Lansing (1106 N. Cedar St., Suite 221B).
12 p.m.: Book-signing and meet and greet session with Désir at Socialight Society in Lansing Mall in Lansing (5454 W. Saginaw Hwy.).
5 p.m. & 6:30 p.m.: Book-signing (5 p.m.) and panel discussion (6:30 p.m.), hosted by Tommie Runz (AKA Thomas Bailey) of The RUN EAT SLEEP Show, featuring Running Industry Diversity Coalition leadership, including Désir, Chris Lampen-Crowell, Shannon Woods and John Benedict, at Playmakers Okemos (2299 W. Grand River Ave.).
Nov. 12, 2022 – Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo
8 a.m.: Three-mile out-and-back community run/walk with local area run/walk groups. Starts and ends at Gazelle Sports Downtown Grand Rapids location (52 Monroe Center NW).
9 – 9:30 a.m.: Panel discussion, hosted by Gazelle Sports Ambassador, Sammie Bennett, of Lyon Street Run Club and Trail Sisters GR. The panel, also taking place at Gazelle Sports Downtown GR, will examine running safety, what that means for runners with marginalized identities and what is needed to feel a sense of safety when running.
9:30 – 10:30 a.m.: Book-signing with Désir at Gazelle Sports Downtown Grand Rapids (52 Monroe Center St. NW).
4:30 p.m.: Book-signing and talk with Désir, hosted by Run This Town Run Crew, at Gazelle Sports Kalamazoo (214 S. Kalamazoo Mall).
How to connect with WeRun313
From May to the first week of December, WeRun313 has three group runs per week: two-mile Tuesday, 5k/10k Thursday, and a long run on Sunday. Two-mile Tuesday is an introductory run for runners at all levels, “We wait for everybody and cheer everybody in. We don't leave people behind.” For the run locations and times and to connect, see the group’s Strava page
, or follow them on Instagram
, or Twitter
Editor’s note: Journalist Allison Torres Burtka is co-lead of the Running Industry Diversity Coalition’s Media Subgroup.