Oct | 27

Voices of the Run: Toni Carey

I used to not be able to wrap my mind around running as a form of exercise. I didn’t understand running or have any interaction with it. The thought of running conjured images of Steve Prefontaine–short shorts and mustaches. Running didn’t seem accessible because I never saw anyone that looked like me running on television or in magazines or in my neighborhood. I assumed it wasn’t a space for me.

The reasons why I started to run were a perfect storm of needing something to keep myself occupied and also really wanting to change my lifestyle to being healthier and feel happier. When I started running in 2007, I’d just moved to New Jersey from Nashville after I graduated from college, and also my boyfriend and I had broken up. So running became a distraction that helped me navigate the transition.

My first run was 30 minutes, and it was torturous. My legs felt like lead, and I couldn’t breathe. I felt defeated. I cried during and after and for every run for nearly three weeks. I was frustrated because I was hoping that running would come easier. I’d ask myself, ‘What makes me think I can do this?’ Inevitably, you’re just with yourself. So whatever is going on in your head, you have to confront it.

I was never an athlete growing up. I was the chubby kid who was made fun of, which led to self-esteem issues. When I started running, I thought the idea that it was just me and the road, me competing against myself was really attractive. I’d run on two-lane highways in what was predominately a white town. I started to feel amazing after the fifth week into it. My endurance had improved, and I was eating healthier. I felt empowered and strong.

There I was, running all these miles, which was something I didn’t think I could do, and on top of that, I was killing it at work while acclimating to a new city by myself. I had finally found a little piece of the independent woman inside of me that I hadn’t known before. Running can shift everything.

At my first race, the Newport News 10K in 2009, I remember standing in a corral with a frightened expression. As I looked around, I noticed that there weren’t any other black women. I felt isolated. ‘Should I really be doing this?’, I wondered. I couldn’t really relate to anyone.

But black girls do run. My business partner Ashley, who was my sorority sister in college, is a runner and also my inspiration. We both have histories of diabetes and high blood pressure in our families–chronic illnesses that are common in African American communities. We both ran separately in our respective cities, and as we continued to do it and feel better, we questioned what if more black people started running, would obesity statistics decline?

We launched a blog about our running experiences with hope that maybe we could convince people that running is cool and that they should try it. We wrote about everything, from our running apparel to experimenting with being vegan and vegetarian.

In 2011, we posted on our blog about a race meet up in Atlanta at the Georgia Marathon. We didn’t think anyone would show up, but about 20 African American women came from all over the country. It was mind blowing. They didn’t know there were other black women that were into running. No one knew each other, but we immediately clicked. Everyone was so happy to meet other women who were like them and also to talk about running. The conversation was so positive. We were onto something.

We saw change before our eyes. It was like nothing we had ever experienced. For years, organizations and government agencies had been trying move the needle on African-American health, and we were actually doing it.

There’s still a lot of work to be done. We need more representation. We need to see more African-American women and men running long distance professionally. Barriers need to be broken. As I like to say, be the change that you want to see.

About Sarah Gearhart
Sarah Gearhart is a sports journalist based in New York City. Formerly a senior producer for USA TODAY Sports, her work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Runner's World Magazine, ESPN, Vice Sports and Victory Journal. An avid runner for 17 years, she is a three-time Boston Marathon qualifier and has completed 11 marathons, most recently in Berlin, Germany, where she also curated a running-related photography exhibition.
  1. cheryl

    Hi Toni- great that you are doing this! I coached cross country for 7 years (elementary school kids) and we had girls of all colors running (this was in the 90s). My story is similar to yours, but somewhat opposite. I started running in 1970 when there was no distance longer than an 800 on the track. Guess who dominated the track scene then (and now!)- I was surrounded by ladies of color, and they were super fast, but it never crossed my mind that I didn’t belong. We just all loved to run. When I was doing marathons yearly, in the late 70s and early 80s there was one lady I could never catch at our local long-distance races. She was a black girl and we could “hang” because we, again, loved the same things. Keep up the good work and keep on running!

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