Western Washington Gets Real: Running while Black

Running saved the life of one Snohomish County woman who now says she’s using running to maybe save and improve the lives of others.

Alison Desir is all too familiar with the concept of “running while Black,” when minorities face questions or discrimination when running for exercise.

She talked with KIRO 7′s Ranji Sinha about her advocacy in Seattle that’s now taking her around the country.

“On the one hand, running saved my life, has transformed my life, and given me everything good in my life. But on the other hand, it comes with a set of risks,” said Desir, who admits that running brings a certain sense of freedom for anyone who pounds the pavement.

For her, it comes with a potential cost. Desir says running whisked her away from depression.

“I went from my couch to my bed, back to my couch. I spent most of my time on social media watching people live their best lives. Doom scrolling,” said Desir.

She says she quickly ran into the concept of “running while Black” — the discrimination that can plague runners who are Black or maybe from other minority groups. Desir has experienced things first hand.

“Everything from getting funny looks, right, which is a subtle way of signifying you don’t belong, to people questioning where you’re going. ‘Are you lost?’” said Desir.

In a sport that can be the ultimate solitary practice, emptying your mind, and sealing out the world — especially in the modern era of headphones — Desir has always had double consciousness about running. She says it’s liberating but frightening.

“Will I make it home after this run?” said Desir.

When she spoke to KIRO 7, she was adorned in bright running clothes and exercise gear that made it abundantly clear that she is indeed running.

“Do you see what I’m wearing? I think it’s a big part of it. I would never go running in a hoodie and sweats,” said Desir.

Desir decided to make space for people like her. She’s part of many groups promoting running to BIPOC communities, but Seattle Running Collective is the group she’s spearheaded in Washington and in our region.

“Running is hard enough, on top of that, you have to think about what other people are thinking about you. I want people to start running, I want people to know the outdoors are for them,” said Desir.

She was inspired to run by seeing a Black man in the U.S. train for a marathon. Desir admits Black people that are running marathons are usually from Kenya, Ethiopia or other African nations that excel at long-distance running.

Desir started recruiting runners to tackle “running while Black” in the wake of the Ahmaud Arbery case.

Feb. 23, 2020, was the date that the 25-year-old Black man was chased down in a Georgia neighborhood and shot and killed by three men while out for a run. The men were convicted of murder and the case inspired Desir to write her book.

“In Ahmaud, I saw myself, I saw that, in some point in my son’s life, he, too, could be murdered for doing something as mundane as going for a run,” said Desir.

Her book has helped attract attention to her cause and she says many more people are expressing interest in her, her efforts, and Seattle Running Collective. She formed the group in January 2022 and it saw local running clubs come together to make running more diverse and inclusive.

“It’s resisting the fear of not going outside, it’s resisting the narrative that we don’t do this,” said Desir.

Desir has run six marathons, and while she fully acknowledges that “running while Black” is a serious concern, she says running can overcome it with a huge selling point: That it can be fun for everyone.

“If it weren’t fun, we wouldn’t be doing it. Running is of course very challenging, but there’s something so beautiful about pushing your body,” said Desir.

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