The Remarkable Privilege Of Running

In the 10 months since my son’s birth, I’ve gotten into the best running shape of my life. From ascending 8,000 feet to cross a finish line atop Pike’s Peak in Colorado, to my current training for an ultra marathon, I’m accomplishing athletic feats I never before had the time to even consider.

But, as I’ve logged many of those miles, I’ve also had the time to consider something else: just how privileged I am to run so regularly and carelessly.

This is something that I grew up taking for granted. My parents were both runners, so weekend days were often spent doing a family 5K or cheering them on at races. Following that same path wasn’t so much a conscious decision, as a natural way to exercise.

Now that I am a full-time mom and part-time writer, my schedule isn’t particularly easy — but it does afford me flexibility. I am not solely burdened by concerns of making ends meet, thanks to my husband’s career. I also live in an area where generally safe, runnable trails are nearly as common as roads. This is where my “commitment to exercise” and inherent privilege as an upper-middle-class woman have an inextricable link.

But while I may understand this, our culture seems not to. “Exercise more” is frequently and off-handedly prescribed as the simple solution to all of broader society’s health ills — and running is often seen as a workout with a very low cost-of-entry. “You don’t need any equipment beyond a pair of running shoes,” one writer for Runner’s World recently put it. “For this reason alone, running is the best workout for weight loss because it’s cheap, it’s accessible, and there are fewer barriers to maintaining a routine, even while traveling.”

But while running is indeed less costly than many other athletic pursuits, like gym classes, skiing, or golf, calling it outright “accessible” isn’t really accurate. When Runner’s World did the calculations in 2013, they determined the average runner would spend more than $14,000 throughout the course of her running life if she goes about it with $50 shoes and never participates in a race. On the upper end, a runner could easily drop $50,000 throughout her life just on the essential gear.

If a runner wants to participate in special running events, like half marathons or marathons, these prices further escalate. A 2013 Esquire report noted that marathon costs are, in fact, soaring:

“The average entry fee for the top 25 U.S. marathons has gone up 35% since 2007, to $112 — three and a half times faster than inflation — according to the industry association RunningUSA. For the top 25 half marathons, which have become hugely popular, the average price has more than doubled, to $94. And while (today’s) Boston Marathon cost a comparatively cheap $150, the New York Marathon rose from $80 in 2004 to $255 last year, a 219% increase.”

And that’s just for registration; factor in often-necessary hotel stays and additional clothing and gear costs like sunglasses and sports bras, and entry becomes far from accessible to lower-income people.

With that in mind, it’s easy to see how people may need more disposable income in order to become committed runners: Of 30,000 “core runners” surveyed in the 2013 National Runner Survey conducted by Running USA, three-in-four had an average annual household income of $75,000. That was a full $20,000 more than the median income of all American households for the same year.

But not having the money to spend on shoes or running clothes is just one small piece of the problem. Christina Holt, MA, associate director for Community Tool Box Services, explained that some would-be runners may also be impaired by the conditions of their communities. “If you look at the socio-ecological model, you know that the individual is at the center, but then there’s the neighborhood and the family and the community and society,” she explains. “There are so many things that affect access, and barriers all the way along that continuum.”

Put simply, low-income neighborhoods often aren’t as safe for runners, for a number of reasons. One study, for instance, found that due to poor infrastructure and safety enforcement, pedestrians living in low-income neighborhoods were six times more likely to be injured by a moving vehicle than those from high-income neighborhoods. And then, of course, there’s the threat of violence; according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, people from low-income households face more than twice the rate of nonfatal violent victimization — including rape or sexual assault, robbery, aggravated assault, and simple assault — than those from high-income households.

Under such circumstances, it makes sense that people in lower-income areas are less comfortable going out for a jog, especially early in the morning or later at night, when running is often the most convenient for those with 9-to-5 jobs. Take, for instance, the dilemma described in a forum thread about trying to run in a place with an estimated 764 aggravated assaults and 763 robberies per year. The person asked, “Any tips outside of mace? I run at 4:30 a.m.” Many who responded said the solution was simple — just don’t run. As one put it, “Find another time or another activity. It isn’t worth it.”

This is the reality of life inside what Holt described as an “exercise desert.” She explained these are “places where there are conditions that do not support being physically active, based on the social demographic conditions and the daily realities for those who live in particular neighborhoods or communities.”

Beyond the socioeconomics of running, the activity also remains overwhelmingly white; there’s a reason marathons are #27 on the “Stuff White People Like” list. A 2016 National Runner Survey from Running USA found that 83% of diehard American runners identify as white — even though, nationwide, only 62% of the population identified as white, according to a 2015 census estimate. Although there are organizations working to correct that imbalance, including Black Girls Run and Black Men Run, the sport is far from representing the diverse world in which we live. Tes Sobomehin, who founded Atlanta-based group RunningNerds, says we are still a “long, long ways” from running becoming common among minority groups.

In part, this is because of a long whitewashed and discriminatory history. As Jean Knaack, executive director of the Road Runners Club of America, explained it to Runners World, “Everybody is aware that distance running, from the early days, was prominently white and has continued to be that way.” That article also noted a lack of outreach to underrepresented ethnic and racial groups.

A lack of role models plays a role as well. Tes Sobomehin, the native of a working-class, predominantly black community in Indiana, says she simply didn’t consider running to be an option when she was growing up. “A lot of people, when they think of distance runners, the first thing they think of is Africans, not necessarily American-born black folks running distance,” she told me.

Considering the well-documented physical and mental health benefits of running, it’s problematic that the exercise has been denied to those who are racially, ethnically, and socioeconomically marginalized . . . especially considering that it’s often assumed to be one of the few physical activities with a relatively low bar to entry.

Although there are days when running feels as simple as putting on my shoes and heading out the door, it’s also essential that I acknowledge the other circumstances that contribute to that luxury: the money that allows me to replace those shoes every few months, the safety of my neighborhood, and the pro-running culture in which I was raised.

I can no longer talk about how “cheap and easy” running is in good conscience.

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Lead image: Pixabay

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