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Ever since she founded Harlem Run in 2013, Alison Mariella Désir has been building community in the world of running—and uplifting people who are underrepresented in it. She also co-founded the Running Industry Diversity Coalition (RIDC) and wrote the book Running While Black: Finding Freedom in a Sport That Wasn’t Built for Us.
In August, she led a running retreat exclusively for Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) in Alaska. This retreat took 12 people of various ethnic backgrounds, 10 of whom were women, to Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula. The participants’ previous running experience varied, from a D1 collegiate runner to someone who identifies more as a walker than a runner. Together, they ran trails through forests and wildflowers, along shorelines to a river where they watched salmon jumping upstream, and more than 2,200 feet up to the top of a mountain.
On the trails where they ran and hiked, nearly all the other people around were white. “There was no doubt that we were hyper-visible,” Désir said. Sometimes, when a person of color is “the only” in an otherwise white space, they feel pressure because they’re hyper-visible, but this all-BIPOC group was different, she explained. The retreat created “a space where none of us was going to be the only one there,” and no one was going to have to speak for their entire population, she said.
“In instances when I’m in a group and I’m feeling good about myself, I don’t mind being hyper-visible, because it’s like, ‘Yeah, guess what? We are here,’” she said.
A few times during the retreat, people in Alaska recognized Désir. While the group was waiting in line in a coffee shop in Anchorage, a white, red-haired woman walked up to Désir and said, “I’m a fan of yours, and I just want you to know that it’s great that you have brought all these people up to Alaska.”
“We’re Going to Continue to Build Spaces”
Désir hosted the retreat through Run Alaska Trails, which handled all the logistics. The fact that Alaska was unfamiliar to almost all the participants added to the excitement of the group experiencing its natural beauty together.
“In my mind, Alaska was never a place where Black people go. It was like this beautiful opportunity to give us all permission to go someplace that we didn’t think was for us,” Désir said. “It was just so much fun—it was like a summer camp for all of us, and the only things that mattered on those days were seeing beautiful things, moving our bodies, and sharing time and space with each other.”
Creating space where BIPOC feel included and comfortable is important, particularly in trail running, which many BIPOC runners say lacks inclusiveness. A recent running study conducted by the RIDC found that BIPOC runners are concerned about barriers to access, safety, and inclusion in the sport.
The brand Altra recently posted a video on Instagram with a caption about progress on equity in trail running, but it included only white people. The video “starts with a white woman saying how you have to see it to be it, and then the entire video is all white people. The video is making the case for gender equity, but gender equity only from a position of whiteness and white supremacy, where the gender equity piece is for white women,” Désir said.
After Désir and others commented on this discrepancy, Altra changed the caption to say: “We posted this video attempting to celebrate the progress High Lonesome has made in increasing female participation in ultra-trail racing. When featuring the women who participated in the race, our video did not feature any women of color. Unfortunately, this contributed to the erasure of BIPOC women in the trail running space. This moment further highlights the need to accelerate the work for our brand and the industry as a whole.”
“I’m just so excited to be part of building this next generation of women of color in trail.”
This points to some running industry decision-makers’ lack of awareness of racial inequity, Désir said. Sometimes industry leaders “will say, ‘Well, Black people just don’t like trail running, or Black people are afraid to do this,’ and it’s like—no, actually, when given the space and the conditions that we deserve, we do all things. We like all things.”
Désir explained, “I do make critiques of the industry, but I also build space, like my retreat, like Women of Color Take the Lead. We—and it’s not just me—we’re going to continue to build spaces and build power, whether you’ve understood it or not.”
The Ripple Effect of Representation
One woman in the Alaska group, a cross-country and track coach, came to the retreat without ever having run trails. “Come to find out, she’s such a talented trail runner,” Désir said. “She is somebody who I could see lining up and doing really well at these races. And now she might. But without this experience, it might not have ever become available to her. So this retreat really does have implications for how you create confidence, community, and space for people to step into this.”
The experience may open doors and shift perspectives for the runners on the retreat. But it can also affect “all the other people who see this, know they can do it, and decide to take up space,” Désir said. She added that she hopes it causes a ripple effect that reaches the industry, too.
“I hope that it serves as an example of what can be done,” Désir said. “If you want to build future trail runners, if you want to build comfort in the outdoors, well, you have to create spaces for us to be in the outdoors.”
While this retreat was open only to people who identify as BIPOC, Désir and Run Alaska Trails are planning two retreats in Alaska for next year, one for BIPOC and one for anyone. But even in spaces designated for BIPOC, “there is room for allies to be supportive,” Désir said.
In Alaska, these allies included white women who were key to the retreat’s success, like Kim Ryals, owner and operator of Run Alaska Trails, and some of her guides.
“Without Kim facilitating this trip and making sure that we were going to spaces where we weren’t going to face vitriol, this trip wouldn’t have worked,” Désir said. Ryals made sure “that we felt safe, that we got the trip that we wanted, and that we weren’t put in danger. Allyship really does matter, and this work can’t be done alone.”
The guides (both white and BIPOC) are strong runners who came equipped with bear spray and deep knowledge of Alaska, and they helped the group feel comfortable in these unfamiliar spaces. Some of the women on the retreat said the experience gave them more confidence as trail runners.
“There’s such an opportunity for women of color in this trail space,” Désir said. “I’m just so excited to be part of building this next generation of women of color in trail.”