Georgette Mayo, 54, never wanted to run until she read about Ernestine Shepherd, a 74-year-old bodybuilder who runs about 40 miles a week.
“I always just walked,” says Mayo. “If anyone were to tell me this time last year that I’d be running, I would have said, ‘No way.’ “
But Mayo needed help getting going, so she turned to a new movement sweeping the country via Facebook called “Black Girls RUN!” The group was started by African-American women to encourage other black women to take advantage of arguably the most inexpensive and efficient form of exercise available to most people.
“My motivation is health. I want to be healthy,” says Mayo, an archivist who lives on James Island. “I don’t want to be dependent on my children, and I want to be around for my children and grandchildren. I want to be Ernestine Shepherd when I get to be her age.”
Black Girls RUN!
The Charleston chapter of Black Girls RUN! was started in October by Doretha Walker, a Mount Pleasant-based freelance writer who is a frequent guest columnist for the Moxie section of The Post and Courier.
The group’s Facebook page had 98 members as of Tuesday. Members meet for group walks and runs several times a week in Summerville, Mount Pleasant, Isle of Palms and Sullivan’s Island.
Walker, 46, was a newbie marathoner and triathlete herself when she found out about Black Girls RUN! on Twitter in May. She wrote a guest post on the group’s website and decided to become an “ambassador” for Charleston.
“It’s all about encouraging people to move. Some want to run, but others just want to walk. That’s OK,” says Walker. “No one is left behind.”
Running for health
The timing of it comes as Runner’s World magazine started dialogue nationally with an in-depth special report, “Why is Running So White?,” in its December edition.
The report examines the reasons why African-Americans are not proportionally represented in long-distance running and road races despite the fact that the group has a long history of dominating short-distance track events and that Africans dominate long-distance running.
In a nutshell, the report says that African-Americans gravitate to other sports in their youth, such as football and basketball, and have fewer role models. When those role models do show up, such as Oprah Winfrey and Sean “P. Diddy” Combs, they tend to do one marathon and quit running.
Statistics back up anecdotal evidence in showing the low rate of participation by African-Americans in long-distance running.
While the U.S. Census Bureau says that African-Americans made up 13 percent of the population in 2010, Running USA’s “opt in” National Running Survey put the group as only 1.6 percent of “core runners,” those serious enough to train year-round and enter races.
Why does it matter?
In a study conducted from 2006 to 2008, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that blacks had a 51 percent higher prevalence of obesity compared with whites. The figures were worse for diabetes: The risk for non-Hispanic blacks was 77 percent higher than whites.
Local role models
Dr. Kenosha Gleaton, a 33-year-old gynecologist, joined Black Girls RUN! both for her patients and herself.
“I’m preaching to my patients every day, so I need to practice what I preach,” says Gleaton. “We (blacks) are at risk for heart disease, chronic hypertension, diabetes, obesity and everything tied into those diseases. Running can make a major difference. After a week of running, I could see a difference in my body.”
Gleaton, whose first 5K was the James Island Connector Run in early November, also found running to be a stress reliever from the rigors of being a young doctor, as well as a spiritual experience.
“It’s been an outlet — an opportunity to be by myself. I’m a huge believer and I like to spend time with God. I feel like when I’m out here I’m a spectator of everything he’s created. I wonder why I haven’t taken advantage of this years ago.”
Black Girls RUN! isn’t the only effort trying to reach the local African-American population. This fall, the College of Charleston’s Charleston Physically Active Residential Communities and Schools program offered a chance for students to volunteer to be part of the FitCatz Running Buddies effort, which encouraged children who live near the Arthur Christopher Center on the West Side a chance to train for last week’s 21st annual Reindeer Run.
The students volunteered on Tuesday nights and Saturday mornings. About 25 children in grades 4-6 participated, and many received running shoes donated by Mount Pleasant’s The Foot Store for sticking with the program to the end.
Health education instructor Susan Flynn, who received grants from ING and the National Association of Sport and Physical Education to put on the program, says it seeks to instill a love of running in children.
“Typically for this population, we don’t see them in many road races,” says Flynn. “We want to see them embrace running because it’s free or cheap and a healthy habit.”
Last spring, female students participated in a similar program, the Junior Girls Running Program, with girls from the East Side. The goal race was the Cooper River Bridge Run.
Races to integrate races
Locally based Louie’s Kids has turned running with mentors, or Run Buddies, into a key component of its program, which long has focused on underprivileged children at risk of lifelong obesity and health problems. Many local runs offer Louie’s Kids free entries to races for children so that they experience the fun and community of running that otherwise would not be available to them. Louie’s Kids also makes provisions for transportation, which also is an issue.
Kevin Adcock, who directs the local Run Buddies program, says many of the kids wouldn’t experience racing otherwise.
“Running may be free, but the need to introduce these kids to the social aspects of the community event is something that is hard to explain to someone unless they have been there and taken part,” says Adcock. “In my mind, in terms of making it fun and motivational, the ‘goal’ run is critical in holding oneself accountable.”