Desiree Peterkin Bell

Can the Philadelphia Marathon help diversify a sport that is 88% white?

Desiree Peterkin Bell wants this week’s Philadelphia Marathon to be as diverse as the neighborhoods it winds through. For her, running is an escape from the news cycle, from Twitter and Instagram and social media, and she thinks it could be that way for everyone. 

“You go on a long run, you forget about everything,” says Peterkin Bell, the director for the marathon since 2012 and Mayor Michael Nutter’s director of communications. “You start looking at the trees and the sun. You start focusing on your breathing and you start focusing on your cadence. All of a sudden, everything literally is left behind. I don’t think that’s a black-white thing. I honestly think it’s probably more of a life thing.”

It would seem running could be like that, a sport for everyone. The activity is so natural that some scientists have theorized humans evolved from apes because we needed to run. These days, the costs of entry for someone who wants to be a runner are little more than shoes. But the numbers tell a different story: Recreational distance running in America is dominated by the white and the wealthy.

According to numbers compiled by the trade group Running USA in its 2014 survey, 88.1 percent of runners are white. Hispanics account for 5 percent, blacks 4.6 percent, Asians 3.3 percent, American-Indians .9 percent and “other” 1 percent. A similar survey revealed that 73 percent of runners have a household income of $75,000 or higher.

It’s hard to say whether Philadelphia’s running community has greater than average diversity or a breakdown of race or income levels that approach its demographic makeup. No local organization keeps track of data, and neither does the Philadelphia Marathon. But the marathon encourages diversity from its route, which goes through Center City, West Philly, Fairmount Park, East Falls and Manayunk, and by partnering with several groups that aim to increase participation in among minorities, disabled athletes and lower-income adults and teenagers.

Peterkin Bell herself is a sign of progress. In a country where nearly all marathon race directors are white males, she’s half-black, half Latina. Four people who work under Peterkin Bell for the Philadelphia Marathon are women and three of them are black. Peterkin Bell estimates the main “team” organizing the marathon to be 75 percent nonwhite.

“There’s no black or white way to run a marathon — that doesn’t exist – but what is helpful is people see how diverse the leadership is that’s running the marathon,” she said. “There are often times that can translate into being a lot more inclusive and getting people to think about things they wouldn’t think about — like running a marathon.”

Some theories for a lack of diversity of race and income in running include cultural differences and a lack of marketing efforts from the running industry. Regardless of the reasons, it wasn’t always like this. The man who helped reintroduce the marathon to America in the 60s and who invented the modern way to measure marathon courses was Ted Corbitt, who was black. In the early 20th century, when American experienced a mini, temporary running boom, the sport was favored by immigrants and lower income Americans.

Some of the groups in Philadelphia promoting running are offshoots of national organizations, like Black Men Run, Philly Achilles and Black Girls Run. Black Men Run has more than 200 members on Facebook. Others have sprouted on their own here, like Back On My Feet. It introduces people experiencing homelessness to running as a way to help them regain control of their lives. It has spread to 11 different locations since its launch here in 2007.   

Heather McDaniel founded Students Run Philly Style in 2004, basing it off a program in Los Angeles. The objective is to encourage a healthy, productive lifestyle for kids ages 12-to-18 by having them set a goal and train for it.

“I think it took some convincing that this would be a really powerful tool,” she said.  

In those early days, Students Run Philly Style had to present in front of the SRC to get attention or hope an individual employee at a given school liked the program. This year, 918 students took part. Most of them ran in the Broad Street Run in May. About 300 will run either the half-marathon or full marathon Sunday. Kids in the program form teams of about 20 runners and train three or four days a week.

Every Philadelphia zip code is represented in the program, but most of the kids come from lower income backgrounds. Its mix of racial diversity outpaces the city’s: 34 percent of the participants are black, 21 percent Asian, 20 percent white and 18 percent Hispanic.   

Malachi Shell, a student at Community College of Philadelphia, joined Students Run Philly Style in 2011. He loved it right away because of the competition. It was another way he could test himself. He now works as a mentor for the program and runs about 45 miles a week, many of them with the group Black Men Run.

“I don’t see a reason,” he said, “why everyone is not running.”  

 

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