Black Runners Are Changing the Face of Marathons

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As participation in weekend 5Ks and marathons slows after years of growth, one group is gaining: More African-Americans than ever are taking up running.

New running groups, a thirst for healthy life choices and even a comedian are changing the face of what has long been a mostly white sport.

Christina Lushatt Thomas recalls asking her insurance agent about the medals on his wall two years ago. He’d earned them for finishing a marathon and half-marathon, he said.

The 43-year-old respiratory therapist in Fort Worth, Texas, was surprised that people could get medals without placing in the top three of a competition. Ms. Lushatt Thomas also didn’t know any other African-Americans, like her agent, who had run such long races. She reached the finish of a half-marathon a few weeks later, has run dozens of races since and has her husband and 15-year-old son into running, too.

“I fell in love with it,” she says.

Nationwide, the share of frequent runners who identified as African-American has surged to 8% from 1.6% in 2011, according to a survey by Running USA, an industry-backed group that tracks trends.

The change is most pronounced in larger cities. The New York Road Runners, who operate the Nov. 6 New York City Marathon, saw the number of entrants in their events with the groups Black Men Run and Black Girls Run! more than triple in three years, to nearly 3,000 last year.

Rich Kenah, executive director of the Atlanta Track Club, says the increase in African-American runners is helping buck the nationwide trend of declining road-race participation and drive popularity of the club’s events, along with making them more social. African-American runners make up 17% of the 26,000-member club, up from 12% last year.

“I see two, three, four, five women coming across the line together, laughing, celebrating accomplishments,” Mr. Kenah says. “Contrast that with years ago, it’s one person crossing the line, looking at their watch.”

African-Americans have long excelled at track and field from high school to the Olympics, and athletes of African descent dominate professional distance running. But black people have been rarer among amateur distance runners in the U.S. About 83% of frequent distance runners are white, according to Running USA.

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Source: Wall Street Journal | RACHEL BACHMAN