Running While Black: Finding Freedom in a Sport That Wasn't Built for Us (Hardcover)
A searing exposé on the whiteness of running, a supposedly egalitarian sport, and a call to reimagine the industry
“Runners know that running brings us to ourselves. But for Black people, the simple act of running has never been so simple. It is a declaration of the right to move through the world. If running is claiming public space, why, then, does it feel like a negotiation?”
Running saved Alison Désir’s life. At rock bottom and searching for meaning and structure, Désir started marathon training, finding that it vastly improved both her physical and mental health. Yet as she became involved in the community and learned its history, she realized that the sport was largely built with white people in mind.
Running While Black draws on Désir’s experience as an endurance athlete, activist, and mental health advocate to explore why the seemingly simple, human act of long distance running for exercise and health has never been truly open to Black people. Weaving historical context—from the first recreational running boom to the horrific murder of Ahmaud Arbery—together with her own story of growth in the sport, Désir unpacks how we got here and advocates for a world where everyone is free to safely experience the life-changing power of movement.
As America reckons with its history of white supremacy across major institutions, Désir argues that, as a litmus test for an inclusive society, the fitness industry has the opportunity to lead the charge—fulfilling its promise of empowerment.
About the Author
Alison Mariella Désir is an endurance athlete, activist, and mental health advocate. Currently cochair of the Running Industry Diversity Coalition, a Run Happy Advocate for Brooks Running, and an athlete adviser for Oiselle, Désir is the founder of Harlem Run, a New York City–based running movement; Run 4 All Women, an organization that fundraises for social justice–focused nonprofits; and the Meaning Thru Movement tour, a speaking series featuring mental health experts and fitness professionals. A graduate of Columbia University with her bachelor’s and two master’s degrees, including a master of education in counseling psychology, Désir has been published in Outside magazine and contributed the foreword for Running Is My Therapy by Scott Douglas. Running While Black is her first book. Désir currently lives outside of Seattle with her son, Kouri Henri, and partner, Amir Muhammad Figueroa.
“The stories (and histories) Désir weaves together are captivating, eye-opening, and often even uncomfortable in their raw honesty and personal perspective. For fellow Black folks, Running While Black provides a way to feel seen and understood. For non-Black people, this book offers a window into a world they will never experience and an opportunity to inspire empathy and action.” —SELF Magazine, Best Books of 2022
“Running While Black speaks directly to the anguish Black runners live with while running through a white supremacist world. Alison provides readers a behind-the-scenes view of what it is to be Black and a runner: constantly minimized, removed, and erased altogether. Her writing is thought-provoking and provides readers with inspiration to enact change.”
—Alysia Montaño, Olympian and six-time USA Outdoor Track and Field 800-meter winner
“In Running While Black, Désir deftly weaves together family histories, Black history, and Black running history to produce a powerful narrative of personal discovery. The quest to belong, to exhale, and to be free resounds off these pages. The act of running while Black is both freeing and risky; it is the breath and the gasp for air. This aptly named book invites us into that contradiction. Désir's journey—and her words—demonstrate the work of carving out space, of building community, challenging racism, and disrupting whitewashed industries. It compels us to lace up and join her on the road.”
—Amira Rose Davis, Professor of African and African Diaspora Studies at the University of Texas-Austin, author of Can’t Eat a Medal and cohost of the podcast Burn It All Down
“Alison has been an amazing advocate and champion for diversity and holistic wellness in our sport. In Running While Black, Alison challenges us to acknowledge the significant obstacles to the concept of freedom of running for Black people and encourages us to pursue the powerful goals of a truly safe and inclusive sport. Alison’s personal journey, combined with her community and historical perspectives, are great vehicles for all of us to become more informed and empowered.”
—Meb Keflezighi, four-time Olympian and author of 26 Marathons and Meb for Mortals
“Running While Black shattered the ideals in which, for three decades, I held the sport in high regard for its inclusiveness. Luckily, every page inspired me to use the running stage to support a safer space for all to participate. Then maybe an entire nation could follow.”
—Deena Kastor, Olympic medalist and New York Times bestselling author of Let Your Mind Run
“Alison’s stories are vibrant and uplifting, leaving readers empowered to make real change in the running industry. This groundbreaking book is a must read for everyone, whether they run or not!”
—Alexi Pappas, Olympian, filmmaker, actor, and author of Bravey: Chasing Dreams, Befriending Pain, and Other Big Ideas
“Make no mistake, this book, this extraordinary account, will trigger those who have always had the privilege of an idyllic, nonracialized experience with the ‘universal, accessible’ sport of running. If this is you, I urge you to open the book, lean into the discomfort that will certainly come, and do some important learning and reflection about what could actually reenergize the sport of running as the most inclusive, welcoming, and diverse sport it has the potential to be.”
—Mirna Valerio, ultrarunner and author of A Beautiful Work in Progress
“I grew up as a competitive runner, and I truly believed that running was for everyone. But in reading Running While Black, I was startled and saddened to realize just how false that narrative was. Alison Mariella Désir weaves the eye-opening history of running in the United States and her experience as a Black woman throughout the book. History I have never heard, history that changes the stories I have been fed since I was a young girl. It makes me look at my beloved sport with a new lens, and it breaks my heart. The first step for all runners should be to read Running While Black.”
—Kara Goucher, two-time Olympian and author of Strong: A Runner’s Guide to Boosting Confidence and Becoming the Best Version of You
“Run. Buy this book and read it as fast as you can. And then, like your favorite running loop, go over it repeatedly. It is monumental in its importance. Riveting in her[CC1] [DT2] story and style, Alison Mariella Désir challenges and inspires us to think deeply and play our part in a better, truly diverse, equitable, and inclusive sport and society.”
—Mary Wittenberg, former president and CEO of New York Road Runners, and president of League One Volleyball
“With the propulsion and investigation of a detective novel and the soul-tingling honesty of a great memoir, Running While Black will keep you turning pages until the wee hours, unraveling everything you thought you knew. If sport has ever been your teacher, if you call yourself a runner, if you believe in the power of running to unite us—you simply must read this book.”
—Lauren Fleshman, professional runner and author of Good for a Girl: A Woman Running in a Man's World
“Running While Black by Alison Mariella Désir is a must read for anyone interested in running, the power of sport, racism, and mental health. She skillfully weaves the history of running with the reality of racism and racial restrictions in America while demonstrating how transformative running could be. Reading this book should encourage everyone to support running for everyone.”
—Richard Lapchick, PhD, human rights activist, author, founder of the Institute for Sport and Social Justice, and director of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport