[Note: This entry begins with a post I sent to the
internet ultra list on Tuesday, with additional comments after
receiving feedback from several dozen ultrarunners. Photos are
ones I've taken at Huntsville State Park this month.]
"You aren't from around here, are you?"
Coming from someone else, it would have sounded like a worn out
pick-up line and I would have been wary. But I could tell this
soft-spoken, distinguished looking, 50-something man at the YMCA
was sincere and had a good reason to ask me that. It still made
me laugh in amusement, though.
Jim and I are camping at Huntsville State Park about 40 miles
north of Houston, TX for all or most of February, hanging out
after the Rocky Raccoon 50- and 100-mile races because 1) it's
warmer than our hometown in Virginia (azaleas, magnolias,
crabapples, daffodils, violets, etc. are in bloom!!!) and 2) the
trails are a great place to continue running as we wait for the
Mississippi 50 trail run on March 7. After that, we'll consider
While in the Huntsville area we're driving about 20 miles south
to a suburban community called Conroe to use the weight machines
at a YMCA a couple times a week. Although it isn't as fancy as
our Y in Roanoke (the best fitness center I've used anywhere in
28 years), it's in a nice area and
is more upscale than Ys we've used in some other metro areas on
I saw this gentleman the last time I visited the Conroe YMCA. We
both smiled in passing but didn't talk to each other that time.
When I'm traveling I often just do my workout and don't talk to
anyone except for small talk or to ask a question about a
machine I'm not familiar with.
Today this man was partially blocking the entrance to the weight
machine room while talking to another fella. He moved over
quickly when he saw me and apologized. I gave him a big smile
and said "no problem." He wasn't being rude or inconsiderate, as
so many people are nowadays. He was simply focused on his
conversation. I was as surprised at his apology as he was at my
A few minutes later he came over to the machine I was using
while I was resting between sets. That's when he made the
statement, not really a question, that I probably "wasn't from
around here." I responded that no, I was just visiting. How
could he tell?
What followed was an eye-opening 10-minute conversation with a
stranger who would probably become a friend if Jim and I weren't
just visiting the area -- and if the man and his wife weren't
moving away (I don't know where) in two weeks.
Birds in flight near Raven Lodge
The first thing that amazed me was his response that I looked
too fit, too athletic to be from Texas! He guessed that I was
from the West Coast or Colorado. Nope -- Ohio, then Georgia
(Atlanta area), Montana, and Virginia. But I kind of knew what
The Texas remark amused me, after recently being among so many
fit and athletic Texans at both Sunmart and Rocky Raccoon. But
I have to admit, the majority of women I see at most YMCAs -- or
anywhere else except ultra races -- are NOT fit or athletic
looking, even ones half my age (I'll be 60 next month). And I'm
not talking about just Texas, but all over the country.
I told the guy that he just doesn't hang out with the right
Next he guessed that I'm a runner -- even though I wasn't
wearing running clothes, a race shirt, or running shoes. That
observation was less of a surprise to me; I've heard that many
times over the years, from strangers to medical professionals.
This man and his wife run marathons. He knows about
ultras but wasn't aware of either the Sunmart or Rocky races
Definitely not hanging out with the right crowd, I told him! We
talked a little about the very different ambience at ultras vs
I asked if he runs on trails. He said he'd like to but he's been
"afraid" to run on any trails in the area, including those at
Huntsville State Park.
I was totally puzzled. The guy is over 6 feet tall and looks
strong. What could he possibly be afraid of? The alligators that
(allegedly) live in the lake???
Thank goodness I didn't say that! I suddenly realized that I
may "run" in a different world than he does. My intuition was
I asked if the problem was his race. He nodded yes.
You see, he's black. He has had some unpleasant experiences at
the hand of Texas rednecks in the two years he's lived here and
he literally fears being hunted down in the woods of Huntsville
State Park if he runs there. I don't for a minute think he was
pulling my leg.
Wow. All I could do for a moment was shake my head in amazement.
I'm white; I just can't relate to the fear of being attacked --
in any setting -- simply because of the color of my skin.
I *can* relate to the fear of being attacked simply because I'm
a female, however, and I told him that's the closest I can get
to what he's feeing. I've had some occasional fears of
two-legged bad guys when I'm alone, but more often in an urban
area when I'm shopping than in any stretch of woods or
wilderness in this country when I'm running by myself. After
running alone on the Appalachian Trail, Colorado Trail, and
other remote mountain trails out West, I have no fears of
running by myself at Huntsville SP.
Maybe I should?
Texans do love their guns! There are
numerous hunting stands in
the park for thinning the deer
population in December and January.
I'm just blown away by this man's fear of trail running in a
popular state park in Texas. Some may say he views white men in
the same stereotypical way some of them see blacks, that he's
just as prejudiced as the men who have threatened him previously
because of his race. I don't see it that way. His paranoia
sounds both genuine and justified because of whatever it is that
he's experienced in this particular area. I can't begin to fully
understand how that feels.
I guess what really blows me away is that such a level of
prejudice still exists in this country and that I wasn't really
aware of it until our conversation. And I'm sure it's 'way more
widespread than the South; I don't mean to malign Texans. I
suppose I sound really naive, but I grew up in an
environment with very little racial (or gender) prejudice and
just don't get it. I never have.
I apparently live in a very different world than this man. How
sad that any person is afraid to run in a public park because of
his/her skin color! If I see him again, I hope I can convince
him and his wife to come up and run with Jim and me before we
all leave the area. I'd love to share the joy and freedom we
feel running through these woods.
After I left the fitness center I guessed that the main reason
this man knew I "wasn't from around here" was NOT my runner's
physique -- but my genuine smiles and obvious blindness to the
color of his skin.
Eyes wide open (ears, too -- severe storms and tornadoes heading
toward Huntsville tonite),
I've received quite a few interesting responses, some private,
some public, in the five days since I posted that experience to
the ultra list. Most were from white folks. Letters ranged from
thanking me for raising awareness, to telling similar personal
stories, to describing what it's been like when they've been in
the minority themselves, to offering suggestions to combat
racism in our country. Only a couple responses were less than
sensitive to the topic, in my perspective. None took me to task
for raising the issue in that forum, since it was at least
Lake inlet (headwaters)
One of the first private letters I got was from a white woman I first met at Rocky
last year. She lives in a nearby suburban Texas town and had an almost
identical experience at the Y she uses when she first moved here
ten years ago -- the same "you must not be from around here"
comment from a local black woman she befriended around the pool.
Unlike me, this ultra runner grew up white in a black ghetto where "the rules of
engagement are different than the suburbs." After learning
what it's like to be in the minority,
she tries to look well beyond a person's skin color.
Susan Reynolds, RD of the
Ghost Town 38+ miler that Jim ran a month ago,
publicly on the ultra list, eliciting a few more public responses. She and her
husband, both white, adopted a black infant 19 years ago. She
has previously shared with the list stories about the racial
prejudice shown to her family over the years, and most
recently in the small town where they live in New Mexico. We
were honored to spend several days with the Reynolds,
including Gabe, their adopted son, on race weekend. Susan reiterated the prejudicial
treatment her family continues to receive in 2009, despite the
recent election of the first bi-racial (half black, half white) President in our country.
Mallards in the marsh area near the lake
Another letter sent to me privately was from a black male ultra
runner who I
met for the first time at Rocky this past weekend. When he posted his
ultra bio to the list earlier in the winter he mentioned that he heard about the list
from this journal. That got my attention, of course, and I wrote
a welcoming letter to him immediately. I had no clue he was
black; it wouldn't have made any difference to me if I'd
known that -- I would have sent the same welcoming letter to
him regardless of the color of his skin, his religious
persuasion, political bent, whatever. He's an ultra runner --
one of us!
At Rocky he recognized me from photos in this journal and
introduced himself while he was in the
middle of his first 100-miler (which he finished -- good job!).
I was sitting in my crewing chair at the main aid station. We didn't
have much time to talk since he needed to keep moving forward.
When he wrote to me about this post a couple days ago he mentioned being black.
You are?? I mused to the computer.
Now I don't know if this is more indicative of my CRS* or skin
colorblindness . . . but I didn't even remember from
seeing him at the race that he was black!! (*CRS = Can't Remember Stuff, or insert your
favorite S-word.) The color of his skin simply didn't register
in my brain, even when I saw him!
Anyway, he mentioned that he, too, came into trail
running "late" but he didn't elaborate. He lives in a state he describes as "just as redneck as
He continued, " . . . usually redneck means
something different to black people. Many white people think of
redneck as Jeff Foxworthy's "you might be a redneck if." No, to
us that is not a redneck, that is just a backwoods or country
person. In fact, by Jeff's descriptions, there are many black
"rednecks." No, to us a redneck is a racist person, generally
also backwoods and country . . ."
I wrote back to this runner that I was using "redneck" in the
same way he was in my post to the ultra list. That's one reason I
asked rhetorically about whether I should also be concerned
about running in Huntsville State Park alone.
After all, many of the same insecure, intolerant idiots who feel
superior to, or threatened by, non-white people also feel
threatened by independent females of any color who run alone on
the roads or in the woods! Maybe one of them would like to "put
me in my place" just as soon as they'd intimidate or
threaten a black male runner.
The first two days I got primarily private responses. I was
hoping for more public posts to the list. By
Thursday more runners were adding to the thread on the internet. This public
post from Steve Hanes prompted me to write an addendum:
"Great observations, Sue and Susan. I, too have
observed that there are few blacks in our sport. I had been
wondering if there was a tactful way to start a discussion. We
runners are welcoming to all sizes and shapes and ages. All we
look for is a desire to keep moving forward.
I, as a white man, am surprised that anybody would feel
intimidated to the point of avoiding a public park. I remember
talking with the only black thru-hiker I met on the AT. He said
he was not the first black to hike, but some others had said
"They aren't going to catch me out there and hang me." If they
hiked, they did not go into many towns.
My best friend is black and she has crewed me several times
without any incident. I am surprised at the pan this has
received from the list."
I wrote this to the list in response:
"Thanks, Steve. I didn't realize when I sent the post that
started this discussion that it might be too controversial for
the ultra list. It's certainly relevant.
Yesterday I received many interesting private responses to my
post that I wish had been sent publicly to the list like yours
and Susan's were. I respect all of those folks' desire to remain
anonymous to the group, however, so I won't mention anything
here that would identify them. All but one essentially either
thanked me for bringing up the issue and/or had similar stories,
one almost identical to what I described occurred at the Y. Only
one person who wrote to me had the attitude of "Well, that's
just the way it is." I'm glad to see more people responding
I think in my original post I came across sounding more naive
than I really am about racial prejudice. After living half of my
life in the South, I'm well aware that it still exists. I'm just
amazed that in this day and age, and especially in a country
that recently elected its first half-black President, there are
apparently a good number of black runners who are AFRAID to run
or hike on trails because they might be harmed by racists.
That's where I was clueless.
I can understand a black person not feeling welcome or safe to
run in certain lily white neighborhoods, towns, or rural areas
but the man I talked to at the YMCA near Houston was fearful of
running in a PUBLIC PARK!! And not just any park, but
particularly Huntsville State Park, site of two of the largest
ultra running events in the country. And I, too, can
count on one hand the number of blacks I have seen on the
Appalachian Trail -- one of our national parks -- when I train
on the Trail and when I thru-ran/hiked the whole thing in 2005
(and make that zero on the Colorado Trail in 2006-7). That
coincides with Steve's AT experience.
Now this bothers me on a bunch of levels. I'll briefly address
two of them here.
One of the more obvious is that local, regional, state, and
national parks are there for EVERYONE, not just whites. I've
read a couple articles recently about the very low percentage of
blacks and other minorities who use the AT, national parks, and
other public recreation areas (low %-age within their own races,
not just in comparison with whites). I'm sure fear for
their safety because of the color of their skin in only one
reason, but it's one reason that should never, ever exist.
On a real personal level, it makes me wonder if I, a white
woman, should be more worried about my own safety in Huntsville
State Park since Jim and I are camped here for a month and I'm
out there alone (although usually with my ultra Lab) on the
trails every day. I felt relatively safe here until I talked to
that guy at the Y. That's why I asked rhetorically in my
original post if *I* should be fearful in this area, too.
Sometimes the same men who are so intolerant of other races,
cultures, and creeds that they would harm or threaten to harm
someone for that reason alone are also insecure enough to harass
or attack females of any race who are independent enough to run
or hike alone in the woods. How dare they?
I don't have the answers to racism, men who want to control
women, or the very real fears of black runners. All I can hope
for on this forum is to raise awareness and encourage the
inclusion of more blacks and other minorities into the sports of
trail and ultra running. The few black runners who I see at
ultras appear to be very well-accepted and well-liked among
other ultra runners. That seems logical, since as a group we
tend to be better educated, more world-wise, and more respectful
of other people who are challenging themselves."
That helped spark another round of lively discussion on and off
the list. By today (Saturday) there have
been almost seventy private and public e-mails on the subject.
That's better than I expected when I began the thread. Thanks,
folks, for joining in.
[Addendum: I talked with my new friend at the YMCA two or
three more times before we all left the greater Houston area. We
had some interesting conversations. He and his wife, who are
both retired, are moving
back to the Pacific Northwest. They've lived most of their lives
in Oregon, Washington, and California, areas they perceive as
more open-minded and tolerant of other cultures than southern
Texas. I never could persuade him to come run at Huntsville
State Park with us but he promised to hit the trails at his new
home in Oregon.]
CAN'T WE ALL JUST GET ALONG??
It is my sincere hope that the sport of ultra running can
attract more blacks and other "minorities" into its fold, just
as it has attracted more women and more young folks in recent
years. The more these folks get involved, the more of their
friends will see how much fun it is, too. Considering how
popular black runners like Errol Jones, David Goggins, Angela Ivory,
and James and Rebecca Moore are, I
think there is a lot more acceptance and tolerance of
"differences" among ultra runners than in the general
population. There are so many reasons why I say this that it
would take another entry to examine them all.
By the way, my term for the folks Jeff Foxworthy has made (in)famous
in his redneck shtick is "Good Old Boys" (or Girls). I'm usually
referring to folks from anywhere in the country -- not
just the South -- who have what I consider to be narrow-minded
views and opinions based primarily on lack of education and
world experience, more ignorance from the environment in which
they were raised than inherent mean-spiritedness.
So much of what I learned as a child about the world was from my
family, not the community in which I lived. I grew up in the
1950s-60s in a small rural Ohio town that was 100% white. My first
years I rarely had any contact with a person of another race or
culture, except on shopping trips or other visits to Cincinnati
or Columbus a few times a year. Yet I learned to treat people of all
races, cultures, and creeds with respect (caveat: as long
as their actions deserved respect).
I'm not claiming to be totally devoid of prejudice, by the way.
I don't think that's possible. No matter how hard I try to avoid pre-judging people, I know I
still do it to some extent. Everyone does.
As I grew up I read and heard about racial and cultural clashes
in other areas but didn't experience it myself until entering
the "real" world (?) when I went away to college at Ohio State
University. Suddenly I was sharing a dorm suite with fifteen other
young women from all over the country. Several of my roommates
I thought that was groovy. That was long before "cool" was "cool."
Now I'm so far out of touch with current slang that I don't even
know which word signifies "cool" any more! (Nor do I much
Speaking of eye-openers . . . I loved being on a large
college campus. I went from a town of 2,000 people to a city of
40,000 students within the larger city of Columbus, Ohio. I had
been quite eager all through high school to leave the confines
of my small town. I wonder if my tolerance and acceptance of
other cultures would be different if I'd lived in a more diverse
environment at an earlier age and observed tensions between
various groups. Would I have been more likely to develop some serious prejudices?
I doubt it. My immediate and extended family members would have
instilled the same values in me regardless of the location of
Ohio State University: now there was a fine adventure into the
unknown, my very first! I've sought new adventures ever since.
Next entries: more stories from Huntsville State Park
"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil, Cody, and
© 2009 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil