2009 ULTRA RUNNING ADVENTURES

 

   
 
Runtrails' Web Journal
 
Previous          Journal Topics by Date            Next
 

  RUNNING IN A DIFFERENT REALITY

SATURDAY, FEBRUARY 14

 
"You aren't from around here, are you?"
- serious question from a man at the Conroe, Texas YMCA earlier in the week
 
 

[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 going home.


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 our travels.

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 big smile.

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 he meant.

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 crowd!

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 nearby.

Definitely not hanging out with the right crowd, I told him!  We talked a little about the very different ambience at ultras vs marathons.


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 correct.

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),
Sue

FEEDBACK

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 partly ultra-related.


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, immediately commented 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 inlet

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 Texas."

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.

LIVELY THREAD

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 publicly today.

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 eighteen 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 were black.

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 care.)

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 our home.

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

Happy trails,

Sue
"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil, Cody, and Tater

Previous       Next

2009 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil

-