The Anxiety of Being a Black Runner
Scared for her safety, this writer doesn’t turn to her sacred ritual as often
Where I live resembles more of a slice of rural Arkansas than the outer edges of Houston, Texas. Horses on green pastures are a daily sight before reaching a stoplight. The open sky echoes the sounds of wildlife rattling under marshy bushes. My feet have swept the stretches of decades-old pavement for at least 800 collective miles while being chased under the sun over the years. As mile six turns to seven, I’ve been so deep in the zone that I’ve barely missed a dead skunk.
But for the last year, I’ve been running scared, and as a result, running less and less.
I’ve been a long-distance runner since I was 13. I’m 41 now. Running is the one thing that has never given up on me, and I’ve never given up on it. But nearly four months after the young Black man Ahmaud Arbery was gunned down by White racists while running in Georgia in February 2020, I began to have symptoms of anxiety about running. News of the death of another Black man, George Floyd, was beginning to be a mainstay of the media cycle around this time. Visions of a Black man killed in a neighborhood in White suburbia and another in cold blood on the streets of Minneapolis sent chills down my spine every time I laced up to hit the pavement.
Black people dying in such open and free spaces.
Those visions harken back to public lynchings. Black lifeless bodies viewed as theater. Killed for sport and to assuage insecurities by White racist mobs.
One of the most common symptoms of an anxiety attack is heart palpitations. As a long-distance runner, I have a strong heart. I can run for a solid hour like a champ. This summer my body felt misplaced when my heart sped as fast as a go-kart’s motor, all before I would hit a quarter-mile on the lonely road near my home. I confided in a friend about it. As I shared my anxiety about running, my friend, who is of White and Latinx heritage, admitted that my fear is not one that she had thought about. The worry and concern that I had to bear wasn’t on her radar. My friend’s privilege protected her in many ways, even from the idea of running scared.
There are no socioeconomic high stakes to inspire White people to think about how much race does play such an intimate role in the lives of Black people. They don’t lose anything by not thinking about #BlackLivesMatter. My Black identity is never a thought as they engage in daily activities that are not tied to any race-based trauma for them.
By August my running workouts were on life support. I think I only ran a total of eight miles that month compared to my usual 60 miles during the summer months.
I continued to think about young Ahmaud out in Georgia. Ruminating on what those final moments must have been:
Grasping to keep negotiating with God.
Holding onto your 25-year-old breath.
Four minutes: logging, turning, no direction to go.
Slaps and shots.
Chased out of existing.
I ran cross-country and track at Alcorn State University, an HBCU in Mississippi. I have a freshman year memory that is stamped in my mind forever: One time, when the long-distance crew gathered for our usual 5 a.m. run, our coach caught us by surprise and switched up the workout. It was now a nine-mile run. We were given a new path to run, which was longer than our usual distance. On that muggy gray morning, we got lost. Five Black girls running loose on wooded streets, where if you turned left or right you would see Confederate flags staked in sprawling yards.
Normally, we would have a leader who would pull away from the group and finish well ahead of the rest of us. On this morning, however, we hugged the road together as one. We remained determined to stay lost together and figure out the path back to campus.
As the sun was breaking through to gift us with more light, our coach swung around a street corner in her Ford pickup. “Where in the hell have y’all been?” She glared at us with the ire of a mother.
Almost in a chorus, we shared how we got lost.
“You cannot, and I mean cannot, get lost out here in these Mississippi woods. Don’t think they can’t snatch up five scrawny Black girls,” she said.
We piled into the back of her truck to make our way back to campus. Riding in silence against the cool whip of the wind we could feel each other’s bewilderment, paranoia, and frustration.
We also never spoke about that experience amongst ourselves or our coach ever again.
That was my first time running scared while Black.
In the post-Trump era, it saddens me that I feel like my journey with running feels too risky. Running is my soulmate. Running has been my main squeeze for 28 years. It is my preferred form of meditation.
Over the years, my fears subsided. I have lived in cosmopolitan downtowns, in high-rises, and culturally diverse artsy neighborhoods. I moved to the outskirts of the fourth largest city in the United States five years ago. I’m sure one can reason why my anxiety has spiked as a Black runner living in a cocoon of Houston where Proud Boys are tattooed with “White power” on their legs and forearms. But that simply just doesn’t feel fair or should even be plausible in 2021.
On January 8 my father offered to buy us dinner if I would go pick it up and deliver it to him.
Before dashing out of the house he told me to be careful because he heard a rumor that White men are after Black people on the road. That they are tailing cars driven by Black people causing them to have fender benders. With the ruse being that they would then lynch any Black people they lure into their death trap.
It was two days after White nationalist terrorists stormed the Capitol with the aim to overturn an election (as if they have the judicial power to do so as civilians) in favor of Trump and possibly executing Democrat elected officials. My father’s “tip-off” sent me spiraling. Somehow, with the vigilance of a ninja, I got our takeout and made it back home without being overrun by fear.
In the post-Trump era, it saddens me that I feel like my journey with running feels too risky. Running is my soulmate. It’s been my main squeeze for 28 years. It is my preferred form of meditation.
As I write this, I have no answers on what to do. I have not come to some resolution of defiance. To run by any means necessary. I suppose all I can do is take my anxiety day by day. Checking in with my intuition before I lace up is the only line of defense that I’ve got.
Maybe a year from now, I’ll circle back and see if my best running days have stayed behind me or if I continued to run, without looking back.