One year in grad school I was training for the Columbus Marathon with fellow student and runner Tony. I am white, Tony is black. While doing a training run on the course, a police car pulled up behind us and flashed its lights. We stopped running and turned to face the officer.
We had been running within the law, so I initially had no idea why we were being stopped. Getting out of his car, the officer called to us “what are you boys doing?” I replied with the obvious, “running.” He wittily replied, “running from what?” On runs back home in Maine, I had interacted with the police. One of our high school distance coaches was a police officer; he was a patient guy and a good coach. So those were all positive interactions. I was once before stopped by the police while running; the officer stopped to tell me I should not be running on the sidewalk. So, I got into the street to run. She stopped me again and said that I should not be running in the street. She let me go. That was not scary, just confusing—I assumed she was just “playing” with me or something. But this situation in Ohio was the first time I felt afraid of the police.
I had the thought, which might have been mistaken, that Tony and I might get shot or at least arrested for something. It felt that the situation could easily go very badly if we did not navigate it just right. What we did was stay calm and explain that we were training for the Marathon. I added that Tony was trying to qualify for the US Olympic team. This seemed to make a difference; perhaps it changed us from boys in the wrong neighborhood for a black man and a skinny white runner to athletes who might be representing the red, white, and blue. Eventually he let us go; I recall him making some sort of vague warning about running in the right places. After that, we were careful to avoid that neighborhood and we were never stopped by the police again. I ended up running a 2:45 marathon, Tony had a bad race and got a disappointing 2:36.
Over the years I have thought about that stop. The one positive aspect of the experience is that it provided a clear example of what I had known in an abstract and academic sense: black Americans face many obstacles and dangers that white people do not. At this point, someone might point out that the officer stopped me as well. It might be that just stopping Tony would be too obvious or that doing so would have been impractical. It might also be that as a runner I was also in a target class.
When I ran in my hometown, I (and other runners) would sometimes get mocked—running was not a well-respected sport in those days. I did, however, get intentionally forced off the road while biking—by a car with Ohio plates. When I went to college in Ohio, one of my first running experiences was when a car drove up on the sidewalk to try to hit me and the coach I was running with. That marked the beginning of my running challenges in Ohio: cars would occasionally swerve at me, things would be thrown at me, and so on. I was also stopped by the police while biking. And, of course, I got the same treatment I got while running, only I was even more vulnerable to cars.
When I moved to Florida, the hostility I faced while running and biking continued. People who make casual attempts to hit me with their cars and I learned to avoid roads where drivers were likely to throw things at me. I finally got hit by a car while biking; my bike was destroyed, and the car sped away. I was unscathed. My experiences are not unusual; about 122,000 runners get hit by cars each year and 843 bicyclists were killed in car crashes in 2019. These injuries and deaths were not all intentional, but running and biking can be dangerous even when you are being careful. My running friend Paul Hoover was killed not long ago in a hit and run; he was struck in the crosswalk and was a cautious runner. They did finally catch the person who hit him; his day in court is soon.
While running and biking have gained in status and acceptance, for years this was not the case. As noted above, I was routinely subject to threats and attacks simply for running. I think part of the cause it that runners and bikers are engaged in what was seen as unusual activity and they tend to dress strangely. That is, they seem to be “the other” when engaged in running or biking. This seems to trigger hostility in people. There is also the obvious fact that a runner or biker is especially weak and vulnerable when matched up against a vehicle and the people in it. Drivers and passengers can hurl insults or golf balls at runners with little fear of reprisal. A car can easily kill a runner or biker. I also experienced being pushed around when I had my little Yamaha; drivers would swerve at me and when I was stopped at a light one fellow tried to nudge me out into the intersection with his truck. I think that people get very angry at having to share the road with runners and bikers; even modest inconveniences can enrage them. And the runners and bikers are vulnerable. These experiences also helped me understand what minorities experience in America; with an important difference.
When I am off my bike and not running, I am just another white guy—so I go back to being in a class with some privilege. But being black in America is, to use my analogy, like always being running or on that bike in hostile traffic. People are angry at you, they know you are vulnerable, and they know they can get away with a lot. Sometimes it is the police who are the ones doing the harassment and harm. While drivers will behave badly towards people of all races on the run or on the bike, minorities get that even worse. And, as I noted, when I am not running or off the bike then I am back in my privileged class. When I am driving or walking while white, I do not get the treatment I get while running or biking. But other people do not get even that respite: they are always on that road with people who do not think they should be there or should, at least, suffer for it.