Black Girls Run! Getting women on the pavement

Roughly 80 percent of all African-American women are overweight or obese. This group is helping RVA women become healthier.

To Jay Ell Alexander, it’s about staying on the pavement and keeping other black women on the pavement with her.

“We do see black women in the track and field industry,” said Alexander, ambassador of Black Girls Run! Richmond, a local group that encourages and supports black women to walk, jog, and run. “But in terms of ‘on the pavement’ and actual racing events, we just don’t see a lot of African-American women.”

Black Girls Run! is a national organization founded in 2009 by Ashely Hicks and Toni Carey to promote fitness among African-American women because roughly 80 percent of black women are overweight or obese.

“I first heard about Black Girls Run in 2010 when I first kind of started my running journey,” Alexander, 26, said by phone. “I thought it was an awesome initiative.”

The website provides knowledge about running shoes, optimal clothing to wear,1 etc. “It was a great resource for beginners starting to hit the pavement,” Alexander said. “It really got me more interested in running.”

Alexander isn’t sure why it’s so rare for black women to run compared to other female demographics.

“I’m not sure if it’s obesity, high blood pressure [or] those types of diseases,” Alexander mused. “Those hit our community a little bit harder [than others].”

There’s also another reason: hair.

“Most African-American women’s hair is a lot kinkier,” Alexander said. Before a recent trend of black women keeping their hair natural, many women would alter their hair with chemicals (e.g. perms). “People were getting perms and things of that nature, so there was a lot more upkeep,” Alexander said. “And sweat and perms don’t really go well together.”

Yet around the time Black Girls Run started, Alexander said there’s been a growing trend for black women to keep natural hair, which makes for less upkeep. “This new natural hair phase has really promoted women being more healthy, and to realize that health comes before beauty,” Alexander said. Black Girls Run has an entire section on hair & beauty.

Black Girls Run eventually hired Alexander, who earned a graduate degree in strategic public relations from VCU, to help with their media affairs. “They were looking for a person to kind of take their media and PR to the next step,” she said. “And so they got into contact with me.”

In addition to joining Black Girls Run’s PR cause, Alexander also joined its national running group in early 2012. “Once I joined the team and got involved on the national level, I realized…it’d be nice to do something locally as well.”

So Alexander, Lisa Winn, and Cheryl Lockett-Oliver created Black Girls Run! Richmond (BGRR), and in September 2012, over 90 local women took part in the group’s first event, a 1.5-mile run/walk that began outside a Northside YMCA. BGRR now has over 1,000 members.

Alexander said that she estimates that most members are between ages 35 to 45. “I think it’s because, at that age, you’re kind of getting over some major milestones” like children and establishing a career, she said. “I think you’re just trying to find an outlet where you can make some ‘me’ time.”

She said BGRR makes it easier for mothers to include children. “Because it’s such a hard time finding a babysitter, we encourage you to bring the young kids out,” Alexander said. “I think that entices more women to come.”

She said it can be difficult to get women into the group. “A lot of women, when they hear ‘run’, are very intimidated,” Alexander said. So to ease women into the fold, BGRR holds a monthly meetup that involves no physical activity.

A recent event held at Road Runner Running Store in Carytown focused on discussing topics like stretching, avoiding running injuries, and “things that help you off the pavement,” Alexander said.

Ultimately though, BGRR is about getting women on the pavement. One of the benefits of the group is that it keeps people accountable. “If you say you’re going to a run, and you let someone know that you’re going to run…it’s that accountability that gets you out there,” Alexander said.

BGRR occasionally organizes trainings for new runners. “We have run coordinators that lead [groups] and that’ll help our beginners and those getting started,” Alexander said.

She advocates patience for new runners. “It took time to put the weight on. It takes time to get the weight off. It takes time to get healthy,” she said. “So knowing you have that kind of support there, I think keeps those women accountable. ”

BGRR organizes runs each week, with more happening as the weather improves. The group will also be represented by runners taking part in the upcoming Monument 10k. It’ll be the second time the group has formally participated in the annual event.

But what about those that are hesitant, and maybe even a little scared, to take that first step and join BGRR?

“Just come out,” Alexander said. “We meet you where you are. We don’t want anyone to feel intimated. We don’t leave anyone behind…we absolutely meet you where you are.” All that matters is that you’re on the pavement.

photo courtesy of Black Girls Run! Richmond

  1. For instance, runners should avoid cotton. 
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Nathan Cushing

Nathan Cushing is a writer, journalist, and RVANews Editor.

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