Trail Runners and Anti-Racism: A Conversation with Kriste Peoples

“If we took improving our race relations as seriously as we took improving our race times, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.” – Kriste Peoples 

We at Runners for Public Lands are outraged by the lynching of African-American runner Ahmaud Arbery; the shooting of Breonna Taylor by police; the life-threatening harassment of Christian Cooper while bird watching in New York City’s Central Park; the killing of George Floyd by police, causing so much unrest today; and the countless other forms of racial violence and injustice happening in our country. We stand against white supremacy, and for a socially and environmentally just world.

Climate correspondent Eric Holthaus summarizes our situation well. “Black Americans were brought to this country as slaves four hundred years ago and have been dying in disproportionate numbers ever since. Black Americans have borne the brunt of the fossil fuel era, dying from air pollution, cancer from exposure to toxic chemicals, and severe weather at greater rates than the national average. And the system works to maintain this inequality. Black Americans are killed by police at more than twice the rate of white Americans. Black Americans have died at more than twice the rate as white Americans from the coronavirus pandemic.”

Whether it’s about bodies, lands, or skies, the logic is the same – the enrichment of some at the expense of the endangerment of others. We must do everything we can to end the application of this logic. Many are calling for white Americans to educate themselves and take action. Our work is hundreds of years overdue. We call on every runner who hasn’t joined the struggle for racial and climate justice to start now. It’s time for us to make anti-racist learning and behavior a part of our everyday lives.

At the U.S. Trail Running Conference last year, Vic heard Kriste Peoples talk about racial and socio-economic diversity and inclusion on the trails. Kriste is a sunshine enthusiast, writer, speaker, and women’s trail running coach with Life’s 2 Short Fitness, and thrives in Denver. After her session, Vic wanted to hear more. Last week they talked further. Here’s an excerpt of their conversation.

Vic: What’s trail running about for you?

Kriste: I love running trails because there’s nothing like running up on wildflowers exploding in peak season, ice melt in summer is heaven to hot feet, and I get to pause and take in the glory around me in ways I can’t on surface streets. I also love bringing people with me who are new to the sport because I get to see these spaces again with fresh eyes. It’s not an escape from life’s difficulties because there are hard days when I face racism on trails too. Even so, trail running gives me a greater capacity to face my challenges and to connect with the land, which is medicine in itself. And that’s what enables me to finish feeling more complete, more fully myself, than when I started.  

Vic: Many African-Americans have talked about the sprawling and insidious reach of racism and “running while black” – their fears and anxieties, and the various precautions they take to avoid racial profiling and violence. 

Kriste: As a runner, who also happens to be Black, there are risks that many of us have to consider much more deeply than our white counterparts whenever we go outside in general, let alone when we go out to run specifically. And as a person of color, I don’t have the answers here, but I can tell you whatever needs to happen for runners to feel safer needs to happen for all of POCs: we need to be seen as equal, as peers, and as valued equally as members of this society. Feeling safe and respected as human beings, let’s start there. It would go a long way toward feeling safer as runners.

Vic: The broader running community still hasn’t taken basic runner safety seriously enough. 

Kriste: In the wake of Ahmaud Arbery’s murder, major news outlets, high-profile media people, and athletes have converged on the story and resulting fears shared by Black runners in ways that our local running clubs haven’t. For better or worse, events like these go a long way toward opening the discussions that have been long overlooked in clubs. Whether or not the clubs even have members of color, the fact that this tragedy has impacted the running community –  and has sparked international attention – more than invites these conversations closer to home. There aren’t easy fixes to any of this, and naming that fact is important. Our way forward will be difficult, as there are centuries of pain and anguish that allowed what happened in Brunswick, Georgia (where Arbery was killed) to take place, and not turning our attention to it in the running community – and in our broader circles – will do nothing to help us heal collectively. 

As a Black runner and coach in a predominantly white running club, I don’t often raise these issues because I just want to be a runner, like everyone else. However, the color of my skin doesn’t always afford me that luxury in America. I am also not the sole voice of Black people and don’t care to go around “educating” people all over the place. That is neither my work nor responsibility. At the same time, our running clubs, and any social groups that involve people, are a microcosm of the larger society and no one gets out unscathed. So, an idea for facilitating conversations? Perhaps club leadership could lead by listening with a genuine desire to understand the fears and safety issues facing runners of color and devise ways to support as a community.  

Vic: Much needed diversity, equity, and inclusion work in the trail running community depends on understanding the histories of exclusion regarding people of color and the outdoors.  

Kriste: First off, trail runners are a different breed, independent of color, really. Trail runners are less visible; we’re not in plain sight every day like road runners, and we don’t really advertise outside of our own circles. Trail runners are kind of insular; we run to get away from the noise, generally speaking, so we’re not making a whole lot of noise trying to bring other people in. Trail running is incredibly niche. Meaning, people who haven’t typically had access to mountain trails might not be aware of the joys of running in the mountains. Hikers see us coming and often think we’re oddities. Or maybe that’s just my experience because people who look like me are not a common sight on the trails of Colorado. Also, for people who didn’t grow up with an awareness of the sport, they might not be as inclined to join because there might seem to be too many real or imagined barriers to entry. How much space do I have here? There’s so much more I could say. I haven’t even gotten to the history of bad things that have happened to people of color in “the woods” over time. Historically speaking, very real acts of domestic terror have taken place against people of color in remote outdoor places going back for decades. Centuries, really. Issues of segregation and lingering racism have had a hand in shaping the ways we engage in nature, as well.  

Vic: As racial unrest spreads, more people are showing interest in anti-racism work than ever before. I’d like Runners for Public Lands to help more runners get involved.

Kriste: For runners, and for anyone, I’d point you back to my earlier response about leading with a genuine desire to listen and learn about the concerns and fears that we face, and devise ways to bridge divides within the community. Read up, recognize the ways your privilege allows you to run without fear of being accosted on or off the trails. Imagine what it might be like to be pursued on your run because of the color of your skin. You might feel inconvenienced and powerless to change anything. Oftentimes, so do we. Reach out to people with experiences that help expand your perspective. None of this is easy, and all of it is tiresome. But if there’s one thing runners know, it’s how to endure. And let’s also be clear here: this request isn’t for running clubs to solve the race issue. This is about education and finding ways to create safer running experiences for us all. Personally, I’d love to see this interest in anti-racism and inclusiveness work endure beyond the next news cycle. Put another way, if we took improving our race relations as seriously as we took improving our race times, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.  

Vic: Thanks for talking with me, Kriste. See you in the mountains.