What Does It Take to Design an Inclusive Running Race? 

Running events need to change if they want to keep pace with demographic shifts in the U.S. Here’s what athletes are advocating for, and the work that remains.

Darwin Romero, 37, started running by accident. It was a warm summer day in the Highland Park neighborhood of Los Angeles, and the then-16-year-old Romero needed a way to get home from school. One of their friends would commute on a skateboard, a couple of others would go on bikes. Romero surprised themselves by covering the one-mile route through northeast LA on foot. 

After that first mile in 2001, they signed up for cross-country at their high school, followed by track and field in the spring. Romero fell hard for the sport and has kept at it ever since, progressing from running the 800-meter, 1600 and 3200 on the track to ticking off marathons. “I’m a runner,” they say. “I can’t breathe without it.”

Now, Romero is preparing to run their tenth 26.2-mile race this spring at the Boston Marathon, where, for the first time, runners have the opportunity to register and compete as nonbinary. Romero has run dozens of road races and is a leader in the Seattle road running community, serving as diversity, equity and inclusion committee chair and secretary for their local Frontrunners chapter. 

But adopting this activity isn’t as easy as lacing up a pair of sneakers. Though it’s often celebrated as a simple and affordable sport, running, particularly long-distance running, is expensive. A 2020 analysis found that runners spend an average of $1,000 annually on the activity. An initial investment—about $100 for a pair of shoes—is just one of several barriers to accessing the activity that one-fifth of Americans say they enjoy

These days, runners and event organizers are more aware of how inaccessible the sport can be. Following the murder of Armaud Arbery—the 25-year-old Black jogger who in 2020 was chased and fatally shot by three white men in Brunswick, Georgia—athletes, media and members of the running industry have engaged in conversations about how the latter has historically excluded marginalized groups from the sport.

Running races are seen as a way for runners to hold themselves accountable and demonstrate their commitment to the sport. These organized events—from 5Ks to marathons—can play a critical role in improving representation in the running space. About a quarter of all runners signed up for at least one event in 2019, according to numbers from a Running USA survey and the Outdoor Industry Association. But races also present barriers. The cost of completing a race typically includes more than the entry fee—like gear, travel and recovery. And despite conversations around equity and inclusion in the running sector, many don’t feel safe at competitive events. Everything from the way runners are depicted in marketing materials to how prizes are awarded sends a message about who is welcome—and who isn’t. 

Races will have to change if they want to continue to evolve with the sport, which is growing increasingly diverse. Of the 63 million Americans who enjoy running, 25% identify as Asian, 21% as Hispanic and 17% as African American; running organizations project these numbers to increase in the future. Here’s the work that athletes and advocates say needs to happen and the change that’s already underway. 

This story is in four parts:

Read on for a comprehensive look into how running events can become more inclusive, or click on the links to peruse each section on its own. 

Addressing the History of Racial Injustice in Distance Running

Two Black runners jogging in the forest.

In her 2022 book “Running While Black,” Alison Mariella Désir highlights how distance running has been a white space for decades, back to the 1960s with the Bowerman Track Club, whose establishment paralleled the Civil Rights Movement. The historical assumption, rooted in eugenics, was that Black athletes, in particular, were equipped to run events that required strength and power (like sprints) whereas white athletes could run long. But Désir also points out that, in the U.S., Black, Indigenous and other athletes of color have run long all along, profiling figures like Ted Corbitt, the first Black man to represent the country in the Olympic marathon in 1952. Corbitt also served as the first president of the hallowed New York Road Runners organization, which organizes the New York City Marathon and many other road-running competitions and events. Despite this history, running continues to privilege the experiences of white, able-bodied runners, especially when it comes to longer distances.

In 2021, Carolyn Su—a runner and advocate known for founding the Instagram profile and platform Diverse We Run—accepted an invitation to run the TransRockies Run, a high-elevation, multi-day stage race through the Colorado Rocky Mountains. She’d never entered a trail race before and quickly found herself scrambling to fill in gaps in her knowledge of the gear, training and resources she’d need for a successful event. The race organizers covered her $2,000 registration fee, and Su collected a majority of the gear she’d need through partnerships she’d forged through Diverse We Run. Without the generosity of her community, Su says, the costs may have been prohibitive.

Price is one of the primary barriers to participating in road- and trail-running events, which can set athletes back anywhere from $20 to thousands of dollars just to secure a spot. Add in the cost of gear, training and travel to and from destination races, and it’s easy to see how a sport that runners tout as having a low barrier to entry becomes inaccessible for many.

But the sometimes high cost of racing is the tip of the iceberg in terms of obstacles to accessing events, particularly for runners of color. Today, Su sees herself as both a road and trail runner, but when she toed the start line at TransRockies, a wave of complex emotions washed over her. She wanted to take up space as an Asian-American woman and to feel a sense of belonging in the predominantly white trail-running scene. She was also keyed into the fact that she was one of maybe 20 or 21 runners of color among a pool of hundreds of white entrants, all traveling through regions home to Ute groups.

“It felt like there was a lot of pressure I was carrying, mentally and emotionally, that played into my performance,” she says.

Su’s experience is echoed by multiple athletes I interviewed for this piece who point to the fact that many premier U.S. road and trail races trace routes through majority-white neighborhoods and are marketed, at times almost exclusively, to white, able-bodied athletes. This can make events unwelcoming and unsafe for underrepresented runners. Forty percent of runners reported feeling unsafe while running in 2020, for example, according to a survey from Running USA. Throughout the pandemic, media like Sports Illustrated documented how Asian American runners experienced racially charged threats, harassment and assault.

Romero, who lives in Seattle, says they never stop thinking about personal safety while running, whether during a training run or an organized event. “I don’t forget that I’m a person of color. I don’t forget that I’m nonbinary,” they say. “I haven’t had any bad experiences,” they add. “It’s just in the back of my head—like, I don’t want this to be an accident and I end up dead kind of thing.”

In 2020, Désir and Chris Lampen-Crowell founded the Running Industry Diversity Coalition (RIDC) to improve inclusion, visibility and access for runners of color. [Editor’s note: REI Co-op awarded RIDC a $25,000 grant in 2022, and plans to invest the same amount again this year.] The organization consults with members of the industry, hosting workshops and commissioning research to dismantle racial injustice in the running sector. Last year, the RIDC partnered with The Running Event (TRE), the largest running trade show in North America, offering scholarships and covering the cost of hotels for Black- and other POC-owned retailers and industry professionals to attend TRE in an effort to improve representation.

The stark difference in experiences during races for many runners of color is what leads the RIDC to call for sweeping change. “It has to be systemic,” says RIDC Executive Director Kiera Smalls. “There needs to be change happening in every area of event planning and execution, and we must be intentional and go deeper by making decisions outside of what we are used to.”

Including Non-Binary Runners

Jake Fedorowski is one such advocate, vying for better inclusion for nonbinary athletes at races. Their work in the space began in late 2021, a year filled with notable developments in running events: In September of that year, the Philadelphia Distance Run became the first U.S. road race to create divisions with prizes for women, men and nonbinary athletes, all the way up to the elite level; a few months earlier, the TCS New York City Marathon had become the first of the World Marathon Majors to offer a nonbinary gender category in competition. 

Fedorowski, 27, is an avid runner, and they noticed that the races they were considering in 2022 didn’t allow runners to tick a nonbinary gender box. So, they emailed the race directors and posed the question. “I identify as nonbinary and am wondering if a separate gender category can be created for those that don’t fit into the existing men’s and women’s buckets?” 

One event was all in. Another came back with interest, but admitted they had no idea where to start. Fedorowski decided to help. “I’m not a race director,” they admit. “I’ve never organized something like that before.” But Fedorowski devoted several months to learning how to establish a nonbinary category in races in hopes of putting together a resource for race directors and allies of the nonbinary community. They met with everyone from individual nonbinary athletes to ally organizations including New York Road Runners.

When it comes to planning events, the most effective way to include members of underrepresented groups is to do just that—involve them in the process from the very beginning.

RIDC Program Manager Abigail Sharpless

Six months later, in June 2022, Fedorowski self-published the Guide to Non-Binary Inclusion in Running, a free toolkit for race directors looking to create a safer, more welcoming event experience for nonbinary athletes. The advice starts at the beginning—with the importance of including nonbinary athletes from the very conception of an event. It compels race directors to reflect on critical questions like, “Do you plan to mirror this work internally as a team and/or organization?” 

Advocates for greater inclusion in running agree that when it comes to planning events, the most effective way to include members of underrepresented groups is to do just that—involve them in the process from the very beginning, says RIDC Program Manager Abigail Sharpless. When conceiving of a race, organizers have an image of a certain runner in mind, she adds. “If that image itself isn’t diverse, then you’re not going to draw a diverse audience.” 

“I think about hosting and hospitality,” says Su, of Diverse We Run. “It’s one thing to say to someone, ‘My home is open to you anytime.’ It’s another to invite people over and arrange your home in a way that suits the needs of your guests.”

Transforming Races for Adaptive Athletes

A diverse group of runners, including an adaptive athlete wearing a high-performance prosthetic on their right lower limb.

Adam Popp is a 43-year-old Air Force veteran and ultra-athlete who runs with an above-the-knee amputation. He placed second in the para athletics division among elite athletes with a leg amputation at the 2021 Boston Marathon. And he holds Guinness World Records for the fastest time in a 100-mile race and the greatest distance traveled on foot in 24 hours by an athlete with an above-the-knee amputation. 

But Popp isn’t well known in the ultrarunning scene, in part because athletes with disabilities don’t receive the same attention as elite able-bodied runners. And while many races say that their events are open to athletes with disabilities, there’s a lack of consistency in terms of the opportunities they provide—from infrastructure to compensation. Races like the Abbott World Marathon Majors have divisions and offer prizes to elite athletes with disabilities, but smaller U.S.-based races often do not. 

There are a growing number of groups helping aspiring runners with disabilities get started in the sport. But like recreational races, these organizations operate independently and there isn’t currently a clear pathway to progressing from signing up for a few recreational races to becoming an elite athlete. For Popp, racing isn’t about recognition or prize money, though he’d like to see greater representation of athletes with disabilities at events, especially as a way to inspire young people with disabilities to participate. Outside of competing at Boston, he’s frequently the only amputee in the long-distance races he enters. “I do value the races that provide space for us,” he says. 

Zachary Friedley, a professional trail runner, race director and adaptive athlete, is trying to carve out that space. After falling in love with trail-running in 2019, he founded the Mendocino Movement Project to help runners access prosthetics, other gear and information. 

The 38-year-old athlete competes with a prosthetic that features a mechanical knee and a carbon-fiber blade. “A lot of race directors will say, You’re welcome at my event. But I want an invite. I want an open thing where it’s like, We want these people [with disabilities] here. Here’s how we’re making it happen.’”

So, last spring, Friedley launched Born to Adapt, the first-ever trail race designed for and by adaptive athletes. The three-hour competition featured a one-mile loop, which participants of all abilities could complete as many times as they liked. Blades, crutches, or forearm crutches, wheelchairs and crawling, as well as other self-styled assistance tools, were allowed. This year, Friedley is adding 10- and 30-mile races to the event. Pacers and guides are welcome. 

He’s quick to admit that he’s an imperfect organizer. This year, he wants to improve on hiccups from the inaugural event by adding accessible port-a-potties and parking. “I think maybe people aren’t willing to [make changes] because they’re afraid of mistakes,” he says. “But as long as you come at it with an approach of, Hey, I want to do this, and I want to do it better, that’s part of learning and taking on something new.”

Embracing the Change to Come

By 2045, the U.S. is projected to become minority white, according to the U.S. Census Bureau; runners of color currently comprise at least a third of the running segment. Roughly one-quarter of U.S. adults currently live with a disability. And though there isn’t good demographic data on LGBTQ+ runners, media like The New York Times has published reports that show that nonbinary runners have been participating in the sport for decades.

There are mile-markers on the road to progress. This spring, in partnership with Bentley University, the RIDC plans to share the initial results of a research initiative that looks at employment, access, inclusion and belonging in the running industry. For perhaps the first time, researchers will use the lens of racial diversity to examine the running landscape and identify opportunities to improve equity in running culture and the business of running. 

Change is underway at events, too. Five of the six Abbott World Marathon Majors now offer a nonbinary gender registration option. Last November, New York Road Runners awarded cash prizes to the first five nonbinary finishers of the New York City Marathon. There were 46 nonbinary runners totala nearly threefold increase over the 2021 race. Among trail and ultra races, which have generally been slower to embrace change, the Western States Endurance Run, which claims to be the world’s oldest 100-mile trail race, added a nonbinary category for 2023. And the trail race registration platform UltraSignup has planned platform updates to allow runners to register as nonbinary for participating races sometime this year. 

For perhaps the first time, researchers will use the lens of racial diversity to examine the running landscape and identify opportunities to improve equity in running culture and the business of running.

Still, transgender runners, in many cases, are forced to jump through several hoops to run as their gender in both road and trail events. And last spring, The New York Times counted 18 states that had adopted laws to bar or limit transgender women and girls from participating in sports. There is well-documented resistance from high-profile cis women athletes and others, who insist that allowing trans women and girls to compete in the womens’ and girls’ categories puts cis women athletes at an unfair disadvantage due to hormonal and physiological differences. (Similar concerns led to World Athletics barring athletes like South African middle-distance athlete and two-time Olympic champion Caster Semenya—who is not trans, but an intersex woman, assigned female at birth—from competing in women’s races from 400 to 1500 meters without taking medication to suppress testosterone levels.)

Beginning in the 2022–2023 season, the NCAA began requiring trans student-athletes to report their testosterone levels at multiple points throughout the season. Before these new regulations were introduced, the NCAA already required that transgender female athletes undergo a year of testosterone suppression treatment before competing. However, advocates say that the new rules are confusing and may be difficult to implement. This confusion, coupled with the state bans, threatens to make running events even less inclusive for trans athletes at every level of the sport.

At the end of the day, the runners I spoke to say inclusion isn’t only about growing the field of participants. It’s about strengthening the running community. Among Romero’s favorite races is the Bellingham Bay half marathon held in late September along the Salish Sea in the northwest corner of Washington state. The route rewards runners with sweeping views of the San Juan Islands and the snowy peaks of the North Cascades. When, last fall, the race added a nonbinary category, Romero was quick to sign up. They ended up finishing 15th out of a pool of more than 800. “I literally ran with my whole heart,” they say. “I gave it my all. [Including the non-binary category] makes a huge impact within me, in how I’m running the race—how I’m seeing it.”

Read more: Let’s Run Together: A Celebration of Running and Community

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