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Meet the runners diversifying outdoor sports

It’s easy to assume that outdoor sports like trail running are more accessible than most, because they take place in shared open spaces, generally require little financial investment to start, few subscriptions or memberships and equipment that isn’t out of the ordinary.

But those from marginalised groups, such as people of colour and the LGBTQ+ community, are opening up about their experiences in outdoor sports, where they see few people who look like them, and say they have often been made to feel like it isn’t a space they are welcome in.

There are, however, people who want to change that experience, and since a couple of them are professional runners, they are blazing a trail that could leave a lasting impression on the running landscape.

Coree Woltering, one of the U.S.’s premier long distance runners, is a professional trail and ultrarunner from Ottowa, Illinois. He is passionate about showing that outdoor sports are for everyone, and that no-one should experience barriers to taking part in nature’s playground.

“I’m openly gay, and I’m Black,” he tells ESPN, “and my big thing is [to get] more people of colour in the outdoors, more LGBTQ+ people in the outdoors.

“The outdoors have not always necessarily been a safe place for people of colour or the LGBTQ+ community.”

Woltering found trail running by accident after moving to Boulder, Colorado, when he was aiming to turn pro in triathlon. He fell in with a group of trail runners and mountain bikers who would take him out on the trails. He was hooked, and quickly learned the ropes of ultra-distance running, shelving triathlon in the process.

Woltering quickly made strides with his improving results, but was aware that among the off-road running community, there were few people that looked like him, and few brands using people of colour in their advertising.

He says, “In 2017-2018 a magazine wanted to do an article about what’s it like being Black and gay in the sport of ultra-running, and I was like, ‘Hey, that story has been told before, I’ve done podcasts and articles about it. But what I’d like to talk about is like the lack of sponsorship for runners in the Midwest.’

That area of the U.S. is flat compared to mountainous areas of the western and northern U.S. and midwestern runners often have to relocate to more mountainous terrain. Woltering did the story, brands took notice, and he was approached by more sponsors and signed with The North Face.

He wasn’t publicly out when he first began ultrarunning, and he wasn’t sure what the response would be like.

He added: “I didn’t necessarily want to come out, because I was trying to get into the sport that I really didn’t know a ton of people in. And I also didn’t really know of any other professional Black ultra runners, and I didn’t know of any openly gay ultra runners at the time.

“[But] I figured [if] trail running was advertised as being open, there would have been others [who were gay]. And so that was just a decision I had to make.”

There are indeed other trail runners who are gay, and some have had pretty tough experiences. Ryan Montgomery is an openly queer ultra runner and is trying to “move the needle” on inclusivity for people from the LGBTQ+ community in the sport.

Montgomery, who now lives in Park City, Utah, grew up in a religious community, and when he was younger and coming to terms with his sexuality, he says he was often told that he was “less of a person” because he was gay.

Running became his outlet to channel the emotional turmoil, and discover more about himself.

“It’s my way of processing trauma, concerns… I feel like I solve the world’s problems on my runs. So that was such a huge avenue to process my life, and if I didn’t have it I don’t know where I would be today,” he told ESPN.

But, Montgomery says he has overheard, ‘Why is that guy with painted nails passing me?’ or similar from other runners, and feels that that being visibly queer leaves him open to harassment.

From then on, as a force of habit, anytime he passed someone he would cover up his nails. He says he presents as a straight man while running to prevent any conflict.

He adds: “I have a friend who is a transgender woman and she has shared with me that sometimes she presents as a man when she’s trail running because she doesn’t know who she’s going to run into.

“In some of these smaller communities, which she lives in, she doesn’t feel safe running at night because she doesn’t know if the people have even had experience with a trans person. So there have been many times when she has experienced slurs against her like, ‘Why does that person look weird?’

“All these things add up to make the outdoors very white, very unsafe for [LGBTQ+] people, and it perpetuates that stigma.”

With that understanding, Montgomery goes through the discomfort of opening up about himself, telling his story regularly, to help others who might be experiencing similar difficulties, and help make the trail running community more inclusive.

“I feel like I need to give that same empowerment to other people who might not have that. And when you realise this issue that we’re having, this concern in our outdoor sport, I have that responsibility to move the needle on that concern, and I know what needs to be done,” he says.

“I look at the outdoors and I see how white it is, I see how straight it is. I see how there are so many barriers to entry for people like me, like our Black friends, people of colour — that makes me excited to give that same experience to other people who are marginalised.”

There is little data on the number of people who trail run, let alone the data breakdown to determine the number of Black or minority people in the sport. Black Trail Runners (BTR), a U.K.-based registered charity are changing this, and their mission is to create an environment that everyone can thrive in, and hope that one day BTR won’t be needed.

The group, which launched in July 2020, came together after individual members became frustrated by the lack of people who looked like them in the sport.

“It’s not often, and not ‘normal’ to come across Black people who are out trail running,” Sabrina Pace-Humphreys, one of the group’s six co-founders, told ESPN.

“I think that when you are a Black person operating professionally or personally within an environment where there are no other people that look like you, over the years that becomes normalised and you accept that when you go to races or training camps, events that are about celebrating the outdoors and nature, that you will not see anyone that looks like you.”

The group wrote to race organisers in the U.K. to add an ethnicity field to their entry forms so that over time data could be collected and measured. However not all runners enter formal events, making the data difficult to take at face value.

They now consult with brands to help encourage awareness of representation, and run initiatives to teach nutrition, as well as outdoor skills on navigation and equipment, since the lack of knowledge in these areas had proven to be a barrier.

Many Black communities have historically been urbanised and lived in cities where the countryside isn’t as accessible, such as the U.K.’s post-Windrush generation.

Pace-Humphreys says: “With that comes a subtle message that the countryside is not for you … From a cultural perspective, growing up generationally, not having access because it’s not something that your family does, or you do not have the financial means to travel to these spaces, to stay in these spaces.

“These initiatives show that there is demand. Black people want to experience the outdoors, they want to experience trail running. They just want a space to do that in which they want to feel safe, held, and a sense of community… they’re not going to be sidelined, pigeon-holed, talked down to in terms of, ‘Oh is this really a place for you?'”

Road and track running has a higher number of Black runners, particularly at elite level. For the masses in urban areas, lacing up trainers and running around the streets is far more accessible to all, but that doesn’t come without its problems either, of course.

But it’s off-road, where running Black folks are seen as a threat, that it rankles most.

Pace-Humphreys adds, “It’s all in the actions, it’s in the stares, it’s in the me as a 43-year-old mixed race woman running in the woods and people physically jumping out of the way as if I’m going to rob them. All I’m doing is enjoying a run.

“Those things, time and time again, they make you think, ‘I won’t run there anymore’ or ‘How can I make myself look less threatening?’

“I’m a 43-year-old woman, imagine what it’s like for a young Black man.”

Woltering says that the focus should be on access for young people, which could be the change that unlocks the barriers and for minorities: “I didn’t learn about trail running until I was 25, so if we get more youth into this, then I think that will change the dynamic of the outdoors.

“We shouldn’t push ultra[marathons] on to the youth, but we can say, ‘Hey, there are short trail races that you guys can do in the summer,’ fun things like that to get them exposed to what can then lead to ultras.

“It’s super important to show that yes, there are other people that look like you in the outdoors, being active, doing some of the non-traditional sports like trail running or mountain biking or rock climbing.

“When I was growing up, you never saw that. If you looked at any outdoor ad it was a bunch of white people sitting around a campfire or white people hiking and so now I’m really happy to see that they’re [brands] showing more diversity.”