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WASHINGTON CITY PAPER PRESENTS: FOR MANY BLACK RUNNERS, THE STORY OF AHMAUD ARBERY FEELS ALL TOO FAMILIAR

Author / KELAINE CONOCHAN, KELYN SOONG

See the original post published by Washington City Paper. 


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Many black men in America, Frank Tramble says, have a story involving a pickup truck.

In 2014, Tramble went for a run while in Madison, Georgia, for his cousin’s wedding. That run, he remembers, felt different than others. Every driver that passed stared at him, looking confused.

Then a pickup truck went by, made a U-turn, and came back in his direction. At that point, Tramble felt a gripping fear come over him.

“My heart sinks. The questions in my mind go crazy: ‘Is he coming back for me? Is this man going to mess with me? Is this the moment I always feared as a black man?’” he recalls. “I couldn’t help thinking: ‘Is this the one that’s going to end my life?’”

Tramble, the 32-year-old founder of DC Run Crew, a running club based in the District, reflected on this incident when he saw the news of the shooting death of Ahmaud Arbery, a black man who was running near his home in Glynn County, Georgia, when he was gunned down. Two white men, Gregory McMichael and his son Travis, the alleged shooter, followed Arbery, believing he was involved in nearby burglaries. A video of the fatal Feb. 23 shooting went viral this month and prompted outrage and widespread discussion about the fears of running while black in a predominantly white space. The McMichaels were ultimately arrested—74 days after the deadly shooting.

For a lot of black men and women, Arbery’s story feels all too familiar.

“Seeing the video of Ahmaud Arbery took me back to the moment I had,” says Tramble. “I find that every one of these stories takes me back, speaking as a black man, to a moment that I had that worked out in my favor. But that’s not a given for everyone, or every time.”

***

The Fenty family, which includes former Mayor Adrian Fenty, has been well-known in the D.C. running community since 1984, when Adrian’s father, Phil, opened the Fleet Feet running store on Columbia Road NW. Since then, running has been not only core to their business, but a core family value.

“We believe in running as a lifestyle to promote health. We try to do that through our business and the example we set in our lives,” says Shawn, Adrian’s older brother and the owner of Fleet Feet in Adams Morgan.

Shawn believes Arbery’s story has gotten attention because it touches on running and the black community, but that the incident is even more impactful because of what it represents.

“It goes to a culture and a values system that is deeper than just the death of Ahmaud Arbery,” he says. “I think that this particular situation brings awareness to the fear black people live with in the way that the Rodney King incident brought police brutality to the evening news. Now, black people can say, ‘See? This is what we live through. Our stories have been dismissed and devalued, but now you can see it. There it is.’”

In the United States, running tends to be a predominantly white space. Only 3 percent of runners who responded to Running USA’s 2020 National Runner Survey identified as black or African American.

But local runners see things differently in the District.

“It’s a bit more convoluted in D.C. This is a majority black city,” Shawn says. “There’s more black affluence concentrated here, so we may get a very distorted cultural view of what it’s like elsewhere in America.”

Runners point to D.C. as a relatively safe space, where the racial demographics are perceived as more balanced, and runners of color encounter more inclusivity than they might in other places.

“This city is so oddly diverse. If you go out to RFK Stadium today, you’ll see every type of person working out—white, black, old, young—all types of people in the same space,” says Tramble, a Detroit native whose organization focuses on helping inexperienced or beginner runners come to the sport. “The city is so small, so you have to be in each other’s lives whether you want to or not. Because of that, you have to develop a respect for one another … The gentrifier has to learn about the older black couple that lives next door, and that couple has to learn from the gentrifier.”

In an effort to reach further into the black community, DC Run Crew has moved some of their workouts out of the gentrified areas of Northwest D.C. near U Street NW and Shaw.

“What we want to do is show our black brothers and sisters that running is something that can help you mentally grow,” Tramble says. “So, we’ve moved some of our workouts into Northeast, Southeast, and Anacostia to bridge the gap between gentrified newcomers—like me—with the original residents of D.C.”

Alex AmankwahAlex AmankwahDARROW MONTGOMERY/FILE

***

The death of Arbery has made black runners second-guess whether others’ perceptions and attitudes have ever put them in danger.

The black runners City Paper talked to for this story say they alter their behaviors and appearances to ensure that they come across as non-threatening—passing as a “real runner”—in white neighborhoods and communities. But these accommodations are not acts of politeness; they’re the result of runners’ deep fear for their safety, should someone feel threatened or compelled to call the authorities to report “suspicious” behavior.

“I can’t assume that [people aren’t] thinking that I’m a threat,” says Fred Irby, a 40-year-old runner in D.C. “That’s something that white people don’t have to deal with.”

Black men in particular say they carry the unfair burden of trying to be nonthreatening to white individuals.

“For every black person, we are brought up understanding that the context we give people could be a matter of life and death,” Tramble says. “We go out of our way to present less of a threat or to appear more professional to white people. We change our clothes, our hair … We’ve learned to build ourselves in a way that makes white people feel comfortable.”

“I always do things to make myself less of a target,” Irby adds. “I found that running with my dog helps … I need to put on bright clothing, so that people can identify that I’m a runner. I’m a black person running, not a black person running from something.”

Alex Amankwah, a professional middle distance runner for the D.C.-based and Under Armour-sponsored District Track Club, hasn’t experienced any incidents of racism while out running in the D.C. area, but the video of Arbery brings back memories of his own encounters with racists while living in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.

During the first incident, which Amankwah says happened in 2016, he was running approximately a half mile away from the University of Alabama track with two white teammates when several middle-aged white men in a car drove by and shouted the N-word at him. The second time, which Amankwah remembers occurring in late 2018 or early 2019, a different set of older white men shouted “fuck you” plus the N-word, Amankwah says, while he was running alone on a sidewalk near campus.

A Ghana native who grew up in Los Angeles, Amankwah, 28, says it was his first time dealing with explicit racism.

“At first I was just angry,” he says. “I knew racism existed, and I knew certain people with that mindset. I was just angry. ‘Why would you say that? You don’t know me. Why are you comfortable enough to say something like that to me?’ I had a lot of questions.”

Even with those experiences, Amankwah emphasizes that he holds nothing against his alma mater. “Overall, I had way more people loving me for who I am rather than judging me for my skin tone,” he says. “I don’t want to destroy the warmth that I got from the city and the university with just those two instances, because that isn’t what Alabama or the city of Tuscaloosa is about.”

As a professional runner, Amankwah consistently trains outside, and while he hasn’t felt uncomfortable doing that in the D.C. area, he plans to be more cautious and cognizant of his surroundings after watching the Arbery video. Amankwah says he doesn’t want to find himself in a position where he’s at the wrong place at the wrong time.

“I’m mainly just cautious, and that comes across my mind after the video with Ahmaud,” he says. “It’s kind of a weird line. I don’t want to think everyone who’s white would do something like that, but it’s just being more cautious, being in certain neighborhoods, and keeping an eye out.”

Making these accommodations feels self-defeating for many, in that it forces black runners—and black people in general—to go more than halfway to overcome harmful racist stereotypes and generalizations that black people are suspicious or don’t belong in certain neighborhoods.

“It’s extremely heavy. It’s something you get used to, but should never have to get used to,” says Tramble. “As I look at my 1-year-old, I think to myself, ‘I have to raise a black man,’ and I am terrified. Every single moment can be the wrong moment.”

Reflecting on Arbery’s death, black runners want white runners to step up and recognize their role in creating meaningful change. “The default needs to be shifted with race relations between whites and blacks. I’m of the mind that a white person’s silence when a black person is killed in a way like Ahmaud Arbery—your silence is, in effect, complicity,” says Irby.

Irby recognizes that advocating against racism may get a little uncomfortable, but believes that is what is most essential for creating real change. “As it concerns race, we’re all involved in this. But for the most part, white people have gotten away with not having any skin in the game …. Collectively, white people have been sitting on the sidelines because it’s convenient, it’s comfortable,” he says.

“I know sometimes white Americans, sometimes they have white friends who have those [racist] views,” Amankwah adds. “Don’t leave it alone. It’s not OK … Don’t let it slide that they are racist. It’s not OK to be racist, and just because you’re not racist and you have racist friends, it’s not OK. Let them know why it’s not OK to be racist.”

That expectation extends into the running community, as well.

“Reach out to your fellow runners and encourage them to do something, to do some advocacy,” Irby says. “You need to let them know that their lack of advocacy will impact your relationship with them.”

***

Tramble feels lucky. His story involving a pickup truck did not end in violence.

He credits something so small that many might not even think of it: his outfit.

“I think the reason the person [in the truck] never said or did anything to me is because I had on expensive Nike clothes. I had the ‘right’ clothes,” he says. “When I started running, I just had regular shorts and a T-shirt. If I only had that on that day, I truly believe that my story could have ended differently.”

Tramble wants the running community to lead by example.

There is a push to make running clubs and the sport overall more inclusive by proactively welcoming and drawing in runners from different backgrounds. This would both strengthen the running community and increase understanding and empathy across backgrounds. It may also help change perceptions, so that people with bigoted views don’t think it’s dangerous or suspicious to see a black person running down the street.

To lead, or even to follow, means publicly showing solidarity with black runners and on issues that affect the black community. It’s more than just hashtags.

“White people who want to be on the side of morality, it has to be more than social media posts,” Irby says. “The onus is not just awareness, but also action. If you are a white person who actively desires to eliminate racism, then the onus needs to be on you.”

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AHMAUD’S STORY COULD HAVE BEEN MINE

Author | Coach Frank

In October of  2014, my cousin was getting married in Georgia. I had just moved from Detroit to DC that year and was so excited to travel to see my extended family. Since they live in Atlanta I thought the wedding would be closer to the city, but it was actually in Madison, GA which was about an hour outside of Atlanta. It’s one of those “Freeway towns” you see when doing long drives between major metropolitan areas. It’s the one-exit off the freeway town where there is a McDonalds, a few hotels, a Walmart, and the main part of the town is 2-3 miles down a single road. We pulled right off the freeway to the hotel and found that the wedding was “downtown” in a barn about 3 miles away.

Madison

Like many runners, I make it a point to run in every city I go to. It helps me learn the city, explore the terrain, and clear my head. So I put down my bags and decided to find the wedding location on foot. So I leave to go exploring as I do anytime I travel. 

“What is a simple jog for a white person, can be a life gambling situation for a black person. “

I vividly remember this run feeling different than others. It wasn’t the fact that this was a different city, but it was the fact that I quickly realized that I was the only black person around. Every car that passed me turned and looked. The optimistic part of me thought “they must not have many runners around here,” but I knew what the real reason was—it was because I was black. 

As I ran farther and farther there were fewer and fewer buildings, leaving just me, the road, and cars. Every car passing me, stared as they made their way down the road. My thoughts continued to spiral as I kept going back and forth trying to rationalize, what was so interesting that kept them staring. Ultimately, I was trying not to accept the truth that I already knew. But I kept running. It wasn’t until a pick-up truck passed me, revealing the same confusion from the drivers before, pulled over ahead, and made a U-turn that my thoughts about my current safety as a black man running went from bad to worse. My heart sinks, the questions in my mind go crazy, “Is he coming back for me?” “Is this man going to mess with me?” “Is this the moment I always feared as a black man?”.

I didn’t know what to think and as he got closer and closer I felt myself trying to stay focused and run faster so I can get past him as quickly as possible. Our eyes met as he slowed down to look at me. The glare was all too familiar to me because I have seen that look before. It was the same look I got on my first day of college when a pick-up truck drove past, made that same U-turn, and pulled up aside me and my friends to tell us to “Go back to Detriot NIGGERS.”

This time the truck kept going and I made it to the barn. But that didn’t happen for young Ahmaud Arbery. His truck followed him, hunted him, chased him, and murdered him. Ahmaud Arbery’s murder feels different because it is yet another reminder that doing anything while black is dangerous. Walking, running, driving, eating, whistling, bbq-ing, sitting on your own couch in your residence, the list goes on and on. 

What we…what I can no longer do is stay silent about injustices like this. Black men are targeted in this country and each of us has a story about how we made it out of one of those life-threatening situations. You know, the moment all Black men fear. 

What is a simple jog for a white person, can be a life gambling situation for a black person. 

Today, I pray for Ahmaud’s family because that fear from my run through Madison, Georgia has never left me –I can only imagine how he felt when he realized that his truck was going to be the one that didn’t just drive by.  Remember that every single moment Black men breathe, we are constantly trying to avoid being the next Black name, hashtagged, and honored for being killed. While his killers, Travis McMichael and his father Greg McMichael, have finally been arrested, that is only a small win in the battle of this injustice. Not only should they be charged and convicted, but we also have to find a way to stop these types of incidents altogether. This has to change! 

Gregory Johns McMichael, Travis James McMichael
This photo combo of images taken Thursday, May 7, 2020, and provided by the Glynn County Detention Center, in Georgia, show Gregory McMichael, left, and his son Travis McMichael. The two have been charged with murder in the February shooting death of Ahmaud Arbery, whom they had pursued in a truck after spotting him running in their neighborhood. (Glynn County Detention Center via AP)

To my DC Run Crew family, we exist to bring all people together; we have a responsibility to each other. We must also understand the challenges Black people in America face each and every day. We will only support each other when we truly understand that “your problems are also MY problems.” Ahmaud’s story could have easily been one of our members….it could have easily been me…it could have easily been you. We must never forget that.

Ahmaud Arbuery

 

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WHAT KOBE TAUGHT THE CREW

Photo by Frank Tramble

Author | Coach Frank

“Have a good time. Life is too short to get bogged down and be discouraged. You have to keep moving. You have to keep going. Put one foot in front of the other, smile, and just keep on rolling.”
— Kobe Bryant

The only moment we are guaranteed on this earth is the current moment you are in–this moment right now. Not the one after, but only this moment. The small blessings of waking up in the morning are something many of us never really value.


When in reality we should all be excited each day we wake up and that we have an opportunity to take on the day and make an impact once more. The unexpected loss of life, especially when it included a legend, is a moment in time to realize that the one link that connects us all is death. It will happen to us all. When these tragedies also include the lives of children it’s a harsh slap in the face reminding us of the fragility of human life.


So when we really think of this, we have to see the weight and value we need to put on the fact that we only have this moment. THIS moment. The moment while you are reading these words. So that means we have a simple choice. Will you make it count or will you let this moment be wasted on petty arguments, being alone, procrastination, being mean, bullying, not being with the ones you love, harming others, or doing nothing.


See the #BlackMamba didn’t waste moments. In fact, his whole use of being in a helicopter was to ensure that he could increase the number of meaningful moments he had in a day so that he could be with his family. 9 bodies lost theirs lives, but 9 souls will live forever if we take what we love from each of them and make sure the moments we are still blessed to have been fueled with the spirit of determination, drive, love, honesty, optimism, passion, and fearlessness. Make each moment matter. Tell your family and friends that you love them. Make an impact and don’t waste it.
Time is not guaranteed.

Coach Frank


I love you all and I am thankful to be apart of your fitness journey