How Black Trail Runners is addressing diversity in the sport

How one group of black runners is making sure the door is open for everybody to take up trail running.

On the face of it, trail running is a sport that’s open to all, regardless of age, gender or ethnicity. After all, anyone can lace up a pair of running shoes and hit the trail – right?

However, when you look at the trail running scene, there is an under-representation of ethnic minorities, including black runners. This is partly a result of invisible barriers to access that prevent black people enjoying the sport.

That’s why Sabrina Pace-Humphreys set up Black Trail Runners (BTR), a community and campaigning charity, three years ago. “I want to show black people, black women, and black mothers that enjoying running on trails is possible,” she tells Saga Exceptional. “That these spaces are not off-limits to us.”

A group of older women relax after a winter runCredit: Shutterstock
Lack of diversity in trail running is an issue the Black Trail Runners organisation seeks to address

You can’t be what you can’t see

It’s a sentiment shared by fellow BTR board member Malcolm Allen.  When he goes for a run, he notices one thing: There’s nobody like me.”

Diversity in sport is accepted but doesn’t appear to be occurring. Over the years he’s been running – he’s in his sixties now – he’s noticed that black runners are almost completely absent from areas where he loves to run. When he runs in forests, farm footpaths and around other scenic routes, often he’s the only black runner.  

For Allen, running is all about getting off road and enjoying the countryside, but for fellow black runners he quickly noticed it wasn’t something on their radar. It’s something he’s chatted about to other runners, mostly white, on many occasions and invariably has had to explain to them how he sees things when they insist the trails are open to everybody.  

But what is it like for me?” is his simple way of replying when they debate why black runners feel ignored, even when the organisers and fellow competitors insist entries are always open to everybody. 

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Diversity in sport is a complex area to explore and debate, which is why BTR was created. The BTR logo says it is a community and campaigning charity that looks to increase the inclusion, participation, and representation of black people in trail running.  

But that’s only the tip of the iceberg in what is proving a topic of debate in every area of life. Loads of organisations say we are inclusive, but I always reply saying, that’s from where you sit, and not from my point of view,” says Allen.  

It’s an area that BTR has constantly been working on and now, says Allen, he sees two emails a week from organisations keen to be involved with the charity as more and more recognise what needs to be done.  

Starting from the bottom

It’s been a journey of discovery for those who have taken the first steps to becoming trail runners. It started with the basics and moved on from there.

The idea of what is trail running may seem relatively simple in that it involves running on paths and trails and not the road. But if, like many of the UK’s population who mainly live in urban areas, the countryside can seem to be a challenging environment.

Allen admits he was lucky in that his Jamaican family upped sticks and moved to the Cotswolds he was a boy. But even today “my relatives, who mostly live in the city aren’t comfortable with the countryside, from how to read maps to what footwear is best suited to the conditions,” he says. 

Pace-Humphreys agrees: Take trail shoes, for instance. At first glance they would seem obvious, but if you’re from a community who has never experienced them and has never been running off road, they are unknown.”

She adds: “We’re [BTR] about addressing those barriers and discovering those differences.” And to help, BTR has introduced Trail Taster days, designed to answer any questions budding new runners may have. 

And I want to see a multiracial start line,” Pace-Humphreys continues, explaining her drive and passion. 

With that in mind, the team has created a few initiatives to get more black runners excited about running. Top of the bill is the Black to the Trails festival, which was Britain’s first-ever black runners trail race when it launched in September 2022 (the latest version took place this past summer).

The three races, over 1km (0.6 miles); 5km (3.1 miles) and 10km (6.2 miles), proved hugely popular and attracted more than 250 runners.  

It was amazing,” says Allen. The atmosphere was great, and it was wonderful to see families enjoying it so much. We had so much positive feedback. Everybody, including white runners, were invited and one couple even came from abroad.” 

It’s very much work in progress, a bit like running training, which Allen and Pace-Humphreys are equally passionate about. For Pace-Humphreys that invariably involves an ultra-distance event, which for the grandmother, mother of four and recovered alcoholic is all about the challenge; while for Allen it’s a little more sedate but still involves races as long as a half marathon (13.1 miles).  

I say to myself: ‘If I can be here, you can too,’” says Pace-Humphreys. 

Black to the Trails event info

Following their support of the first Black to the Trails event, in May 2023 at Dunstable Downs, Strava will act as a Presenting Partner of the 2024 event taking place at Dunstable Downs on the 12th May 2024. Designed for and by Black people, Black to the Trails is the first and only event of its kind in the UK, seeking to promote a future in which all communities are represented on the trails.

Last year’s inaugural Black to the Trails event, which sold out its 400 race entries, has set a new benchmark for the future of trail running. With 70% of the entrants being people of colour, representing 15 of the UK’s 18 ethnic groups, the 2023 race was the first to achieve such a level of ethnic diversity – a legacy the event next year hopes to build upon.

We all have a part to play

As a long-standing runner and running coach, I believe that we all need to act positively and accept people for who they are.

For instance, I coach Fatima for long distance running. She’s from the Afghan mountains, a Muslim woman and has lived here in the UK for 15 years. She’s also a runner and an A&E nurse.

When I asked her once why she loved running in our group so much, she said something that was obvious for me but is so often ignored: “Because you just let me join and run. No questions, no barriers.”  

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Fatima wearing the British flag celebrates a trail victory with her coach, PaulCredit: Elaine Larkins
Fatima and writer Paul celebrating trail running diversity (and a win!)

Exceptional’s fitness editor, Philippa Cherryson, who is training as a mountain leader, agrees.

My mantra is “if you can’t see it you can’t be it” – so if you don’t see anyone you can identify with taking part in an activity, then you may not believe you can do it.

“The more photos and videos of people from all backgrounds that we see on social media, on the television and in traditional media, the more we’ll see a greater variety of faces in our hills and mountains.” 

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Paul Larkins

Written by Paul Larkins

Published:

Paul Larkins has been a sports journalist for more than 30 years, covering two Olympic Games, one Paralympics, numerous World Championships and, most recently, the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham in 2022. He’s also been a magazine editor, heading up titles covering everything from running to cooking and buying tractors. But his real passion is running. As a former GB International athlete and sub-4-minute miler in the 1980s, Paul has a great understanding of life-long fitness and the benefits it can provide.