By Thomas Cathey | Special to The OBSERVER
At the beginning of 2021, I – like many others – had packed on the dreaded “COVID weight” from the year before, going from about 155 pounds to 170. People had become accustomed to the pandemic lifestyle and restrictions, and were looking for ways to stay active and socialize while also taking precautions.
My father, Robert, has been an avid runner for more than four years. In late 2020, he became captain of a running group that was looking to restart a year into the pandemic. This was my introduction to the Black Men Run experience.
According to the National Library of Medicine, African American men have a disproportionately increased risk of cardiovascular disease, type-2 diabetes and hypertension compared to other U.S. ethnic groups. However, it’s well known that these chronic conditions could be significantly mitigated by consistent exercise or physical activity. This is where Black Men Run comes in.
Black Men Run is a national group with chapters across the country. Its primary objective is to encourage Black and African American males to “get out and be active,” to decrease the chances of developing such aforementioned diseases, which are more prevalent in the Black community.
Black Men Run Sacramento holds weekly meetups Tuesdays, Saturdays and Sundays, with a Thursday joint run included with other area running groups. Unlike other running groups that typically specialize in training for races and require payment, Black Men Run meetups are open to anyone at any time, no membership or payment needed.
When Black Men Run Sacramento started meeting in January 2021, my dad began inviting me to the meetups, which at the time were once weekly. Looking for an opportunity to support my dad, to spend more time with him and to get active, I joined the Saturday runs.
Before I knew it, I was attending two to three runs weekly as the group began to add meetup days. I was gradually increasing the miles I ran each week, shedding a bit of weight and spending more time running during the meetups instead of walking.
While I was benefitting physically from participating with the group, I was getting other things out of it as well, like a sense of community and meeting supportive and positive individuals. I even had some friends join the meetups, and now they are still part of the group to this day.
As I began to gain confidence and encouragement from my peers, I and some friends from the group decided to challenge ourselves and run the Santa Rosa half marathon. I had done the race in 2019. But this time was different. I had trained far more and felt more prepared, and the meetups helped me with that.
Once summer 2021 came, my dad helped me hire a running coach and training was in full swing for the race in Santa Rosa. Sure enough, although my legs nearly gave out, I ran the race and met my goal of beating my previous race time by eight minutes.
Finishing the race and meeting my goal had given me a significant sense of accomplishment, but by the end of it, I was spent and did not want anything to do with running. Also, I had just gotten a new job in addition to the one I already had. So, quite naturally, my energy and motivation quickly faded and my meetup appearances abruptly stopped. I’m 25 and work full time at Target starting at 4 a.m., and no longer have time in the morning to run.
More than a year has passed since then, and I have yet to regain that motivation. Part of me wants to run again because of the benefits it gave me, but it is hard for me to get over the hump and actually go. So, what better opportunity to speak to the man himself, Edward Walton, who is the organization’s co-founder and chief motivational officer (CMO). To avoid typical corporate titles, Walton decided to put a twist on his leading title.
“As the title implies, it is keeping our members, supporters and brothers motivated to do the things that they know they need to do for their own physical well being and their own health, whether it be mental, physical , spiritual, all those things,” Walton said. “It is also being a rallying standard to galvanize the troops. I have a moniker that [goes]: ‘I lead by example, not by giving examples’. So the ‘chief motivational officer’ is something that I just coined up. I like to say I created it without any outside influences.”
Walton co-founded the organization with friend Jason L. Russell in 2013. While the pair had slightly different approaches and reasons for starting the group, both agreed that running and this organization could be a vessel to carry out their missions.
“[Russell] said ‘I think we need to start something so that Black men do not feel intimidated getting out on the pavement because there is a stigma that African-American men don’t run distance,’” Walton said. “So I came at it from a competitive standpoint [and] he came at it from a needs standpoint and providing a vehicle for those to take care of themselves.”
Unlike many people who join Black Men Run, including my dad, Walton has been a runner since childhood. He excelled on track and cross country teams throughout grade school, high school, college and in the military.
“I grew up poor and running was something that needed the least amount of equipment. I’m not a large gentleman, I’m about 5-[feet]-7, 5-8 on a good day and maybe after the world beats me down I’m about 5-6 and the end of the week,” Walton said. “And as I got older my peers, friends and neighbors continued to develop a stature to where they can play football, play basketball and things. But I was always the fastest in the neighborhood. So I naturally gravitated towards things that allowed me to use my speed almost exclusively.”
While Walton has not really had much of a struggle hitting the pavement and getting active. Poor health habits of family and peers drew him toward helping others. And when he was in the Navy, his mother died of a massive heart attack at age 38.
“I had to take leave, come home, deal with that and then when I got back the Navy did all types of tests on me. Because my mom died at such an early age, they wanted to see if it was hereditary and what was going on with my physical condition,” Walton said. “For what I did in the Navy to maintain my clearance, I had to have outstanding physical conditioning. And then I started noticing how individuals in my family were just unhealthy.”
Russell and Walton did not originally intend to start a national organization. Things just ended up that way once word-of-mouth spread.
“We were founded here in Atlanta, Georgia in 2013. We came up with the idea running on a place called the Silver Common Trail and it was just a local chapter,” Walton said. “And our expansion wasn’t sort of planned, we didn’t have a business plan or anything. We said, ‘Hey, who would like to lead a bunch of guys on several runs in different cities?’ So Jason reached out to his really close friends, and I think our second chapter was Memphis, which is where he’s from.”
The CMO believes that not too much promotion is needed for Black Men Run to be discovered. Much of the time, men who join the group joined because they were searching for something like it already on their own, without any outside influence.
“It’s proven itself over the years that word gets out. We have new members that show up here in Atlanta where I’m located, and I ask them, ‘How did you hear about us?’. They say, ‘Man, I just Googled you and I wanted a group of Black men to run with because when I go to these places I see no one else like me,’” Walton said.
That is exactly how my dad found the group. After getting into running at age 54 in 2018 because of his wife, he decided he wanted to run in his first half marathon. From there, running became a major part of his exercise routine, and began looking for running groups to join.
“When I started figuring out that I wanted to try running, I just did a Google search for diverse running groups or something like that and I stumbled across Black Men Run and I saw the Facebook page for Sacramento. And so I requested to join, and then I saw they had a schedule. So, I met up with one of them for a run that was scheduled in McKinley Park downtown, and it was just me and him,” Dad remembered, laughing.
But more important than the number of people is that the people who wanted to be at the meetup actually made the commitment. And everybody has their own story and reasoning as to why they are there.
“Everyone is a unique story,” Walton said. “Every guy must say ‘This is why I did it’. Some guys do it for competitiveness, some guys do it for longevity. … There are as many reasons as we have members.”
Every member of Black Men Run has their own “why.” For Walton, it was to disprove the stigma that Black men excelled only in sprints and to help better the health of his family members and peers. For Russell, it’s that running helps preserve his health. For my dad, it was seeing his wife run multiple marathons and the desire to feel that sense of accomplishment himself, in addition to helping other people.
“It’s provided me with an opportunity to meet a lot of people, which is really important to me,” Dad said. “But more important is to help other people work on their own goals, like the people that come out to our runs want to be healthy and we’ve provided an opportunity for them to do that.”
And while I have lost touch with my “why,” I believe that with some thought, I can and will rediscover it and get back to hitting that pavement.
To join Black Men Run Sacramento, go to blackmenrun.com/blackmenrun-chapters/Sacramento.