It’s 7 in the morning at Riverfront Park in Columbia, South Carolina, where the confluence of the Broad and Saluda rivers form the Congaree. It’s quiet, cold, and cloudy - a brisk 35 degrees. In the cold silence, a handful of men and women wait under a lamp post by a gate, their breath visible in the air.
A small group begins to congregate in the parking lot. Most of them are layered with beanies, hoodies, and gloves. Others display their Philadelphia Eagles pride with green and white scarves, and almost all of them wear shirts that display “Black Men Run” and “Black Girls Run.”
Fitness instructor Harry Williams brings out a large speaker for the morning warm up. The group, roughly twenty-six runners of all ages, laugh as they form lines in the parking lot. After a brief introduction to Zumba, a loud dance beat starts to play. Standing in the middle of the group, rabbitELITE Shawanna White, wearing a gray headband, long pink braids, and a “Black Girls Run'' long-sleeve, looks genuinely excited. Salsa steps to warm up the muscles come a little naturally to her.
As Harry leads the choreography, the chorus of “Famalay” by Skinny Fabulous begins:
Jumping up together,
Mashing up together,
Waving up together,
Shawanna sways left and right, waving her arms to her sides and overhead. Some are keeping up effortlessly. Others laugh, spinning and turning awkwardly. The entire time, she wears a huge smile on her face. The group moves their feet and catches up to the rhythm. The song plays on, and slowly the group starts to dance in unison:
We doh see skin,
We see power.
We doh see race,
We see brother.
The group laughs, sweats, and smiles - their arms stretching towards the sky.
This is a monthly ritual. On the last Sunday of every month, the local chapters of Black Men Run and Black Girls Run – organizations dedicated to encouraging Black communities to get out and be active – come together to warm up and run along the old towpath of the Historic Columbia Canal.
It’s a beautiful trail tucked between two rivers, following a flat paved path covered by drooping Spanish moss for about 2 and a half miles. Walking, jogging and running together, the running group make their way towards an inversion dam in the distance.
Shawanna, 43, moves quickly in the front with a few others. Just 24 hours after racing Run With the Saints 5K – where she won first in her age group – she takes the Sunday morning run easy in stride, chatting and laughing with others who raced the day before.
Shawanna is a Columbia local, Physical Education teacher, and also the 8th fastest U.S. born Black woman in the marathon. She is as fast as she is passionate about increasing awareness for Black representation in the running community. As one of twenty-six others who came to run this morning, she is a regular face every last Sunday with Black Girls Run, encouraging anyone else to join her through positive messages on social media.
The pride of participation is a fragment of Shawanna’s greatest dream: to see more elite U.S Born African Americans lining up alongside her at long distance races.
One day, Shawanna White was reading “The Ladies of Running” by Amby Burfoot. It was then that she learned about Marylin Bevans, the first African American woman to win a marathon (during the Washington Birthday Marathon in 1975) and also the first to break three hours.
Shawanna started wondering: are there other African American ladies who have broken 3 hours or qualified for the Olympic Trials? She asked Amby Burfoot. Her question eventually got forwarded to Tony Reed, Co-Founder of the National Black Marathoners Association, and Gary Corbitt, the son of the legendary marathoner Ted Corbitt.
Surprisingly, there wasn’t a clear answer. So Gary Corbitt took it upon himself to do the research, expanding upon the statistics of African American runners he collected over the years and with verifications from the Association of Road Race Staticians. Eventually, Shawanna’s curiosity resulted in the Ted Corbitt Archive’s list of Best African American Female Marathoners.
The list is home to some legendary names: Marylin Bevans, Michele (Bush) Cuke, Samia Akbar (currently holds the record for the fastest marathon run by a U.S. born African American woman, 2:34:14) and most recently, Arian Hendrix, who became the second fastest U.S. Born African American woman at the 2022 California International Marathon (2:35:39.)
On the All-Time list, Shawanna White currently holds the record for the most sub 3-hour marathons (16.)
“It’s truly an honor to be on the list. But at the same time, I want to see more women on that list,” Shawanna said.
“I feel like that list should be bigger, and it can be bigger. I just hope that by being on that list, I can inspire other ladies to go out and try to break three hours.”
Growing the Dream
While there is tremendous representation of U.S. born Black men and women in short distance track and field events including the sprint, 100m and 200m, there is surprisingly still a lack of representation in longer distance races. Shawanna White became more aware of this when she chased an Olympic Trials Qualifier at the 2019 California International Marathon. Looking around that morning, she noticed she was one of the only Black women lining up near the front.
“It’s pretty well known in my community that we run sprints,” Shawanna said, reflecting on the reasons for attendance.
“I think that’s why the list is so small. Some people may also just be too scared to run the distance because they don’t see anyone that looks like them.”
Fortunately, the elite representation is slowly becoming greater. Gary Corbitt’s list, which began with 20 runners, is closing in on 30 top females. Last year during the 2022 Chicago Marathon, Madison Yerke from Brookline, Massachusetts, broke 3 hours for the first time - running 2:48, and becoming the 11th fastest U.S. born African American woman that day. Shawanna told her “You go girl,” when she passed.
“I don’t know if she heard me, but I was so excited,” Shawanna laughed.
Black Men Run and Black Girls Run, both organizations with chapters nationwide, are key for planting the seeds of this dream. Apart from trying to grow a diverse presence in running, the groups are dedicated to fighting the trend of cardiovascular diseases in Black communities.
There is already incredible growth in the number of Black running groups. Since being founded in 2009, Black Girls Run has chapters in just over 70 cities, while Black Men Run hosts over 50 running groups in 30 states (and even a couple chapters in Europe and Okinawa, Japan.)
For new runners in these groups, chasing their dreams for overall health and fitness is the first step towards growing a strong community. Some are already becoming more curious about longer distances and, looking towards Shawanna, they see new possibilities.
“At first, my running used to be all about me. But now it's so much bigger than that,” White said.
“I know my running can help inspire other people, whether it's young girls, or men and women who look like me. I like to run now because I want to show people who aren’t athletic that they can do it. I want to show Black Americans that they can do distance running as well, and overall I just want to show how fun it is to see other people who look like you in a race.”
Hopefully I can plant the bug in more people’s ears.”