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Interview with rabbitELITE, Shawanna White

By Eric Senseman

Shawanna became the fifth-fastest U.S. born black marathoner, and is now the seventh-fastest, when she placed third at the 2018 Newport News Marathon in 2:45:19–narrowly missing the 2:45:00 qualifying standard for the 2020 U.S. Olympic marathon trials. She also holds the record for the most sub-three hour marathons by an African American woman.

At age forty-two, Shawanna seems only to be speeding up. Learn more about Shawanna, her running history, her experience as a black woman in running, and more.

Eric: Shawanna, you’re on the rabbitELITE team. How did you get started with rabbit?

Shawanna: I think maybe I saw about rabbit online somewhere. I tried out the clothes and really liked the shorts. They were comfortable and nice and looked good on me. I found out that they have these different teams and a Facebook community. I’m all about meeting people, so any type of brand that allows me to meet new people is really cool with me. I found out about the elite team and applied, and I was able to get on the team and meet some awesome people.

Eric: They’ve done a great job creating a global community. You had great credentials to apply, having just missed the U.S. Olympic trials standard of 2:45:00. When did you realize you would just miss it?

Shawanna: It’s funny, I actually thought I was on pace, so I was so shocked when I got to the finish line and saw the clock. The last time I looked at my watch I was like: Yes, I’ve got it! I was shocked to see 2:45:19 on the clock. I always thought I had it. My coach thinks maybe when I looked at my watch I got complacent and slowed down, not on purpose. I was pretty shocked. 

Eric: That’s heartbreaking. Let’s go back in time though. When did you start running and how’d you get into the marathon?

Shawanna: I started running in tenth grade. My high school coach asked me to run, so I decided to join the team because my grandma would allow me to join. I ran in high school and then–I’m originally from Georgia–I went to the University of West Georgia. I ran in college all four years. I made All-Conference all four years, and I placed second in the conference one year. After college, I took a break because I was tired of running, and I really didn’t find a passion for it. 

I was working at a charter school near Atlanta–I’m a physical education teacher. At my charter school, we didn’t have sports. It was my job to find some opportunities to participate in sports. At the time we had flag football and basketball. I made an announcement about coming out to run. About 40 kids signs up and after the meet, the kids were so excited. One of the parents told me we could put them in parks & rec track, so that’s what we did. Seeing the kids running–it got me fired up! I said, you know what, I need to get back out there and run myself. I got back and it felt like I had never run a day in my life [laughs], so I thought I should seek out some groups because it was really hard by myself.

Eric: [laughs] Extended time off can do that. What groups did you find to run with?

Shawanna: I found the Striders, and in that group I met two gentlemen by the names of Cliff and John. Eventually they took me under their wing and I started doing whatever runs they were doing. They said if I kept it up, I could join the ladies in red–they were talking about the Atlanta Track Club. They had a competitive team and I eventually ran the time standards to join that team. I met some good friends, then we broke away and started our own group, called the Atlanta Marathon-something runners [laughs]–I can’t remember it’s been so many years. Our goal was to focus on the marathon. That was back in 2011. My coach at that time said eventually I could maybe qualify for the trails. I said: What the heck is that?[laughs]

Eric:You didn’t even know! That’s funny. So it wasn’t a trials standard that got you motivated to run marathons. 

Shawanna: No! Actually the reason I got into marathons–people call me a serial racer. One weekend–this is how I started running marathons, this one weekend–I raced a 5k, 10k, and a mile in one day. The next day I ran a half marathon and ran almost close to a personal best. I thought: What? Maybe I could run a marathon if I did all that. I thought, based on my half marathon, I thought I could run 2:49 for my first marathon. But I wanted to break three hours–I didn’t but they told me I qualified for the Boston Marathon. They told me what Boston was [laughs], and I thought that was cool. I still really wanted to break three hours, and so then I ran my second marathon. I ran 2:55 for my second marathon. After that, that’s when me and the girls started our own marathon group.

Eric: You’ve run quite a few marathons since then, and a lot of them–maybe all of them–in under three hours. 

Shawanna: Yeah, I’ve actually run the most sub-three hours marathons of any U.S. born black female. I had a hip injury that set me back there for a little bit, but I eventually recovered–I had hip surgery in 2013–and was able to get back to training and racing.

Eric: When did you learn about that record? Was it a goal of yours for a long time?

Shawanna: So, I found that out–you know, that list didn’t always exist. Gary Corbitt, the son of the late Ted Corbitt, does a lot of research on African American runners. I read about Marilyn Bevans, the first African American woman to run under three hours. I was curious how many African American women born in the United States–are there other women who can run under three hours? I got in contact with Gary, and he started doing the research, putting together the list. There’s twenty women or so on this list of African American women born in the U.S. who have run under three hours. 

Marilyn Bevans, I found out, had the most sub-three hour marathons with thirteen. I was like, Hmm, let me see how many sub-three hour marathons I have. I counted mine and realized I had ten. My goal became to break her record. Eventually I broke her record and I have sixteen now. I do have that one little special record [laughs].

Eric: What does it mean to you to have that record?

Shawanna: You know, I hope it inspires other ladies who look like me to do the same thing, which, honestly, I think it does. One of my now friends–she actually found me through that list and reached out to me on Instagram. She had never seen that many women running distance like her. We’ve really good friends now. The same thing with this other girl, she found the list, and during Black History Month on Strava, you can tag people. She tagged me last year on one of her runs. I thought, Wow, this is crazy, this is so cool.

Eric: That is cool. What does it mean for you to be on that list, and to know you’re inspiring other women?

Shawanna: I’m honored. It’s a really cool thing because I never thought in a million years that I’d be ranked in anything. That’s what I’m really proud of, that I accomplished something with all that hard work.

But, you know, when I was the fifth-fastest African American female marathoner, my friend was telling me, Hey, you could get into more competitive races, tell them that you’re the fifth-fastest black female marathoner. I said, No, I don’t want to get handouts. I want to get into a race because I’ve run the time. I want to earn it.

It’s really sad because all this time I’ve been on the earth, forty-something years, and to think that not that many people like me have run faster. It’s sad, too. I’m happy on one hand but at the same time I’m sad, too. I’m hoping that me and other people–it will inspire more women of color to give distance running a try. When I came home and told my parents that I’d run the 800/1500 in college, they thought my coach was stupid–because it’s not common for women of color in the U.S. to run distance. I just hope it inspires others. I want to become better but I want to inspire people to run longer distances–black, white, or whatever. I hope I get knocked down on the list because there are more talented ladies out there that just need to give it a try like I did.

Eric: Right, it’s important to have role models to look up to who look like you.

Shawanna: Yeah, I never saw anybody that looked like me. Every time I go to a start line, all I see is me. So I’m like: Are there any? Have there ever been any? I can tell you about all the great Ethiopians and Kenyans but I can’t tell you a bunch of women here in the United States. Representation matters–a little kid watching TV, they aren’t going to understand Eliud Kipchoge, but they’ll understand someone who looks like them running around the block. The kids at my school, they’re watching, and it encourages them to give it a try. They see me. I’m just happy that the lack of representation didn’t stop me from pursuing running.

Eric:Definitely. And, because of your inspiring efforts, I understand that you were recently told that you’ll be inducted into the Black Marathoners Association Hall of Fame.

Shawanna: Yeah, that’s going to take place next month. I’m excited because I get to see some big icons. I think the committee was aware of my record of sub-three hour marathons. There’s seven of us being inducted based on different resumes. There’s actually a documentary coming out about our stories. 

I got the call that I would be inducted. I was like, What? Really? You’ve got to be kidding me![laughs] Because, you know, people like Meb Keflezighi are in this hall of fame. I’m just like, Wow, wow. This is crazy!To me, it’s hard to see sometimes that the things I’ve done are outstanding in other people’s eyes. It’s just really cool that what I’m doing is able to inspire people. I may think what I’m doing is small, but I have to remind myself that it’s a big deal.

Eric:Thanks for taking the time to chat, Shawanna. Keep inspiring!

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