I’m Not Safe As a Runner, Even While Coaching White Women

In an ironic twist, it was my clients’ privilege that protected me that night

Photo illustration. Sources: Eva Blanco/Getty Images, EyeEm/Getty Images

A friend of mine owns a company that coaches endurance athletes, and I helped him get his company off the ground for a few years. We offered running, cycling, and swimming coaching to clients ranging all levels, whether it was beginners running their first 5K or elite triathletes and ultra-marathoners. I still remember how he tricked me — a former sprinter — into working for him.

He’s one of my best friends, so when he casually asked me to coach a marathon group, I said sure — but as a former sprinter, I could barely run a 5k then. He told me not to worry; when the runs got too long, he’d get me a bike.

By the time I got that bike, I had already gone on 15-mile runs with my group. I ended up becoming a full-time coach and second in command of the company, and I loved it. At my peak, I taught five running classes a week.

In the midst of all this, I had just moved to Brooklyn. I lived in South Park Slope, which was perfect because we taught all of our classes in nearby Prospect Park. Inevitably, we became well known by frequent park-goers. My beginner running class often had 30 or more participants and consisted of mostly well-to-do White women. We all stretched at the main park entrance, and then I would bellow instructions and divide the group by their respective abilities.

On a chilly fall night — one of those evenings when I knew my class didn’t want to dawdle — we got right into our workout at 7 p.m. sharp. My assistant coach was out that night, so I had to wrangle the entire class myself. That meant I would likely end up running four miles in the course of our two-mile workout, pacing back and forth with the group.

Safety during the evening was always my priority. I made sure my participants paired off and that I was ever-present. When it happened, I was with a group of participants nearing the finish. I chatted with them, made sure they didn’t overwork themselves, and answered various running questions.

A marked police car pulled up alongside us and crept along for a bit. The officer on the passenger side took a look at me and then looked at the women. I had on my usual running gear, long tights, and my hooded running shirt. I wore all black.

“Are you ladies okay?” the officer asked.

“Um, yeah. We’re fine,” one of the women responded. “Why, did something happen?”

“No, just checking in.” The officers looked at me again and went on their way.

It was a quick exchange. Innocuous even, depending on what color your skin is in America. But I knew the potential for this encounter to go sideways. I grew up around the same police precinct that attacked Amadou Diallo in New York City. When I was 15, I encountered the same group of detectives that would end up taking his life in a hail of 41 bullets. I’d been stopped by a car full of detectives on my way home one night. They all wore bulletproof vests. They all had their guns drawn on me.

“That was for me,” I interjected. “They saw a large group of White women running with a random Black dude sprinting back and forth. They were making sure that you were safe from me.”

I continued with the class and made sure everyone finished safely. As I led the group in a final stretch, a few of the women talked about the encounter with the squad car.

“I wonder what that was about,” one of my students commented. “Are we sure something didn’t happen in the park tonight?”

“That was for me,” I interjected. “They saw a large group of White women running with a random Black dude sprinting back and forth. They were making sure that you were safe from me.”

They got quiet. A few questioned whether or not that’s what actually happened.

“How do you know it was racial?” one asked.

“We’ve been coaching these classes for a few years now,” I replied. “We’ve kept the same schedule the entire time. Half the park knows me by name. The officers never inquired about whether or not I was okay. They didn’t acknowledge me at all. This on the night my assistant, another White woman, isn’t here.”

Silence.

I realized that these women had just seen what amounted to a passive stop and frisk, likely for the first time. Some of them became upset for me. I say for me, because honestly, I felt nothing. As a Black person, to get angry whenever this happens to you or someone you know is wasted energy. I was just glad to have these women with me at the time. While I was charged to maintain their safety, it is possible that they unknowingly kept me alive that night.

I won’t pretend this was a regular occurrence for me as a running coach. In fact, this was the only time I can recall interacting with police at all in the park. For those who live in that “other” America, this might cause a sigh of relief. For the rest of us, every day outside brings the fear of getting one step closer to a seemingly inevitable wrongful death.

Will it come in the form of harassment, like the drive-by variety I experienced? Or will it be fatal like Ahmaud Arbery’s, gunned down simply for running alone? Whether asleep in our homes, playing in the park, or driving while Black, we are not afforded the safety of people who don’t look like us. What’s worse, we aren’t even allowed the legitimate hope of justice after our deaths.

I didn’t lose my life that night. But it was a beckoning reminder — for myself and other Black men — what can happen when someone, somewhere, thinks we’re stepping out of line.

Writer (duh). Bylines @LevelMag @thegrio @NBCBLK. Co-creator of the Good Talk Podcast Network. Don’t forget to add me to your Medium email list!

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store