Tiffany Chenault never imagined she would run a marathon, let alone the Boston Marathon. As a recreational runner and an African American woman, she rarely saw people who looked like her while running around her neighborhood. She noticed that the marathon was largely dominated by white runners and elite African athletes.
“Running is really a microcosm of a larger society. So even though it should be all welcoming and inclusive, it's not,” said Chenault, who is gearing up to run the Boston Marathon for the first time on April 18.
She’s a sociology professor at Salem State University, and her personal journey with running sparked her academic curiosity. She now focuses her research on the lack of representation of African American athletes in recreational running, which experts say is caused by a number of racial, social and economic barriers that have excluded communities of color from the sport for decades.
WATCH: Tiffany Chenault's running journey
Chenault is a member of the Boston Athletic Association’s new Boston Running Collaborative, which was formed at the end of last year and is aimed at supporting a diverse community of runners in Boston and expanding access for communities of color. Over the past year, the B.A.A., which oversees the historic marathon, has been vocal about putting racial equity front and center.
Local runners like Chenault hope that the visibility of those efforts, by a prominent institution like the B.A.A., will help the running industry become more inclusive and overcome some of the structural barriers that prevent communities of color from participating.
Still, there’s a long way to go in achieving equity. Historically, the B.A.A. does not collect data on the race of marathon participants — just age, gender and hometown — so it’s an open question for how many Black or African American athletes compete each year. That is changing.
“We have only just started to track data specific to other demographics and will use it to inform our work going forward,” a spokesperson from the B.A.A. said.
When it launched last fall, the Collaborative gave out more than $100,000 in grants to local community and grassroots organizations that are committed to racial equity and diversity, including Black Girls RUN!, TrailblazHers Run Co., PIONEERS Run Crew and Sole Train.
In February, Adrienne Benton was named to the Board of Governors of the B.A.A, becoming the first Black woman to serve in the position. So far, Benton has been encouraged by the willingness of the B.A.A. to reflect on its history and work toward better representation.
“For a long time, the B.A.A. has been a mirror of our society, in terms of looking at privilege and everything else,” Benton said, who will be running Boston for the third time this year.
“But I do have to say that the B.A.A. has evolved tremendously in terms of looking at itself and also trying to figure out how it can be more intentional in how it facilitates diversity, how the organization itself becomes more diverse,” she added.
Chenault applauded those efforts as a start in the right direction. Her research shows that the structural racism embedded in Boston’s running culture is deep and won’t change overnight. As a Black woman getting into running, she didn’t always feel represented by the marathon.
“So then me as an African American, why should I care? Why should I be involved? Because my face, my name, my voice has not been a part of it,” she said.
Chenault’s journey with running began in 2011, after she lost her mother to cancer. A few years later, a friend invited her to run a five-mile race at Harpoon Brewery in South Boston. She said yes, not knowing what to expect. As a race novice, she didn’t even know where to place her numbered running bib. The gun went off, and she ran.
“In that moment of running, I felt a little lighter, lighter in the sense of I felt something. And I always tell people that when you're grieving, sometimes you just are numb,” she said.
In running, she found peace, a place to grieve and a place to heal — and a new mission: To run a half marathon in all 50 states before she turns 50, which would allow her to explore her academic curiosity about why more Black women aren’t drawn to a sport that has given her so much.
She became a co-ambassador of the Boston chapter of Black Girls RUN!, a national organization that encourages Black women to become active and make them more visible in the running industry. She found that Black women are mostly “invisible” in the research.
“The academic in me was looking at literature, pop culture literature, academic literature on Black women running. And I found hardly anything,” she said.
Alternatives emerge to diversify the sport
As part of its efforts to be more inclusive, the B.A.A. gives financial support to the annual Road to Wellness 5K in Roxbury in September, a partnership of The Dimock Center and Hood Fit, which creates exercise and fitness programs for underserved communities. Chenault says that’s the exact type of event that there should be more of; it’s free, and is held in a neighborhood that is often overlooked by elite races.
Some local runners, like Katonya Burke, who is also a co-ambassador for the Boston chapter of Black Girls RUN!, are creating their own events for their community. In 2016, she created the yearly Diva Run, which spans the length of Blue Hill Avenue in Mattapan in September.
Burke is also running the Boston Marathon for the first time this year. She was ready to run the April 2020 race when the pandemic upended her plans. She ran a virtual race — but instead of the traditional course, which runs mostly through the Boston suburbs, she created her own 26.2-mile route.
“When I did my Boston virtual, I didn’t run the course. I wanted it to go through Dorchester, Roxbury, Mattapan,” she said. “I ended on the finish line, but I wanted to go through my neighborhood where I grew up.”
Like Chenault, Burke never expected to become a marathoner. A college basketball star, she was also drawn to running later in life partly through grief. Just a few weeks before she was set to run the Chicago Marathon last year, her sister died from cancer.
“I ran with her picture on my bib. That got me through that race,” Burke said. “I’m running for my sister now.”
"We're trying to build a bridge between Roxbury, Dorchester, Mattapan and Boylston Street."-Adrienne Benton, B.A.A. Board of Governors
Boston Marathon runners can participate in a few ways: Qualify at a prior marathon with a competitive time, be gifted an invitational bib or support a charity and raise at least $5,000. As a charity runner, Burke has encountered a challenge even harder than running 26 miles: raising thousands of dollars.
“When I became a charity runner… it put a damper on it because it’s so hard, fundraising. Fundraising, that's the hardest part of training to me,” she said. She is raising money for Sole Train, an organization that encourages young people from communities of color to participate in running.
Steep fundraising requirements “minimize the access that people of color have had” to the iconic event, said Sheila Cody Peterson, chief development and communications officer for Trinity Boston Connect, a nonprofit that focuses on rooting out systemic racism in Boston through programs like Sole Train.
Recognizing that not all runners have wide networks to tap into for donations, Trinity Boston Connects lowers the fundraising target for some members of its marathon team and allows team members to support each other. Peterson credits the policy for assembling a more racially diverse marathon team.
Building a ‘bridge’ to Boylston
Through her sociology research, Chenault identified some ways the running industry can be more inclusive of Black communities, starting with how running events are marketed. She noted that there aren't many blue and yellow marathon banners — which are prominent around Back Bay and along the Charles River — around neighborhoods like Roxbury and Mattapan.
When she runs in different neighborhoods in Boston, Chenault sees that some have better access to walkable paved sidewalks, water fountains and street lights — all critical for recreational running.
“A lot of times when people think about running, [it’s] just buy a pair of shoes and just go, but you don't think about that community,” she said. “Are there safe spaces that people can run? Are there green spaces that people can run in?”
Benton said the B.A.A. understands that some neighborhoods feel disconnected from the marathon and hopes the new Collaborative can jumpstart that conversation. “We’re trying to build a bridge between Roxbury, Dorchester, Mattapan and Boylston Street,” she said.
If Boston can lead the way, Chenault believes other running institutions will follow.
“If they [the B.A.A.] are able to say, we need to put race inequality on the forefront and we need to make efforts to make sure that people feel included, and we need to ‘de-whitenize,’ if you will, the sport of running — and if they're the ones to do that, then I think others will follow because they are so, so powerful and they are so well-renowned,” she said.
After she crosses the finish line at Copley on Monday, Chenault will turn her attention to the three remaining states left on her half marathon list: Idaho, Wyoming, then Hawaii in 2023.
But for now, she has her sights set on Boylston Street.