?The sudden shout pierces the background noise of Boston’s South End district, startling tourists and restaurant patrons waiting for tables.
?“Who run the world?” someone bellows from a red-brick sidewalk.
?“GURL!” comes the response, from 30 other voices at top volume.
?Then, in a blur, a pack of men in running shoes and gear speeds away, around a corner and through the congested city streets to the Charles River.
?The call and response inspired by Beyoncé’s “Girls Who Run the World” kicks off the Tuesday night get-togethers of the Gay Urban Running League, part of a fast-growing culture of gay running events and clubs, and an even broader trend of niche running groups based on sexual orientation, race, and other characteristics.
?“We’re seeing more of these sub-groups crop up because people want to relate to something,” says Jay Ell Vaughn, spokeswoman for Black Girls Run, a national network of running clubs for African-American women. “If you see someone like you, then you might be a little more encouraged to give it a try.”
?Black Girls Run’s main purpose is to fight the epidemic of obesity that disproportionately affects African-American women, 80% of whom are classified by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as overweight. But, like other such organizations, it seeks to make running more inclusive by example.
?“In many marathons, I would say there may have been fewer than five black runners, and at times I was the only one,” says Anthony Reed, an accountant from Dallas who co-founded and serves as executive director of the National Black Marathoners Association, which now has 3,000 members who run in distinctive green tops.
“By our members wearing our singlets, people can see, oh, there’s a team, and if there’s a team, there must be African-American runners,” says Reed, 58, who has run 125 marathons. “You lead by example.”
?It’s a steep climb. Only 3.3% of participants in RunningUSA’s National Runner Survey, and 4.1% of women, identified themselves as black, though blacks constitute 13.1% of the U.S. population.
“Within the black community, in other sports such as football, basketball, and even baseball, running is perceived as being a punishment,” says Reed, who has calculated that African Americans who run marathons make up 0.0016% of the U.S. population. “You run laps because you did something wrong. We want to show people that running is not a punishment.”
There are other ways these groups try to attract attention. Black Girls Run, which has 62,000 members, recently held a national conference in Charlotte, North Carolina, with Marion Jones as keynote speaker. The National Black Marathoners’ Conference will inaugurate a black distance runners’ hall of fame in November at the Richmond Marathon. It’s even encouraged marathons to route their courses through African-American neighborhoods, “so that blacks could see we can run something longer than a quarter-mile,” Reed says.
He says he’s heard from Hispanic, native American, and recovering alcoholic runners about starting clubs like his.
?With offshoots already begun by former members in Minneapolis and Edinburgh, GURL is one of many new incarnations of the gay running club concept pioneered by the Front Runners network, which began in 1974 in San Francisco and has grown to 100 chapters worldwide. And even those are amping up. One Front Runners group in New York renamed itself, for a relay race, the Ultragays.
?“It’s really just exploded,” says Ryan Smith, one of the leaders of GURL, which often attracts as many as 40 runners on a Tuesday. “We used to have nights where four people showed.”
?Insiders say that trend is being reignited by a generation interested in new social outlets. GURL’s runs, for instance, end with drinks and tacos.
?“It’s about community,” says Tory Fitzgerald, founder and CEO of a new national series of gay running races and mud runs called the Out-Fit Challenge (seen above), which debuted in April in Miami. “People are hungry for alternative contexts to meet other LGBT people outside of the bar and club scene. Running groups and events like ours are just one way of facilitating that.”
?There are also pride runs connected to gay pride weeks in many cities.
?Many of these new gay running groups are also intensely competitive.
?“These are just people who for the most part like to do everything full-on,” says Smith. “The stereotypes fit in some ways. The people who are drawn to this happen to be very Type-A people—well-educated, striving kinds of people.”
?But he, too, says there are perceptions to overturn. Gay running clubs are out, they’re proud, and they’re really fast.
In a race, Smith says, “There’s nothing we like more than running past some frat-looking guy that in another time would have bullied people like us.”
Two out of the top 10 teams in last year’s Reach the Beach relay in New Hampshire, and four out of the top 25, were from gay running clubs in Boston and New York. And just to hammer home the point, GURL’s anchor man ran the final seven-mile leg in drag.
But the lines also may be blurring, says Alden Clark, spokesman for the International Front Runners. After all, the idea behind all of these niche organizations is to bring more and different types of people into the fold.
“Some of our clubs report that they think because of more acceptance in society, there may be less need for a gay running club,” Clark says. “Perhaps people feel more comfortable with any neighborhood club. I have heard that from a couple of clubs.”
Fitzgerald agrees. He says that, already, nearly half of the participants in Out-Fit competitions have been straight.
“The perceptions will change when we can all co-exist as one community,” he says. “When people experience a family member who might be gay, or participate with us in events like these, the barriers that divide us will begin to fade.”