The Many Faces of Change

“I’ll meet you where you’re at.”

Adventure: Trail running in the Wenatchee Mountains near Cle Elum, Washington

Charlie Ware is an elite ultrarunner from Tucson, AZ, who has been trail running for more than a decade. During that time he has elevated his performance to the world stage, placing top 10 at prominent 100-mile races, including the Western States Endurance Run – the world’s oldest 100-mile trail race. Charlie qualified for Western States 2020, which was ultimately canceled due to the pandemic, but is ready to crush the course when it returns in 2021. In this post, Charlie shares his observations as a passionate participant in a sport that prides itself on inclusivity, but may be more deeply affected by systematic racism than many realized. Read all about inclusivity in sports like running below.

These are strange times to navigate. I’m no expert in pandemic-saturated social movements, but, well…who is?

What I do know, is that everyone is going through their own unique experience this year and I’m committed to meeting people where they are – through the pandemic, as well as the movement for racial justice and equality that has hit the streets. I don’t know someone else’s experience. No one knows mine. Let’s leave judgement and shaming aside – it’s too fragile a time for that. I’ll meet you where you are at.

I’m writing this to offer some thoughts from a white, privileged male who has carved out a niche as an elite athlete in an overwhelmingly white, privileged sport – ultrarunning.  

The main point I’d like to share is that there has never been a better time to lead by example, and that actions speak much louder than words. Posting on social media is not a requisite for participating in the Black Lives Matter movement. It certainly doesn’t hurt to share information, that is important. But if being a social media activist isn’t your jam, it’s OK. The actions you take in real life, not virtual life, are far more important.

At the starting line of a Run Rabbit Run ultrarunning event in Steamboat Springs, CO. (Picture credit: @trailjunkiephotos)

I’ll start by quickly addressing how/why ultrarunning is the white, privileged sport I describe.

A couple weeks ago I read a post from Ultrarunning Magazine in support of BLM on the concept of systematic racism and its relationship to ultrarunning. A bunch of people got upset. They replied with comments about how our sport isn’t racist. They said we are welcoming and inviting to all people, and for the most part they are absolutely right. It is indeed a welcoming sport. They missed the point though – sure, there may not be systematic racism in ultrarunning, but the demographics of ultrarunning are very much a product of systematic racism.

Time, money, and access.

Three things that a lot of folks like me have, and a lot of people of color do not.  If you are an ultrarunner or a trail runner, think about these 3 things. Think about them while you’re out running on a beautiful mountain trail this summer. And please, don’t feel guilty. I can’t wait to get out in the mountains this weekend too! As I said, I’m not here to shame. What’s important right now is simply to think about it.

People of color have been systematically kept in positions of lower income, less time (more work to make up for lower income, less education, broken households in communities with less/inadequate social services, higher/longer incarceration, etc.) and living in dense urban areas with no access to trails and mountains that make up the backbone of ultra/trail running. We have to think about this, acknowledge it and move forward.

Comradery at the starting line at Western States Endurance Run 2019 (Picture credit: @trailjunkiephotos)

Recently a good friend (and fellow runner) and I were talking about what needs to happen to foster change in our country regarding race. 

What can we (two white men) do to help foster change. Our thoughts were radically different. I brought the notion of massive governmental overhaul, policy-driven change as being the only way this can go.  My argument was that it will take major actions taken at the local and federal level of government to bring communities of color out of the hole our country has systematically designed them to stay in. His argument was that the fight is not with the government, but rather with the hearts and minds of the people in our country; that we need to alter how people think and feel about race, create a paradigm shift.

The reality is we are both touching on a larger whole of what needs to take place.

We need to work on our understanding of race and how racism effects the world we inhabit. We need to educate ourselves and help educate others. As the heart and minds of the country shifts, laws and policies can be drawn up with greater support to break down the archaic systems that keep communities of color at a disadvantage.

So what can we do right now that is real and extends beyond social media activism?

The big changes will come through politics and policies, but this can only happen if the small changes begin with each individual. There are a lot of ways to start, even if you feel you’re already in a delicate situation because of the uncertain times. And let me clarify, this list is for me to get my ass into gear too, I’ve been too lazy and too comfortable – a convenient place to be as a white man.

Actions don’t have to be huge, we can start small. Here are a few things I’ve brought into my life in the last couple months that were simple and gave me somewhere to start:

  • VOTE. My wife and I made a commitment to hold each other accountable to VOTE in our local elections. I admit, I’ve sucked at this. I will be better from now on. I’ll educate myself on the candidates and the ballot initiatives and vote accordingly.
  • Book clubs. I participate in a virtual book club with a few of my other friends – currently reading “White Fragility.” To be honest, I don’t look forward to our bi-weekly discussions. They are difficult and awkward. To be even more honest, I don’t care much for the book. But I’m showing up, talking it over with friends and growing as a person.
  • I’m educating myself. I’m reading more articles and watching more videos and documentaries on issues regarding race. I recommend 13th on Netflix, and Holy Post – Race in America by Phil Vischer on YouTube. I didn’t know the effect the GI bill had on black / white communities after WWII, did you? It’s important right now for us to learn the history of our country that wasn’t taught in school.
  • I’m discussing race more often and openly among my social circle and family. This is huge. These are the discussions that shape our minds and allow us to understand not only other folks’ point of views, but our own. Getting more comfortable talking about race is where it all begins.

Here are actions that I will work on and can be taken in stride:

  • Signing petitions / calling political representatives. I’ve never done either of these. The act of calling a senator and leaving a message seems awkward to me, so I haven’t. But this is a challenge to get past my comfort zone and make a call when it seems appropriate.
  • Donate. Cash flow is always a vulnerable area, but when I know I’m in a good situation to donate to groups that are working toward positive change, I will.
  • Talk with heads of local organizations about how to bring more inclusivity into the community.  For example, I can talk with the organizers of local road, trail and ultra races around my area about possible ideas to encourage more participation from people of color.
  • Volunteer time to charities, non-profits and community organizations. While it’s important to be aware of the “white savior” mentality, simply putting oneself in situations with more interactions with people of color will foster a better understanding of their experience.

A couple years ago I started volunteering at the federal prison in Tucson by opening a distance running club for inmates.

It’s been an invaluable experience for my own growth. I tell inmates at the beginning of each session that I’m not a coach, mentor or teacher. I’m just here to train once a week and give some pointers along the way to folks who want to run too. As runners know, there is no better way to enjoy a conversation and get to know someone than to share some miles with them.

How else can I get involved in the community and share miles with people whom I normally would not?

Receiving the Volunteer of the Year Award from the Federal Bureau of Prisons in Tucson.

This is a starting point for me. I have a long way to go.

And even though I’m not sold on Robin DiAngelos book, “White Fragility,” it has helped me understand my privilege as a white man. I’ve been examining a lot of my experiences and interactions throughout my life – my experience at ultra-races, with clients at work, at the grocery store or waltzing into a federal prison with no qualifications or experience and saying, “Howdy, I’d like to run in here!”

It starts with understanding. Would these experiences be the same, if I were Black?

To learn more about Charlie Ware, visit his profile on Topo’s ambassador page / follow his journey on Instagram @char.ware.

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