Black Girls RUN! Founder Reflects On Building A Supportive Community

The mission of Black Girls RUN!, founded in 2009, is to encourage African-American women to make fitness and healthy living a priority. Courtesy of Black Girls RUN!

If you've run a race in the past six years you've probably seen some ladies rocking pink-and-black "Black Girls RUN!" T-shirts. Black Girls RUN! is a club made up of more than 160,000 women nationwide, with runners ranging from rookie to veteran.

According to the Black Girls RUN! website, the group was created in an effort to tackle obesity in the African-American community and provide encouragement and resources to runners. In 2014, the group was given Oprah's "Standing O-Vation" award and a $25,000 grant from Toyota. As co-founder Toni Carey geared up for the Black Girls RUN! National Running Day Virtual 5K, we caught up with her to discuss the group's journey and where she sees it heading next.

espnW: Before you started Black Girls RUN! did you find there was a large running community out there for you?

Toni Carey: I was really new to running. So I'm sure that there were running groups. I did go to one running group with BGR! co-founder Ashley Hicks-Rocha in Charlotte and just had a terrible time. That is why we're so careful about our running groups, because we do want everyone to feel welcome and included. Definitely, I don't think that there were a lot of minority running groups. There's only maybe two more that I can think of. We have been very fortunate to be in the forefront of that. You kind of see everyone starting their own running groups, which is really neat to see, and it shows that change can happen on the ground level.

espnW: What was that terrible running group experience like? Did you learn anything from it?

TC: I was really slow at that time. I had just started running. We showed up and no one said hello. They kind of were looking at us like, "What are these two girls doing here in their running clothes?" So no one talked with us the entire time. .. For me to love running as much as I did I was like, "If this is what the rest of the runners are like, I'm not sure if this is for me." They were subtly saying you're not welcome to running. That still kind of haunts me that that happened to me, because I'm sure if that happened to me, I'm sure it happens to other people.

espnW: How do you make sure no one gets that type of feeling on a BGR run?

TC: We are very selective about the ambassadors that we choose. A team of ambassadors leads each group. We have a team of about 200 ladies across the country who do that for us. We follow a standard model of how a group run works. You will always have someone leading the run. They will greet everyone, do some quick stretches, introduce new people, let them know what route they're running, kind of all of the nitty-gritty details of the group run. All of the runs are pretty short unless they are training for a longer distance. Any given day, runs are only two to three miles. There's also usually a group of walkers and we have a sleeper (a group leader at the back of the pack). Depending on how many ambassadors there are, one will lead the pack and one will sleep the pack to make sure everyone stays on course and stays together.

My favorite part of the group run -- this happened organically -- is something called "no woman left behind." Once everyone finishes, they line up parallel to create a cheer tunnel to cheer every woman in, and they all wait until the last person is finished. You're never left out there alone, you never have to worry about being last; in fact, if you're the last one, you'll probably get the loudest cheer. We try to keep it positive, upbeat and supportive. We've all been the newbie, we've all just gotten off of the couch at some point. We want to make sure the new ladies feel confident that this is something they can do.

espnW: You've previously said BGR started at a dinner with about 15 or 20 people, and now you are a nationwide group boasting membership in the six-figure range. What do you attribute to that type of growth?

TC: One, social media has been a tremendous help to us. Word spread really quickly when we started the running group. Two, it's really hard to meet other women who have something in common with you after college. You either meet them at work or at church. It is a very infectious group. They're just an amazing group of women. Once you get introduced to that it's hard to walk away. You're kind of stuck with them for life.

espnW: Is BGR as much about being social as it is about maintaining a healthy lifestyle?

TC: Oh, definitely. The idea of running groups is very social. It's not competitive by any means. We try to make it a very safe environment. Women can come at whatever level they may be at or whatever is going on in their lives they know they can come and run. Of course all of those endorphins make you really happy, so you're going to have a good experience and you're talking with those ladies throughout the week as well. All of our groups are housed on Facebook. At any given time you can access the groups and they're chatting about what's going on in the world today, what's going on pertaining to running or what race they're going to run. But there is this constant dialogue that happens between them online as well as in person.

espnW: What is BGR's greatest accomplishment to date?

TC: I think its mere existence. When we started Black Girls RUN!, we thought we were going to write a book and it was just something fun that we were doing. We've been able to turn this into our full-time jobs; this is all that we do. For this just to be around, for people to find it interesting and want to be involved, the recognition comes and goes and that's great, but being able to impact women's lives on a daily basis is the greatest gift ever.

espnW: What is your favorite success story from a runner?

TC: There is a lady from Atlanta named Janelle. She is actually featured in a CNN piece about us. She has lost about 80 or 90 pounds in her time with us. The weight loss story was one thing, but with the mental and emotional transformation she experienced with that weight loss, she got a new lease on life and is a completely different person. I always say weight loss is amazing and I don't want to negate that, but the stories that touch me the most are the ones where someone kind of reclaims who they are on the inside and uses running to get through difficult times.

espnW: What's next for BGR!?

TC: We're really focused on making this a sustainable organization. While we've been able to make a really huge impact, there are so many more women who need us. The obesity epidemic in this country is still very prevalent. We want to be here for a while to be able to change those statistics. Ultimately, success for us is 10 to 20 years from now when we look at the obesity statistics and they're lower not just for minorities but for everyone. We are kind of working to put ourselves out of business, so that there's not a need for the education that we provide because everyone knows how to live a healthy lifestyle.

Stephen Knox has written for SBNation.com, NBA.com and NCAA.com. He is from Wheaton, Illinois. and you can find him on Twitter @StephenRKnox.