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10/12/2023 by Karen Rosen

Black Men Run to Celebrate 10th Anniversary at PNC Atlanta 10 Miler & 5K

Jason Russell's first running buddy was his father. Jim Russell usually ran alone before Jason decided to tag along when he was about 10.

"I wanted to hang out with him," said Russell. "It was father-son time."

That fellowship eventually led to an organization dedicated to bringing Black men together for running and all the benefits it provides.

Black Men Run will celebrate its 10th anniversary in Atlanta Oct. 20-22, with about 450 members expected to attend. Events include the PNC Atlanta 10 Miler and an awards dinner.

With about 60 chapters across 30 states, Washington D.C., the United Kingdom, France, Japan and Kenya, the organization has an estimated 10,000 members worldwide.

And to think it started here, with a Facebook post that attracted about 10 men to a group run in Atlanta.

Once Russell learned about the prevalence of cardiovascular disease among Black men, he thought a running club could help improve health in the community.

But when he approached his friend Edward Walton about helping start such a club, Walton didn't exactly jump at the chance.

"I said, 'Dude, I'm not in the business of telling grown people to do what they know they should do,'" said Walton, who ran track in college and with the U.S. Navy.

He changed his mind after competing in a road race. "I could count the Black people at the starting line on one hand," Walton said. "I said, 'I got it. I see what he's talking about.'"

The two men took note of organizations already in existence, such as Black Girls Run and South Fulton Running Partners, the oldest African American run club in the country.

In July 2013, Black Men Run Atlanta launched with that Facebook post seeking runners who wanted to get together. Within about six months, chapters in five more cities had formed. Russell became its CEO.

Now Black Men Run is much more than a club: it's literally a movement. "We are a network of influence and impact," its website proclaims.

The organization also calls itself "The Healthy Brotherhood Experience," citing these statistics:

· Among Black men ages 20 and older, 44.4 percent have cardiovascular diseases.

· Black males have a risk of first-time stroke that is almost twice that of whites

· Heart disease is the No. 1 cause of death for African American males.

"Running is low entry to get into effort, gravity, ground," said Walton, a cybersecurity expert. "We created a standard for guys to come together, have a sense of accountability and have a sense of belonging."

Chapters, which are led by local captains, hold weekly runs. The one in Atlanta is at 6:30 p.m. on Mondays. James "JT" Hale, one of three national vice captains and the organization's director of communications, is usually the first one there.

Hale was 48 when he saw information about Black Men Run Atlanta, then only a month old, on Meetup.com. He had started running a few months earlier and expressed some doubts to a friend, who was already a member, that he would fit in.

"I'm thinking to myself, 'OK, these guys are probably really fast, I'm not a runner like that,'" Hale said. "He's like, 'Doesn't matter, come on out.'"

He did and was hooked. "This is one of the few things in life that I have started with that I have not quit," said Hale, 59, an administrative case manager in the staff attorney's office at the U.S. Court of Appeals. "I was the kid who was the quitter. I'd try something, 'Oh, I don't like it, I quit.' This, I guess it just spoke to my soul.

"I like the energy, the vibe of this group. Being around these guys, bonding, creating relationships ... I like to say I've got brothers all over the place now."

The run in Atlanta's West End usually draws about 20 people from a pool of about 100 members in the chapter, who run 3 to 5 miles at their own pace. "We range from lightning speed to turtles and everything in between," Hale said.

There are even a few walkers. New runners to the group − which doesn't recruit, but adds members through social media, word of mouth and personal associations − are paired with someone of similar ability.

"Our motto is 'No man left behind,'" Hale said. "We'll stick with you or come back and get you."

Walton, an Atlanta native who will turn 55 later this month, is the "sweeper," the guy who makes sure everyone returns safely to the parking lot with the confidence to return the next week.

Officially, he's the Black Men Run "CMO," or "Chief Motivation Officer."

We personify what it means to go from couch to 5K with no judgment," Walton said. "Nobody leaves until the last person comes in from a run."

However, he said, when Black Men Run started, people didn't flock to the group. "The biggest thing I heard is, 'Well, I'm going to get in shape and then I'm going to join Black Men Run.' I said, 'No, you join Black Men Run and you'll get in shape.'"

Some new members have never run before, while others are former high school or college athletes returning to the sport. The results have been impressive. "We've transformed lives," said Walton. "People say, 'When I joined two years ago, I couldn't run 100 yards and now I've run my third marathon.'"

They credit the support system they find within the club, which includes members from "lawn keepers to astrophysicists," said Walton.

Other success stories concern health and weight loss, with some members losing more than 100 pounds. "When they show me before and after pictures, I go, 'Wow that's really you?'" Hale said.

Black Men Run also emphasizes mental health and well-being. "It's a safe mental space for you to express yourself, have a man talk if you need to have a man talk," Hale said.

Members are not required to participate in races but are encouraged to do so. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution Peachtree Road Race is a perennial favorite, with at least 200 members running every July 4.

Russell said the group's first run after Ahmaud Arbery was killed was somber and touching, underscoring one of his main reasons for starting Black Men Run. "African American men needed a safe outlet to run," he said.

The organization expanded so rapidly − with different cities having varied running cultures − that Walton said it reminded him of start-up companies. "We're building the plane as we're flying," he said.

"All it costs you is sweat," said Hale of the free, no-dues membership. "Sweat and maybe some achy feet." An online video library, accessible to anyone, provides tips on everything from running form to nutrition.

Walton made sure to keep the members safe during the pandemic. He banned group runs until doctors within the group gave the green light and then runners kept a 2-meter distance between them.

"That fellowship, camaraderie, enjoying each other and having a beer after a run was sorely missed," Walton said. "And it propelled us to be stronger together."

The group was designed for adults, but there have been some younger members. Koa McKoy, 13, comes to the weekly runs in Atlanta with his mother, a member of Black Girls Run. "She said he needs some male presence around him," Walton said. "He's so proud to wear his shirts."

While most of the Black Men Run timeline is packed with positive stories, in 2017 the unthinkable happened. While Russell and Walton were making calls around the country to check in with their captains, Russell said that his head had been hurting all day. The next day he was at work as a product manager when he suffered a stroke and a brain aneurism.

"I'm a proud stroke survivor," said Russell, 49, who had been diagnosed with high blood pressure and high cholesterol in 2007.

And he's still a runner, logging a couple of miles a day.

"The irony is he had a stroke one week after running the Thanksgiving half marathon," Walton said. "He went back on the course four times to get people, and probably ran 16-17 miles that day."

Added Walton, the godfather to Russell's children: "The doctor said had he not been in phenomenal shape, he would be dead." Russell's father and first running partner, now 82, is also a stroke survivor.

Russell, who lives in Austell, plans to walk the PNC Atlanta 10 Miler with an entourage "like the Secret Service" for support, said Walton, who became acting CEO after Russell's stroke.

"It'll probably be about 20 people," Russell said. "I'm looking forward to seeing the guys' faces again. Tons of them are losing weight, being healthy and happier."

Walton - leader of the group's competitive team, "The Deadly Venoms" - and Hale will run the 5K and then hustle to the finish line of the 10 Miler to award special Black Men Run medals to their 200 or so participants in that race, along with about 100 in the 5K.

"It is very addictive when you get in this group," Hale said. "You want to come out more and more. We get new faces all the time.

"The second time, I always say, 'You belong to us now.'"