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3/02/2023 by Barbara Huebner

Run with Maud 5K Run/Walk the Latest Step in a Journey for Atlanta Track Club

As Atlanta Track Club began its final week of preparations for "America's Marathon Weekend," a celebration of running that included the 2020 U.S. Olympic Team Trials - Marathon, a black man was gunned down while on a neighborhood run in Brunswick, another Georgia city less than five hours down the road.

It would be months before the video of Ahmaud Arbery's murder, taken by one white man as two others in a pickup truck chased and shot the 25-year-old runner, would surface publicly. Its brutality, in such stark contrast to the unfettered joy of that late February weekend, would change the course of the Club - leading, three years later, to its partnership with the Ahmaud Arbery Foundation in launching the Run with Maud 5K Walk/Run, to be held on May 6.

The walk/run was announced last week at a Community Conversation between Alison Mariella Désir, author of "Running While Black," and Wanda Cooper-Jones, the mother of Ahmaud Arbery.

That conversation came just one night after the 2.23-mile Ahmaud Arbery Run, which marked three years to the day - February 23, 2020 - since his death. The event, along a stretch of the West Side BeltLine, was held "to finish the run" Arbery was in the midst of when he was murdered. It was hosted by South Fulton Running Partners, Black Men Run, Movers and Pacers, LaceUp Fitness and runningnerds.

In introducing the discussion the next evening, Rich Kenah, CEO of Atlanta Track Club, recounted how for years he had been touting running and walking as, unlike many other sports, a fitness option available to everyone. In 2020, "I learned … it was a myth. And the track club has been on a journey to talk about this myth, to move forward as a community - an Atlanta community, a running community - to address and to talk about something that I just really never understood: this thing that is "running while black."

Days after the video began circulating, the Club began to break - although not without internal debate - with its longtime policy as a non-profit organization of remaining apolitical, even in the face of the high-profile George Floyd and Breonna Taylor deaths. "But when Ahmaud was killed while running, we made the decision to invest ourselves because we do not believe that, at its core, this is a political situation. This touches the running community directly," explained Kenah.

First came a social media post, on May 8, that read in part: "The shooting death of Ahmaud Arbery made all too painfully clear the fear and risks that can be felt by black runners every day. … Today, Atlanta Track Club encourages you to run 2.23 miles in memory of Ahmaud and in solidarity with the belief that everyone has the right to run."

In early June, it went a step further in an email to its members from Kenah, which concluded with this paragraph:

"As Executive Director of one the best running organizations in the country in the most diverse running city in America, it is important that you hear from me now. The Club stands in solidarity with and as part of the fight against racism, and I believe that Black Lives Matter. I hope that this belief is widely shared by all of you. I pledge to return to you with specific details of Atlanta Track Club's short- and long-term action plans in this struggle for progress."

The response was overwhelmingly supportive. But there were exceptions.

"I am very disappointed that you feel the need to make such a naked effort at virtue signaling when the ATC has nothing (and should have nothing) to do with public discourse," replied one member, in part. Several others asked to cancel their memberships.

On July 21, 2020, the Club announced an initiative called Common Ground, a program to educate and inform its staff, leaders and members on issues of social justice and anti-racism. As part of the initiative, the Club gave benches made of recycled water bottles from the 50th Running of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution to local organizations to be used for conversations about the history and impact of systemic racism in the U.S. and listening to ways it might be dismantled.

"Following the murder of Ahmaud Arbery and far too many others, silence and complacency is unacceptable," said Kenah in making the announcement. "Today, we commit to being an anti-racist voice and that begins with listening."

In the months that followed, the Club conducted, and posted on YouTube, more than two dozen conversations with community leaders involved in running. In December 2021, it published a Common Ground Report that summarized what it learned.

Common Ground Conversation with David T. Howard Middle School

Last year, the Ahmaud Arbery Foundation approached the Club about partnering on a run/walk to raise funds in support of its mission to support the mental wellness of black boys. The event was announced on February 24, just three years and one day after the murder, by Cooper-Jones during the Community Conversation held in The Stave Room, an event facility adjacent to Atlanta Track Club headquarters.

Before an audience of invited guests, Désir - whose book was born out of hearing about Arbery's murder just seven months after giving birth to her own son - read from the opening lines about taking extra precautions in what she was about to wear on a run so that she would obviously look like the archetypal runner. She chose a shirt, she wrote, "that screams "I'm running. Don't shoot!"

Désir explained that she chose that passage because some said - even during the trial of his attackers - that wearing khaki shorts and white T-shirt, Arbery did not look like a runner.

"At the time of his murder, Ahmaud was having some mental issues," said his mother. "So Ahmaud sometimes would run with just any type of attire. He could have on shorts, he may have on jeans. If he felt like running, he would run."

When her son was young, Cooper-Jones said, he had been involved in football and basketball, but didn't start running until he began facing mental heath challenges as an adult.

"I felt like when he began to run, Ahmaud felt like he was free," she said.

Among those in the audience was three-time Olympic medalist Gail Devers, who said afterward that she knows how good it feels to be able to go for a run when the walls are closing in.

"It's not a pair of shoes, or an outfit, that determines if you're a runner," she said. "Was he running? Is he a runner? If he was out there running, he was a runner."

Asked what she hoped the audience would take away from the evening's conversation, Désir said that in addition to seeing Cooper-Jones' humanity, she hoped that people realize everyone has the responsibility for making sure that running is safe for all people. "If we're busy waiting for somebody else to do something," she said, "then nobody acts."

Tes Sobomehin Marshall was among the other invited guests to the event. A race director, founder of runningnerds and longtime Atlanta Track Club member, Marshall also participated in one of the Common Ground discussions.

She called the Club's partnership with the Ahmaud Arbery Foundation "huge," and commended it for supporting Atlanta's black running community. But, Marshall added, "I don't think Atlanta Track Club can be the all-out leader on issues of race, because it's not a race-based organization."

Kenah agrees. "I am hyper-conscious of our mission, and that is to make Atlanta healthier through running and walking. Running is our DNA, and being an advocacy group for issues other than that was not and is not who we are," he said. "But the intersection of race and running cannot be ignored. So we look forward to this collaboration with the Ahmaud Arbery Foundation so that Running City USA lives up to our hopes and expectations of being the safest, most welcoming running community in the country."