Shattering stereotypes is nothing new for members of Black Girls Run.
Recently, Black Girls Run groups from Baton Rouge and New Orleans traveled to Atlanta to join nearly 4,000 other runners from across the country for the Inaugural Black Girls RUN!/Drive to End Hunger 5K & 10K and National Conference the weekend of Sept. 14 through Sept. 16.
“Nobody there looked like a runner,” said Eileen Johnson-Winfrey of Lafayette who runs with a Black Girls Run group in Baton Rouge. “But everybody ran.”
“We had black women in their late 50s and 60s doing 8-minute miles, which is almost unheard of when we speak about the black community.”
The organization, which was formed in 2009, aims to combat the obesity epidemic in the African-American community particularly among women by encouraging healthy and active lifestyles in an effort to reduce their risk of heart disease, diabetes and other diseases associated with sedentary living. The Centers for Disease Control cite the rate of overweight or obese African-American women at 80 percent.
Johnson-Winfrey decided she wanted to escape from that category. At one point, before joining Black Girls Run, she weighed more than 400 pounds. She began exercising and dropped her weight to around 250 pounds but still had yet to run. Then one occurrence changed that. Her dad became gravely ill of a lung infection, yet he lived longer than doctors expected.
“I got to spend three extra months with my dad because his heart was so strong. And my dad was a runner,” she said. “That really inspired me to pick it (running) up.”
Her father died in 2011, and she joined Black Girls Run in October 2011.
Johnson-Winfrey traveled to the Black Girls Run race in Atlanta, and said she listened to women give testimonials about how their blood pressure pill dosages had been cut in half and others say they were able to stop taking insulin because they started living more active lives.
Ernise Singleton of Baton Rouge and Black Girls Run, who joined the group in August 2011, also attended the race and expo running in the 10k. She said 26 women from Baton Rouge went to the event. “For many of them, it was their first 5k or first 10k,” Singleton said.
Singleton said she enjoyed seeing those women who were participating in their first races receive their medals and be able to share their accomplishments with a group. “When I did my first one (race), I didn’t have anyone. It was just me. I didn’t have any support system.”
Singleton says she remembers feeling great after finishing her first race several years ago, but said she would have felt even better if she had the support group she has now.
Similarly to Johnson-Winfrey, Singleton said after she lost about 60 pounds from being on Weight Watchers and working with a personal trainer, she hit a plateau and struggled to keep losing weight. So she signed up for a boot camp where she was supposed to finish a mile the first day out. Over a six-week period, she went from not running at all to being able to run/walk a mile, shaving five minutes off her time.
At the race in Atlanta, Johnson-Winfrey said the contingent from Louisiana played the Run Louisiana song during its warm-up, and she says that made her proud to represent the state.
Despite its name, Black Girls Run is in no way an exclusive group, Johnson-Winfrey says. “A lot of our members are actually white, which I think is hilarious.”
Singleton said she likes how encouraging the group is to runners or walkers at any level making sure someone in the group has a partner with them at all times during runs. “One of the missions of Black Girls Run is no woman left behind,” she said.
Both Johnson-Winfrey and Singleton say they hope more African-American women try running and experience the benefits they have gained from it.
Johnson-Winfrey’s message for someone contemplating taking up running is simple. “Quit thinking and actually do it.”
Singleton says Black Girls Run groups meet in different places throughout the Baton Rouge area every evening.
Anyone interested in learning more about Black Girls Run can visit http://www.blackgirlsrun.com/. Those looking to join a local group should check out the Black Girls Run groups in Baton Rouge or New Orleans on Facebook.
By Zachary Fitzgerald