DON’T BELIEVE everything you see at the movies. There’s more to Flint, Michigan, for instance, than shown in the documentary “Roger and Me.”
Beverly, a volunteer at the Crim Festival of Races, drew the early shift. She was making her first airport runs at six o’clock on a Sunday morning, and I was the first weekend guest to be escorted away from Flint.
We talked about the recent divisive and depressing two-month strike against General Motors that had Flint at its epicenter. We didn’t talk about the city’s image that took a beating in Michael Moore’s film. This portrayal is still a sore point with the city’s loyalists.
As we pulled into the airport, Beverly said, “When you talk to people about Flint, tell them we’re nice here.” And they are.
By 1998, I’d traveled here for 11 of the Crim’s past 13 runnings, and had never met with anything but niceness. This even extends to the residents who have nothing to do with the running event.
One year I ran through one of the poorer neighborhoods. From a porch I heard the shout, “Run, white boy, run!”
The shouter was African-American, as were all of his neighbors. I’ve gotten lots of mileage from this story in years since.
But in fairness to Flint, I note here that the comment was jovial, not menacing. It didn’t lead to an adrenaline-charged upping of pace or quick retreat to a paler part of town.
Flint has always welcomed this runner, even where he’s in the minority. And the Crim Race has long embraced runners of all nationalities and shadings.
This year I walked into the hospitality room at the Radisson on race eve. The faces there were mostly dark, and the dominant language was Swahili. I felt again like someone from a minority group, but not unwelcome here.
Kenyans accounted for the top eight men and top three women at Crim 1998. The previous year’s leading male was Moroccan, and a Mexican had won here in recent years. Asians will eventually arrive.
This points out an oddity of U.S. road racing. While the elite runners are multiracial, the overall field is quite white.
Talk of “racism” rumbled through the sport in 1998 when certain events allegedly tried to limit the number of Kenyans. But the bigger problem went unaddressed in that discussion. That is how to diversify the rest of the pack.
Some racial and ethnic minorities in this country fight an everyday battle against messages telling them they can’t keep pace because they look, talk, act or pray differently from the dominant culture. Everyone needs to find ways to win.
Running in races is one of those ways. Go the distance at whatever pace you can handle, and you can feel like just as big a winner as the person who finishes first.
“Everyone can win” has become a cliché in running. But it’s still a rare concept in sports and rarer still in life at large.
This running mantra has yet to reach all cultures. So far, the racing that made superstars of black Africans – as well as Arabs, Asians and Latin Americans – hasn’t transferred widely enough to Americans of similar descent and lesser ability.
U.S. road running resembles a party to which only one ethnic group was invited. This was never the intent but still is the result.
Both sexes now run together, as well as all ages and every ability (and disability). The American sport’s continuing need is to embrace every race. We runners, like the good people of Flint, all need to put out the word that we’re nice folks who welcome everyone to our parties.
Photo: Runners of all abilities – and many nationalities and ethnicities – flock to Flint, Michigan, each summer for the Crim races.
[Many books of mine, old and recent, are now available in two different formats: in print and as ebooks from Amazon.com. The titles: Going Far, Home Runs, Joe’s Team, Learning to Walk, Long Run Solution, Long Slow Distance, Miles to Go, Pacesetters, Run Right Now, Run Right Now Training Log, See How We Run, and Starting Lines, plus Rich Englehart’s book about me, Slow Joe.]