BLACK TO THE TRAILS – race report – Runner’s World, Nov 2023

The last time I visited a National Trust property it definitely wasn’t this noisy. Generally speaking, if you want to see some lush scenery, admire some bedding plants, nibble a scone or buy a new tea towel, they’re a safe bet. Thumping house music and honking vuvuzelas tend to be in shorter supply.

As are black and brown faces, though the conservation charity has been trying to change that recently, publishing a document in 2022 about its work to increase inclusivity under the banner ‘Everyone Welcome’. The right-wing press harrumphed about ‘wokeism’ when the National Trust released a report exploring the links between 93 of its historic houses and the slave trade in 2020, and offered diversity training to its volunteers. But looking around Dunstable Downs at all the smiling faces, many of them belonging to people of colour taking part in their first ever trail race, I can’t see a down side to speak of.

Black to the Trails is a set of three shortish races – 1k, 5k and 10k – organised by the people behind Black Trail Runners. That’s the running community that was founded in the socially distanced summer of 2020, when many black people were heading for the outdoors – perhaps for the first time – and finding that not everybody in the countryside made them feel welcome. It became a registered charity in 2021 with the aim of promoting diversity in the overwhelmingly white world of trail running. This debut event would have taken place in September last year but was postponed due to the death of Queen Elizabeth. You can sense the joy and relief that it is finally here, because running has gone too long without a day like this.

Entries today are 70 per cent people of colour compared to what Black Trail Runners have surveyed as 0.7 per cent in UK trail events generally. In addition, close to 70 per cent of the 250 or so participants across the distances are female – another flip to the usual picture, showing that if a race is inclusive in one way, it automatically becomes inclusive in others too. Dunstable Downs, with its vast views, red kites, and white gliders swooping past from the airfield below, feels remote but is deliberately chosen as an easy hop from London, as most people of colour live in cities. Entry fees are cheap and there’s a free bus put on from Luton train station. Meanwhile, in the virtual world, over 265,000 people are doing a 5k to show support on Strava.

Black Trail Runners have a supportive relationship with Adidas, who make their stylish monochrome T-shirts, and could have allowed the brand’s regular event partners, Maverick, to set up this race with ease. But BTR founding members Sabrina Pace-Humphreys, Phil Young and Sonny Peart wanted to be visible as black organisers as well as black runners. Pace-Humpreys is a bouncy, tireless compere on the day, despite having run 125km in the Beyond the Ultimate Highland Ultra just a fortnight ago. ‘This is trail running at its best! Community! No one is left behind!’ she shouts when a gaggle of women wearing Black Girls Do Run shirts materialises to walk arm-in-arm with the last of the 5k entrants to finish.

‘Race organisers all say that they don’t discriminate, but they don’t invite us in either,’ says Young about trail running culture as it stands. ‘All their websites just show white people doing it, and yes, they are the majority, but you’re never gonna change that unless you invite new people in and change your perspective. We thought, if we do our own event, and have all this music and energy, we can show that a race can look different, and that bringing black culture into different sports only adds to it.’

To that end, there’s a Caribbean street food truck, face painting and the constant pulse of club music from DJ Caroline. The pre-race warm up is a joyous side-stepping dance routine. The marshalls appear to be enjoying themselves as much as the runners and everyone gets cheered and high-fived over the finish line as though they’ve won the whole thing. With a bulging tote bag for all participants and generous podium prizes from Adidas and Strava, it’s worth picking up the pace.

The course itself is accessible too, a beginner-friendly loop of several fields with just a couple of very brief climbs and one boggy puddle to negotiate. If you find yourself gazing for too long at the green expanse of Aylesbury Vale below, you’re unlikely to trip on anything. The 5k race is a single loop, the 10k two, out and back along the high ridge on short grass – nothing technical. Faster and less speedy runners pass each other heading in opposite directions several times during the 10k, and the encouraging noises go both ways. It’s a gloriously sunny day and it feels great to be moving in such a beautiful spot.

Numerous running groups for minorities have made the journey: Emancipated Run Crew, Hackney youth charity The Outrunners, LDNSELECT, Black Girls (and Black Couples) Do Run, and ASRA, representing Muslim women. ‘It’s great when people feel seen. That’s about the things that are at events, like the food, as well as the run itself. I feel a lot more at home here,’ says Manni Ovola from LDNSELECT. ‘Increasing inclusion increases participation, and that will bring the sport up a level.’


Wizz Air Hackney Moves

May 2024

This east London weekend of running has a buzzy, music-packed half marathon, a 5k and also a one-mile schools challenge for primary-age children in the local area.

The Big Half

Sept 2024

The London half marathon from Tower Bridge to the Cutty Sark has been going since 2018. It has a £10 entry fee for locals, to better represent the diverse community in which it takes place.

Pride Run

Sept 2024

Also in Hackney, the Pride 10k is three laps of pretty Victoria Park. It’s organised by London Frontrunners, a club for LGBTQ+ people, and includes prizes for fastest male, female and non-binary runners.