Running together against the odds

Born out of a need to do something quickly about the reality of alarming health statistics threatening the lives of African American men, the Memphis chapter of Black Men Run has evolved into an inclusive group of friends who are as interested in giving back as in their own fitness goals.

To look at photos of Black Men Run, you might think many of its members are long-time elite runners. But Roland Woodson, the Memphis Run Captain, ran his first mile in April of 2013 and has managed to complete three half-marathons since. He attributes his growing love of running and much of his success to the accountability of Black Men Run.

When Woodson's friend and former junior high classmate Jason Russell was in the process of starting Black Men Run nationally, he contacted Woodson to head up the Memphis chapter in July of last year. Woodson had some doubts. "I was running three to five miles," says Woodson. "In my mind I wasn't convinced that I was that type of runner, or that I had enough experience. But Jason asked, 'Do you love running? Has it changed your life? Then you're a runner.'"

On their very first group run, which took place in Shelby Farms in August last year, there were just two runners, including Woodson. Eleven months later, Black Men Run Memphis has a core group of 30-40 men and women and more than 500 members on Facebook, where times and locations for three weekly group runs are posted. Woodson is quick to tell you that the Memphis group is incredibly inclusive. "Anyone is able to come, regardless of race or gender," Woodson says. "But of course the core is to promote health and wellness among African American men through a culture of running."

Woodson cites upsetting health statistics about black men, including doubled risk of stroke and a high rate of heart disease, but feels that running can be a viable solution. "Running is one of the best prevention tools. It makes your heart strong, helps you with mental sharpness, makes you happy and fights depression," he says. The group aims to be a platform to spread awareness about and subsequently to combat these statistics.

Jay Guzman, tattoo artist and Run Coordinator for Black Men Run, is both cautionary tale and success story. Guzman once weighed nearly 400 pounds and had been admitted to the ICU twice after temporarily losing his eyesight to diabetes. Due to a growing passion for running and cycling that nears fanaticism, aided by gastric bypass surgery and radical changes to his diet, Guzman has completed seven marathons, three triathlons, and multiple bike-a-thons. "I've literally become addicted to working out through my running," Guzman vows. "I've never found myself more at peace with things."

Like other members, Guzman thrives on the friendships and the care they show for each other. Each organized run has a designated run coordinator who follows the motto "No person left behind." When these pacers finish their intended distance on a group run, they turn around and go back to the last person and walk or run with them as they complete their miles. "You won't be ever be last if someone is with you, cheering you, encouraging you, giving you pointers every single step," Guzman explains, enthusiastic about the sense of the community. "Yesterday I was having a horrible day; the camaraderie of the group lifted my whole day."

Begun in Atlanta in July of 2013, Black Men Run has grown chapters in 42 cities, in 23 states, and in Europe in under a year. "What went from being a group of brothers running together to support each other has turned into something so much bigger than us," Woodson asserts. "In my capacity as captain, I think about what we can do for people, our community, humanity."

The Memphis group has participated in multiple Heroes runs for St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, raising funds to support its mission and even taking a St. Jude family under their wing.

Both the philanthropy and welcoming nature of Black Men Run Memphis make it stand out as a unique chapter. Woodson elaborates on the variety of the group: "We're made up of different ages, all different career choices, demographics, body types." Runners of all skill levels are welcome, including beginners.

Woodson notes that people are initially apprehensive. "They think, I'm not black or a man. Then they see our energy and that we are really welcoming." And this willingness to accept women in the group has looped back to help Black Men Run fulfill its original goal. "In Memphis, the attention on what the African American community is doing is not always the most positive," Woodson admits. "The thing that's really cool," he enthuses, "is some of the ladies [who run with the group] have teenage and young adult sons who join us. Some are single parents and wanted an avenue for their sons to be around positive males. Sometimes they even bring their daughters in the mindset of promoting healthy living. That's one of the biggest draws of our group, just the positivity that comes from it."

Guzman has a message for the community, in hopes that his personal story will inspire others to make life-saving changes: "I read a while back that every time you take a puff on a cigarette, you shorten your lifespan. I look at running, every step that I take, and I'm adding seconds, days, years. With every mile that I run, that's another day that I can spend with my children and grandchildren."

He kindly exhorts Memphians to "get out there and increase your life, don't decrease it."

Read more articles by Grace Korzekwa.

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