Erika Kemp Wants to See More Runners Who Look Like Her
The recent incident at the Boston Marathon where police officers formed a bicycle blockade in front of a group of Black supporters highlights once again the racial segregation that exists in running in America. Black runners are often treated differently from white runners, and runners of color are often underrepresented at big races. Erika Kemp, a Black woman who had the best marathon debut by an American woman in Boston last month, has experienced this dynamic since her teenage years. As she evolved into a distance runner, Kemp noticed that there weren’t any Black runners who ran cross-country in high school. It wasn’t until she began competing against international recruits in college that she began to see more Black runners in distance events.
Kemp, who completed Boston marathon in 2 hours 33 minutes 57 seconds, is one of the rarities in American track and field – a Black woman born and raised in the country who became a star in distance events instead of as a sprinter. She became a high school state champion, and as she aspired to qualify for the 2024 Paris Olympics in distance events from the 5,000 up to the marathon, she wants to make more Black runners of all ages believe they can pursue distance running. Kemp finds it inspiring when Black people her age send her messages saying they saw her in a race and decided to sign up for a local 5-kilometer run.
That is partly why the treatment of the predominantly Black spectators from the TrailblazHers Run Co. and the Pioneers Run Crew at the Boston Marathon bothered her and so many others so much. Kemp and plenty of other local runners have gotten used to seeing those two groups supporting their friends and everyone else at local races. She passed them on the hills in Newton, Mass., heard their cheers and music, saw their confetti and got excited. When spectators continued to cross the rope, the Newton Police Department used bicycles for a short period to demarcate the course and keep both the runners and spectators safe.
The race organizer, the Boston Athletic Association, had a meeting with leaders of the two running clubs. Following that meeting, the organization’s chief executive, Jack Fleming, said the organization needed “to do better to create an environment that is welcoming and supportive of the BIPOC community at the marathon,” using an acronym for individuals who are Black, Indigenous, and other people of color. Kemp is looking forward to efforts that might help other fast and young promising distance runners who are Black – and maybe others who are older and much slower who just want to finish a 5K – feel better about toeing a starting line, even on a cross-country course. She said she thinks about it every time she races and believes that the better she can perform, the more exposure she gets, and the more people – young and old – who won’t fall victim to the “you-can’t-be-it-if-you-can’t-see-it” dynamic.