New Running USA members started with a recreational fitness club, expanded to a one-of-a-kind relay race from Selma to Montgomery, and have now created one of the largest Virtual Events in the country with proceeds benefiting civil rights
One million miles for justice: that’s the goal of the Civil Rights Race Series’ virtual event, with signups continuing now through July 15. Running USA is pleased to welcome the organizers and founders of the Civil Rights Race Series and the Walk Jog Run Club to our membership ranks.
Last week, we had the chance to catch up with Vergil Chames and Raynard Lawler, two of the five founders of the Walk Jog Run Club and organizers of the Civil Rights Race Series. Founded in 2012, the college friends started the organization with a simple plan: let’s create a welcoming group for diverse recreational athletes to walk, jog and run, even if they are brand new to the sport. Cyclists are also welcome. Mary Gooden, David Mahaffey and Patrick Towns are the three co-founders we didn’t get the chance to meet via phone.
Selma to Montgomery: A historic relay
It didn’t take long after the founding of Walk Jog Run before the group was ready to expand into the organized event space, so they created the Civil Rights Race Series. They created a unique and historic relay race following the Civil Rights Trail, to provide participants with both an appreciation of history and a celebration of their own health and fitness. The relay traverses 51 miles of the Civil Rights Trail from Selma to Montgomery on foot, following the route taken by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and hundreds of other protestors over three days in 1965.
First run in 2018, the Selma to Montgomery Relay and Bike Ride attracted around 450 participants in 2018 and 2019. In 2020, it was close to capacity at 1100 participants when COVID-19 forced a pivot to virtual. Registration for 2021 is now open and expected to sell out.
“We’ve discovered that many folks younger than us – I’m in my mid-50s – don’t know a lot about the civil rights movement,” said Lawler.
“This weekend is not only a chance to run, walk or cycle the Civil Rights Trail, but to learn the history here. We visit the five museums in the Montgomery area on Friday, race on Saturday, and on Sunday, we visit one of the many churches that played an important role in the movement.”
A portion of the proceeds from the event are donated to local non-profits and churches that have been part of the civil rights movement for decades.
Expanding the conversation
Everything the Civil Right Race Series works on is centered on three pillars: Health and wellness, education about civil rights, and economic development of the communities that played an important role in the civil rights movement. By working toward visibility in those areas, the club also hopes to bring more visibility to Black Americans’ experiences while running.
“For this sport to grow, there is a need for the amplification and the inclusion of our coalition organizations at the table,” said Chames. “We are having these difficult conversations now with our partners and explaining, ‘this is how it feels to be an African American male trying to go out for a run.’ Racism and inequity is systemic, and we must have these conversations.”
Lawler recalled an uncomfortable moment at his first half marathon, when he spotted members of a local running club at the event and made his way over to say hello.
“They were all white, I started to introduce myself and they just looked at me like I was nobody. That first impression really almost broke me,” said Lawler, who began running to improve his personal health 13 years ago. That experience was one reason he supported founding Walk Jog Run Club which created the Civil Rights Race Series, which not only brings camaraderie and training partners, but mentorship and training advice for newer athletes. Now, it’s bringing even more awareness to the greater running community.
“We hope to be the conduit for the brands and the endurance community to have the essential discussions that America is finally willing to have,” said Chames.
A million miles for justice
After moving the 2020 relay to a virtual event, Civil Rights Race Series organizers realized they could use a similar experience to help bring attention to the civil rights cause nationwide.
“After the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, people were running 2.2 Miles for Maud, but we thought: we can do more. We can fight social injustice. So we partnered with Black Girls Run, NAACP, National Civil Rights Museum at the Loraine Motel in Memphis, and Fleet Feet. The Civil Rights Race Series brought on several supporting organizations to include: Black Girls Do Bike, Black Men Run, GirlTrek, Black People Do Run, Bike and Swim, the National Black Marathoners Association, and Major Taylor Association (cycling) to amplify the message and make the greatest impact possible,” Chames explained.
Proceeds will be donated to the NAACP. Corporate partners have signed on to support and spread the word, including Running USA, Hyperice, Road Runners Club of America, Honey Stinger, Pacer Running, Goodr, RunsSignup, and Belega socks.
“Bob Bickel, founder of RunSignup, tells us that we are their one of the largest if not the largest virtual events this year. We’re happy that we’re making history, but it’s even more important that this is just the start of a greater movement,” said Chames. “We selected the NAACP as the funding recipient because they have the structure on the ground and the legal resources to continue the fight against injustice.”
As of this writing, more than 5,000 runners in all 50 states, Washington D.C. and 16 countries are running, walking, and cycling 1 million miles for justice. It’s not too late to join them. Sign up for the 1 Million Miles for Justice virtual event through July 15 and add your miles to the cause.
Here’s where you can learn more
1 Million Miles for Justice virtual event: 1mmj.org
2021 Selma to Montgomery relay: http://www.selmatomontgomeryrelay.com/