Tony Reed is committed to alleviating the loneliness of the Black long-distance runner
By Sarah Franklin
Runners World – July 2021
For Anthony “Tony” Reed, childhood memories of living in St. Louis’s Blumeyer public housing complex conjure concrete floors, trash chute fires, and urine-scented elevators. Many years and thousands of miles later, in the midst of a marathon in St. Louis, Reed was shocked to find himself running past the site where the towering Blumeyer high-rises once stood. The buildings had been torn down and replaced by low-rise government housing, and as Reed ran by, he may as well have been the lead actor on the set of a blockbuster feel-good film.
“The kids who were watching the race started running along with me, and I was talking with them,” Reed told Runner‘s World
. “That’s when it really hit me. For these Black kids to see a Black runner in a race, I was kind of like a role model, and I never thought about myself being a potential role model for people who see me when I’m out there running.”
Reed realized that if one of those kids had even a fleeting thought that “wow, this Black guy can run a marathon, maybe I can too,” then he had made a small stride toward getting a young Black person to see distance running as a possibility. That encounter and subsequent realization are among Reed’s many steps taken toward championing distance running for Black Americans—an endeavor that has become a lifelong marathon in every sense of the word.
“As I reflect back over things, a lot of African American distance runners had not thought about pursuing different running goals until they saw another African American was pursuing that goal or had completed it,” Reed recounted.
Reed, 65, is the co-founder and executive director of the National Black Marathoners’ Association (NBMA) and a proprietor of the National Black Distance Running Hall of Fame. He’s also the first Black person to have completed a marathon on each of the seven continents. (And just for good measure, he’s also finished 131 marathons, including one in all 50 states.) Reed himself, however, is much more inclined toward touting the NBMA and Black American distance running history than his own personal running achievements. “The more you know about the accomplishments of other people, the smaller your ego becomes. And that’s the thing I love about the sport.”
“He literally runs just for fun,” Lisa Davis, NBMA member and 192-time marathoner, told Runner’s World
. “It’s never about him. It’s always about sharing somebody else’s accomplishments.”
From Prediabetic to Globetrotting Marathoner
The first entry on Reed’s now jam-packed running résumé was innocuous: in high school he joined the cross country team, and later switched to track. He entered high school overweight despite eradicating his sweet tooth after being diagnosed with a prediabetic condition when he was 8 years old, but a growth spurt between his freshman and sophomore year plus the introduction to running helped him achieve and maintain a healthy weight from his teenage years onward. As a college freshman he formalized his commitment to running after being assigned to read Aerobics
by Dr. Kenneth H. Cooper. Inspired by a paragraph suggesting that a consistent fitness regimen could help diabetics either diminish or eliminate their insulin reliance, Reed, despite not having been diagnosed as diabetic, set a lifetime goal of averaging three running miles per day.
Habitual running is often a gateway to marathoning, and Reed’s trajectory is no exception. After years of consistently logging miles, he embarked on a new challenge: the 1982 Cowtown Marathon in Fort Worth, Texas. He noticed at least five other Black runners milling around the start line, one of whom, Ricky Cox, ended up winning the race. Until then Reed had never heard of any Blacks who ran – never mind won – marathons, but has said that he “came away from the race thinking it was normal for Black Americans to run marathons and to win marathons.”
Yet since that first 26.2, nearly every time Reed has laced up for a marathon he has been one of relatively few Black participants, if not the only one. He has experienced firsthand Blacks’ chronic underrepresentation and persistent isolation in distance running, and he strives to push those trends across the finish line toward equity and inclusion. “In 2007 when I became the first Black in the world to run marathons on all seven continents, I was the only Black runner on every single tour group I was on to run an international race,” he recalled.
Reed’s quest to complete a marathon on each continent was, typical for his temperament, understated. By 2004, he had already run 57 US marathons before embarking on his first international race. During a free weekend on a European business trip he jetted to Denmark for a marathon that had 47 finishers and no aid stations, restrooms, or mile markers. (That race was diminutive even for Reed, who prefers small marathons.) He followed that with the 2005 Gold Coast Marathon in Australia and the 2006 Great Wall Marathon before doubling up in early-2007 with the Fin Del Mundo (South America) and Antarctica Marathons within seventeen days of each other as part of a Marathon Tours & Travel excursion. During that trip the race director informed Reed that only two other Black people had ever run the Antarctica Marathon, and no Black person had completed a marathon on all seven continents.
Reed quickly determined that he
would be the first to accomplish that feat, and in June 2007 traveled to Kenya for the Safaricom Lewa Marathon, telling only close family members about his mission to make history. Soon after, Thom Gilligan, founder of Marathon Tours & Travel and its Seven Continents Club, issued a press release
officially proclaiming Reed the first Black person to complete a marathon on all seven continents. The NBMA now accounts for 11 other Black runners who have done so, and Reed reflected that “looking back to 2007 when it seems I was the only [Black] doing international races, and then seeing where we are today, I’m just amazed and I’m happy about it.”
Promoting Inclusion in Black Distance Running
For decades Reed had logged most of his miles alone, having “never really thought about running with other Black runners, because I was used to doing it by myself.” Not until a chance meeting at the 2001 National Black Data Processing Association’s annual conference did Reed’s passions for running and Black inclusion collide.
In a conference presentation, Reed mentioned his goal of running 50 marathons before turning 50 years old, which caught the interest of Charlotte Simmons-Foster, a conference attendee and then-president of South Fulton Running Partners in Atlanta, the oldest African American running club in the country. Reed had completed 47 marathons at the time, and after the conference he remained in touch with Simmons-Foster and a few other conference attendees, keeping them apprised of his progress.
Ultimately, Simmons-Foster and some of her South Fulton teammates accompanied Reed for his 50 th marathon. “We were all running the marathon together and all of us ended up getting awards for either age group or weight division,” Reed recalled. “That’s when it occurred to me that it would be fun to assemble [Black] runners from around the country together to meet up at a marathon.” The camaraderie and shared achievement realized during that race spurred Reed and Simmons-Foster to establish the National Black Marathoners’ Association in December 2004.
The NBMA’s mission is fourfold: to encourage Black Americans to pursue a healthy lifestyle through long distance running and walking, coordinate an annual meet up for Black distance runners at a single marathon, recognize the accomplishments of Black American distance runners, and provide scholarships to socially and/or economically disadvantaged Black students who participated in high school cross country or track (over 1500 meters) or completed a marathon. Since its inception, the NBMA has grown to include members in 48 states and 10 countries, and has disbursed over $45,000 in scholarships.
Running Through History
Ask Reed about his greatest running accomplishment, and you would think he’s never run a step in his life. “I am the most proud of recognizing the accomplishments of other African American distance runners. When I look at people such as Ted Corbitt, Marilyn Bevans, and a host of others, I realize that they were not given the recognition that they should have been given years or decades ago,” he said.
To that end, the NBMA created the National Black Distance Running Hall of Fame, and also has an ongoing Black American Long Distance History Timeline Project with Gary Corbitt (2019 Hall of Fame inductee), son of Ted (2013 Hall of Fame inductee), serving as the NBMA’s official historian and researcher. Sika Henry, an NBMA member who recently became the first Black American female professional triathlete, credits the NBMA for introducing her to a vast archive of Black distance runners’ achievements. “History can easily get lost if it’s not preserved,” Henry said, “and Tony and Gary are preserving history and keeping the important historical figures’ legacies alive.”
Reed noted that the NBMA also “recognizes the accomplishments of everyday runners who are running marathons or half marathons in all 50 states or all seven continents, or who have completed 100 marathons or half marathons. It encourages and motivates other runners to pursue those goals.”
Henry considers Reed a part of her family, and credits him with encouraging and motivating her to pursue goals that she may never have otherwise. “He has always been confident in me. He has more confidence in me than I have in myself,” she said. “He doesn’t ask for anything in return. He gives so much of his time and you would never know about all of his accomplishments.”
Davis encapsulates Reed as “a special person – heart of gold, completely selfless.”
Sowing Seeds for Change
In 2015 Reed predicted that it may take 20 or 30 years for the percentage of Black runners in distance races to match the percentage of Blacks in the U.S. population. Running USA’s 2020 National Runner Survey
found that only three percent of all US runners are Black, a statistic that strongly resonates with NBMA members.
“He’s trying to change the face of the starting line,” Davis said. “If he talks about it, he’ll accomplish it. His tenacity is unmatched.”
Reed predicted the next running boom will be that of ethnic minorities. “However,” he added cautiously, “for the running industry to see that running boom actually flourish, they will have to make a financial investment to make that happen. As I like to say with the Black Marathoners’ Association, we’ve spent 15 years planting the seeds for this growth, but need the running industry to provide the money for the fertilizer to actually make it happen. They don’t run 5K or 10K races through our communities, so the Black community does not get to see a lot of Black distance runners.”
Ahmaud Arbery being hunted and killed while out for a run in a primarily white Georgia neighborhood spread seeds by the fistful throughout the U.S. running world last year, but fertilizer is in low supply. Reed noticed a substantial social media uptick in what he calls “white words in a black square”—companies and organizations proclaiming that they do not support social injustice or discrimination, or that they do support diversity, equity, and inclusion. In response, the NBMA came out with its own social media campaign statement: “White words in a black square are meaningless without financial support.”
Having one of last year’s highest profile racial incidents involve a runner was not anyone’s idea (or worst nightmare) for how that third running boom would start, and while it briefly thrust Black runners’ deepest fears and concerns into the national news, it will take years to discern how, if at all, the running industry has rallied to support its Black participants.
“For the things that we have been talking about for a long time, people are now more aware of them,” Reed said. Unfortunately, over a year after Arbery’s murder, it’s clear to Reed and other Black runners that awareness devoid of action does not inspire change.
Miles to Go
Reed continues channeling his tenacity for Black distance running advocacy and inclusion through the NBMA, the National Black Distance Running Hall of Fame, and his own running. His bucket list includes completing the Five Island Challenge
(a race series he created in 2019), the North Pole Marathon (by his count, doing so would make him one of fewer than ten people in the world who have done at least 100 marathons including one in each US state, one on each continent, and one at the North Pole), and a marathon with one of his grandchildren (“right now the oldest is seventeen, so I would have to be around for quite some time for that to happen”). Personal aspirations aside, Reed remains steadfast in promoting the NBMA’s mission and goals.
“The best thing that I can do with regards to [my legacy] is to keep providing information to the running community and to continue to try to set an example for the younger runners who are coming up, to try to offer them guidance and support, and to continue to promote the accomplishments of other African American distance runners.”