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50 Half Marathons, 50 States, Countless Athletes Inspired.

Sociology chair Tiffany Chenault

Sociology Chair Running 50 Half Marathons, Researching Diversity in Running

Photo Credit: Ken Douglas

"I'm not a runner."

It is a familiar refrain to anyone who takes up recreational running in adulthood. What makes someone a runner? Is it miles per week, a race run, a closet full of sneakers, a qualifying time? Everyone’s answer is different, but Salem State sociology chair Tiffany Gayle Chenault is dedicated to inspiring more people to lace up their sneakers. As she pursues her goal of running a half-marathon in every state by the time she turns 50, she is also examining the factors keeping more African-American women from pursuing the sport.

For much of her life, Chenault admits she was baffled by the idea that anyone would participate in distance running. But after her mom passed away in 2011, she felt as though she was only existing in the world, not living her life. Hitting the pavement for her near-daily runs helped her process her grief. When a friend needed a fifth team member for a relay, and she showed up to help out. "But I'm not a runner," she insisted.

"I had no idea how a race worked, where to put my bib or anything," Chenault recalled. But the feeling of satisfaction in completing a race with hundreds of other runners was thrilling. "Something clicked. I felt like I had come alive again."

Taking on a Lack of Diversity

Chair Tiffany Chenault racing at her alma mater, Virginia Tech.
Taking on State #19 at her alma mater, Virginia Tech

As a sociologist, Chenault noticed the lack of gender and racial diversity in running. Speaking to other black women, their reasons were similar: distance running is for white people and African runners. African-Americans were encouraged, if anything, to pursue track and field. Lack of diversity at races, in running magazines, on web sites and in merchandising reflected this perception.

Chenault dug deeper to uncover additional factors behind this phenomenon. She's examined issues like access to safe training spaces, community and neighborhood dynamics, time to train, financial ability to pay for races, health concerns, and cultural assumptions. She is researching and interviewing other female African-American runners to collect additional data, contributing to an underrepresented area of inequality in the sociology of sport, especially around the intersections of race and gender.

"When I'm running in Boston at 5 am, I'll see people heading out to work or school. This is my leisure time. I realize that the time I have to train is a luxury that others don't have," she said.

Giving Back

As a Black Girls Run ambassador and a Girls on the Run coach, Chenault encourages others to try running and stick with it. "Wherever you are on your journey, I'm here to support you," she tells new members anxious about their abilities. "You'll have good and bad days, but we can do this together."

From her first relay in 2013, Chenault has completed dozens of races, including the Flying Pig Marathon in her home city of Cincinnati. Her latest challenge: running a half-marathon in all 50 states before she turns 50, which she started 25 months ago.

Follow Her Journey

Tiffany Chenault running state #25 on her birthday
State #25: Nevada

She chronicles her training journey and each new state on her blog as a way to encourage runners along the way. In each new location, she adds another piece to her research puzzle, exploring cities for clues about economic diversity, racial segregation, representation at races and more. She is on track to complete her goal ahead of schedule, with 27 states currently crossed off the list.

As a committed member of community dedicated to helping more people pursue running, Chenault now considers herself a runner, and she wants other to feel that way, too. She hopes that in the future, more African-American women feel represented in the running community. As she says, "My mission is to make the invisible visible."

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