When the runners and activists Alison Desir and Lauren Fleshman first learned about the 1977 torch relay, they were shocked. More than 2,000 women participated in the relay run, which stretched 2,500 miles over more than a dozen states to symbolize the strides women had made toward equal rights.
The run has been relegated to the margins of history, despite its size, timeless use of sport as activism and star-studded lineup: Participants included Kathrine Switzer, the first woman to run the Boston Marathon as a registered entrant; Betty Friedan, author of the seminial feminist book “The Feminine Mystique”; and Billie Jean King, who triumphed over Bobby Riggs in the 1973 “Battle of the Sexes” tennis match.
Desir and Fleshman have deep roots in the running world — both have run for years, and each holds the title of athlete adviser at Oiselle, a Seattle-based women’s running apparel company — yet they had never heard of the relay. “It shows how women’s history is an afterthought,” said Desir, who is based in New York City.
After Oiselle’s head of corporate development, Sarah Lesko, proposed last year that the company sponsor a relay event, Desir and Fleshman used the 1977 relay as a source of inspiration to launch the Womxn Run the Vote relay, unfolding this week, from Monday to Sunday, Sept. 21-27. As of Monday, Desir said that the relay had raised more than $260,000 for the Black Voters Matter Fund, an organization that focuses on increasing the registration and turnout of Black voters, since registration for the relay opened on Aug. 12. And with 10,000 registered participants from across the country, it is five times the size of the 1977 torch relay.
Those registered can log their miles by running or participating in more than 75 other real-world physical activities — including walking, cycling and swimming — which they then input on Racery, a virtual race platform that tracks participants’ progress. On virtual teams of 15-20 people, the participants will “move” along a 680-mile virtual route, from the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Park in Atlanta, to the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.Along the way, participants “pass” — and can read about — more than 40 virtual stops at significant sites of the civil rights movement, including the Springfield Baptist Church in Greenville, South Carolina, which was founded by formerly enslaved people in 1867 and became a headquarters for nonviolent civil rights protests in the 1960s.
The virtual route will also spotlight leaders of the civil rights movement, including Septima Clark, known as the “Mother of the Movement,” who led workshops teaching Black people literacy skills and how to register to vote, and Barbara Rose Johns Powell, who led a student strike at her Farmville, Virginia, high school, which ultimately helped spur the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court decision that established school segregation as unconstitutional.
And calls to action placed along the virtual route will encourage participants to take action to learn more about elections happening in their local communities.
While the initiative — billed as the product of a partnership between Oiselle and Run 4 All Women, an organization Desir founded in 2017 that trains women to use running to foster change in their communities — takes inspiration from the 1977 torch relay, it intends to be more intersectional than the second-wave feminist movement of that era was, Desir said. She pointed to the variety of physical activities that can count toward mileage, which include cooking and yard work, and to the use of “womxn,” a term some feminists use to be inclusive of transgender women and nonbinary people, as a way to signal inclusion, especially among those who would be considered the most marginalized.
“We wanted to make sure that folks with disabilities could participate, people who were busy moms, people who didn’t see movement as their form of expression — we wanted to make sure that everybody could feel included, because it really is our collective power that is moving this forward that will make change in November and beyond,” Desir said.
Part of the relay’s inclusivity also relies upon the participation of white people, who Desir said are crucial to antiracism work.
“The only way that we dismantle systemic racism is if white people are on board, because they’re the ones who are complicit within it,” said Desir, who is Black. “Black and brown folks continue to fight and make waves in this space, but we also demand power, and white people have to give up that power.”
Fleshman, who is white, agreed, adding that white people must tackle systemic racism head-on.
“The biggest thing white people need to do is break down this idea that Black liberation is Black people’s job,” she said. “Black people’s problems need to be white people's problems.”
A retired professional runner who raced on six World Championship teams and was a two-time 5,000-meter national champion, Fleshman added that running naturally lends itself to activism: Both demand long-term commitments to be successful, she said.
“Antiracism and civic engagement require the same skills a runner has: They require a dedicated practice and become an identity that you decide you are,” said Fleshman, who is based in Bend, Oregon.
And both activities breed discomfort, said Keshia Roberson, a Run 4 All Women ambassador living in Washington, D.C., who helped select the sites, figures and calls to action featured on the relay’s Racery platform.
“I think the correlation with running and activism is that this stuff is uncomfortable — you’re going to be ostracized, there are going to be people who resist your resisting the status quo,” Roberson said.
Both Desir and Fleshman have a history of using running as a tool to draw attention to broader social inequities.
Desir is the founder of the Global Womxn Run Collective, an organization that aims to promote women’s leadership within the running community, and Harlem Run, a New York City-based running club. She launched Run 4 All Women in 2017, after she organized and participated in a 240-mile relay run from New York City to Washington, D.C., that she said raised more than $150,000 for Planned Parenthood.
The death of Ahmaud Arbery — a 25-year-old Black man who was shot and killed by two white men while he was jogging in a Georgia neighborhood in February — “woke up a lot of the predominantly white running community,” Fleshman said.
“This idea that running is democratic and this color-free zone is a myth,” she added.
Black runners and runners of color have been long aware of this reality, even as some white people deny it, Desir said. She pointed to redlining and environmental racism as broader ways that Black people have been denied claims to public space.
“Running is political, and many white people find that to be problematic, but as a woman, everything about my body is legislated, and as a Black woman, everything about walking outside into space is regulated,” she said. “Outdoor space has been racialized as white, so us being in that space, occupying that space, and claiming it is political.”
For Roberson, daily runs outdoors are accompanied by fears about how she may be directly affected by racism, she said.
“I’m a Black woman, and this steps into every run that I’m a part of,” she said. “How am I going to be judged on my appearance? Is it going to be safe for me to run through certain communities?”
The disproportionate physical and mental health impacts that the coronavirus pandemic is having on Black Americans make the Womxn Run the Vote relay all the more necessary to raise awareness about the urgency of affecting change by spurring social justice, according to Desir and Fleshman.
“There’s no good time to do anything, because the world that we’re in is faced with these challenges,” Desir said. “That’s an important piece of it: moving imperfectly through these challenges so that we don’t have to continue to face them.”