This piece was featured in issue #31 of Like the Wind Magazine. Words by Simon Freeman – Photography by Tim Hipps.

Just after 11.30am on 5 November 2006, Samia Akbar took a last right turn in Central Park and raced towards the finish line of the 37th annual New York City Marathon. As 12th woman, she would cross the finish line – in her first marathon – in 2h34m14s. She ran each 5km split at a pace that didn’t vary by more than three seconds per mile. It was a pretty flawless performance for a first-time marathoner, albeit one who already had a solid distance-running career behind her.

And yet when Samia talks about that day – and that result – it is with a mixture of emotions. There is justifiable pride and happiness, but equally some feelings of frustration and sadness. Not for herself. But for the sport of marathon running.

Samia was born in a suburban town in northern Virginia on 31 December 1981. As a child, she says that the place she called home was predominantly white, but she did not feel threatened by the racial makeup of the neighbourhood where she went to school and played on the streets. Not that there weren’t incidents. “I grew up in a lot of predominantly white spaces,” she says. “A lot of places I went, I didn’t see people that looked like me. A lot of places I went, people stared at me and my family.

“One example is that there was a grocery store close to my house. And when I was a teenager, I’d walk or get on my bike and go there and back. More than once, when walking home from the store with one of my sisters or a good friend who is also Black, police officers pulled us over. Just to say: ‘Why are you here?’ Literally, that was the question. And we’d say: ‘Because my house is right there.’ But we’d be thinking, ‘Am I allowed to walk down the street? You’re making me nervous. What’s going on around here?’”

But Samia also recognises that where she lived and the way her parents raised her meant she was able to approach the world with more confidence than many young Black women. “My parents always said, ‘It’s OK if you don’t know anyone who looks like you,” she remembers. “Or you’re watching the television and you don’t see a lot of people who look like you doing what you’re doing in the sport you’re involved in. You can do it.’ That was something that I talked about, in my home with my family, all the time. I think that obviously, every parent from any ethnic or racial background is trying their best to be encouraging to their children.”

In Samia’s case, her parents were very supportive of her athletic ambitions. “I didn’t need to have to have a job in high school and I was encouraged to find my passions, enjoy my friendships and lean into the things that interested me – whether it was art or sports,” she says.

Samia started running in elementary school, when she would accompany her dad to a local track (he ran in order to maintain one of the elements of the regime he had followed as a boxer). The early training paid off and Samia was soon the fastest of the girls at her school. “I grew up in the suburbs of Washington DC, and I went to Oakland High School,” she says. “I had the chance to compete on the track and field team from a young age. By the time I graduated, I had full scholarship offers for colleges that wanted to recruit me.”

Samia attended The American University in Washington DC, where she was coached by Olympian Matt Centrowitz. During her time at university, Samia set seven indoor and seven outdoor school records at distances from 800m all the way up to 10,000m. She also won four Patriot Indoor and two Patriot Outdoor track titles and a Patriot League Cross-Country Championship.

After college Samia represented the USA at the 2005 Beijing Ekiden team race, in the marathon at the 2007 Osaka World Championships, and at the 2009 Yokohama Ekiden. She set a course record at the 2009 Army 10-Miler and won both the 2008 National Half-Marathon and the 2013 DC Women’s Half-Marathon. And, of course, there was that 2h34m14s marathon in New York in 2006.

Samia was undoubtedly a very, very good runner. But not quite world class. Which is why she feels some negativity towards her New York Marathon result. Because Samia’s personal best is still – more than 15 years later – the fastest marathon by an American-born Black woman. And Samia thinks that should not be the case.

There can be a feeling that running is a meritocratic sport. The time you take to get from the start line to the finish line is all that counts. There are no scores for artistic merit. Runners are not reliant on other athletes to be successful, unlike in team sports (although this is sometimes debated). You don’t need to spend huge amounts of money on equipment or have much in the way of special training facilities. But if the essence of our sport really is as simple as that – the time taken to cover a given distance – how come Samia’s record still stands? The American women’s marathon record was broken by Kiera D’Amato in 2h19m12s at the Houston Marathon on 16 January this year (see page 83 for our story about Kiera and the other women who raced that day). Previously, the record had been held by Deena Kastor, who ran 2h19m36s at the London Marathon on 23 April 2006.

By Samia’s own admission, the roughly 15 minutes between her time and Deena’s is a gulf. That time difference would equate to more than three miles at Samia’s pace. For context, had Deena and Samia been in the same race in New York, as Deena would have

been crossing the finish line on the eastern side of Central Park, opposite 68th Street, Samia would have still been on Fifth Avenue, all the way up at 100th Street, not even in the park yet.

This is not to denigrate Samia’s time. Not at all. But it begs the question: why, in the past decade and a half, hasn’t another African-American woman closed the gap on the holder of the overall US women’s marathon record?

Perhaps part of the answer requires us to look at one aspect of the question: gender. Women have never been treated equally in sport. Take the Olympic Games as an example. The first Games, in Athens in 1896, was an all-male affair. Indeed, it was not until 1900 that women were allowed to take part in the Games at all (and only then in croquet, sailing, tennis, equestrianism and golf). In 1928, following falsified newspaper reports that female athletes in the 800m at that year’s Games in Amsterdam had collapsed at the finish line or dropped out of the race altogether, the International Olympic Committee banned women from racing any distance greater than 200m. It was not until 1960 that women were once again allowed to compete over two laps of the track. And another 24 years before Joan Benoit-Samuelson ran away from the field to win the first ever Olympic Marathon for women. It had taken 98 years and 20 Olympic Games for women to be allowed to race

26.2 miles.

In 1972, the US passed a federal civil rights law (known as Title IX) prohibiting sex-based discrimination in any school or other education programme that receives funding from the federal government. This gave many women the opportunity to attend college on a sports scholarship – something that hitherto had been denied to them.

In 1967, Kathrine Switzer became the first woman to run the Boston Marathon wearing an official number (although she obtained said number by not making it clear that she was a woman). She finished the race despite being physically assaulted by race director Jock Semple, who tried to tear the number off her top while yelling: “Get the hell out of my race and give me those numbers!”

The same year that Title IX was passed, the US Amateur Athletics Association finally relented on its ban on women taking part in distance races… although the new rules insisted that women started 10 minutes before or after the men, or raced a different course altogether. In November 1972, Fred Lebow, founder of the New York City Marathon, allowed a small group of women to enter the race. But Lebow insisted the women start 10 minutes before the 272 men. When the starting pistol was fired for the women’s race, all six of the female competitors sat down on the start line and waited. Ten minutes later, when the gun went for the start of the men’s race, the women got up and started running.

This struggle for half the world’s population to have the right to compete in distance racing is not lost on Samia. “A certain segment of our population – women – didn’t even have the opportunity to participate in the Olympic Marathon until 1984,” she says. “I was born in ’81. So that’s not ancient history. You know, Joanie [Joan Benoit-Samuelson] is still with us. Still racing the marathon. The point is, it hasn’t been the same situation for men. I think that’s like voting rights in America. Initially it was white American men who had the right to vote. And after that it kind of goes down the list for who is able to participate in society and fully get all the benefits and the resources. And so in distance running I do think if we take a look back, some opportunities didn’t come about for certain groups of the population. The reality is that time has been wasted, just to get to a point of recognising that another human being should be able to participate in any game or sport.”

While women were held back by the men who controlled almost every aspect of the sport of running for so many years, that does not explain the gap that exists between American Black women and white women when it comes to elite level distance running.

At Samia’s induction into the National Black Distance Running Hall of Fame on 10 September 2021, National Black Marathoners’ Association executive director Tony Reed said: “Since 1975, about 14 million people finished USA marathons. About two percent, or 280,000 marathoners, finished in under three hours. However, fewer than 20 were native-born, African-American women.”

One pioneer who inspired Samia is Marilyn Bevans: “One of the things that was really amazing for me was when I met the first African-American woman to run a marathon in under three hours. And she has stories that are very similar to so many pioneers in women’s distance running. Not just in the US but also all over the world. It was the same things that people said about why women shouldn’t be participating. About what it does to a woman’s body. About not having training partners or people that would coach her.

“But then also Marilyn tells these wonderful stories about great people. People who were happy to help Marilyn on this really cool endeavour. I guess, you know, she was doing these things, because she’s a badass and it’s what she enjoyed. And she was determined to be a part of the sport. But I don’t know that everybody felt that way at the time. Obviously, we’re progressing and things changed. Which is great. But it’s time wasted.”

Marilyn raced during the late 1970s. Samia competed almost three decades later. It would be tempting to think that the sport had worked to eradicate racist attitudes during the intervening years. But that was not always Samia’s experience. “I was reminded by journalists that I didn’t belong in the sport,” she recalls. “There were people who said that I was from Africa, because my name is Samia Akbar. They never took the time to interview me after races. They misprinted my name in the articles they wrote. These journalists would see a result on paper and just report about me, rather than talking to me.

“I remember walking by these journalists after my races, with my family. So they had plenty of opportunities to chat with me about my running. This was the case with a lot of local news outlets when I first started getting into professional running. One reporter said that I looked like Tegla Loroupe. I don’t look anything like Tegla. At a historic New England road race I had one of many frustrating experiences. An old race director confused the names of me and another runner holding dual citizenship with a small African country while we stopped in to pick up our packets. We were warm in attempting to introduce ourselves and correcting him, and he responded with, ‘Whatever, it’s all the same. Your numbers are over there.’ You know, that kind of treatment was pervasive.”

When pressed on the question of why her record still stands, Samia does not profess to have the answers. In fact, if anything, she has questions: “Why does that gulf exist? You know, there’s this idea that in America we’re supposed to celebrate all different cultures. And so the question I have is ‘What is going on, in this sport of distance running that I love?’ Maybe women are tentative about trying the sport? Or maybe they’re not being encouraged by the coaches that they have from a young age? I’m really not sure. But I think that it does seem a little strange, because there are so many African- Americans in running. It’s not like they’re not in the sport at all. It’s weird because running – from a global perspective – is very, very diverse. There are cultures around the world that have a historical background in distance running: in Latin America, Africa, of course, places in Asia. And in the US we have tens of thousands of people taking part in road races. We have run crews and teams that meet up, which have become more and more diverse. And people that are getting into distance running and not seeing it as intimidating.

“A lot of people have realised the benefits of running: having a sense of community, being healthy, getting outside. Many of us – from every background, race and ethnicity – started thinking about how to feel well during the pandemic, which encouraged a lot of people who don’t think of themselves as runners into the sport. I know that rates of participation in running, from a diversity perspective, have improved thanks partly to these road races that are happening every weekend, all over the world. There’s a larger mix, when it comes to the types of people that are wanting to participate. And that’s really important. That’s where change starts.”

Where there is perhaps less change is in the elite end of running as a sport. Samia agrees: “It’s very different when it comes to completing a road race. And then there’s, you know, running at an elite level. Those are two different aspects of running that I understand very well. I guess when I ran 2h34m, I thought at some point there would be other women that looked like me, who would break my record not long after.”

Which brings us all the way back to the initial question: why has Samia’s record stood for so long? The reasons are certainly complicated and complex. And it is not Samia’s responsibility to have the answers. As she says: “Honestly, I have a hard time celebrating myself for my marathon time as an elite athlete. It’s not the greatest. It’s not an American record. My friend Kiera [D’Amato] just ran an American record. My time is well off American record time. When I ran it, it was exciting because it was my first marathon. It was on New York City’s course – it wasn’t Chicago or Berlin where it’s very flat and fast. At that time in my career, it showed a lot of promise for me as a distance runner. So there are a lot of things to celebrate. But recently George Floyd was murdered and Ahmaud Arbery was shot and all of a sudden, I had people wanting to know my opinion about the sport because I hold a record. Which I actually think is very telling. Because it means there’s something going on – that that people are beginning to understand what it means that my time is the record for American-born Black women.”

It is certainly comforting to hear Samia say that she is optimistic that running is improving in terms of diversity. That the people and organisations involved in the sport and the everyday activity are recognising the need to make every facet of running inclusive. But diversity and inclusivity are not simply a matter of unlocking the door. If, for generations, a door has been locked and certain sections of society have been warned not to even think about trying to open it, telling those same people that they can now walk through the door is not enough.

Running as a sport is a meritocracy – but only once the race starts. The problem that everyone in running has to face up to – and tackle – is that getting to the start line is the real battle for many people from groups that have faced discrimination, oppression and disadvantage. Only once we make sure everyone has the same opportunities – and that everyone is supported and encouraged to take those opportunities – can we start to make the race a fair one.

When running truly is for everyone, Samia Akbar’s marathon record will undoubtedly be broken. And she will be one of the first to celebrate.

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