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I’m an All-American Runner and Ivy League Grad. I Still Can’t Escape Racism.

Nia Akins, Nu’20, a former Penn middle-distance star, thinks the lessons runners learn about embracing discomfort can provide valuable insights when it comes to confronting racism.

As runners, we often find ourselves straddling a fine line between comfortable and uncomfortable. We call this line our threshold. Though we are biased in favor of what’s comfortable, from both a physiological and psychological standpoint, we know this state offers us no gains. 2020 may be one of the most uncomfortable years yet.

At the beginning of the coronavirus quarantine, runners everywhere embraced the uncertainty and change with positivity, despite being constantly confronted with news about death tolls and cancellations. While it was uncomfortable, we understood this period was an opportunity for growth. We still trained. I still trained, though my track season was cut short, and I wouldn’t be able to defend my NCAA runner-up title in the 800 meters.

Eventually the discomfort I felt faded as I adapted to a new sense of normalcy. Days became weeks, weeks turned into months, and months became seasons. Spring came and went, and suddenly it was the end of my senior year of college.

On the morning of Monday, May 18, 2020, I graduated from the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Nursing. The ceremony reminded me of all the times my peers and I pushed against the boundaries of what was considered possible, rewrote history, and chased our dreams. I felt inspired and ready to conquer the world, even as a new nurse in the middle of a global pandemic.

That evening, I ventured to Penn Park, a park on campus, for a run and a set of drills. After running, I relaxed a bit under the line of trees before starting my drills. I was in the middle of my routine when the sound of a man yelling broke through the silence of the park. I turned toward the sound and found he was yelling at me from about half a field’s length away.

The moment I focused on the words, I wished I hadn’t. They were racial slurs. I instinctively grabbed my earphones, popped them in, and played music to dull the sound of the prejudice peanut gallery. This is something Black athletes have done for centuries, from Wilma Rudolph to Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali to Serena Williams. But then the man started to walk in my direction. As he got closer, I could feel my blood racing through every limb of my body. His words were as clear as the day and more audible than ever.

I needed to get out of the situation, fast, and my instinct was to pick up my things and run. Walk away, Nia, I thought. Don’t look threatened and, more importantly, don’t look threatening.

The University Police station is right in the middle of the park, so I nonchalantly yet deliberately started to walk in the direction of an officer. I didn’t quite know what I was going to say or do when I got there. I feared that the officer would laugh and dismiss me, or worse.

The man continued to follow me on my walk towards the campus police, but once I neared an officer he disappeared. “Excuse me,” I said to the officer, “There’s a man following me and yelling racial slurs.” The officer shook his head. This was a bad idea, I thought.

“Where is he?” the officer said, and I eased up, as he seemed to be genuinely concerned. I explained the situation in more detail and University police officers were able to catch the man immediately. I identified him, and the police brought him in for an earlier transgression of trespassing on University property.

I was exceptionally fortunate, and this “happy ending” is the way it always should be.

The officers were kind enough to stand near if I wanted to finish my workout. However, even after all the help they had provided, I could not help but find their presence uncomfortable. I was raised to be mindful and wary around the police, because of the countless murders of Black Americans including Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd.

Floyd’s murder came at a unique time in our history—in the middle of a global pandemic. COVID-19 has threatened lives and made everyone around the world grapple with fears of uncertainty and death. Quality of life has been challenged. Opportunities that people “would have had” or “should have had” were forgotten.

As a pro runner with Brooks Beasts Track Club, Nia is currently training at altitude for this sum...As a pro runner with Brooks Beasts Track Club, Nia is currently training at altitude for this summer's Olympic Games.

As a nurse, I am proud of our world’s ability to swiftly initiate reform during the emergence of the pandemic. COVID-19 has proved that change can come quickly when lives are at stake. Yet, racially charged police brutalities, mass incarceration, and hate crimes have killed our Black brothers, sisters, grandparents, mothers, and children persistently over generations. While Black lives are continually threatened, our governments, institutions, and friends do not even know what actions to take. As a young Black woman, I am tired of waiting for change from the systems that continually and fatally oppress us.

COVID-19 knows no color, though it has disproportionately affected the Black community. Meanwhile, systemic racism and oppression have killed more people than COVID-19 has. We cannot hide from racism. A simple mask will not protect us from the color of our skin.

We can agree as a community that for at-risk populations, it is our civil duty and ethical responsibility to decrease the spread of COVID-19. So, shouldn’t the same be true for racism, systemic oppression, and police brutality? In light of the numerous recent murders, over a backdrop of a long history of systemic racial oppression, we must acknowledge as a nation that we can do better.

I know there is an opportunity to create a system that protects all of its citizens, because not everyone has access to protection like I did. Nonetheless, creating that system will take conversations and actions that will make everyone uncomfortable. As runners, we know comfort does not contribute to growth. We are no strangers to discomfort. We embrace it in every run and every race. We should confront the issue of systemic racial oppression with the same attitude. We must educate ourselves. We must use our platforms as catalysts for change. We must pay attention to who we are voting for. We must advocate for the day that we all run on equal ground.

This story was originally published on on June 11, 2020.