As rewarding as running is, many do not get to reap the benefits of the sport. One reason for this, which may also affect the overall health of the community, is the lack of safe green space and paved roads to aid in the pursuit of wellness.

Studies show a correlation between the health of a community and this access to green space. Many running retailers are hoping to bridge the gap, both by helping to provide an enjoyable experience for seasoned runners and for new members of the community who may not otherwise be exposed to the sport.

Safe spaces in which to run can look different for every community and while the area of Schaumburg, IL, is considered suburban, there is a large trailer park community situated next to an industrial park. Chris Schiel, the owner of Xtra Mile Running, hopes that his store can help make running accessible for the kids living in the Elk Grove section where the trailer parks are located.

Schiel’s store has a Youth Run Club, a free eight-week program, and any given summer 60 to 75 children practice twice a week and then participate in actual meets. They’ve been partnering with CARA, a local nonprofit with a Go Run program, which sets up free five-day races in Chicago-area parks.

Schiel explains how he hopes to get Schaumburg more involved. “For our events we partner with the park district and local coaches who help them get excited about running. As they get older, they find role models in the program. We’ve been trying to gain traction in Elk Grove, since there are disadvantaged kids that could really benefit from our program.”

Most of their children come from what Schiel refers to as “District 54,” but he believes that other Elk Grove kids need an outlet as well. He calls the area “Truck City” and condemns the “nasty industrial roads.” The atmosphere around truck stops is no place for children. They may be out of a truck’s sight line, leading to potential injury. Also, most people there are either sleeping or refueling, so drivers may not be mindful of small children darting past. The realities and myths around crime and even abduction abound, as well.

Schiel’s mission for Summer 2021 is to get more participants from the mobile homes to join in the running festivities, which take place in parks that aren’t too far away but remain inaccessible when there is no transportation. COVID-19 permitting, he is working with CARA to figure out busing or other options to help boost participation.

The Philly Effort

Common pitfalls for impoverished urban areas include treacherous road conditions, equipped with potholes, uneven sidewalks and traffic. Drug crime exists as well, like in the Kensington section of Philadelphia Ñ an area embattled with an opioid crisis so bad that children see addicts and needles on their way to school. An area like this would not be ideal for someone to take up jogging or any form of outdoor exercise. Someone living in this community may also not be able to afford to commute somewhere else to start running.

Think about the costs associated with running. The average income of individuals who run the New York City Marathon is $130,000 annually. That is almost 300 percent more than the general population. With so many being willing to splurge on the latest carbon plate shoe, it’s easy to overlook how cost-prohibitive the sport can be. In some neighborhoods in urban communities it is common for half of the population to make less than $20,000 per year.

For a city like Philadelphia, the promise of gentrification means that cozy residences are being purchased in crime-ridden areas like Kensington, forcing clean-up efforts in the process, but it may not necessarily unite neighbors.

Ross Martinson, the owner of Philadelphia Runner, was never aware of the added burden felt by inner city kids. “Growing up outside of the city, it didn’t occur to me that some kids have to make sure that they’re running in running-specific clothing,” he says. “Otherwise, they have to worry about the police thinking they’ve done something wrong and that they’re running from something.” (One of his stores is in University City, the section near the University of Pennsylvania’s campus, a mixed income area with a heavy police presence.)

Martinson explains that running stores and clubs have the ability to unite a community when they are inclusive and someone who would ordinarily fear looking suspicious running alone may find their community in group runs. Philly Runner often partners with Students Run Philly Style, a program that pairs students with mentors, with the ultimate goal of completing a half or full marathon.

Police presence is increased in areas undergoing gentrification and unfortunately often it’s because new neighbors are more willing to call the police when someone or something looks suspicious. Police make some feel safe, but a study from the Urban Institute finds that many residents do not feel safer with a police presence. In fact, only about 34 percent of residents believe police are actually there to help.

Last Lap’s Contribution

This is a similar story for the south side of Chicago, an area always pulled into conversations about crime. Last Lap Cornerstore is a way for local runners to get what they need to run without leaving an area in which they feel most at home and comfortable.

Owner Ian Gonzalez set up shop in the Bronzeville shipping container community and, according to its website, “Last Lap Cornerstore’s mission is to make sure you have what you need to power through your workouts, group runs or race days. Leave the big-box store in the past and come to your friendly neighborhood corner store for runners.”

The location and mission take away the intimidation factor that comes from visiting a high-end retailer in another neighborhood of Chicago.

For retailers searching for a way to give back to their local community, no action is too small to help create equity and reach individuals who could one day enjoy running. A task as common as plogging can help to beautify the community and make it safer for foot traffic. (The name comes from “plocka upp,” Swedish for pick up, and it is when you stop to pick up garbage on runs.)

Many run clubs and stores, including Philadelphia Runner, have hosted meetups to do just this, often cleaning up waterfronts and parks Ñ beautifying the space, preventing garbage from ending up in waterways and making them more safe for runners.

Martinson says retailers that partner with or sponsor races should make sure that a portion of their proceeds go to enhancing the community.

For instance, funds from the Philly 10K have gone to beautifying the Reading Viaduct, adding greenery to a sea of city concrete. For ideas on how to help, he also recommends connecting with a local community development corporation to see what existing projects could use extra support.

There is always something that the running community can do, Martinson explains. “The industry is changing and beginning to wise up to what’s happening around us.”

Running can be for everyone and the existing running community is in the position to inspire more people to fall in love with it.