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The ultramarathon runner Yassine Diboun built his social media platforms by focusing on the two things he most loves: his family and trail running.
Diboun, who is biracial, doesn’t usually write about race or politics, but at the end of May as the protest movement grew, he decided to speak up about his own experiences, writing: “In many ways I feel very privileged, but as a man with darker skin & an Arabic name I can tell you that I experience racism & it sucks.” That post led to a piece in Trail Runner magazine, where he wrote about racism he’s faced both in and out of trail running, which is still a very white sport.
Diboun turned to trail running in 2004 as part of his recovery from substance abuse. He represented the United States in the 2015 International Association of Ultrarunners World Trail Running Championships, and has had top 10 finishes in the Western States Endurance Run 100 mile and the HURT 100 mile races. He’s also co-owner of Wy’east Wolfpack, which offers personal training and coaching for runners, but also corporate wellness and trail running camps and running programs for kids.
I called Diboun, 41, at his home in Portland, Ore., to ask him why he decided to start writing about this now, and his hopes for the future of trail running as a more diverse sport. The conversation has been edited.
JAM: What prompted you to write this piece for Trail Runner?
YD: I have experienced racism my entire life, unfortunately. It wasn’t until these last couple months that I have experienced some more blatant, overt racism.
Right before Portland locked down, somebody called the cops on me for parallel parking. I lightly bumped another bumper. Then, I’m sitting in a coffee shop with a potential client and a police officer comes in. A middle-aged white woman saw me bump into the spot and she felt she had to take it upon herself to call the cops. There was no damage at all and the cop actually laughed it off. But it was really frustrating. It was embarrassing, because I’m in the middle of a meeting.
Then a couple of weeks after that, I was in the post office, and this guy referred to me as ISIS because I had my mask on. After that, I was followed out of a store by security. I went into the store, looked around with my mask on, and they didn’t have what I wanted so I left without buying anything.
I’m so frustrated by everything that’s going on, so I made social media posts about how I’ve experienced this my whole life, and how stuff’s starting to boil over right now. I can’t be silent anymore.
I know you’ve been doing a lot of podcast interviews too, and white runners seem surprised by your experiences.
They say, “You’re such a nice guy. I had no idea people treated you like this.” They don’t realize how much people of color experience this kind of stuff on a regular basis, and how we just have to deal with it or brush it off or sweep it under the rug. It’s just the reality of our country.
The whole definition of prejudice is preconceived opinions about somebody based on appearance, before you even get to know them. People who do these things to me don’t know that I am a nice person, that I am an athlete, or that I am an upstanding citizen in my community. They just assume that because of the way I look, I’m scoping out this store to steal something, or maybe I already stole something because I didn’t buy anything.
With what’s going on in our country in terms of Black Lives Matter, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery … it was just the timing of it to talk about it.
In your piece, you wrote about the racism you’ve experienced at trail races, including race directors who don’t learn how to pronounce your name, and runners asking where you’re from because “you are so exotic looking.”
The racism I’ve experienced in our sport, it’s more subtle. A big part of why we love the running community — and for me especially the ultra and trail community — it’s a very tight-knit community with camaraderie and support.
I think people just don’t know what to say. I don’t think they necessarily mean it.
You’ve said that you want to recruit young people of color to trail running. How are you doing that through Wy’east Wolfpack?
I work part time at my daughter’s school. They brought me on to be a movement specialist, and I lead their P.E. classes, but once some of the administrators found out I was a big runner and ultrarunner and trail runner, they said why don’t you do an after-school running program? This is the perfect opportunity to really start these kids young and get them out into the forest and moving.
That led me to start thinking about running camps for kids. We did our first camps two summers ago. We have two scheduled for August this year, and they’re still on.
I also hope it helps with visibility. I think now more than ever people of color are starting to be held up to show younger people it’s beneficial to do this.
What can race directors do?
There are a lot of running groups for underprivileged children. Race directors can get involved by offering them discounts or free entries to run their races.
But I think it’s going to take race directors and organizers seeking out these groups. They must take action by reaching out to these communities and making it appealing to them, not only with free or discounted entries, but also making their events welcoming and inviting.
What can other trail runners do?
I’ve gotten two emails in the last couple of days from people wanting to take action and help out, and some are donating to our camp and paying for entries for kids. That gave me the idea to look at starting a nonprofit that focuses on this kind of funding, because a lot of kids from different socioeconomic background might not have the access to this.
Maybe if you have friends of color that are road runners, suggest, ‘Hey, let’s try a trail race and see if we like that.’ But it’s really about just being more aware and more conscious about things that are said or preconceived judgments or opinions.
Jen A. Miller
Author, “Running: A Love Story”
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