professional runner Erika Kemp’s gate at these years The Boston Marathon was easy: finish 26.2 miles and “be okay.” But when she crossed the finish line The 28-year-old broke the record as the fastest debut marathoner by a black American runner, taking the lead an exclusive list to break the three-hour barrier.
“You can finish it. It’s going to be very tough and very long, but think of all the work you’ve done before,” Kemp recalls telling herself during the race.
The New Jersey native started running when she was 14 when her soccer coach, who was also a track and field coach, begged her to try long-distance running, she recalls. At first she hated it, but found success quite quickly and then fell in love with the sport. It opened several unexpected doors for her – including the opportunity to travel while studying.
Completing a marathon was Kemp’s next big challenge, a natural progression after excelling in several shorter races, including several half marathons. For her, however, a full marathon is “a completely different beast”.
Not least because of this, elite long-distance running in the USA has been dominated by white runners in the past to systemic racism and socioeconomic barriers to black runner competition. Some of Kemp’s colleagues have told me that black Americans are often confronted with the assumption that they tend to excel at shorter distances. But Kemp is changing that, and her influence is already being felt.
“We saw the elite runners coming and said, ‘We’ve got to push them!’ Give them that nudge!’ But when we saw her, we just lost it,” said Anthony “Rock” Clary, co-founder of We Off the Couch, a black-run running community in Richmond, Virginia. He was at the Boston Marathon’s Brooks Running cheer station when he saw Kemp at mile 15.
“We’re only crying out for her because we know she needs it. In those moments we scream, “See you sister!” Move on! You have everything you need tucked inside!’” Clary recalls thinking, ‘If I lose my voice today, I’m losing it to something that is absolutely important.’
Clary first said that in a sport produced for white menSeeing a top black woman athlete complete this prestigious run had an impact on his life – and his family. “My daughters can do it too,” he thought.
“The Boston Marathon does not run through the city of Boston. It is mainly run through predominantly white neighborhoods. So the people who need to see [her] When you move like that, you often don’t see them,” Clary said. “The first thing I did with these images was show them to my kids and tell them about their historical achievement. My daughter talks about her all the time now.”
But Kemp had no intention of breaking the record, much less becoming a role model. “I wasn’t really aware of the effect I was having. Having always been a long-distance runner, I was used to being the only one out there with a different skin color and hair [texture]’ Kemp said. “When we sat before meetings in high school and everyone braided each other’s hair, I didn’t have any teammates who could do that. I didn’t know how to do my own hair, and I didn’t realize that until I got older.”
Kemp said the more high-level races she competed in, the more people would turn to her with words of encouragement and give her credit for how far she’s come. “I don’t really go out to run because I think people are watching me,” Kemp said. But they are. She has quickly become an advocate for inclusion in sport and is a role model for generations to come.
“I’m not a born lawyer, nor am I a loud person,” she said. “I enjoy speaking, but mostly I’m a spectator. I wouldn’t be the person with the bullhorn. But as I get older, I don’t shy away from it either.” She pointed out that some athletes are natural supporters and how inspired she is by them. And so, day by day, she learns to use her platform for good.
And while words and contributions are important, Kemp recognizes that her community’s support isn’t dependent on it, or how many medals she wins. It’s about just seeing them in the race.
Kemp became a Brooks Running Ambassador earlier this year as part of her advocacy involvement; She is part of it future run, a brand initiative that advocates for youth and helps them discover the lifelong benefits of running and its community. Ultimately, she wants people to realize the incredible impact running can have on their lives. “If I didn’t run, I would be a terrible person to say the least,” Kemp said. “Running helped me get through the death of my grandparents, my father’s illness and a really bad breakup. Running was what I could do and was 100% in control and I knew I would end up feeling better.”
While mental health and happiness are her most important goals, there are some awards that Kemp would not turn down. “I know I have a lot more work to do from a competitive standpoint,” says Kemp. “And I’d love to win something.” And with a record like Kemp’s, a medal can’t be too far away.