Black Males In It For Long Run

By Courtesy of the Baltimore Sun By Ed Lee
Updated: March 15, 2006
A number of African-American track athletes are proving that they can excel at more than just the sprint events.
Dwight Parker

Dwight Parker

MARYLAND—There have been times when Dwight Parker stood at the start of a 1,600- or 3,200-meter run, looked down the line at his opponents, and reached an alarming conclusion.

“I did realize that there weren’t that many African-Americans who ran the long-distance events,” said Parker, an African-American who is a junior at Woodlawn. “I didn’t get discouraged when I saw more Caucasians or Asian-Americans. At the time, it wasn’t a big deal.”

Those times are changing. More male black athletes are shrugging off the stereotype that they should be sprinters and taking a shot at long-distance events in track and field.

The examples are out there. Parker, who completed the 3,200-meter run at the Hispanic Games in 9 minutes, 32.16 seconds, owns the metro area’s fastest time in that event and placed second in the 3,200 at the Class 4A-3A state indoor track and field championships last month.

In fact, three of the top six finishers in the 3,200 at the Class 4A-3A state meet were African-American, including champion Mikias Gelagle, a senior from Eleanor Roosevelt in Prince George’s County.

Mervo sophomore Issac Richardson won the 1,600 at both the Class 3A-2A Central regional and Baltimore City levels and finished second in the 3,200 at the city championships. Digital Harbor junior Milo Barry captured the 3,200 at the Class 2A-1A Central regional and Baltimore City meets and placed first in the 1,600 at the regional championships.

Dundalk senior Allen Hawkins claimed the 3,200 at the Class 3A-2A Central regional championships and finished second to Richardson in the 1,600 at the same meet.

“We are seeing a shift,” Dana Dobbs, who heads Broadneck’s cross country and track and field programs, wrote in an e-mail. “We are now seeing kids with speed, grace, strength, ability and a variance in racial background. … Being a state champ in cross country, the mile or the 2-mile has become ‘cool.’ With these events sharing more of the limelight, the wider racial draw only makes sense.”

As recently as 1990, few African-American males competed in long-distance events at the high school, college or professional level, according to Woodlawn coach Mark Pryor.

Pryor, who ran distance events at Syracuse, said aside from Clemson’s Terrance Harrington, Georgetown’s Steve Holman and a few others, most black runners compete in the sprints.

Mervo coach Garfield Thompson, a state champion in the 800 in 1997, said Americans in general have short attention spans and don’t want to compete in events that could take up to 10 minutes to complete.

“A lot of our black athletes lack the discipline to train for the longer races,” said Thompson, who is African-American. “Once black athletes stop looking for quick results, which you can get as a sprinter, then you will see more black athletes in the distance events. … It is being proven every year that blacks can run long distance.”

Pryor, 38, said he believes that part of the problem is that young African-American males don’t see many reflections of themselves on the college or professional level when it comes to long-distance events.

“The reason we don’t see as much is because we have few role models,” said Pryor, who wrote his senior thesis in college 1990 on racial stacking, a concept in which predisposed characteristics influence the assignment of certain ethnic group members to specific positions within team sports.

“Basketball has Michael Jordan, football has Bo Jackson and Walter Payton. The only role models in track and field are sprinters like Carl Lewis and Michael Johnson,” Pryor[kec: what is his age?: ] said. “There are no role models for kids to make them say, ‘I want to run the mile or 2-mile.’ ” More black runners, however, are beginning to grab the spotlight. Eritrean-born Meb Keflezghi, who runs for the United States, won a silver medal in the marathon at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens and owns the American record in the 10,000. UCLA’s John Rankin has already broken the 4-minute mark in the mile.

Parker, Barry and Hawkins were initially hesitant about competing in the distance events. But nearly all agreed that their coaches, who guided them toward long-distance runs, were correct.

“I enjoyed the fact that not only did I have to use my legs, but I also had to use my head to run the distance events,” said Hawkins, who was named to the All-Baltimore County team in cross country this past fall. “It was meant to be for me in the distance events. The way I am with my body shape [5-foot-3 and 114 pounds] and energy level, it was the perfect combination.”

Richardson, whose father Tim placed fourth in the 800 at the NCAA national championships in 1978, said he tries to recruit new members for long-distance races. He said he has convinced a dozen to give the distance events a shot.

“At states, there might only be one or two black kids at the starting line,” Richardson said. “Most ninth-graders were told that they can only run the sprints, and they don’t have the confidence to do distance. I’m trying to get them to believe that they can do anything.”

Barry said he has been encouraged by a slight increase in the number of African-American runners trying out for the 1,600 and 3,200 at Digital Harbor.

“That makes me feel like I’m not the only one out there,” Barry said. “We’re showing them that we’re not only sprinters. We’re distance runners, too.”

<!– CUTLINE TEXTWoodlawn's Dwight Parker, who owns the metro area's fastest time in the 3,200-meter run, is among the growing number of African-American males who are finding success in long-distance events.

CUTLINE TEXT–><!– ART CREDITGene Sweeney Jr. [sun photographer]