Written by Brett Farrell with help from Charles Brown
When we released our headwraps to raise funds for Black Lives Matter in June, I received several emails. Some of them expressed anger that we were supporting the cause, others were extremely grateful and one email was from a man named Charles Brown.
Charles simply thanked us for showing support for his Black community and said he would share our fundraiser with his friends. We began to exchange emails back and forth and we ended up hopping on the phone. I asked Charles if he would be willing to share his path to trail running and what it means to him.
I ended up learning incredible stories about two African American distance runners that I knew nothing about before and how Charles' path intersected with one of them.
“I didn’t start until I was 55.”
Charles grew up in the inner city of Baltimore playing basketball, baseball and football. He said he didn’t get introduced to running at a young age. “When you don’t see people like yourself in the sport or have access, you don’t gravitate towards it. I didn't start until I was 55."
He was introduced to endurance sports through a Multiple Sclerosis cycling fundraiser by his wife in 2005 and then started running to keep in shape when not riding. On Thanksgiving of 2014 he started a 36-day run streak challenge that he was encouraged to do by a fitness instructor friend. He accomplished the streak running at least a mile per day and then didn’t stop on January 1st at the end of the challenge.
Charles described, “during that time, I learned of the U.S. Running Streak Assn. (USRSA). The minimum to join USRSA and get on the National list you had to run at least one mile daily for a consecutive year. I also learned that there were thousands of people involved and numerous people that had been running daily for 20 years or more. So I committed to doing it for a year...of course most people that I told about it could not comprehend it, especially for someone my age (I was a few months shy of 56 at the time). This led me to road racing and eventually trail racing. I ended up running for 602 consecutive days until I was forced to stop due to a bad ankle sprain. I’m currently #779 on the USRSA Retired Steaks list." During this time Charles was able to inspire one of his cycling group members (he says I “twisted his arm”), John Griswold to start a running streak and this August he’ll reach his 5th year of daily running!
Eventually he signed up for a 5k trail race in September 2015 and Charles said, “that is what really set me off.” He really began shifting from cycling to running after that and began looking at longer races.
Charles thought back to a time in 2011 when he was out in Utah visiting his daughter while she was in college. He went for a bike ride along Big Cottonwood Canyon to Brighton Resort and stopped at a restaurant.
Charles told the story, “I was sitting outside at a picnic table and this guy comes up to me and says, “mind if I sit down?” He was in his mid 60's, had shorts on and I could tell he was out running. He said he was training for a 100 mile race. It was the first time I heard of someone running 100 miles, which blew my mind and I always think about that- if you don’t know something exists you never will have the opportunity to engage in it.”
Years later, Charles highlights another big moment for him was when he saw African American trail and mountain runner, Joseph Gray on the cover of Trail Runner Magazine. He exclaimed, “Damn! I would have never known about this guy if it wasn’t for Trail Runner Magazine’s article. This is such a big part of it for so many people- not being exposed.”
Joseph Gray and Mirna Valerio have been inspirational to Charles and he is hopeful that they will expose many African Americans to trail running. However, two other African American individuals played a big role in inspiring Charles to run - people I had never heard of and when I later looked them up I was blown away by their stories.
The first is Eddie Gardner.
Charles learned about Eddie through a book called, “The Race Across America: Eddie Gardner and the Great Bunion Derbies.” Eddie took part in what was the first and second Transcontinental Foot Race called the Great Bunion Derby in 1928 & 1929 - a race literally across the United States between Los Angeles and New York.
Eddie was born in Birmingham, Alabama and soon after his family moved west and settled in Seattle, WA. He traveled back to Alabama to attend Tuskegee University where he began running. Upon returning to Seattle he entered the Washington State 10 Mile Championship. He ended up winning the race three times and set the state record in the ten mile distance.
When Eddie learned of the Great Bunion Derby he signed up in hopes of winning the $25,000 top prize. However, he had to endure much more than the physical struggles of running over 3,000 miles - he faced being yelled at, death threats, and was even followed by a white man with a gun telling him not to dare pass another white runner.
Eddie was known to keep his calm throughout the race and was a source of inspiration for so many Black Americans, having fans across the entire country. However, his story was quickly forgotten.
The second is Ted Corbitt.
The biography of Ted Corbitt ("Corbitt: The Story of Ted Corbitt, Distance Runner") opened Charles up to the man who was given the title by Fred Lebow as, “the father of American distance running.”
Ted was the first African American Olympic marathoner (1952), competed in almost 200 marathon & ultra marathon races- winning many of them, became the co-founder and first President of the New York Road Runners Club and made great contributions to running in the area of course measurement.
He was ranked #2 in the world for ultra-Marathon running throughout the 1960’s. At the London to Brighton 52.5 mile road race, he set American records on three instances (1962: 5:53:37, 1964: 5:40:42, 1969: 5:38:11). Ted also set the American record in the 100 mile on a track at age 50 in a time of 13:33:06.
Corbitt worked as a physical therapist in Manhattan and often ran over 20 miles to and from work each day. He treated patients until three months before his death when he was 88 years old.
Ted Corbitt running in the London to Brighton 52.5 mile race.
Photo courtesy of Gary Corbitt.
Following Ted’s accomplishments through his website tedcorbitt.com, Facebook page and reading this book led Charles to an incredible experience in Long Island, NY in 2019.
Charles explained that last year, Ted Corbitt would have turned 100 years old and his son Gary and other supporters of Ted organized a 100 miler and 100k in his father’s name. The race was held in early September and Charles found out about it two weeks before. He said, “ I had never run more than a 50k but I thought, I’ve gotta do this.”
It was a 1.4 mile loop course and he had just two weeks to get ready for-a distance double what he had ever completed. The first weekend he had a trip already planned for a fraternity retreat. The weekend before the race was all he had to get in some major mileage. He said “I was going to do what I had to do to get myself together.” He ran around a lake in Columbia, Maryland for several hours on Saturday and Sunday.
The next Saturday in its early hours, he took the 3:30am train up to New York City and when he arrived he had an hour before the race began. There were about 50-60 people in the race. He started running the 1.4 mile loop thinking about Ted Corbitt and what it meant to be a part of the race. In the process of reaching uncharted territory of mileage he met Ted Corbitt's son, Gary, found out that he and Ted belonged to the same fraternity (Alpha Phi Alpha) and he now felt a “fraternal bonding” to the inspirational Ted Corbitt story that day. A story that he would have not been a part of if he hadn’t come across the Ted Corbitt biography and the dedicated social media sites.
Charles completed the 100k distance in 23 hours and 10 minutes He remembered it fondly saying, “ It was the most memorable thing I have done in running.”
It was clear in talking with Charles Brown that exposure to stories and ideas is everything in our world. It allows us to be inspired, to form dreams and chase them down. And when this world doesn't offer stories of people that you can relate with or people who look like you, it becomes so much harder to start that chain reaction of inspiration to the finish line.
MORE WITH CHARLES BROWN
1.) What has been your biggest obstacle in running and how did you overcome it? I really have not had what I would consider a major obstacle in running. If anything, it would be dealing with the significant injury I had in 2016 that ended my daily running streak. Running had become a part of my lifestyle at that point and I was getting close to my two-year mark so it was hard not being able to run. Fortunately, once I rested a few days, the ankle injury didn’t prevent me from riding my bike so I switched my focus back to cycling and eased back to running periodically once I was able to fully rehab.
2) Do you crosstrain or participate in any other sports? Yes, prior to focusing on running I was an endurance cyclist and for nine years I rode an average of 3,500 miles a year, participating in numerous Century rides and Gran Fondos between PA and TN. I sought out events that involved significant elevation gains, many of which were along mountain roads. I still ride weekly but nowhere near the extent I used to but I still seek out hills and elevation gain on my rides! Once I got into trail racing and ultras I had to cut back on cycling to commit more time to training and race preparation. I also have an indoor rowing machine which I mainly use during winter months to help maintain my fitness since I don't run outside as frequently.
3) What is your advice for a newbie to running? 1) Be your own inspiration 2) Commit to getting better and learning how to train and run. 3) Focus on your nutrition and eat healthy as much as possible. 4) Don't limit yourself in the type of running, try different distances, venues/places and types i.e. trail running. 5) Be patient with your progress and make running something you enjoy doing, not something you have to do.
4) What are your goals for your running in 2020? (adventures, races, etc)? With COVID-19 restrictions my 2020 race plans changed of course. I had plans for a few ultra marathons (50k, 50 miler), a timed 24 hour 5k loop race, shorter trail races and a couple of first-time road races. 2020 was to be my “year of redemption” for two ultra marathon DNFs I experienced in 2018 and 2019. I set a mileage goal of 1,000 miles but I doubt if I make it. With my races being cancelled I just get out and run in my neighborhood and on the local trails on a regular basis. My longest run has been a half marathon but I’m thinking about doing a solo trail marathon in the fall. I've participated in a few virtual race fundraisers supporting those impacted by the pandemic and a virtual half marathon for a race that was cancelled (Blue Ridge Marathon). I opted for their virtual in lieu of a refund. I have one other virtual race in October called "The Race" which is in support of community organizations in Atlanta (although I had yet to register before it switched to virtual, I had planned to do the live event).
5) Can you tell us a little about what you do when you aren't running? Work, other hobbies. family, pets, etc. I work full time as a bank compliance professional, do real estate investing, coach girls basketball and most importantly spend time hanging with my wife of 37 years. We enjoy travelling, going out to concerts (mostly jazz, old school R&B) and nice dinners. I want to hike more, my wife's into fitness also and likes hiking. I have three adult children so my wife and I are empty nesters (smile).
6) Favorite route you have ever run: I've only run it once but the course from Snow Basin Resort up to Sardine Peak for the 2017 Xterra Trail Run National Championship in Ogden, Utah was amazingly challenging and beautiful. [Photo included]
7) Favorite shoe: #1 Altra Lone Peak (for trails), Torin 4 (for road) and #2 Topo Magnifly (road)
8) Music or podcast while running? I prefer to not listen to anything while running (or cycling) outdoors. Since I don't own a treadmill or a gym membership, I practically never run indoors but I will listen to music then, to take my mind off the monotony.
9) Do you prefer to run solo or with friends? I run a lot solo as I don't have many friends who run (most are avid cyclists), especially trail running. I actually prefer solo most of the time. Generally, I only run with others during races or occasionally when I attend group runs with the Baltimore Chapter of Black Men Run.
10) #1 favorite thing about running: Fitness (physical/mental)
11) Dream run? I'd like to do one of the Gary Robbins trail race series in Canada. Honorable mention: The Pikes Peak Ascent and Tiger Claw.