MORE THAN A RUNNER
by Kelsey Harper
Running helped Shannon Booker through one of the most difficult times of his life. Now he’s using it to bring people together to create positive dialog and better understanding.
“Something came to me,” he explains.
Like so much of America, Booker was watching the news and paying close attention to the national conversation on race, justice, and equality. Also, as an African-American man living in Atlanta, he wanted to do more than just watch what was happening.
“I’m the type of person who doesn't mind getting out there and, you know, being a part of the marches and the protests. But there are others who that’s not their thing."
So, he said, "what’s a way that I can help further get the word out and spread awareness?”
Booker grew up just five miles southwest of center city Philadelphia in Darby, Pennsylvania. He’s been an athlete since he was five years old when his parents put him and his siblings in sports to keep them active and out of trouble.
“I played basketball, tried it all, but football and track and field were my thing.”
The two sports kept him plenty busy in high school. On the football field, he played on both sides of the ball as a tailback and cornerback, and he was also the kicker. On the track, he was a sprinter who competed in the 100, 200 and 400-meter dashes, as well as the hurdles and high jump.
A highlight of his track career was the opportunity to compete at the Penn Relays all four years in high school. The Penn Relays is the nation’s largest track and field event that attracts over 100,000 spectators over three days.
After high school, Booker’s formal athletic career came to an end, and he went on to attend Delaware State University, one of the nation's top HBCUs. After graduating and then earning a Master's degree in Organizational Leadership from Wilmington University, his career took to him to Maryland and Florida before settling in Atlanta, where he’s lived for the past three years.
It was in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, however, where he was unexpectedly re-introduced to running. He initially resisted when a colleague suggested that he participate in a 5k race that was being hosted by their company. Hesitant, because he wasn’t sure that he could actually run three consecutive miles, Booker ultimately agreed under the promise that ‘it’ll be fun!’
Booker ended up finishing the race in a surprisingly fast time and in the top tier of all runners that participated.
“She couldn’t believe it,” Booker says, referring to his colleague, and neither could he.
From there, he was hooked. Running not only became fun but was a welcome escape during one of the most difficult times of his life.
“It turned in to something that really helped me out when I went through some depression and anxiety.”
In a blog posted on his Facebook page, he shared openly,
'I felt alone and I felt like no one would understand or care about what I was going through. I feared being judged so I never opened up to anyone about what was going on, and I just put a smile on my face and went on about my days like everything was alright.'
Running, for Booker, became a way to help cope with his internal struggles.
“It was like my therapy, getting away and getting out of my head and just going to run and relax and let the pressures of the day, and what was going on, just release while I was running,” he explains.
However, Booker enjoyed running and the relief it gave him so much that it became an excessive, almost addictive pursuit. His body began to break down, and he became sick.
“Because of the stress and everything, I was using energy I didn’t really have.”
“The doctor said it’s good that you have a good outlet. However, this outlet is what’s affecting you now. The energy you need, you don’t have because you’re just running, running, running.”
The impact of constantly suppressing his feelings started to become too much for Booker, and he began to realize that he was putting everybody else’s concerns above his own. It was deeply affecting him and caused frustration in his life until, suddenly, he decided it was time to make changes.
“It just happens, like one of those incidents where you wake up one day and say, I’m tired of feeling this way, so I’m gonna make a change,” Booker says.
“And so that’s what it literally was, waking up one day and saying ‘I’m tired of feeling this way.’”
“I began to open up to my parents and close friends and make needed changes in my life."
In his blog, he wrote, 'I knew that it would not be an easy or a quick process, but I began to put things into place that would put me in a position of progression.'
Then, a new job opportunity in Atlanta would turn out to be just the catalyst he needed to solidify this path to personal change.
“Coming to Atlanta was pretty much a fresh new start for me; new environment, new people, new career, new everything,” Booker explains.
“I actually met some pretty awesome people here in Atlanta in my running group called Movers and Pacers. It was uniting with those folks, and all those runners, where I began to realize I’ve now found my healthy niche in running.”
“In Florida, I was running away from my problems, now I was beginning to run through my problems.”
Today, Booker maintains a simple philosophy on running that also helps him though life. He runs when he wants to, not because he needs to, and if he doesn’t feel like running on any given day, he doesn’t. As a leader in Movers and Pacers, he enjoys weekly runs with the group and doing community work with his running family.
Booker also regularly participates in races while maintaining a healthy perspective; “I run my own race,” he explains.
“I tell people, if you run your own race, you’ll find that you’re gonna hit the goals you set for yourself or even excel in [those] goals because your focus was on your race and not what the person next to you is doing.”
“The key to running is enjoying it.”
It’s through this community of runners, and the positivity it brought to his life, that Booker saw an opportunity to have a bigger impact in the Black Lives Matter movement.
He thought, “this would be a good time for runners, in their way, to get out and let their voices be heard.”
Booker recruited his buddy Kenny Boone and used his passion for running, and his experience as an event planner, to create the ‘ATL Justice + Equality Run,’ an 8.46-mile route around north Atlanta. The 8.46-miles represented the 8 minutes and 46 seconds a now-former Minneapolis police officer held his knee on George Floyd’s neck, who later died. The officer has since been charged with 2nd-degree murder.
The idea for the run was hatched on a Wednesday; the flyers and online postings were up the following day, and by Sunday, it was a reality. In just four days, Booker and Boone inspired over 100 runners to come out and support the cause.
“It was simply a way to bring the Atlanta running community together, to let our voices be heard in our own unique way,” Booker explains.
“While it’s very important to talk about social injustice and systematic racism and things like that, it’s our goal not to get stuck just talking about it.”
“We want to focus on bringing everyone together to have that dialog, to talk about what’s happening so that, together, we can learn from each other and begin to create action. This is important because when people see a bunch of talking with no action, you can begin to lose them.”
People rallied behind this perspective and wanted more. So, Booker and Boone followed up with another run to celebrate Juneteenth that attracted over 300 participants and included a more robust social and educational platform.
“Through these runs, it’s our hope to create an atmosphere for runners to connect, to build meaningful relationships, to talk to each other, and learn from each other,” says Booker.
In one example, at the start of the Juneteenth run, they played ‘Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing.’ Originally written as a poem by James Weldon Johnson, the song is also known as the Black national anthem for its powerful voice of liberation and affirmation for African-American people. Before the race, Booker shared some background on the song, what it meant, and encouraged everyone to Google the lyrics and sing along.
“This is something for all of us,” he shared with the group. “This is a song of celebration of what we went through. And march along and continue to march along until victory is won.”
“So that was an opportunity where we [were] able to bring people together, and they were able to learn something new that day,” he explains.
“This is a chance for everyone to learn because, unfortunately, a lot of this stuff wasn’t in the history books that we learned in school.”
Just as running became a vehicle for his self-improvement and mental health, Booker also used it as a way to bring people together and neutralize what some see as an uncomfortable dialog.
“People already have a common interest, which is running. We got that. So, let’s start the conversation there and learn from each other,” he shares.
Booker and Boone don’t plan on stopping now; they hope to build on what they’ve started.
“The fact that we have people's attention and the drive there, we want to make this a thing,” says Booker.
While still a work in progress, they’ve settled on a name for their movement: ‘Social Fitness ATL.’ The idea is a series of pop-up runs across Atlanta that unite people around a common cause and build connections across people from all different backgrounds.
“What we’ll be doing is just bringing everyone together, go for a nice run, create dialog; hopefully out of the dialog and the run, meaningful relationships are built,” Booker explains.
“It will be a matter [of] bringing the running community together to celebrate the uniqueness that each individual brings while also acknowledging the social injustice and the systematic issues within the system.”
“It’s a chance to talk, share your viewpoints, and get information that you might not have realized because you only saw a news clip or article.”
He feels that the media doesn’t always get things right, and offers, “someone who’s really invested in a particular topic, or whatever particular area, can educate you on exactly what it is.”
Social Fitness ATL will accept donations on behalf of different local causes, as well as provide basic supplies for the runs, but don’t call it a running club.
“We’re not trying to compete with anybody,” says Booker. “Our goal is to bring people out, unite the running community for a common cause, and create an atmosphere for runners to connect and build meaningful relationships.”
“It’s about being more than just a runner, being more than an athlete.”
“I believe that when we listen to each other, we can learn from each other, and together, we can help make this world a better place.”
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