Moved by the spirit: Co-founder of black runners’ group encourages church members to get off pew, into shape

Posted: November 4, 2017 at 2:04 a.m.

Sika Henry (center), is shown a moment before winning her second consecutive Newport News One City Marathon in Newport News, Va., in March 2016.

Tony Reed has been a distance runner for more than 40 years.

The Dallas accountant has logged more than 43,000 miles over the course of his career, and was the first black man to run marathons on all seven continents, according to Runner's World magazine and Webster University.

The clothes he wore when he achieved that milestone are on display at the Smithsonian, and an interview he gave with The HistoryMakers -- the nation's largest collection of black oral history -- is part of the Library of Congress' permanent archives.

Reed's eyes are on another goal these days.

As co-founder and executive director of the National Black Marathoners Association, he is asking church leaders to inspire parishioners to get off their couches and get moving.

Reed, 62, will hold a free workshop from 8 a.m. to noon Nov. 11 at the Centre at University Park, 6401 W. 12th St., in Little Rock. The workshop is aimed at convincing churches and other faith-based organizations to form running and walking programs as a way to get members to focus on health in a way that is physical and spiritual.

Only 5 percent of core distance runners in the United States -- those who run or walk at least three days a week -- are black, according to Reed, and one of the aims of the workshop is to increase that percentage through messages delivered from the pulpit.

"The one place where African-Americans go on a regular basis as a family to get motivated and inspired is church," Reed said.

THE INSPIRATION

Studies indicate that a regular running or walking routine can help reduce blood pressure and heart rate and aid in the prevention of a range of ailments.

According to the American Heart Association, black people are at an elevated risk for diabetes, heart disease and stroke. High blood pressure tends to develop earlier in their lives, and the cases tend to be more severe.

Reed was diagnosed as being prediabetic when he was 8 years old.

The high school he attended in St. Louis required participation in sports, but it wasn't until 1976 that he read that diabetes patients who began and maintained a fitness program were able to reduce or discontinue their insulin usage altogether.

So he set a goal running 3 miles a day.

"And at 62, I'm still not on death's door," Reed said.

He co-founded the National Black Marathoners Association -- which has around 6,000 members -- as a nonprofit organization to highlight the achievements of black distance runners, encourage more black people to participate in running and walking programs and to promote a healthy lifestyle.

This year, the association partnered with USA Track and Field to present running workshops around the country where ethnic minorities in faith-based organizations such as churches are encouraged to form running and walking clubs.

"We have role models for football, baseball and basketball, but when you talk about [black] role models in distance running, a lot of African-Americans don't know anything [about them]," Reed said.

He pointed to long-distance runners such as the late comedian and civil rights activist Dick Gregory, Reed's role model as a young man; Ted Corbitt, who founded the New York Road Runners Club; and Marilyn Bevans, the first black woman to complete a marathon in less than three hours and to be nationally ranked. All three are members of the association's hall of fame.

"We work to challenge those various myths," Reed said.

Health care costs associated with medications used to manage diabetes and high blood pressure often take money from other areas of the family income, such as food, education and tithing.

Parishioners often appeal to their church for help with financial obligations such as medical bills and funeral costs, but the church also serves as a place of inspiration for change.

So it only made sense to Reed that the church could serve as a starting point for better fitness.

"The church is the salvation behind motivating families to pursue different long-term goals and objectives," Reed said. "Therefore, [the association] felt the faith-based organization is a really great place for people to start and maintain physical fitness programs.

"The two go hand in hand."

WORSHIP AND WALK

For the members of Fitness Witness Ministries at Fresh Winds Church in Florissant, Mo., getting more active started with a short walk after service one Sunday.

Led by the Rev. Milton Mitchell, the church's pastor, the group began with a 2-mile walk.

"Those that could walk half a mile walked half a mile; those that could walk a mile walked a mile," Mitchell said.

Mitchell, 64, has completed more than 35 marathons in at least 20 states. Mitchell believes running has helped him avoid the struggles associated with diabetes and high blood pressure that some of his siblings have endured, and that was something he wanted to bring to church.

"I wanted to make sure I made a connection between our physical bodies and our spiritual bodies," said Mitchell, who is also a member of the National Black Marathoners Association. "The more healthy we are, the better able we are to [work] in the church and for the Lord."

Thirteen years later, more than half of the church's 75-member congregation is part of the fitness ministry and participates in the Couch-To-5K fitness program. Some of the members have even participated in marathon relay teams for the annual Go! St. Louis marathon in Missouri. All wear purple wristbands that say "Keep It Moving."

The church and the association also raise money to send students to college. Fresh Winds parishioners have helped send five students to college this year, Mitchell said, and the ministry intends to raise another $8,000 for the next group of students. The association's runners have raised $35,000 for higher education and has more fundraising events in the works.

MOTIVATING OTHERS

Reed hopes to provide church leaders and parishioners attending the Little Rock workshop with information on how to start and maintain a Couch-To-5K program and how to keep members motivated.

"I'd like to think that what we are doing is planting seeds in the African-American community so that we can develop healthier individuals, runners and walkers," Reed said.

He also will advise attendees on how to make health and fitness a part of every service.

"When you're looking at an endurance event -- and life itself is an endurance event -- you look toward God to help you," Reed said. "When we ask [runners] what they think about when they run, they say is it their time to talk to God."

Despite its name, 60 percent of the National Black Marathoners Association's members aren't actually marathoners. They are simply motivated to stay fit as part of a group. There are no dues, and membership -- along with participation in the workshop -- is open to anyone regardless of race.

None of the members of Fitness Witness had ever walked or run a mile before the ministry began, Mitchell said, but the benefits among its members -- from lowered cholesterol levels or lowered blood pressure to rebounding more quickly from surgeries -- have been clear.

God and perseverance in the program have made that possible, he said.

"To me, [a factor] that's always in a run [is] the faith part," Mitchell said. "You have to look ahead and keep moving, so you have to press.

"That's my challenge to my church: to keep pressing toward the mark."

More information about the workshop can be found at tinyurl.com/ycsynmd4.

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The Rev. Milton Mitchell (seventh from left) with members of Fresh Winds Christian Church's Fitness Witness ministry after one of the annual Go! St. L...

Religion on 11/04/2017