Words and Photography by Andy Waterman
Marcus Brown has just run a marathon. On the same morning elites were racing the 2020 London Marathon, Brown was running laps of Dorney Lake, the 2012 Olympic Rowing facility, 26 miles to the west of Buckingham Palace. Despite the new normal of Covid-secure road races, where runners set off in waves at 15sec intervals making it difficult to form organic pace groups, he ran 2:56:19, a four minute improvement over the agonizing 3:00:19 he ran in New York last fall. Anyone who watched London live will know it was not a day for fast times, and yet, against a backdrop of wind and rain, Brown had a breakthrough performance.
It’s perhaps unsurprising. This has been a year of breakthroughs for Brown. Not just in running, but elsewhere in life too: when lockdown began in the UK, he launched A Runner’s Life podcast, “learning on the job” and engaging some of the biggest names in the sport to come on as guests, from Patti Catalano to Hugh Brasher. Then in the summer he co-founded the Black Trail Runnerscommunity with an open letter that asked race organizers: “Can you help us to encourage more Black people to enjoy trail running?” In addition, he also became a father for the second time. For all the talk of 2020 being the year of Netflix binges and boredom baking, Brown’s year has been busier, and more fulfilling than ever.
“I started training properly with my coach after Chicago in 2017,” says Brown. “I say before my coach and after my coach because before I was winging it - not respecting the process, just going on brute force. He showed me how to train properly and be consistent.”
Lockdown has, he says, in some ways been a positive experience: “Even the hard bits have challenged me to really focus on why I’m out there doing it. During the race I was thinking, if I can get through this year, what am I going to be like for the next race? It’s fuel. It’s a massive confidence boost. I kept telling myself, ‘this is my time.’ I’d think back to New York and those 20 seconds, and say, ‘this is temporary, the wind is temporary, but the result is permanent. Push through it. You can do it.’ You can’t push away those feelings, but you can talk back to them.
We met to run with Brown to run in London’s Epping Forest on the Friday following his marathon. He’d just enjoyed four days of rest, and while the pavement wasn’t quite calling him just yet, the trails were.
“When you’re training for a race, you get used to running the same routes, knowing exactly how far everything is. On one hand it’s necessary, but you need to keep things fresh. Seeing London and the skyscrapers contrasting against this green space, it’s amazing. To get up and see the sun rising over the city, that’s an incredible feeling. You feel like you’ve cheated part of the day to get there. That’s not something you’d normally see if you were just running your typical routes. It can be magical that way. It lifts you, it connects you and gives you more context to things.”
Epping Forest sits to the north east of London, extending a tapering tentacle down towards the financial district of Canary Wharf from its namesake town of Epping, 16 miles away on the outskirts of the city. It’s an ancient and storied woodland, and yet, even to many Londoners, it’s an unknown. You can run for hours only seeing a half dozen fellow human beings. But one thing is noticeable: even in a city as diverse and exciting as London, green spaces are default white spaces. This is something Brown is trying to rectify with the Black Trail Runners community.
“Black Trail Runners is made up of about seven of us,” says Brown. “The thing is, there’s not much representation of Black people in the outdoors. There’s a statistic from the National Parks in the UK that I think says less the one per cent of visitors are people of colour. We’re looking at three different pillars: access, representation and skills. We’re doing some cool workshops, getting people out into green spaces, and just trying to make it a normal part of the conversation. The biggest misconception is that Black Trail Runners is a kind of Black separatist group. It’s not! If all things were equal, this group wouldn’t exist, but we need to make people feel that everyone is welcome in outdoor spaces and that they belong. So we’re starting in places where people already are, and then we’re going to branch out into different areas.”
A lot of progressive white folks will be surprised to hear that the outdoors can feel exclusionary towards people of color: we were brought up to believe that the world had moved on from such pettiness. This year has been a rude re-acquaintance with reality. Is there anything Brown would encourage white runners to think about to become better allies in establishing more equitable use of the outdoors?
“That’s a tough question to answer. As a Black person, my experience is only my experience, so I can’t speak for all Black people. But I think for everyone, we need to start by being more open and more considerate of other people. We need to look out for each other and be better global citizens, so everyone feels welcome and included. In running especially, we need to ask, are we doing enough to make sure that people who don’t look like the majority feel welcome?”
Why is it important to get more people of color running on trails and exploring outside their immediate neigborhoods? “Running is about fun, it’s about adventure, it’s about freedom,” says Brown. “Going back to nature, running on the trails, having good conversations with the people you’re running with, that brings it back to the enjoyment of running. It makes you remember why you started running in the first place, not just the physical side, but the mental side. Being outside and seeing that space, it makes you feel more connected, more grounded, not just with yourself but the wider world.”
One might imagine Brown is not someone who struggles to connect with the wider world, even though he describes himself as an outgoing introvert. With nearly 20k followers on instagram and a successful podcast, he’s in daily conversation with runners across the globe, and judging by the outpouring of goodwill in reaction to his 2:56, he’s inspiring thousands.
“I started the podcast at the beginning of this year,” he says. “It’s been a great way to connect with people. It was something I was thinking about for a long time, but never had the impetus to make it happen. It’s been a lockdown project that’s just spiralled.”
He’s been recording podcasts for 10 months now, often doing two per week. Things have developed a lot along the way, and Brown admits that those early episodes are hard to listen to now. “You learn to ask succinct questions, to not repeat yourself,” he says. “I had Hugh Brasher on and I was really nervous. I had some bits I had to re-record as I was tripping up over my words.” He’s learned a lot from his guests too, from people like Patti Catalano, the first American woman to break 2:30 in the marathon who gave him advice and encouragement online before being a guest on the podcast. But it’s the often the amateur runners who have really made him think about life beyond running. “Speaking to Knox Robinson was really cool,” he says. “Ironically, the stuff we spoke about wasn’t really about running, just life in general, and that’s the kind of thing that you can really learn from. He’s just really considered and that made me think. We all have the same struggles, we’re all going through the same thing. That’s the most amazing thing about running.”
That’s something to reflect on. Running is running, and the experience is essentially the same for everyone: PRs are always built on patience, perseverance and an appetite for discomfort, regardless of the pace. But beyond running, if this unpredictable, unrepeatable year has taught us anything, it’s that empathy and open-mindedness are too often in short supply. As Marcus Brown has found, opening your arms to the world, having conversations and sharing your experiences can lead to great breakthroughs, in life and in running alike.