Running Against Type

The idea of a footrace in North Minneapolis seems to inspire two reactions from residents of other neighborhoods: incredulity and concern. “Do you want to get mugged?” “Are you wearing a flak jacket?” And, of course, the simplest question: “Why?”  

It is no secret that North Minneapolis has a reputation as one of the most dangerous places in the metropolitan area. Which is precisely what several local nonprofit organizations had in mind when they conceived the first annual Go! Northside 5K run, held a few weeks ago. A press announcement advertised that the course would be set in “one of the most blighted neighborhoods in Minneapolis, an area with high levels of crime and home foreclosures.” Not exactly typical terrain for a recreational road race. “A majority of our supporters are from the suburbs, and a lot of 5Ks are run out in the suburbs,” said Ryan Petersen, development director for Urban Homeworks, an affordable-housing organization that co-sponsored the race. “But then we figured we might as well do it in the neighborhood where we do most of our work.”

The neighborhood surrounding North Commons Park, where the race’s starting and finish lines were located, did not appear particularly blighted—to the contrary, it seemed quaint on the sleepy and quiet Saturday morning of race day. Then a local drum corps shattered the morning silence. Some runners bobbed to the beat. Others were less than enthusiastic. “Ugh,” said a fifty-ish man, checking his watch and adjusting his singlet. “Grandma’s [Marathon] has thousands of runners and even they manage to start on time. We’re gonna be ten minutes late here!”

The Go! Northside 5K drew more than two hundred participants—a modest but respectable draw for an inaugural race (though many wore T-shirts that identified them as members of teams from Urban Homeworks or the PEACE Foundation, two of the race’s sponsoring organizations). There was a 5K somewhere in the Twin Cities area every weekend this summer; why did runners choose this particular race? Certainly the cause of community-building in a beleaguered neighborhood was a worthy one, but also attached to it, as Petersen’s comment suggested, was the opportunity to see a place considered by many to be dangerous from the safety of a group of people, in a supervised setting.

Whatever drew the runners, spectators were scarce. Some might think that a largely white pack of runners passing through a predominantly non-white neighborhood, one whose streets probably never have been blocked off for a road race, would draw onlookers; however, the majority of them were actually race marshals: officials in blaze-orange vests who mark the route and assist injured runners. With one at each intersection, this made for a strangely deserted course.

The few other spectators were accidental—people out on their daily business as the runners trickled by. An elderly man stopped his lawnmower, pulling it back from the street so as to not spray the athletes with clippings. A man carrying groceries stopped and stared, greeting the runners’ waves and hellos with silence. A woman came outside in her robe and surveyed her car-free street as a handful of widely spaced runners passed. “There some sort of race today or something?” she called. “Yeah!” yelled a runner. “Wooo!” responded another.

At the finish line, the mood was more celebratory than competitive. Recreational runners congratulated each other on finishing, and race geeks joked about setting course records (an easy feat in a brand-new event). “Were you fast?” inquired a sinewy running veteran. “I was fast by thirty seconds. Must be a short racecourse.” Two women at the end of the chute were keeping track of the order of finishers, and trying to get a chattering mass of teenage runners, all wearing blue PEACE Foundation T-shirts, to move along. The kids paid no attention, hollering and adjusting their iPods. In many ways, the finish-line celebration had more of the feel of a company picnic. The Urban Homeworks team held its own awards ceremony, and members of all teams stayed on for an afternoon softball tournament.

Meanwhile, most of the runners packed up and left within an hour or two of the race’s end. Many returned to the suburbs (home to one-third of the morning’s runners, according to finish time listings) and still more to ritzier parts of the Cities (though the race did attract runners from such exotic locales as Texas, California, and North Dakota). The Go! Northside run doesn’t seem likely to spark a trend for road races on the North Side. But at least a few people got to see a hitherto unfamiliar part of town. “You know,” said a south Minneapolitan, taking in his new surroundings, “I suppose I had never really been up here before.”