I’m a Running Researcher: Alicia Smith-Tran

This post is part of the I’m a Running Researcher series. See all profiles in this series here.

Who are you?

I am Alicia Smith-Tran (she/her), an assistant professor of sociology at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, Texas, USA.

What is your background?

I earned my BA in Sociology from Oberlin College in Oberlin, OH. It was there that I really found my passions for sociology of health and sport, social justice, and qualitative research. After that I received my MA in Journalism from Syracuse University, and worked as a newspaper reporter in Rochester, NY for about one year. Working as a journalist was a transformative experience and I learned a lot about coming up with innovative ideas, the power of storytelling, and the importance of captivating writing, but ultimately I decided to go back to graduate school to earn my PhD in Sociology from Case Western Reserve University to pursue a career in academia.

How long have you been researching running?

About 9 years.

How did you get into researching running?

I first started running as an undergraduate student. I was on the women’s basketball team at Oberlin, and my coach suggested I take up running during the off-season after my first year to improve my fitness. I completed a couple of 5ks and got hooked on fitness. During graduate school several years later, I decided to start training for half marathons for exercise and stress relief, and to have something to work toward outside of academics. It is a challenging transition going from being a competitive athlete most of your life, to not having that outlet anymore, but training for races helped.

The more I became immersed into “running culture,” the more interested I became in how such a seemingly accessible leisure sport was so segregated  – both racially and socioeconomically – particularly because I was living in such a diverse city (Cleveland, Ohio). I decided to research the experiences of marginalized runners based on my experience of usually being one of the “only ones” (one of the few Black, bi-racial women) at races. Like many social scientists, my drive to study running was certainly rooted in personal experience, and I had yet to see myself and my story described in academic studies on running. I knew there were others like me whose stories had yet to be told.

What running research have you done?

My project looks at how Black middle-class women in the U.S. got into recreational running. I describe their experiences with running, and aim to capture how they began to embody the runner identity.  I conducted interviews with 25 runners, ranging in age from mid-20s to late 50s. They all started running at various points in their lives. Some don’t participate in races, some run 5ks occasionally, while others ran marathons and ultra-marathons. They worked in a variety of professions, had varied family situations, and their upbringings ranged from growing up in poverty to growing up in economically privileged families. Despite their differences, there were so many similarities that tied them all together.

How do you research running?

I use life story interviewing – a very open-ended method of collecting rich, qualitative data. There is a lot of research on exercise and leisure sport – studies that explore the barriers to entry, challenges to maintaining routines, and motivations for getting started – but I wanted to give a bit more control back to my participants rather than focusing on some of the more typical themes, especially because I am centering the experiences of Black women whose stories are often overlooked, stereotyped, or pigeonholed.

I consider it a collaborative method in a sense – I talk very little and want them to feel agency over how their stories are told and how their experiences are understood. Rather than asking questions, I provide them with prompts and encourage them to talk at length about wherever their memories and emotions take them.

What is the most significant, important, surprising, interesting, unusual, or favourite finding emerging from your research?

Part of the fun and joy of using an open-ended interviewing method is that unexpected themes can emerge. It is a study that is about far more than running in ways I would not have predicted. A couple of themes come to mind that were my ‘favorites.’

One is that my study turned out to be a lot more about navigating the challenges of being Black and middle class than I initially anticipated. The women in my study spoke about how running served as a point of connection with colleagues at work, which was important to them as most of them worked in predominantly white workplaces. Running became a ‘tool’ for coping with racism and marginality at work and in day-to-day life as a woman of color in mostly white social spaces.

Second, the stories the women in my study often told were very empowering. We often approach the study of marginalized populations from a point of deficit, or we focus solely on hardships. My narrators spoke about how strong running made them feel, and how life-changing finding a community of Black women runners was for them. They really wanted to challenge dominant stereotypes and narratives about Black women’s health and bodies. I often left interviews with a huge smile on my face, energized and ready to go for a run myself. On a few occasions, I called my spouse immediately after completing an interview because I was so excited about it and wished I could be friends with my participants. It brought up interesting ethical dilemmas as I often wondered, “Do I like them too much?” It has been a really powerful experience having the privilege to tell these women’s stories, and to connect with them on a level I have not experienced before as a researcher.

Do you run?

Lately, not as much as I would like! After becoming a parent three years ago and starting my job as a professor, it has been challenging to maintain a running and fitness routine (especially during the pandemic). But I have completed six half marathons, in addition to numerous 10ks and 5ks. Completing a full marathon is on my bucket list.

Where can I find out more?

You can find my contact information and links to my publications on my website.

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