Elite running teams aren’t popular in communities of color, but Angel City Elite is changing that.

The Los Angeles-based team of five Latina marathoners formed in 2020 to train and race together, but their mission extends far beyond competing. Their main objective is to diversify the sport by widening the representation of what an elite runner looks like and providing support to those who might otherwise feel unwelcomed.

It’s an experience the women understand personally. The team took shape after member Sabrina De La Cruz noticed she was one of a small number of non-white athletes competing at the Olympic Marathon Trials. After reaching out to the four other women — Andrea Guerra, Valerie Sanchez, Grace Gonzales, and Grace Graham-Zamudio — Angel City Elite, currently sponsored by Brooks Running, was born.  

FIERCE spoke with Gonzalez, 31, about the ways Angel City Elite is transforming the world of long-distance running with a mission to represent, achieve, and empower.

Courtesy of Grace Gonzalez

How have women of color historically been excluded from long-distance running?

Gonzalez: People usually enter this sport because they have some personal experiences with it, and women of color don’t generally know or see anyone out there doing this. Personally speaking, I come from a family of runners. I followed the path of my older siblings and ran track in high school. That’s how I learned I could do this in college. But even after I graduated college, I didn’t know I could do elite marathon running. Instead, I spent five years establishing myself in a different industry. I didn’t know this was possible, so I had no plans to be elite or go to the Olympic Trials. When I saw that, I learned that, and it inspired and empowered me to do the same. I wonder where I would be in my career now if I would have known this earlier, and it’s important for me that other women don’t have to wonder and are just able to see the possibilities and go after them.

How, as an elite running team, are you hoping to make this sport more inclusive for women of color?

Gonzalez: We are hoping to create more diversity in the running community. This is done through representation and support. We want to do both. We started this team, in part, because we are all familiar with what it’s like to have a career and do elite running on the side; we all have full-time jobs. It takes a lot of dedication. But we think if more people of color had support, they’d be able to commit to the work and we can have more equity. We’re also familiar with what it’s like to be the only person of color in these spaces, and that’s exactly why we all gravitated to one another. We found people who looked like us or come from a similar experience as us.

Long-distance running isn’t the first sport that comes to mind for a young Latina. How old were you when you started and who or what motivated you?

Gonzalez: I’ve been running all of my life, literally. I did my first marathon in fourth grade, and that’s because I come from a family of runners. Running has always been a part of family for different reasons. It’s not just sport. I grew up doing spiritual runs in community to collectively pray. It’s part of my Indigenous roots and community. Additionally, my dad was a professional runner and he’d do long-distance training. He did the very first LA Marathon, and he has done every single one since then. Growing up, I supported him. Eventually, as children, we’d join him on the marathons. I was the youngest of three siblings. They all followed in my dad’s footsteps, and I followed in theirs. I did youth running in high school, even transferring schools to one where I was less demographically represented so that I was able to join their girls team and participate in cross-country camp. It was because of this support that I was able to run in college.

You mentioned that, for you, running started as a spiritual practice. That’s beautiful. What sort of healing or joy has long-distance running brought you?

Gonzalez: For me, it’s a lot. It’s always been hard for me to click into this being a sport or a competition. I had to navigate balancing this because when it comes to long-distance running, I immediately get into my body. I think with my body, with my breath. Being outdoors to me is spiritual. When I run along the water or when I feel the wind on my back, knowing it’s supporting me, it’s a spiritual practice. All the synchronicities. When my body is tired or I’m dealing with negative mental thoughts, it’ll impact my breathing, which makes me realize how much it’s all connected. Of course, there are things that I’m aware of and look for as a competitive runner, but as someone who enjoys general health and wellness, I also find value in what running can do for me in a multitude of ways.

What are some of the benefits of an all-women, long-distance running team?

Gonzalez: It’s a different team dynamic. When I got to the girl’s team in high school and later in college, it was an entirely new experience. I was able to go through this journey, the training and the competing, together with others. We shared the ups and downs of it all, and we felt understood. It’s not that I don’t feel comfortable talking to men while training, but it’s different when you’re with someone who gets you and who might share your story. That’s the power of Angel City Elite. Yes, we’re all different people with our unique stories, but there are threads that connect us. To support and be supported under the banner of women empowerment, and building together, it’s just different.

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