Healthy Talks with Cheryl Donald aka Black Pearl Runs

Photos By RCS Images

Consistency is key when it comes to running. Depending on how consistent you are your results are based on what you put into running – which usually shows on race day. Through the years there are certain runners that stand out, those that are the most dedicated and the most consistent. As I write this it’s kind of funny because this is the time of year we would almost always pass each other on a training run or during a marathon.

Cheryl Donald, aka Black Pearl Runs, is the definition of consistency when it comes to running. This month we finally have the chance to chat with Cheryl about everything from running, to mental health, and her MA, MBA, LMFT. (Yep I didn’t know that either!)

MSM: Cheryl, we finally have a chance to chat, albeit through the magazine but not passing each other on a training run or race. First, I’d like to say thank you for taking the time to chat with us, second, your consistency is super inspirational. Let’s start with how you just finished 26.2 miles for the London virtual, and how this is marathon #15.

BP: Thank you so much for having me, it is an honor to be featured in this very important and timely publication! Yes, marathon #15 was actually supposed to occur in April in London and of course COVID-19 changed all of our 2020 plans. After a challenging summer that included a health scare that threatened my distance running, I successfully completed the Virtual London Marathon on October 4th with minimal training and maximum support from my running family. Due to a glitch by my charity, I won’t be receiving the official medal, but this one had a significant meaning to me and I was determined to successfully complete the race. My passion for running is bigger than the bling and to still be here to compete in this sport is the greatest reward!

MSM: Covid literally has had its grip on everyone’s race season, yet you seem to be steady and consistent with your mileage. What’s been keeping you going?

BP: None of us were prepared for the impact of COVID-19, especially here in New York when we were at the epicenter.  Running provided me with a sense of normalcy, familiarity and an excuse to get outside of my house on a regular basis. When a city of over 8 million people screeched to a halt, I felt a responsibility to myself to maintain physical and emotional health and before I realized it, I ran over 200 miles in April.  

MSM: 15 marathons is a good amount. Where did your running journey start and what was it that pulled you into the community?

BP: I historically ran anywhere between 2-5 miles on the treadmill (never outside) as part of my weekly workout routine.  In early 2013, my sorority sister Katie Peake (a strong runner) asked me to register for the 2014 Brooklyn Half Marathon.  I thought she was crazy and had me confused with a real runner, not the casual gym runner I was at the time.  I became intrigued by her vote of confidence in me and began googling half marathon training plans. After taking a look at a few, I realized if I followed the program I could successfully complete 13.1 miles without dying. I was also going through the break-up of a long-term relationship at the time and thought the training would be a good distraction from me. 

So I agreed and watched her complete the 2013 NYC Marathon in November and signed up for my first race ever: the inaugural Bed-Stuy Turkey Trot 5K at Herbert Von King Park. I ran it in a bubble jacket, cropped workout pants, basketball socks and Nike cross trainers! I went on to complete a few small NYRR races and ultimately completed the Brooklyn Half Marathon the following May in just under 2 hours. I was officially bitten by the running bug.

To keep my momentum going, I decided to complete the NYRR 5 Borough Races in 2015 to celebrate turning 40 and challenged my friends to join me. The challenge was called “Operation Fit Body: BP40” and everyone who participated in a race that year received a special #BP40 medal. I was overwhelmed by the interest from my friends and two of my sorors, Sabine Jeudy-Sprauve and Carla Brown, not only completed the 5 Borough Series, but also the 9+1 (nine races + a volunteer opportunity) to qualify for the 2016 NYC Marathon. I distributed over 20 medals to participants that year, completed my 9+1 and was on my way to becoming a marathoner. My friends James Ravenell, Davon Culley, Shawn Hoyte, Keith Arthur and I formed the “We Runnin’ NYC” training crew and went on to run Los Angeles, Chicago, and NYC marathons in my inaugural marathon year!

MSM: From your first race up to now, looking back a question I love to ask is what are the types of mistakes you made as a rookie runner and how much have you grown since then? Take us through your journey.

BP: I am learning every day as a runner, but the key that changed my running trajectory was learning the importance of strength training from Coach Marlon Jude. I invested in both one-on-one and group strength training with Marlon and was amazed at what a difference it made on the run.  I learned the hard way (read: injury) that paying attention to strength and recovery is just as important as the miles themselves. Finding time for strength and recovery is still a challenge for me because I love the pavement so much, but as I get older both of these become more and more necessary for sustainability and injury prevention.

MSM: With consistency comes accountability which usually comes from a great team. You seem to surround yourself with individuals that will constantly push you to become better. This shows with Brooklyn Track Club. How did you connect with BTC and what were some of the routines they used to help you become better?

RCS IMAGES

BP: As part of my preparation for my 2016 marathon trifecta, I began participating in speed runs sponsored by Nike NYC in 2015. When those runs came to an end in 2017, Nike Run Coach Steve Finley opened up his personal crew’s practices as an opportunity to continue track work. At the time Brooklyn Track Club was a club of elite and sub elite runners, so while it was an intimidating group, I knew I needed to keep chasing these fast people in circles.  Coach Finley later also opened up the BKTC Sunday long runs. At this point Davon Culley and I were training for a spring marathon and I could not long run on Saturdays.  Davon agreed to join me on the Brooklyn Track Club long runs, because as soon as we started the run, he and I were left in the dust before we even cleared the incline of the Williamsburg Bridge!

Davon and I kept each other company in those early days.  One thing I respected about my now BKTC teammates was while they were long-running at 6 and 7 minute paces, when finished, they remained at our meet-up location waiting for us to return. BKTC believes running fast is important and recognizes that everyone has a different definition of “fast”. BKTC started in 2015 as an intimate group of friends who liked to run fast.  When I joined in 2017 there was a core group of approximately 20-30 runners. In 2019 we became an official NYRR team and grew to over 200 members. Currently we have a membership of 525 passionate runners of all paces, ages, and backgrounds. I am proud to serve as one of the original team captains, representing a different demographic of runner that we do not often see in the large competitive clubs in NYC.   

MSM: Out of those 15 marathons, and I’m pretty sure there will be countless others on the horizon, which one stands out the most?

BP: You never forget your first marathon, which for me was the Los Angeles Marathon. It was extra special because I had the support of family who lived out there and of course my training partner and veteran marathoner Davon Culley also ran in the race so I had a bit of NYC on the pavement with me. Being in  LA, watching the Olympic Marathon Trials the day before, and then hitting the diverse neighborhoods and landmarks I had only seen on TV was pretty dope. Finally crossing that finish line in Santa Monica and joining the 1% was absolutely overwhelming!

MSM: I feel like we’re on the same path, the quest for the 6. What’s next for Black Pearl? The larger question I have is when you accomplish that goal do you see yourself continuing the marathon journey?

BP: The future is still unknown, but I hope to run the actual London Marathon in 2021, qualify for Boston and conquer Tokyo. I absolutely see my continuing to run marathons post 6-star if my body allows! 

MSM: Speaking of Black Pearl, the name comes from your sorority if I’m not mistaken? If so I’ll leave this part open for you to shout out your sorority and line sisters.

BP: Shout out to the “8 Enticing Shades of Delta” off that Spring 1995 line of the Lambda Sigma Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. at the University of Mississippi!  25 years strong and the #3 Black Pearl is still owt 😉   Another special shout-out to my current chapter Sorors of the Brooklyn Alumnae Chapter and my running sorors of the nationwide Crimson Team #RunDST “joy in our sisterhood, power in our voice and service in our heart” Oo-Oop!

BMT OFFICES (Brooklyn NY) Photo by RCS IMAGES

MSM: What most folks don’t know, myself included, is that you’re the founder of Brooklyn MFT (Marriage and Family Therapist) with an MA, MBA, LMFT (whew). It’s not often where we see representation of us in these types of professions. Knowing this, was it important for you to open up a private practice where we’re able to see representation?

BP: Absolutely.  I founded Brooklyn Marriage & Family Therapy, PLLC in 2013 as a mechanism to fuse my knowledge of the business of healthcare with my passion for providing mental health services. 

I began my career with the federal health department immediately after completing my Master of Arts degree in Marriage & Family Therapy, but felt that my training as a MFT was underutilized. Once New York State licensed MFTs in 2006, I realized that there were hardly any LMFTs (Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist) in the state that looked like me. I set out to correct that by opening my private practice and being a visible option for people of color who traditionally do not access professional mental health services. 

There is now a strong global movement to normalize and encourage mental health treatment while removing the stigma associated with “telling our problems” to people who are not family or our pastor.  I am privileged to contribute to increasing access and now host monthly “Black Clinicians Collective” discussions for the New York Marriage and Family Therapy Network.

MSM: For our readers take us through some of the staff at BMT.

Eileen Fernandez-Trinidad and Cheryl Donald at BMT Offices photo RCS IMAGES

BP: Brooklyn Marriage & Family Therapy, PLLC is a small, but mighty team proudly comprised of women of color.  I began practicing Marriage & Family Therapy over 20 years ago and serve as the lead psychotherapist and clinical supervisor.  I am active in the therapy room and utilize a culturally sensitive, solution-focused approach that is directed toward developing and achieving clients’ vision of possible solutions to their personal life struggles.

I am responsible for all clinical and business operations of the private practice.  Eileen Fernandez-Trinidad, MS, MFT-LP provides affordable psychotherapy services to Brooklyn MFT clients and has specialized experience in various mental health conditions such as Bipolar Disorder, ADHD, Anxiety Disorder and Major Depressive Disorder. She is bilingual in Spanish and English and can conduct client sessions in either language.

KaShunti Farmer, BS is our Administrative Coordinator and a dual graduate degree candidate for Public Health and Public Administration at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. KaShunti is responsible for the administrative functions of the practice and is the friendly voice clients hear when contacting the practice. I am extremely proud of our team!

MSM: Mental well being is very important to all of us. Most runners use running as a sense of therapy where we can find a sense of balance or reset. As a therapist what are some things you look for or recommend if running isn’t available that could help the average person keep their ability to stay mentally healthy?

BP: Running can be therapeutic, but it is not therapy! Sometimes called “psychotherapy” or “counseling”, individual therapy is a process through which clients work one-on-one with a trained therapist in a safe, caring, and confidential environment to explore their feelings, beliefs, or behaviors, work through challenging or influential memories, identify aspects of their lives that they would like to change, better understand themselves and others, set personal goals, and work toward desired change. Activities such as running can help support emotional health and wellness, but are not a substitute for getting the care we need when challenges in life begin to negatively impact on activities of daily living. Your primary care physician, NYC Well: 1-888-NYC-Well (1-888-692-9355), PsychologyToday.com, therapyforblackgirls.com, and therapyforblackmen.org are all great places to begin searching for the best therapist to address your unique needs.

MSM: You’re also very outspoken when it comes to the social injustices we’re facing in the current state of life, politics and police injustice. You’re also using running as a tool to be more voiceful. Do you feel these actions are starting to open up some healthy dialogue with fellow runners that are not Black or POC?

BP: As a daughter of Mississippi civil rights activists, the current Black Lives Matter movement is reminiscent of the many prior movements for racial justice and equality. What is unique about this time and space is the power of social media and reduced distraction from the issue due to the COVID-19 quarantine. As a dark skinned Black woman, I continuously navigate life with a social justice lens and seek opportunities to advocate for myself and others that look like me.  Brooklyn MFT PLLC is an example of this. 

When we began to realize that in spite of the devastating impact of COVID-19 in Black and brown communities, Black life was still being executed on the streets of America in the form of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and countless others, I jumped at the invitation to lend my voice to the “Running to Protest” movement founded by my friend, Nike NYC pacer and filmmaker Coffey. As a result, I believe that healthy dialogues have indeed opened up within the NYC running community. Many non-POC runners who have never discussed topics of racial injustice, white privilege, and implicit bias are beginning to have those conversations with people that they have shared miles with, trained with, and cheered for over the years. These runs have also provided clarity on those in the run community who do not support our calls for racial and social equality.  That information is important as well to help ensure progress in a struggle that began over 400 years ago. 

MSM: It feels like you’re creating the necessary change on all aspects of our culture and how we are viewed. Simply put, your journey is very inspirational as it seems to revolve around running. What can our readers look out for from Black Pearl Runs?

BP: I am honored to inspire and want to be a visible example of what can be accomplished in spite of systems designed to limit us. What’s next from BP? More miles, more authenticity, more support, more growth and more calls for the respect of Black life. 

MSM: LOVE IT. Any last words you’d like to share with our readers?

BP: Distance runners have a knack for strong discipline, integrity, tenacity, endurance, accountability and drive. Allow those characteristics to show up every movement you make: personal, professional, and social.  Life is a long run, not a sprint….keep pushing! 

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