Nneka Udoh and Run Hustle Run
Continuing on this women’s empowerment issue of Mid Strike Magazine Mid Strike Magazine heads back to our home state of NYC where we were honored to chat with fellow runner, attorney, art connoisseur and fellow teammate of the Queens based run crew Run Hustle Run Nneka Udoh.
MSM: Welcome to Mid Strike Magazine, for our readers tell us a little bit about Nneka Udoh.
Nneka: I am a Brooklyn resident (over 15 years), but originally from Los Angeles, CA. I’m a labor & employment attorney currently working in city government, where I’ve focused primarily on employment discrimination. I am also a lover of Black art–visual, film/cinema, musc, fashion, literature, etc.–and am particularly inspired by the use of Black art as a foundation for social justice advocacy. Finally, I am a runner who has enjoyed running for over half my life, but who rediscovered the sport about five years ago.
MSM: You’ve been a pretty solid runner over the past few years, when did you begin your run journey back in your high school days what were some of the reasons why you decided on running. What was the “it” for you where you said to yourself this is definitely cool?
Nneka: I started running in high school in 9th grade. A little known secret about me that I haven’t shared with anyone is why I started running in high school: I attended a math and science magnet in Los Angeles that was pretty intense (California Academy of Math & Science). The school was created to encourage Black and Brown students to pursue STEM-related careers, so there was obviously a huge focus on science and technology classes–many of our elective courses (which normally are courses that should provide students with a diverse curriculum to add to their core curriculum) were STEM-based. I decided to join the cross country and track & field teams as an escape from all of that. It was definitely one of the best decisions I made, and not only because I got to leave school early to attend track meets on Fridays. Growing up, I always enjoyed watching track & field events on television, especially during the summer Olympic games. In high school, I ran the 200M, 400M, the 800M and the 4x400M relay. The camaraderie that I experienced with my teammates, as well as the jolt of excitement that I felt every time I heard the sound of the gun going off at races, really solidified my love for the sport. Being able to participate in something outside of academics that allowed me to literally push myself and track my growth (no pun intended) was really key. Admittedly, I didn’t enjoy cross country as much, because distance running just scared me. My HS track coach made me run cross country in the off-season and I hated every minute of it. I remember having to wake up early on the weekends to attend practices at Griffith Park in Los Angeles, which has now become a celebrity and Instagram hotspot, but for me, was just a scary place with hills and trails that I despised. It also didn’t help that I went from seeing mostly Black students at my track & field meets, to mostly white students at my cross country meets. While I may not have fully understood the connection between diversity and distance running back then, my high school cross country experience definitely left an impact on me, opening my eyes to social issues that I would later confront in my adult life.
“I encourage EVERY Black person to visit (Ghana specifically, West Africa in general). I really do believe there should be a “birthright trip” that people of African descent should be able to take, similar to how people of Jewish descent have done in Israel”.
MSM: After HS you left the sport for over a decade. One of my worst fears is no longer being in love with the freedom of running, the mental reset and release we all get from our feet pounding the pavement and finishing with a sense of accomplishments. What caused you to take such a long hiatus and what led you to find your love and passion for the sport again?
Nneka: After HS, I went to college at UC San Diego. I enrolled in college during the height of the anti-affirmative action movement in California, and as a result, I quickly became involved in student activism surrounding this issue as well as other issues affecting students of color. There was no particular reason why I stopped running, other than the fact that I spent my college career advocating for the rights of students of color to be able to have access to institutions of higher education. I guess you can say that I immersed myself in “the struggle.” The ironic thing is that while San Diego was/is a pretty conservative city that, at times, felt unwelcoming to people of color, it is probably one of the most gorgeous cities in the country. Looking back, I wish I took the opportunity while living there, to run its streets. I believe running is the best way to familiarize yourself with a city’s landscape and it’s an opportunity that I took for granted.
I moved to NYC right after I graduated from college to attend and study environmental law at Pace University in White Plains. Again, my focus was on school, graduating, finding a job, and settling into my career, so running was out of sight and out of mind. To make this long story short about how I rediscovered running, and specifically, distance running, a close friend of mine–Erin Clarke, who also happens to be one of my Run Hustle Run teammates–was training for the 2015 Brooklyn Half Marathon, and invited me and our friend Wil Pierce, to train with her. We started meeting up on the weekends to do training runs, and soon after, we were all participating in the Nike Run Club runs, which introduced me to this new urban running community that I had previously known nothing about. I was shocked to see the diversity of runners that showed up weekly to NRC’s runs, including Black folks, running through and around these New York City streets. Again, it was the camaraderie for me! It didn’t take long for me to start training for my own half marathon, which was the 2017 Brooklyn Half. Since then, running has become an integral part of my life to the point where–prior to the pandemic anyway–I would schedule my life around running. For example, my run crew Run Hustle Run, meets in Queens on Tuesday nights, and when I was working in the office, I made sure I didn’t overload my schedule on Tuesdays, so that I was able to leave work on time to make it to our nightly runs. I had never done this before; I was the stereotypical New Yorker who regularly worked late hours on the job. But when our crew was formed and we began hosting nightly runs, people at my job knew not to expect Nneka to work past a certain hour on Tuesdays. It’s funny because I had my own office (with a door), and again, prior to Covid, I developed a routine where I stopped work exactly at 5pm, closed and locked my door, changed into my run clothes, and was out of the office by 5:30pm to make it to Queens by 6:30pm.
MSM: When you ran in high school what was your favorite event vs now what is your favorite distance race? I totally hate 5ks, my least favorite. If I had a choice I’d go with the 13.1 all the time.
Nneka: My favorite track event in high school was the 400M and the 4x400M. I definitely preferred the sprinting events over the mid distance ones. However, my high school coach believed that I showed great potential in the 800M, and looking back, he was probably right. Now, as a distance runner, I enjoy running half marathons. Half marathons give you that ability to test your mental strength as well as your physical strength. And to think I thought running a 5K in high school cross country was daunting. That’s growth, right?! I have since ran two marathons in my life (the NYC marathon in 2018 and 2019), and let me tell you, running a marathon is ALL mental, lol. But I am certainly proud of my efforts. Even after rediscovering running, I never thought that I would actually run a marathon. But I remember a random guy struck up a conversation with my friends and I one afternoon while we were hanging out after completing a long run. When we mentioned to the guy that we were training for a half marathon, he encouraged us to consider running a full marathon, explaining that it was the only opportunity for non-professional athletes like ourselves to compete in one of the largest international sports competitions. If I recall, he said something to the effect of, “It’s not as if you’ll ever get to play in a Superbowl or an NBA final.” While his words were a bit brash, they weren’t untrue. I suppose I have him to thank for becoming a marathoner.
MSM: Changing the pace up a bit, you’re a traveler and also Nigerian and one that has a huge understanding for our culture and understanding of our history. You ended and began the decade in our motherland. Take us through some of your experiences visiting our home, I say it that way because essentially that’s where we’re all from or taken from I should say.
Nneka: I was fortunate to be able to go to Ghana during the Year of Return celebrations in 2019, and it was indeed, an experience of a lifetime. I wasn’t born in Nigeria, but my Nigerian parents would take my siblings and I “back home” (how my parents referred to Nigeria, even after living in and becoming naturalized citizens of the U.S.) to spend our summers when we were young. However, the last time I stepped foot in Nigeria was 1989, because during that time and afterwards, Nigeria was experiencing a lot of political turmoil and my parents deemed it unsafe for us to continue our visits. Fast forward to 2016, I went to South Africa and it was the first time since my childhood that I was on African soil. As a traveler, I absolutely loved South Africa. It’s a beautiful country, with a complicated history that permeates its rich culture. However, if I was being honest, when I was there, I still felt like a “traveler from the U.S.,” not unlike how I’ve felt traveling to the other places I’ve been. But when I stepped foot in Ghana, I instantly felt that I was “home.” While there, I was eating (and enjoying) foods that I grew up eating as a child (jollof rice, egusi and pounded yam); listening to music that I recall from my youth (afrobeats, highlife); and more importantly, seeing faces that easily could have been my long lost aunts, uncles and cousins. Being in Ghana just hit different, and I encourage EVERY Black person to visit (Ghana specifically, West Africa in general). I do plan to travel to Nigeria and other parts of West Africa soon (Senegal has definitely been on my list!). I really do believe there should be a “birthright trip” that people of African descent should be able to take, similar to how people of Jewish descent have done in Israel. It’s a life-changing experience that will remain with you forever.
MSM: Do you ever see yourself running multiple races in the motherland?
Nneka: Running a race (any race) on the motherland is an ultimate goal. I know there are a few in South Africa, namely the Comrades Ultra, which is the oldest ultramarathon in the world–I’m not sure I’d be up for that one, just yet, lol, but I would love to run a race somewhere on the motherland. I’m definitely interested in visiting Eastern and Northern Africa, because those are areas of Africa that I am least familiar with. Also, to be able to visit a country like Ethiopia or Kenya, where distance runners reign supreme, would be a dream.
MSM: IT IS A MUST to understand our history and our struggles, I feel as if this country is trying to eradicate our past and the struggles we’ve been through. Do you find yourself constantly educating others when needed either through dialogue or running?
Nneka: I think I have spent more time educating myself than educating others, only because I have been very cautious (and perhaps a bit paranoid) about spreading misinformation. I don’t consider myself an expert in anything, and instead, view myself as a permanent student who is always seeking knowledge. However, lately, I’ve been taking the steps to have those necessary conversations with people both within and outside of my social circle, specifically about my experiences being a Black woman. Let me tell you, it has been an empowering feeling. Where in the past, I was apprehensive about having certain conversations for fear of facing backlash or not getting through to the people who I felt needed to listen, today, I am much less reserved and am more willing and eager to talk to any and everyone who has come within my sphere of influence. This has usually entailed people at my job. For example, I remember when I introduced Kimberle Crenshaw’s concept of intersectionality to some senior executives during a work meeting where we were discussing “diversity and inclusion.” I essentially explained to them that before they jumped into creating D&I programs and initiatives, they needed to understand intersectionality because it would better guide them on their path to doing D&I work that was actually effective and not just performative. Of course most of them did not get it. And there was at least one who appeared as if he could care less. But that didn’t stop me from continuing to initiate these conversations that, unfortunately, many folks are still not ready to have. These conversations have gotten easier, but I’m not sure if it’s because people are slowly but surely getting it, or if it’s simply because the current climate of racial reckoning we’re experiencing has created a captive audience for these conversations to be held.
MSM: Representation is always good to see especially when we see people that look like us in positions that matter. You’re an attorney which for us is very much so needed. Being in a position of that matter do you find yourself being an inspiration, essentially planting the seed for others to follow in your footsteps?
Nneka: Despite the career path I chose, I didn’t necessarily see myself as an inspiration. I think it had a lot to do with the fact that growing up Nigerian, I was limited in my career choices. People who are familiar with Nigerian culture specifically, and African culture in general, know that the children of African immigrants are expected to pursue certain careers–Doctor, Engineer or Lawyer. It wasn’t necessarily my dream to be an attorney, but I figured it made the most sense considering my engagement with student activism in college. Fast forward to today, when I hear statistics that only five percent of U.S. attorneys are Black, it makes me think that not only do I have a lot to offer to my community, I also have a huge responsibility to ensure that the doors are open to allow others to join the ranks of the legal profession, if they so choose. One way that I have attempted to achieve this is by leading the coordination efforts for a high school careers conference that is sponsored by the Divine 9–the group of historically Black fraternities and sororities. As a member of Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority, Inc., I get to work with other D9 members to create an opportunity for students of color here in NYC to connect with Black professionals from a variety of fields in an effort to introduce them to the multitude of career paths they could pursue.
MSM: The New York City area has an abundance of run crews which I find are the true representation of what the NYC Run community is and stands for. Run Hustle Run is your run family, how did you come across this run crew and what drew you in?
Nneka: Run Hustle Run was founded in 2016 by my friends, Charly Mercado, Wil Pierce and Jason Nazryk, all of whom are Queens natives. Charly is the owner of The Hustle Barbershop in Queens–the site where RHR meets for our Tuesday night runs. After Wil and I helped our friend Erin train for her half marathon, we both started participating in New York Road Runners races, which led to us finding out about run crews throughout the city. However, there was a noticeable absence of a run crew in Jamaica, Queens, and this ultimately served as the inspiration behind the creation of RHR. We saw the benefits of what running has done for our lives, health-wise, and wanted to share this with our friends, family, colleagues, and customers in Queens.
Interestingly enough, I live in Brooklyn and consider myself a naturalized citizen of Brooklyn, lol. However, becoming a part of a Queens-based running club has certainly allowed me to become a true citizen of New York. Queens is huge; it’s the largest borough, geographically speaking, in NYC. I’ve been able to run all over Queens and have come to understand why it’s called “The World’s Borough.” It truly is the most diverse place in the world and I believe that is what RHR represents, not only in our mission, but more so, in the people that have become a part of our family.
MSM: Take us through some of the teammates of RHR, you guys are always out there either running or representing not only in races but for the black communities. What are some of the things yourself and the team and the team continues to do to bring light to the issues in our communities.
Nneka: My teammates are a diverse bunch. We range in age and ethnicity; Many of us of are parents while some of us are child-free and living that single life; some of us are college/grad students; Others are starting second careers; A few of us are vegans, while some of us put bacon on everything and anything; Some of us are extremely liberal, and others a bit more conservative. Indeed, our crew is eclectic, and it’s why I love us. But one of the things that we’ve all been able to come together on more recently, is the notion that Black Lives [Still] Matter. This past summer, RHR joined a collective of other Queens-based run crews–the Queens Running Collective (QRC)–to not only bring attention to the BLM movement which was reinvigorated as a result of the loss of Black lives at the hands of white supremacy, but also to highlight and raise funds for Black-owned businesses in Queens and stress the importance of strengthening community ties, particularly during a global crisis like this pandemic. As a member of QRC, RHR has hosted and participated in runs that put a spotlight on some of the rich history of Black neighborhoods in Queens. RHR plans to continue these efforts, using running as a medium for bringing folks in the community together to celebrate and show pride in Queens, and to address issues of community concern. This past year was tough for just about everyone. But as someone who likes to look for the silver lining in things, I believe the best thing to come out of the disaster that was 2020, is that people have become more community-minded and less self-centered. This is the energy we’re keeping for the rest of this year and beyond.
MSM: Covid life has essentially shut everything all the way down which is essentially making it hard to plan for future projects or races but what’s next for Nneka?
Nneka: During the height of the pandemic last year, I challenged myself to running at least a 5K every day over a period of three months (April-June 2020). I did it because I was working from home and, like a lot of people, was going stir crazy. After a year of living through this pandemic and getting adjusted to our new normal, I’ve decided that I want to spend this year diving deeper into my activism, using my background as a runner, an attorney, and as someone who is invested in Blackness, to continue to spark dialogues and share stories that inspire real change. I’m not sure what exactly this will look like, but I have some ideas percolating in my head that I hope to be able to share in the near future!
I was also really looking forward to running the 50th anniversary of the NYC Marathon last year, (what would have been my third time), and Covid certainly put a damper on those plans. I am chasing a sub-4 marathon PR and am patiently looking forward to the day that I can get back to training for in-person races. I never thought I would become this “marathon-chaser,” but I am sure my HS track and cross country coach would be proud to see how far I’ve come.
MSM: How can our readers keep up with you and future endeavours? I think I speak for many of us when we say we’re proud of all your accomplishments and hope that you can continue to push and press on.
Nneka: You can find me walking/running the streets of Brooklyn (usually in Prospect Park), or at RHR’s Tuesday Night Hustle, every Tuesday at 7pm at The Hustle Barbershop in Queens! I’m always interested in connecting with folks who share my love of running and/or Black culture.
MSM: Any last words you’d like to share for our readers?
Nneka: Running is probably the best “gateway drug” to improving your health–mental, physical, spiritual health–and the health of those around you. It has led to me developing strong relationships not only with my friends who have joined me on this running journey, but also with my neighbors who regularly see me running in and around Brooklyn and Queens and are quick to show me encouragement along the way, whether it’s a high-five or a car honk. It’s a great feeling that I hope will never end, and that I hope to be able to share with more people.