BGR Columbus“Hi, I’m Ritta from BGR Columbus.”

This is what Larritta Johnson of the Columbus Chapter of Black Girls RUN! says whenever she meets another BGR member at a race.

“Everywhere I go, (including races in Alabama, Arkansas and Oklahoma, to name a few), I see other BGR members,” said Johnson, who works for UnitedHealthcare. “We may never have met before, but we embrace.”

There were lots of meetings and embraces on Saturday at the 2nd Annual Jesse Owns Jog (JOJ), a 2.62-mile fun-run and walk from the King Arts Complex to North Bank Park here in Columbus. About 500 runners took part in the annual event sponsored by the Nationwide Children’s Hospital Columbus Marathon and ½ Marathon (which was run on Sunday), in partnership with the Columbus Urban League.

This is more than triple the number of runners who participated in the inaugural JOJ last year – and the women of BGR, from Columbus and beyond, helped boost the numbers.

“They rock,” said Marlene Rankin of the members of BGR. Marlene is the daughter of Jesse Owns, and Executive Director of the Jesse Owens Foundation, and attended the JOJ.

“There were a few of them last year and they promised they would have more this year – and they sure delivered,” Rankin said. “It’s so exciting to see so many black women here and running … and to see that (the JOJ) is doing what it was designed to do: Reach the black community and encourage health and fitness.”

Event speakersBGR was formed created in 2009 to “tackle the growing obesity epidemic in the African-American community and provide encouragement and resources to both new and veteran runners,” according to the national organization’s website.Kym Chambers is a new member of the Cleveland Chapter of BGR, and came to Columbus with her friend, Vanessa Smith.

“I waited until I was 49 to start running,” Chambers said, adding she’s lost 40 pounds and found a sisterhood of supportive friends.

“At my first race, several of the ladies finished and came back and found me and clapped me to the finish,” Chambers said.

Smith’s father, Clarence Smith, ran against Jesse Owens in high school in Cleveland. “In other words, he lost many a race to Jesse Owens,” she said.

Chambers is recruiting her friend to join the Cleveland Chapter of BGR. But Smith isn’t quite sold on the R in BGR. “What I say is: Black girls run … and black women walk!” Smith said with a big smile before she walked the JOJ course.

There were more than BGR members at the JOJ, which attracted a diverse group of female and male runners of all ages, including a runner from Brazil who was in town for the marathon. There were several runners from the Columbus Chapter of Black Men Run, which was recently formed by Maclin Williams.

“It’s necessary,” he said of why he started the local chapter. “There are a lot of health disparities that effect African-American men and running helps people think about health issues and leading a healthy lifestyle.”

Williams ran, pushing his 22-month-old son, Orion, in a stroller. Orion is a future runner, and already a master of the high five.

BGR runnersWhile there were some serious runners at the JOJ, the event is a celebration of the life of Jesse Owens, what he overcame and the legacy he has left for the African-American community, and for all people. And it’s a celebration of the joy of running, jogging and walking, and sharing that joy with your friends and community.

“Like any event, the key is to tell your story and purpose and when people hear the story of Jesse Owens and what he means to the world, that inspires you to be an active participant,” said Alex Shumate, a member of The Ohio State University Board of Trustees – and a participant in the JOJ.

Another trailblazer at the JOJ was Marilyn Bevans, who in 1973 became the first African-American woman to run a sub-three-hour marathon. She finished second at the 1977 Boston Marathon – and helped pave the path for so many others.

“When I ran, I was the only black woman running,” said Bevans. “And now, it’s so wonderful to see all these black women of all ages running.”

Bevans and about 100 members of the National Black Marathoners Association were in town for their annual summit, and to run in the Nationwide Children’s Hospital Columbus Marathon and ½ Marathon.

Larritta Johnson joined BGR four years ago.

“I was on a mission to get in better health,” she said. “And I wanted to become a real runner.”

BGR walkersJohnson has become a real runner, completing two marathons, a few half marathons and scores of 5K and 10K races in Ohio and beyond. She’s now a run leader and running coach for BGR – and was one of the first female finishers at the JOJ on Saturday.

She’s also become a recruiter for the JOJ.

“This race is very important for us to be part of,” Johnson said. “Because of his background and what he represents, it fits in perfectly with BGR. It’s the same background and the same struggle.”

And the same love of running.

Funds raised from the event will benefit Nationwide Children’s Hospital infant mortality efforts, the Columbus Urban League, the King Arts Complex along with the Jesse Owens Foundation.

JOJ event partners include: The Columbus Urban League, Nationwide Children’s Hospital, the King Arts Complex, the National Black Marathoners Association, Black Girls Run, USA Track & Field, COTA, Dick’s Sporting Goods, Coca-Cola, Radio One, the Greater Columbus Sports Commission, and more.