The culture of running is changing and in recent times, we have seen a crop of urban running crews shape the way the community is portrayed. Fly Girl Collective – a running community for Black and Brown women founded by Matilda Egere-Cooper in 2018 is one of them.
Fly Girl Collective is more than a running group, it’s a sisterhood. With a desire to see more Black women “have a seat at the fitness table”, Matilda has formed a like-minded community of women who empower each-other through fitness and live their best lives.
Based in London, Matilda hosts a Saturday morning Fly Girl Run session fortnightly – alternating between Shoreditch and Borough.
When describing the typical morning session, she said: “It’s less about the route and more about the purpose of the session.
“When I started Fly Girl, I was really keen to target people who were new to running because it can seem like an intimidating discipline.
“Beyond the fact that it didn’t look like the most diverse of spaces depending on where you go, I just wanted to ensure that the running experience at Fly Girl Collective very much felt like a safe space.
“We go around different parks, and different gardens and we keep the running element short, sharp and sweet,” she said.
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After taking up running nine years ago, Matilda knows too well that it is not always about the mileage. She went on to explain the importance of including strength and conditioning work and adding elements of fun into her Fly Girl Run sessions.
“Becoming a runner whether you’re doing it for fun or you want to take it seriously and get into racing, you need to look after every aspect of your body. You’ve got to do strength work and you’ve got to think about your mobility.
“[Fly Girl Collective is] more about having a lot of fun, taking away the intimidation of running and making sure that by the end of it, everyone feels quite happy to have come out on a cold Saturday morning,” she added.
When asked about the inspiration behind birthing Fly Girl Collective, she said: “I started with a running crew called Run Dem Crew, which was very unique for the simple fact that it was diverse. Prior to that, I didn’t have much awareness of running other than what I saw on magazine stands.
“I’d see a runners magazine and the guy on the front cover looks very fit and he looks like an athlete and I always thought that’s what long-distance running was. A sort of middle-class discipline where everyone wears super short shorts and they’re super-duper fast,” she recalled.
Full of praise for the Run Dem Crew community, Matilda explained that she’d been introduced to an “amazing sport in a way that was really fun and really accessible” though, as illustrated in the magazines that she would so often see, she felt that mainstream running had a very different look, feel and approach.
Outside of the Run Dem Crew bubble, Matilda quickly noticed the disparity. She realised that the running space was not as diverse as it could be, so she set out to test if Black women truly disliked distance running or if there were barriers to fitness.
She said: “I recognised that it wasn’t diverse and that’s very much what inspired me to start Fly Girl Collective.
“Yes some Black women don’t like running and yes there are huge barriers like our hair.
“I’ve still managed to have found a wonderful contingent of women who are very much committed to healthy lifestyle choices and want to explore the benefits of running because it’s so much more than just exercise,” said Matilda.
As we spoke, I recalled one of my early experiences as a young athlete competing in cross country competitions. I always found myself to be one of the very few women of colour on the mini-bus headed to the meet and then later discovered that this was a stark reflection of the whole competition. Unsurprisingly, Matilda felt the same way on race days.
She said: “When I’d go to races and running events, I was in the minority and I never really understood what that was about.”
Black women and mental health
I asked Matilda about the goal of her BAME (Black, Asian and minority ethnic) focused collective and the efforts of the community in improving the mental well-being of these groups.
She said: “I wanted to create something that could be a solution to the challenges that Black women face.
“Mental health is ubiquitous, not just a Black female thing but when you have a statistic like that, you start to think what’s great for mental health? Exercise? Fitness? Healthy food choices?
“It’s saying you know what, I’m going to target [black women] because clearly, this group needs help because of the statistics.
“Special interest groups exist and I’m creating this to meet this particular need,” she said.
Originally from America, Matilda credits the number of running groups that have “blown up” in the U.S. and are helping to improve the statistic such as Black Girls Run and running groups based in Washington DC that are predominately Black.
The impact of running beyond health
Reflecting on how establishing a fitness group has impacted her life, she said: “I think [running] has made me a lot more accountable. It can be quite a lonely journey. You go out by yourself, you put on your trainers and do your thing.
“One thing I love about running in the context of the community is that you have accountability. Even if it’s not direct i.e. someone calling you up and saying, “Did you run today?” all you need to do is go on Instagram, see someone’s photo and think oh snap, I need to do my training run.
“When you decide to become a leader of something, it’s definitely forced me to become so much more on point.
She added: “Leading a community has changed my life in that it makes me want to be a much better person, it gives me accountability and it’s helping me become a woman that I thought I’d never be.”
Matilda has built an impressive race profile, taking part in numerous park runs, half-marathons, and an ultra-marathon. Though, she recalls lacing up for the 26.2 miles of London as her favourite.
As for the future, Matilda revealed that she will be competing in the upcoming Manchester marathon on April 5th and when asked about any future projects for Fly Girl Collective, she replied: “Watch this space – Fly Girl Collective might be popping up in places you least expected!”