photo: Elaine Gonzalez Johnson

Like many new moms, Elaine Gonzalez Johnson started running regularly as a way to get back in shape, de-stress, and gain some new confidence. Or to get her "Yoncé" back, as she puts it. She began taking walks, and soon walking turned into jogging. Then, jogging turned into running. The popular 10-mile Blue Cross Broad Street Marathon in her native Philadelphia followed in 2012 — her very first race.

But as Johnson sped off amid 40,000 other runners that day, she realized she was alone.

“I had never participated in a run. I didn’t know what kind of sneakers I should wear, what kind of clothes I should wear, how it goes down. I was alone in this journey.”

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Johnson also didn’t see any fellow Latinas, and when she crossed the finish line, an idea was born. Following the race, Johnson got a group of her girlfriends together to walk and run a few miles at a local high school in Philly.

“Every Saturday after that our group continued to grow bigger and bigger and bigger. I was getting inquiries from New York, New Jersey, Florida,” she said.

Johnson’s small gatherings gave birth to Latinas in Motion, a national running club for Latinas across 12 states. Today the group is 3,000 members strong.

“These women are always thanking me, but this isn’t a ‘me’ thing. This is something that we’ve created together,” said the Puertoriqueña and mother of two. Johnson continues:

“We want to show the world that Latinas, we do want to be healthy. And we will beat these statistics of heart disease, of obesity and diabetes.”

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photo: Elaine Gonzalez Johnson

The organization is part of a small-but-mighty cluster of Latino running groups looking to break into this traditionally white-dominated sport. Groups such as the American Hispanic Running Club and Black Girls Run are paving the way for runners of color.

But even as these groups continue to break through significant barriers, running continues to sorely lack diversity. Only five percent of runners surveyed by the Running USA organization in 2014 were Latino. Yet more than 77 percent of Latino adults are overweight or obese compared with 67.2 percent of whites, according to data from the National Center for Health Statistics. Latinos are also disproportionately affected by diabetes and are more likely to suffer a stroke compared to other ethnic groups, data shows.

For many Latina runners, the divide started early; some recall not being allowed to go outside by themselves — thus limiting outdoor activities — and not having active family members who encouraged physical activity. Mariette Rodriguez discussed this stark disparity back in June 2012, when she wrote the following entry in her healthy living blog titled, Namaste Mari:

“I participate in many races in NYC and the majority of the people are Caucasian . . . I know we live in a world where we shouldn’t see ‘color’ but I would really love to see ladies from my culture out there too!  It has come to the point that when I come across another Hispanic woman, who enjoys to run or practices yoga, I get giddy inside.”

Rodriguez, who underwent her own fitness transformation several years ago and who religiously chronicles her healthy lifestyle, said that while the situation has improved, a long road lies ahead. “I do see diversity, but when I go to yoga or certain (health) blogging events, I’m still a minority,” she said.

“When you think of a runner you think of people with trim figures. Let’s be truthful, some of us Hispanics have some meat on our bones and therefore don’t see ourselves as runners because of that.”

Be sure to follow Vivala's fearsome threesome as they train together for a half-marathon in May! Check the #LatinasRuntheWorld hashtag to follow them on social.