How joining a truly inclusive running community helped Audri Orr leave behind her "too comfortable" life, overcome bereavement and become a pioneer in her local running community.
From the moment Audri sits down to join me, her energy and her enthusiasm - her whole vibe - screams inclusiveness and positivity. As one of team leaders of Detroit’s We Run 313 run club, Audri channels her infectious enthusiasm into clapping the longest, cheering the loudest and making sure every member of the club crosses the finish line to rapturous support.
And if there’s anyone who understands the power of a supportive group of runners - it’s Audri. Audri credits her run club with transforming her outlook on life, helping her get fitter and healthier, and even being there for her when she had nowhere else to turn.
It was a privilege to sit down with Audri - now a successful entrepreneur and community leader - and hear her story: the story of how she finally found "her tribe”.
"I kept looking for myself - what I liked, what I enjoyed, what made me happy. But I never found it."
"In high school I was so-so at sports," Audri admits. "I actually had 'no clock' on the back of my volleyball jersey. Everyone else got their name on the back, but I asked for ‘no clock’ because I never got any game time!”
Not that she was bitter about it, though.
"I didn't play but I was a big supporter - I rode the bench, big supporter!", she laughs. "Just don’t put me in the game coach!"
In addition to volleyball, Audri tried her hand at several sports growing up, including softball, track and even karate for 8 years. Despite her obvious enthusiasm for sport, Audri never found what she was really looking for in a sports club: a sense of belonging.
"I tried so many sports because I never found 'the one'. I was looking for myself - what I liked, what I enjoyed, what made me happy. I never found it. I was a lost teenager."
Few of us can claim that we’re not interested in "belonging" or fitting in with our peers. However for Audri, it was especially important to her that she found somewhere she could feel at home.
Born and raised in Detroit, Audri grew up in a two parent home which she describes as "not so healthy." Having older parents, and being eight years younger than her nearest sibling, Audri felt isolated growing up in a home which all her brothers and sisters had left by the time she reached high school.
To her frustration, Audri never did find "her tribe" in high school and college sports. In subsequent years, Audri and the world of sport and fitness ran curiously parallel with one-another, without ever fully intersecting.
Audri attended Central Michigan University and majored in Exercise Physiology, with the aim of becoming a personal trainer or working in a gym. However, despite obtaining extensive knowledge of fitness, healthy living and rehabilitation - Audri didn’t put this knowledge into practice when it came to her own health.
"I lived horribly and I didn't really work out after high school," she admits. "I gained a lot of weight."
"I felt like I was doing well, I didn’t mind about my degree. I got comfortable."
After leaving University, Audri continued working for the Panera Bread restaurant chain, where she’d held down a job throughout her early adult life ("I worked there since before I was 16 - it was a paper application!"). Hearing Audri speak with such confidence and sincerity throughout our time together, it's little surprise to hear that she was quickly promoted to the position of general manager.
In fact for two years, Audri was not only one of the youngest general managers at the chain, but the only Black general manager for Panera Bread in the state of Michigan.
However, while in some respects Audri blazed a trail, she also succumbed to a state that runners will recognize: she got too "comfortable". Within a few years, with a steady yet demanding job as well as a son to raise, Audri had lost a little of herself. She no longer cared much for sport and her degree in Exercise Physiology had little relevance to her life.
So what changed? Audri can tell you the exact day her life began to move away from her simply sleepwalking through it, and toward personal success and finally finding that sense of belonging.
"May 4th 2019, a friend of a friend was going for a two mile run."
"A friend of mine reached out," Audri explains. "He said, 'my boy Lance Woods is doing a run'. They were doing a two mile run the next week - and he told me I should come out and join them."
"So my friend and I had a week to prepare. We went to a park to practice running and I was dying. I was a goner! But the next week we joined the run... and I loved it! I loved the energy, I loved the space and ever since then I've been a part of it."
In fact, Audri's friend-of-a-friend was Lance Woods - We Run 313's co-founder. Audri had attended the group’s very first meet-up and since that day, she's never looked back.
"I was immediately accepted, from the first day. It was the feeling I'd been looking for my whole life. A connection. Something I didn’t have with my siblings or ever managed to find while playing sports as I grew up."
Soon the group began running multiple times a week - shorter sessions on weekdays and long runs on weekends. Due to Audri’s work commitments, she couldn’t attend every meet-up. However within a few short months she had built up a level of confidence and fitness that she hadn’t had in years - culminating in her running her very first half marathon just 5 months later.
"It was the Detroit Free Press Half Marathon - world renowned, people come from all over to run it," Audri beams. "I think my time was 2 hours and 47 minutes, so it was nearly a three hour half marathon - but I did it! I got it done. And my run club was there for me at the end, cheering me on.
Back in May, barely being able to run 2 miles… never did I imagine that by October I would be running 13 miles non-stop."
Audri continued to run with We Run 313, fitting in their meetings around her work commitments and raising her son. The latter was something that her mother helped her with greatly - and the mention of her mom takes us to a dark time in Audri's life.
"I lost my mom to Covid in April 2020, right at the start of the pandemic"
Even prior to her bereavement, it's clear that the COVID-19 pandemic had an effect on both Audri and the run club as a whole. Like for so many of us, it was a nervous and uncertain period of time for the group. When we discuss it, it’s the only time in the interview that Audri appears to lose a little energy, speaking carefully and reflectively.
"Covid hits, and it completely slows us down. Nobody knew what COVID was, or what was happening. We had to stop meeting due to state guidelines, or if we did, stay a certain distance from each other.
It was a very cloudy time."
Audri's mother passed away in April 2020 after spending over a week in hospital with COVID. Her father had passed away in 2014 and Audri had no living grandparents. Her mother’s death, of course, affected both her and her siblings. However, while her siblings returned to their busy lives in other towns and cities, Audri returned to the home she had shared with her mother for 34 years - now empty.
For Audri, familiar feelings of isolation could have turned into intense loneliness - were it not for the actions of her running club.
"They showered me with love - they even bought flowers for me and my son. They were there for me when I had nobody and reminded me that I will never be alone.
They said 'we are with you when you want to run 2 miles, when you want to run 10 miles, when you want to cry on our shoulders.' These are people that I had only known for a year, who showed all this generosity when I felt like I had nothing."
"Being in a run club with African Americans is special"
Audri's own unwavering generosity and enthusiasm has seen her join the We Run 313 leadership team as Cheer Captain. Her son Tyler, now 7, even joins her. "He shouts 'if you can walk today, you can run tomorrow' - it's amazing!"
Both Audri and I have experienced times in our lives when it felt like the spaces we were in were not inclusive spaces. From the Boston Marathon, which predominantly goes through exclusively white communities, to Audri’s own experiences of "the eyes" and "the funny looks" entering a predominantly white gym for her Karate classes.
"You've got to reach out to fellow Black people running," Audri says. There aren't a lot of Black people who run certain events - and so you’ve got to let them know that you’re in it together.
Black runners are different people. When you meet people who run, it warms you - it's so dope. It fills your spirit and your soul. It gives you that same feeling as eating grandma's home cooked meal!"
There are few people doing more for the Black running community than Audri. What she does in her own community helps to enrich and grow running culture well beyond Detroit. It was inspirational to hear her story and experience her energy first-hand as she spoke. A huge thank-you to Audri for sitting down to talk with us.
Sidney Baptista is a coach, leader & activist who founded PIONEERS Run Crew in Boston. Audri Orr is Cheer Captain on the leadership team for We Run 313 in Detroit.