A former-military-kid-turned-professional-athlete is attracting national attention by encouraging others to feed their curiosities about the sport of running.
New Jersey native Erika Kemp, whose dad served in the Air Force, made her marathon debut at Boston in 2023, ranking as the fastest American-born Black female with a finish time of 2:33:57. She hopes her presence in the sport will encourage others who look like her.
“Personally, professionally and in running, one of the greatest senses of accomplishment I’ve experienced thus far was black women of all ages reaching out after seeing me run the Boston Marathon, saying they loved seeing me up there in the professional field. Some even want to run it now, too!,” Kemp stated in her athlete bio for this year’s Olympic Trials.
Now, Kemp is vying for a chance to compete on an international stage when she heads to the Trials in Orlando, Florida, this February. She joins 164 other women, with a field made up of 12% of women of color, according to a recent article by “Women’s Running” — signs of expanding representation.
The top three women from this year’s Trials who have run 2:29:30 or faster between November 1, 2022, and February 3, 2024, will go to the Paris Olympics in August. Kemp, who recently celebrated her 29th birthday, has been training in the Arizona desert to prepare. She said the environment is much warmer and drier than what she was used to in Boston but adds “change usually doesn’t bother me too much.”
Part of that resiliency may stem from her background as a military child living on Fort Dix (currently Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst). Her dad left the military when she was around 6 years old, she says, but she recalls lengthy separations while he was stationed overseas.
“I remember the old school Skype calls on the dial-up computer and the awful connection,” she said. “And he used to mail us little trinkets from Egypt.”
Thankfully technology has improved as her ties to the military continue. Kemp has been dating a soldier for more than two years. The couple initially met in high school.
Because he’s stationed in Germany, she says time together is limited but they strive for quality over quantity.
“We’ve done a really good job of prioritizing time for each other. And I think it means a lot for both of us and it makes us a lot more invested when we do have time together,” she said. “When we do see each other, we’re not on our phones. And we do get those one to two hours of time a day to Facetime, and we’re very engaged, trying to catch up. … We really make the most of the quality time we get.”
Kemp laughed when sharing that they rarely run together because their easy paces differ.
Her success on the track began to emerge when she attended North Carolina State University, including being a six-time All-American and taking first place at USATF championship events. She says as her accomplishments racked up at the Division 1 level, going pro was the obvious progression for her future.
“It’s kind of like the next step — if you want to keep going — to run professionally and I just kept getting better and doing those similar things,” she said. “So, when I graduated, I was in a really good position. I had a good resume as far as running accomplishments, so I got the chance to do it right out of school and you just keep getting better, and people keep wanting to support you.”
She is currently sponsored by Brooks Running. Now entering her sixth year as a professional athlete, Kemp says she’s learned how important it is to take a holistic look at her health.
“I train a lot more than I did in college but even more important than your training is just your overall well-being,” she said. “Are you sleeping enough; are you eating correctly; are you getting physical therapy on a regular basis; like your overall health level is almost more important than your fitness level.”
She’s also learned how to manage her internal monologue.
“Everyone has those voices in their head, especially those negative ones that come out when you’re running or things get really tough,” Kemp said. “I feel like when I was younger, especially in high school and college, that initial voice that creeps in and is like, ‘I don’t want to be here,’ ‘I do not want to run’ — that voice hasn’t gone away. I still get that most days but as I’ve gotten older and learned to appreciate the sport more and do more events and connect with more people and seen what running can do, it gave me a stronger secondary voice.”
Kemp wants to see others push through their own self-doubt about running or big goals in general.
“Don’t be afraid to start small. If you see people running the Boston Marathon or the NYC Marathon or some big event where you feel ‘I don’t see a lot of people like me,’ but you have that interest — you can start small to give yourself confidence in that space.
“Don’t be afraid to meet yourself where you’re at. Feed that curiosity.”