The Rise of Run Crews

Urban dwellers, and their street style, culture and flair, fuel the run crew vibe

After the workday, just before the sun goes down, an unlikely group gathers under a bridge, on a sidewalk corner, at a park, or even at the track. They’re dressed in running gear, but most don’t look like traditional runners.

One is a freelance graphic designer. Another works on Wall Street. Someone else is an editor at a major magazine. A couple come from the fashion world. The rest include bartenders, psychologists, musicians, accountants and hairstylists. They’re a tight-knit bunch, because they all know each other. In a moment, they’ll all set off on foot, running together over concrete and asphalt, past bodegas and across busy intersections in darkness almost as a team.

But they’re tighter than that: They’re a run crew.

A typical Black Roses run, amid the traffic and hum of the city. Photo: Courtesy of Knox Robinson

In just about any city around the world, you’ll find packs of running through the deserted city streets, over bridges, through industrial areas and down neighborhood streets in the dark of night. They’re not necessarily training for any particular race. They’re just out there, feeling the rush of running through a city together—then sometimes partying hard afterward.

In the past decade these modern groups, which call themselves run crews (just don’t call them “run clubs”), have proliferated. And while they draw people in for the camaraderie and experiential thrill of running through an empty city together, it’s the type of people they draw that has changed the sport of running so profoundly.

In other words, most crews don’t attract the already converted—they bring in non-runners and people new to the sport. Because while run crews, at their base level, function like any other running group (i.e., meet up, then go running), they’re not really influenced by “running” as we know it.

Knox Robinson, captain and co-founder of the run crew Black Roses NYC, and who’s been in the scene for awhile, explains the differences in more detail.

“Some crews pride themselves on having antagonistic definitions in relation to run clubs, but it’s not about that,” says Robinson, 42, who lives in Brooklyn. “It’s more that run crews have a visceral connection to street culture—that’s arts, food and hip-hop—looking at running as part of street culture in a way. We don’t necessarily feel like we need coaches or people telling us how to run.

“It’s more about running as an expression, like any art form. No offense to run clubs—they’re awesome, they’re getting people moving and delivering people to races, but it seems like the goal is based around mainstream definitions of what running is. Run crews look to other sources of inspiration.”

The after-party, too, is a crucial part of being in a run crew—whether that’s dinner, drinks or a special post-run event. They even travel the world together and meet up with other crews at international races for a weekend of running and partying.

This street-style take on running has changed the look of the sport in more ways than one. After all, Nike, Under Armour and adidas have all capitalized on the look and feel, by sponsoring crews or designing ad campaigns or even apparel inspired by the aesthetic. But run crews have also brought forth a far more substantial change: Their urban influence and the whole notion of representing your circle of friends and your particular big-city neighborhood has drawn more people of color, more women and more of the LGBTQ community to distance running—which, for decades, has been an overwhelmingly white, male pastime in America.

In the Beginning

How did run crews start if these people aren’t runners? Bridgerunners, the original run crew started in New York City, began in 2004 when Mike Saes, a fixture in the downtown arts scene, says he was late picking up his daughter across town and couldn’t catch a cab—so he decided to simply run there, across the Williamsburg Bridge. He liked the feeling so much he started gathering friends every week and running New York City together that summer around midnight.

A few years later and across the Atlantic, a deejay from East London named Charlie Dark saw the late-night club lifestyle claiming too many of his friends, so he began running as a way to pursue health, and soon attracted others. He formed Run Dem Crew, Great Britain’s largest run crew.

It wasn’t long before each crew’s numbers swelled with people each looking for something different, a way to exercise and a way to be social in a fun way with like-minded people.

“If you’re looking for a reset in your life, it’s almost instinctual to lace up a pair of whatever shoes you have in the closet and go for a run around the park,” says Robinson, who ran in college at Wake Forest and owns at 2:36 marathon PR. “And if you’re not fit, you’re gonna heave, and then the next day you’re gonna go around and do two laps around the park. I think that’s what happened.”

The people who flocked to run crews were generally friends of friends, fellow creative types, bartenders or street hustlers who are either shaking off the effects of hard partying and looking for a new thrill, or just embracing something different. It wasn’t part of the running boom at all, and this was a time when running wasn’t perceived as being “cool” like it is right now by outsiders and non-runners. It was almost another extension of underground urban culture—complementary to the nocturnal, inner-city, highly social lifestyles they already were living.

Run crews have also taken to Instagram with a particular zeal—showcasing where they run, where they eat or get drinks afterward, and how much fun they have doing it. For the wider world that’s outside the close-knit scene, social media is many people’s first experience with the run crew subculture and its unique take on running. In fact, it’s what’s helped launch running crews all over the world.

Black Roses NYC doing their thing after dark in Brooklyn. Photo: Courtesy of Knox Robinson

Local Favor

The result is that there are crews in most major cities around the world. Their numbers aren’t big, but it’s an outsize phenomenon, with influence that exceeds their actual numbers. New crews often take the same cultural cues from the originators—but nowadays (and especially in New York City) there are crews for nearly every type of runner: if you want to run fast, or if you’d rather stop and eat along the way, there are crews for that. There are all-female crews, crews with a bit of coaching, black crews, Latina crews, street-art-enthusiast crews, and more.

It’s also about being in touch with your own city.

“Every time you get together with your crew, you’re not only connecting on a human level, the route is connecting you with neighborhoods, whether it’s your own or a place you’ve never visited before and you’re sampling the cuisine and looking at the murals,” Robinson says.

There are run crews from Moscow to Johannesburg; they’re all over Europe, throughout Asia and up and down the Americas, in both the first and the third world. And they don’t just keep tabs on each other through social media, they meet up for races all over the world, letting other crew members sleep on their sofa and dispensing local advice—and partying, of course. This phenomenon is called Bridge the Gap, and there are BTG meetups around the world just about every month.

Even though run crews are relatively new, and still scattered, Robinson hopes that what they all represent can turn into something much bigger.

“It doesn’t feel right to look at it as a pure extension of running,” Robinson says. “You almost have to look at it like other urban subcultures. Whether that’s skateboarding, hip-hop or punk music. Hopefully it retains some notion of identity and authenticity to its original roots even though it grows. But ideally, if more and more people run, then we can elevate running to a more integral part of our lifestyle, and that’ll help us take this wellness wave and make it something lasting and more permanent than a trend or a fad.”

Notable Run Crews

 

The 504th Run Crew, New Orleans
A relatively new run crew in The Big Easy that aims to connect different cultures and communities through running.
Instagram: @the504th

BlacklistLA, Los Angeles
Founded on the notion of street-art tourism, BlacklistLA runs to Los Angeles’ many street murals in neighborhoods throughout the city, to view impressive, large-scale works before they get painted over. Runners can number in the hundreds.
Instagram: @blacklistla

Stumprunners, Portland, Ore.
This crew meets three days a week around Portland, including a Thursday morning track workout
Instagram: @Stumprunners

3Run2, Chicago
This crew calls itself a manifestation of its passion for self-improvement, community and cultural awareness through running, and boasts newcomers, novices and ultramarathoners.
Instagram: @3Run2

Concrete Runners, San Francisco
This aim of this group is to motivate and inspire people to incorporate running and other fitness activities into their lives and adopt it as a lifestyle through its free running events at various Bay Area locations for runners of ability levels.
Instagram: @ConcreteRunners

District Running Collective, Washington, D.C.
What started as a midnight 5K run to celebrate co-founder Matt Green’s birthday has turned into Washington, D.C.’s most energetic and social running crew, typically attracting more than 100 runners to its Wednesday night runs that meet at a local bar.
Instagram: @DistrictRunningCollective

Harlem Run, New York City
One of NYC’s biggest crews, its mission is to empower urban communities to get fit.
Instagram: @HarlemRun

Electric Flight Crew, Los Angeles/New York City/Chicago/Seattle
This ever-expanding crew is founded on the principle of inspiring health, innovation, happiness and fellowship based on the foundation of collective fitness, including its “No Shower Happy Hour” events.
Instagram: @ElectricFlightCrew

442 Crew, Serbia/Croatia
442 is a combination of two crews: Belgrade Urban Running Team and Zagreb runners. Having seen run crews come together under Bridge the Gap, they united as a gesture to show support for healing old animosity between Serbia and Croatia.
Instagram: @442crew

Ghetto Run Crew, Rio de Janeiro
This Brazilian group takes great pride in representing Zona Norte, a large, non-touristy neighborhood filled with favelas and the famous Maracana Stadium right in the middle of it.
Instagram: @ghettoruncrew

Adam Elder
San Diego-based freelance writer Adam Elder grew up in the running mecca of Eugene, Ore. He formerly served as the managing editor for Competitor magazine and Triathlete magazine and has written about the legacy of Steve Prefontaine, the rise of urban run crews, start-up running brands and patellofemoral pain syndrome.