Written by Amory Rowe. Photographed by Fredis Benitez.
“You know, the freaks come out at night,” joked a fellow runner to Patrick Pressgrove late one Saturday evening.
At the time, the speaker was working with a team of committed athletes to complete the Goggins Challenge – to run four miles every four hours for 48 hours straight – while Pressgrove was captaining a team for the Texas Independence Relay – a 12-person, 36-leg, 200-mile virtual team running event. It was early in the summer of 2020, and conventional races, with their crowded start lines, elbow-to-elbow efforts and boisterous post-race celebrations, had vanished. Instead, runners in search of a competitive outlet were forced to get creative: to find challenges in offbeat ways and unusual venues, like the city streets of Houston late on a hot summer night.
As it happened, the midnight intersection of these two athletes and the quick quip they exchanged would give rise to what may be the most spontaneous and unconventional run community in the city of Houston: the Freaks Run Club.
One week later, on May 29, 2020, members of the nascent club gathered at the venue that would serve as their de facto home – Buffalo Bayou Brewing Co. – and launched their first official run: Freaks Come Out at Night Inaugural Run.
They’ve met to run together every Friday night since.
Written by Amory Rowe. Photographed by Fredis Benitez.
At a time when people were feeling untethered from their routines and cut off from their communities, the Freaks Run Club offered something resembling normalcy – friends, a run and beers – even if the Friday night time stamp was a bit unusual.
Founder Patrick Pressgrove explains, “A Friday-night club brings out diverse mindsets towards running … You're either so into running that you don't mind running – and maybe drinking – the night before our Saturday morning long run. Or you don't do long runs and are just here for a fun way to bring in the weekend. Or you're somewhere in the middle. Wherever you fall, you clearly love running enough to do it on a Friday night after a long work week!”
A lifelong Houstonian, Pressgrove’s extensive street-level knowledge of his city has been a boon to the club. Every Friday night the Freaks Run Club meets in a new location and Pressgrove chooses the route, often opting for less traveled roads in the hopes of introducing his fellow runners to a corner of the city they might not have seen. “I try to bring people not only to new places each week but new sides of town,” he says. “It's often at a brewery but it’s also been at newly opened bars or local favorite restaurants.”
The final Friday night of each month, though, the club always returns to the start – to where they met that first time: Buffalo Bayou Brewing Co.. From that spot just north of Houston’s downtown they head out for a sundown run through the city streets, out onto the White Oak Bayou, through Buffalo Bayou Park and back. It’s a four-and-a-half mile loop that affords runners an unusual vantage point on their city.
Patrick's favorite section of the run is a 1.25 mile segment titled “Freaks Run Club Golden Hour Photo Op,” the midpoint of which is marked by a steel bench where Patrick and his teammates have made a monthly habit of stopping for a group picture. The Houston skyline bristles on the near horizon and ribbons of interstate overpasses weave a pattern in the background. But at the foot of the bench, the grass is green and freshly mown and a tangle of sunflowers separates the running path from the bayou beyond.
"It can be loud," Pressgrove explains, nodding to the nearby intersections of I-10, US-59 and I-45. "Or it can be nice and peaceful." Running the segment, as the water flows south along the bayou, you're balanced between the city and something wild. There, several stories below the street level of Houston, the fast-paced life that takes place in the rectilinear glass, steel and concrete blocks stands in stark opposition to the slow, sinuous life of the bayou. Pressgrove likes to ask people to stop and look.
“You see a back side of the skyline you don’t otherwise see," he explains. "I bring a lot of folks here and they say, ‘I’ve never run this, ever, and I’ve lived here my whole life.’”
Finding new ways to look at familiar spaces is a talent of Pressgrove’s, as is his ability to magnetize people to share the experience. In addition to serving as the de facto leader of the Freaks Run Club, Patrick is also the CFO of Team Catapult, an ally to Black Men Run - Houston, a TSP DIY Team Captain, a triathlete and a marathoner. He’s an accountant, too. And a husband. And a double above-the-knee amputee. Like the city he inhabits, he contains multitudes.
Last fall, in conjunction with Houston’s Freedmen’s Town 5K/10K, Patrick and a team of fellow advocates mapped out a set of little-known historical black landmarks and then moved around the city, marking each one by stenciling the words “Heads Up: Black Landmark Ahead” onto the adjacent sidewalks. Pressgrove and his crew made it impossible to pass places like Antioch Missionary Baptist Church, the Eldorado Ballroom and Olivewood Cemetery without acknowledging the role they played in the city's history. The implied call to action was to take a closer look at your city – to look beneath the surface.
Patrick's very presence asks the same. "Seeing me is extremely disarming," he explains. Born with a rare genetic disorder that required countless surgeries and curtails his ability to move freely and without pain, Pressgrove made the choice at age 14 to undergo bilateral above-the-knee amputations in the hopes of having a more mobile life. But if you look at Patrick today and see only his surface-level scars, you misapprehend entirely who he is.
He is a man on the hunt for ways to leave a mark – whether stenciled on a sidewalk or imprinted more indelibly, even if less legibly, on the hearts and minds of his teammates and friends. These days Patrick is committed fully to his diverse community of sport: raising money, organizing events, chaperoning runs, and relentlessly firing up fellow Houstonians to get out and explore their city. His is a story that carries a lot of power and he wields it deftly.
"I don't know how long I have to give back," he says. "It's a race against time. I want to make an impact while I'm here."
The notion of racing the clock is familiar to every runner, as is the steady and incremental drive for self-improvement that undergirds Patrick’s days. "Every morning I wake up and think 'What is my stock worth? Am I doing things every day to make my stock valuable?'" Pressgrove says. "I need to do at least one thing a day that adds value. I am more valuable at the end of the day than I was when I woke up if I've done something for my family, my community."
It’s an athlete’s mindset – to make the most of your time, to be better at the end of the day than you were at the start – but writ large for the benefit of the broadest set of people.
The Freaks Run Club was born from Patrick’s impulse to improve himself, his running community and his hometown. It’s a come-one-come-all, come-as-you-are collection of runners with an array of running goals and paces as diverse as the population of the city they call home. Patrick and his teammates race each other. They race the clock. They race a segment, a route or a distance. And they race the version of themselves that got out of bed that morning.
In that way they have something in common with every athlete in every city in every country in the world: to be better at the end of the day than you were when you woke up.
“We have zero bad energy,” Pressgrove says. “Our current group is extremely welcoming and inclusive. It's not lost on me that this rotating group of 20 to 30 runners entrusts their Friday nights, time and energy to a double amputee with a speech impediment. They clearly come out for the love of running and companionship within the community and see through my differences to the actual value that I work to give them each week. It's honestly a testament to our run community as a whole and Houston in general.”