The seed for the alternative running movement was planted in New York City.
Mike Saes faced a dilemma. He’d just polished off a burger and creamed spinach at his go-to lunch joint in Brooklyn when he realized he was going to be late to pick up his son from nursery school in lower Manhattan.
With no cabs in sight and well before the era of Uber, his way of getting from point A to B was to cross over the Williamsburg Bridge and into the financial district on foot. Dressed in street clothes and his meal yet to digest, Saes ran as fast as he could, awestruck by the views of New York City en route.
Until that moment, his running was mostly limited to testing out new sneakers by jogging a 12-block radius. In other words, Saes wasn’t much of a runner. But the inspired feeling during the trek over the bridge influenced a repeat run the following week. A habit formed.
Saes began to run more often, mostly alone until he convinced a few friends to leave whatever bar they were enjoying and join him on a quest to see New York City through a different lens. Running wasn’t simply a form of exercise. Rather, it was a way to have an adventure.
It became, ‘let’s run where nobody else does and see things that nobody will,” says the 44-year-old entrepreneur. That’s always been my trick to running—the visuals.
What started in 2004 as merely a few people that gathered in front of bars or restaurants at 10 p.m. or midnight in downtown New York transpired into a collective Saes coined the “Bridge Runners.”
They met weekly and took part in renegade-style runs, which involved unstructured routes and crossed over the Williamsburg and Manhattan bridges and sometimes deposited into the projects in Brooklyn or directly at an art opening. Some runners would show up in Nike Air Force 1 basketball shoes or Vans sneakers. Saes used to run in cargo shorts.
Bridge Runners has grown to about 50 people that meet on Wednesday nights for equal parts running and socializing.
We don’t take it too serious, but we’re serious runners.” Saes says.
He usually doesn’t know where they’ll go until people show up, but he promises an adventure. Says Saes, “One of our things with Bridge Runners is to expect the unexpected.” That mentality is how he keeps running intriguing and everyone on their toes.
Others have embraced the alternative running movement around New York City, like in the Lower East Side, home to Orchard Street Runners, founded in 2011 by Joe DiNoto, and named after a street in the neighborhood where the group has continued to meet for Tuesday night threshold runs.
DiNoto’s even gone so far as to organize unsanctioned races, including a half marathon at midnight that draws runners from various crews around the city, such as the Black Roses NYC—co-founded by Knox Robinson, former editor of the hip-hop magazine The Fader, and Jessie Zapotechne, both original Bridge Runners.
Beyond New York City, many running crews have popped up around the U.S., such as in Portland, OR., home to Stumprunners, and in Chicago, where a group known as Three Run Two was founded by two siblings, Nicolas and Micaela Bernal, who wanted to “close the gap between our friends who were runners and those who weren’t,” Nicolas says. The group’s name is a play on Chicago’s original area code, 312.
Across the globe in London, Paris, Copenhagen and Amsterdam, you’ll also find crews with their interpretations of the alternative running movement. Here, a few crew leaders weigh in on their sub-culture societies.
Run Dem Crew (RDC)
He’s known as @daddydarkrdc on social media, but he also responds to Charlie, last name Dark. The poet-writer, formerly known by his D.J. stage name “Attica Blues,” is the founder of Run Dem Crew, launched in 2007. The name is inspired after the Scare Dem Crew Reggae group.
“With the downturn in the music industry, I’d arrived at a point where I was beginning to feel detached from my friends,” Dark says.
He’d fallen in love with running and used it as a way to reconnect with friends and also to meet new ones from outside the music scene. Dark started RDC after he moved near the Olympic stadium. He also wanted to show that running could be accessible for everyone—that it wasn’t a sport reserved for elite athletes.
If you only have time for yourself and your latest PB [personal best], then please feel free to run elsewhere,” as stated on the crew’s website.
That disclaimer hasn’t deterred the 400 (and growing) members that meet at a former railway arch in Shoreditch weekly. In years past, routes were organized around music—Dark created mixed tapes for everyone to download for runs, which were often point-to-point. Now, RDC hosts group runs comprised of intervals on the track during the week and a long run on Sundays.
“I never thought my little crew would grow as big as it has or become as influential as it is, particularly outside the U.K., Dark says. “Run Dem has inspired many people to get out on the road, and for that I’m grateful.”
Paris Running Club (PRC)
PRC’s catchphrase and identifying Instagram hashtag #cantstopwontstop was borrowed from music critic Jeff Chang’s 2005 book chronicling the hip-hop scene, “Can’t Stop Won’t Stop.” The slogan is put to use on Tuesday nights, when PRC members convene at BlackRainbow, a Paris-based creative agency in the 11th arrondissement co-founded by Jay Smith, who helped bring the Paris Running Club into existence in 2008.
The idea for the group, Smith says, was to create a new running spirit that brought together creative professionals. Since the club was founded, it has grown from 10 to more than 100 members who meet on Thursday nights in addition to a few spontaneous runs throughout the week.
“When the urban crews started in NYC, London and Paris, it was new. Nobody was into running except running geeks and my mother,” Smith says. “Now, everybody runs.”
For PRC, it often involves to the Bibliothèque François Mitterand and around the Canal Saint-Martin. Sometimes the club finishes at Smith’s favorite spot, Nike Stadium in the 11th arrondissement, to climb stairs post-run.
“We never intended to get this big,” says Anders Røemer, one of NBRO’s four co-founders. Røemer, a psychologist by day and D.J. and runner at night, helped create the group in 2010, after participating in a Nike+ contest called “Take Your City.”
Together with friends Karl-Oskar Olsen, Mike Hansen and Troels Frederiksen, the collective won the contest, but instead of pausing to celebrate, they just kept running. Born was the idea to form NBRO Running.
The club has multiplied from four to 300 members. And with eight runs offered throughout the week—including a fast run on Mondays, a track session on Wednesdays and a long run on Saturday mornings—the enticement is no wonder.
Until recently, Kaffesalonen, a cafe at the heart of the Nørrebro quarter, was the group’s meeting grounds. But due to the popularity of the group, NBRO migrated to the more spacious Søpavillonen, a restaurant and nightclub in the same area.
“I get positively surprised by all the good vibes provided by all the NBRO regulars,” Røemer says.
The crew love is nothing short of spectacular.
Three friends—Ryan Tjin, Thomas Reddering and Elly Tan—ran the Amsterdam Half Marathon course in reverse a week before race day. That day sparked a concept for the group that now boasts 60 members.
They’re as serious about running as they are about enjoying each other’s company. Like the night of a storm in 2013, when, undeterred by the weather, they took to the streets in the rain and finished the run with rum-laced hot chocolate.
On Tuesday nights, the Running Junkies meet at Tjins, a sandwich shop at Van der Woustraat 17. They drop off their bags and hit the streets, often navigating through the east side of Amsterdam before returning to Tjins, where a few runners cook for the group with groceries purchased by the whole crew. “It works really well and takes care of all the costs,” says Cristiaen Schaap, a captain of the crew.
On Thursday nights, speed work is on the menu at the track at ASV Arsenal, located 600 meters from the Olympic stadium. Runs are not standardized, Schaap says. “But the constant is our homestretch, when we we pick up the pace,” he adds.
It’s a big family, really. We’re not bound by blood, but we’re bound by running,” Schaap says.
“Your running level is not important, and that’s my biggest source of motivation and inspiration”
Photographer Ben Clement started the group after working on a campaign with Athletics Far East, a running crew based in Tokyo that epitomized the Japanese urban running movement.
“People meeting on different nights of the week from all walks of life and getting together to go running was just so cool to me,” he says. “I got back to Melbourne and realized there were literally no other running crews around.”
So he created one in June 2014 and labeled the name in a classic alarm clock format. Running, after all, can happen any time of the day.
Clement says running is celebrated all over Melbourne, but the establishment of running crews is still relatively new and growing. AM:PM.RC currently has 80 active members.
“It took a number of months for people to come out of their shells and become active with the crew,” he says.
And once they did, Tuesday gatherings at The Tan—a well-known running area in the city—became common. The 3.2 km dirt loop finishes with a hill, and the group often runs the loop twice. Sundays are reserved for Princes Park, where members run up to 12 km. And when they’re not running long distance, they’ll do interval workouts.
Every run we do, the crew gets stronger,” Clement says.
Hence, AM:PM.RC’s social media hashtag #strengthtostrength, highlighting group gains in fitness, friendship and community.
Learn more about AM:PM.RC in Good Sport, Clement’s new sports magazine.
Photos (in order) by Paulsta Wong (Bridgerunners and Mike Saes), Ash Narod (RDC), Jay Smith (PRC), Henrick Thorn (NBRO), Jaimie Peeters (Running Junkies), and Ben Clement (AM:PM.RC).