Found on RunnersWorld.com and written by Caleb Daniloff
Offbeat running clubs are breaking from tradition and redefining what the sport can be for a new generation of athletes.
It all started nine years ago when Cedric Hernandez’s buddy decided to run home over the Brooklyn Bridge after an evening out rather than take a cab. “He saw how amazing it was and said he wanted to start running bridges,” says Hernandez, 31. “There was no traffic. He didn’t have to deal with stoplights. It had great hills. That’s when he started the club.”
Today, the NYC Bridge Runners, a rotating crew of 300 night owls who tackle the city’s bridges every Wednesday evening, represent a growing fitness movement around the country. From New York City to Denver to the hinterlands, grassroots crews are gathering on the streets for out-of-the-box workouts and a chance to connect, all heavily facilitated by social media.
“We use our city like a playground,” says NYC Bridge Runners co-leader Hernandez. “We never know what we’re going to do until we get there. It could be the 59th Street Bridge. It could be the Williamsburg. We might do the Triple-Bypass, which is the Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and Manhattan bridges. We’ll make people do pull-ups on the stop sign. Anything that you could hurdle or jump over, we’ll do that. We want to get people stronger and make it a lot more fun.”
Offbeat running communities are not entirely new. Think Hash House Harriers, the colorful “drinking club with a running problem” that dates back to the 1930s. But there’s definitely been a movement in recent years to experience running in nontraditional ways—just look at the explosive growth of Color Runs and obstacle-adventure races such as Tough Mudder. “Our group is best described as ‘unconventional,'” says Paul Jones of the New England Spahtens (say Spartans in your best Beantown accent), a running club composed of some 1,200 obstacle-course aficionados. “You’ll find us running a local 5-K with bricks in a rucksack and doing 30 burpees at each mile marker.”
Certainly the vibe and the loose, entertaining structure of these groups appear to be attracting a new generation of runners and would-be runners who may find the classic format of traditional running clubs too intimidating or serious, or who might not see their handful-of-miles-a-week as enough to qualify them as running-club material.
In Boston, November Project, a two-year-old fitness group, is ringing loud, in part because of an infectious spirit that’s equal parts ass-kicking and arms-wide-open. At their free workouts, hugs and positivity awards are the norm. So are F-bombs and spray-painted T-shirts. They stage their own guerrilla street races, with the finish line a local watering hole. Three times a week, hundreds of fitness enthusiasts of varying athletic abilities lace up for the 6:30 a.m. sessions.
In Denver, Joe Hendricks draws a whopping 250 souls to his grueling three-hour, total-body workouts, dubbed It Burns Joe Fitness. Wednesday workouts are held downtown; Saturday and Sunday sessions are at the iconic Red Rocks Amphitheatre. Running is part of the burn: sprinting up bleachers and hills, and 5-K “banana runs” where lead runners peel off and back-of-the-packers can move to the front. “We stay together as a group that way,” says Hendricks, 50. The former BMX trick rider is also a DJ and hosts dances for his members, whom he considers family. He hasn’t charged a dime for a single drop of sweat. “That’s part of the magic of this thing. People are there because they want to be, not because they paid and feel they have to be.”
The no-rules-no-dues ethos, coupled with a sense of communal ownership, is particularly popular among twenty- and thirtysomethings, who are well represented in these unorthodox tribes. That doesn’t surprise Jason Dorsey, 35, the founder of the Center for Generational Kinetics and author of several books on Gen Y, a generation that grew up very much connected and included.
“Gen Ys want to be seen as unique and to be part of something special,” says Dorsey. “When we look at these underground clubs and any underground athletic event, the fact that it’s underground, emerging, new, and different, that really is the draw, and Gen Ys tend to be early adopters of this.”
Social media is clearly a significant driver, too. The Idiots Running Club, started by a pair of rural runners in Ozark County, Missouri, took to Facebook two years ago. They now boast 2,000 members around the world who identify with their sense of fun and runnerly self-deprecation.
“It’s not life or death whether you qualify for Boston; it’s just running,” says David Murphy, 41, a utility contractor superintendent. “None of us are going to be elite Olympic athletes. We’re still going to be moms and dads and work our day jobs. We have an oath that people have to take. They have to promise not to take things too seriously, and give it everything they have, and it ends with them spinning around three times and spitting. That’s all it takes to join.”
The Idiots Running Club now stages monthly group runs and an annual eight-hour Skunk Run in Missouri’s Mark Twain National Forest, complete with event shirts and old copies of Runner’s World for prizes. In the virtual world, they are representing, too. “There are Idiots out in Washington and Detroit that get together all the time,” Murphy says. “I see a lot of posts like: ‘Hey I’m going to be traveling to Florida; I’ll be in Tallahassee. Are there any Idiots out there?’ And people will respond and then they get together and run.”
Bojan Mandaric, 32, November Project’s cofounder, says social media not only gets people in the door but amplifies his group’s message. “We tag people in photos,” says the former Northeastern University rower. “Everyone wants to see themselves looking good. We shoot as many quality photos as we can and handpick the ones people would pay $40 for and share them for free. We know people will use them as their social media profile, that their friends and family will see it and ask: ‘What is this November Project?'” Many of these tribes, if not all, were the happy accident of a couple of pals wanting to work out together, and they have grown organically into bona fide communities. Mandaric says a group like November Project helps correct a social flaw he sees in traditional running clubs.
“There, you have a separation of fast groups, middle of the pack, and back of the pack,” he says. “Fast runners will train with fast runners and hang out with fast runners. All our workouts are strategically contained within one area, so you can have the overlap of the fastest and slowest, and they’re constantly supporting and encouraging each other.”
It appears that America’s fitness buffet has added a bunch of new and flavorful stations for runners and potential runners alike. Hungry? Dig in.