Meet The Running Revolutionaries!
As far back as I can remember, I hated runners. Not running – running was fine, it was fun, it was what my dad did every morning. But runners? They were popular. They were disciplined, had coaches, wore skimpy outfits. They were – ugh – athletes. Me? In high school, I was an asthmatic, four-eyed, rebel skateboarder. The cultural chasm between us could not be bridged.
Then, in my mid-20s, I started running to stay in shape. I’d leave my flat in a singlet, my sensitive bits slathered in anti-chafing gunge, an interval workout on my mind.
Except… except that when I looked around at members of running clubs (and around the country), I did not see myself – a nerdy skater. I saw the clean-cut, hyper-organised, mainstream athletes I’d always resented. Where were the weirdos, the misfits, the eccentric explorers who wanted more from their running lives than to train like Wayde van Niekerk?
As it turns out, they were there – but not in running clubs. They were in running crews. Such a tiny distinction – three letters! – but crews and clubs are worlds apart.
The idea of a crew began in the US, around 2004, when a New Yorker named Mike Saes organised night-time runs that began in town and ranged over the East River into Brooklyn and back. They were unstructured, with exploration and community-building as important as the actual exercise. The group called themselves the Bridge Runners.
RELATED: How To Build Your Own Running Crew
Soon after, crews began popping up elsewhere. London, Amsterdam, Copenhagen, and Paris all saw crews arrive and thrive. In South Africa too, now-well-known running crews arose: The Nine Four in Cape Town, and Thesis Run Cru in Soweto.
As the movement grew, what differentiated crews from clubs wasn’t just where, or when, or how they ran (everywhere, often at night, uncoached), but who was doing the running.
Frequently, these were men and women who didn’t fit the traditional runner profile, though many were damn serious about running and would crush you in a race. They were skaters, DJs, street artists. They had tattoos and piercings well before everyone had tattoos and piercings. They were not necessarily white, not necessarily skinny, and not necessarily straight. They were, although few probably understood it at the time, the future of running.
RELATED: SA’s Fringe Running Crews
Today, urban running crews are proliferating at a mad pace, each with its own theme (diversity, intensity, wackiness), each organising and drawing in new members via social media (Instagram in particular), but all united across thousands of kilometres by their love of running, their defiant independence, and their bone-deep respect for individuality.
Here are four from SA (and two from the US) that we’re dying to run (and party) with.
BRAAMFIE RUNNERS // BRAAMFONTEIN, GAUTENG
Braamfie Runners began in 2012 as an invite-only club for influencers and celebrities. But as more and more ordinary people became inspired by the club’s running posts on social media, it expanded into a fully-fledged running crew, which now has in excess of 50 members.
The crew has no chairman, AGM or licensing fees. Rather, it’s an informal group with stacks of personality: artists, medical students, hockey players and DJs – you name it.
“Our members are young, fashionable people who love to express themselves in the way that they dress for a run,” explains member Netswa Ngwenya. “They’re more concerned with socialising than smashing a PB.”
The crew runs from their base in a popular hub in Braamfontein, where there are funky, trendy spaces like the Neighbourgoods Market and the Bannister Hotel. Many of Braamfie’s urban runs are connected to events, and to spaces such as museums and stadiums.
In August – Women’s Month – the crew hosted a series of women-specific events, which included yoga and training sessions with well-known fitness experts. Members are treated to a braai on the first Thursday of every month.
Braamfie Runners train in large groups, which makes the streets safer for women runners – and they’re free to wear any gear they like, without fear of heckling or negative comments.
“Our T-shirts are emblazoned with the Bridge The Gap (BTG, a movement that connects run crews from around the world) motto: ‘Run. Party. Repeat.’ The message is that you can have fun while running,” says member Stuart Hendricks.
“We have a few accomplished runners, some of whom have run the Comrades in under eight hours. Among our members are physiotherapists and biokineticists,” says Ngwenya.
The crew is involved in community outreach – one event was a charity drive for a shelter
OUR INSTAGRAM STORY
“Our photography is aimed at a young, fun-loving, urban audience.”
On Instagram @braamfierunners
RUNSL // CAPE TOWN AND JOHANNESBURG
In August 2016, SA sneaker and streetwear store Shelflife opened a new shop in Johannesburg. To mark the occasion, co-founder Nick Herbert and general manager David Davey created a platform where a group of likeminded individuals interested in fashion – particularly sneakers – could run, hang out and bond.
“We wanted to demonstrate that fashion and running aren’t mutually exclusive,” explains Davey. “Running is hungry for this ‘cool’ aspect, and people want to look good when they’re doing it. But it’s also not all about how you look – through healthy exercise, we acknowledge there’s more to life.”
RUNSL has around 15 core members, who use the Shelflife stores in Cape Town and Johannesburg as meeting points. At each store, they talk about what’s on the shelves. Then, they run in a pack through the city streets at night. If there are enough members out running, they split into a faster and a slower group.
Each member pledges to run a certain number of kilometres per month, and follows a training schedule. They all have similar interests, and hang out together at weekends.
“You don’t need to be a member, though,” Davey points out. “Anyone and everyone can come and run with us.”
“RUNSL is the only South African running crew to operate out of two cities: Cape Town and Johannesburg.”
OUR TRAINING WEEK:
“On Mondays, the crew runs 8km from the store, and on Wednesdays either a 6km run, or we’ll hit the stairs or do some sprinting. On Saturdays we run between 10 and 12km.”
On Instagram @shelflifestore
WATCH THIS SPACE:
“RUNSL will introduce its own Instagram page fairly soon. We have a massive following on Shelflife’s page, but we realise we need to separate ourselves: not everyone interested in sneakers wants to see posts about running.”
THESIS RUN CREW // SOWETO, GAUTENG
Thesis (in this case, ‘research to illustrate a new point of view about street culture’) began as a streetwear and lifestyle brand – with a small store in the Sowetan township of Mofolo Village, selling T-shirts and bucket hats inspired by youth culture in the streets: art, graffiti, music.
Founder Wandile Zondo used the shop as a base for his training runs – and as more people living in his neighbourhood noticed, they wanted to join him. The group hang out at the store after their runs, and even have braais at each other’s houses.
The crew prides itself on being beginner-friendly. “Londiwe was a complete beginner when we first saw her, running in Pimville,” Zondo remembers.”She was overweight and had a long way to go; but we helped her to improve by sharing our knowledge of nutrition and training. This year, she’s training for her first marathon.”
“Anyone can run, from high school to tertiary students, and from bankers to creative souls. As long as you’re passionate about running, you will be accepted into our movement,” says Zondo.
A LEARNING CURVE:
“There’s always someone in our crew who’s more experienced than you, and who’s more than happy to share their expertise.”
WE LOOK OUT FOR EACH OTHER:
“When I sustained a calf injury, my friends encouraged me to forget about achieving a silver medal in the Soweto Marathon, and instead focus on healing and rest. If I hadn’t listened to the advice my crew shared, I might still be carrying that injury with me today.”
On Instagram @thesisruncru
THE NINE FOUR // CAPE TOWN, SOUTH AFRICA
In 2014, Paul Ward founded The Nine Four – a name inspired by the year South Africa became free, and symbolising the freedom for mixed groups of people to run together, in any area.
They’re a group of people aged 20 to 30 who are creative, listen to the same music, and party together. The crew run through the urban streets at night, and afterwards, they hang out together at their base – a clubhouse called The Burrow, in the heart of Cape Town. Half of it is lockers and showers and the other half is a living room with couches, table tennis and an X-box.
Sometimes, events are hosted at The Burrow – it’s a platform for DJs, cooks and the odd sneaker-head to collaborate.
“Although running is the core, building a family that supports each other is vital – not just in running, but in all aspects of life,” says Ward. “That’s why we’ve limited our number of members to 30.”
WHO THEY ARE:
“My friends and I are a group of creative people: artists, illustrators, designers, sneaker-shop owners, models and bloggers,” Ward says. “We come from all over the city: Bishop Lavis, Tamboerskloof, the city centre and the southern suburbs.”
WHAT THEY WEAR:
Black T-shirts and reversed peak caps, emblazoned with a white rabbit logo – which symbolises an animal that you can chase, but you can’t catch.
HOW THEY CONNECT:
The Nine Four is part of the Bridge The Gap movement (search #bridgethegap #btg on Instagram), which connects running crews from around the world.
On Instagram @theninefour
RESIDENT RUNNERS // New York City
To run in New York is to run through chaos – to time the lights, to hurdle fetid puddles, to piss off cyclists. To do it alone is a burden. But to do it alongside 25 others, all of you swarming past pedestrians over the Williamsburg Bridge at dusk on a Thursday, marking your progress by graffiti and strange smells (fried fish? dope?), pushing yourself faster than you thought you could – well, that’s the challenge and joy of Resident Runners.
“Yeah, it’s a little reckless,” says Rahsaan Rogers, who leads the crew (founded in 2013), along with his friends Eric Blevens and Raymond Hailes. “But it’s part of running in this city. That’s how we do it.”
How they do it is this: they run fast – tempo pace, whatever that speed is for each runner. “We tell people to chase whoever’s a bit faster than you,” Blevens says. They don’t wait for stragglers. They don’t talk much. And yet, despite the aggro façade, they keep the mood light. Because the run is the prelude to a party. Even if you get left behind, Blevens says. “We’re gonna be there at the end, and we’re gonna hang out and get beers.”
Or tacos. Resident may be most famous for its monthly Taco Runs, chilled five-milers (8km) that end with 40 to 60 runners cramming into Güeros, a Brooklyn hangout, for the Fried Avocado and Jalapeño speciality. Frozen margaritas, however, are “the underlying theme”, Blevens says. “They’re quite large, quite strong, and we have quite a few.”
Words we live by: “There’s nothing better than getting lost in New York when you’re running – it’s how you figure everything out,” Blevens says.
“The biggest issue, honestly, isn’t even with the cars or traffic – it’s cyclists who hate us,” says Rogers. “There are a lot of times when we’re running in the bike lanes, and some guy will heckle us. It’s a non-stop battle.”
On Instagram @residentrunners
UNNAMED RUN CREW // BOSTON
The Unnamed Run Crew (UNMD for short) was created as “an act of defiance”, its founder, Leandrew Belnavis, says jokingly. He wanted to promote the diversity and friendliness he felt were missing from Boston’s hyper-competitive, traditionally preppy running clubs.
Today, the UNMD’s group runs of five to eight kays, which start at a high-end sneaker boutique called Laced near the city’s Back Bay neighbourhood, are energetic and loud – designed to attract attention in whichever neighbourhood the 30-plus members (“of every possible colour”, Belnavis says) are passing through.
‘What the #*@% is this?’ Belnavis wants observers to say. Followed by, ‘You know what, I’m gonna drop what I’m doing and join you.’
And people do. Over the summer, two random women visiting from New York spotted the UNMD doing track relays, and demanded to join right then and there. It was raining, and they didn’t have running gear, but that didn’t matter. They ran.
Which is exactly why the crew was created. Belnavis wants everyone to join weekly rambles through the city’s different neighbourhoods: the fast, the slow (“sexy-pace runners”, Belnavis calls them), and everyone in between. “I want them all to feel like rock stars at the end of the session, every time.”
We dress to: Impress. What you put on your feet matters to Belnavis, who plans the runs out of the sneaker shop Laced to reflect his sneaker obsession. He appreciates “any type of collaboration between fashion and function.”
Don’t run with us if: “You have derogatory things to say about the LGBT community, find racial remarks appropriate in normal conversation, believe feminism is a joke,” Belnavis says. “But if you care about community, celebrating diversity, and getting fit, there’s a place in this crew for you.”
On Instagram @unnamedruncrew