When Mike Saes broke into a jog between the cars and skyscrapers of New York one day a few years ago, all he really wanted to do was get somewhere on time. But in so doing, he also kicked off the global craze in urban running. With crews now popping up in pretty much every world city, we donned our trainers to find out more.
- Marc Deckert, Pauline Krätzig
Mike Saes’ transformation into a fitness guru began with a rather heavy lunch: a burger with creamed spinach, polished off with a lick of the lips at Peter Luger’s Steakhouse in Brooklyn. It was time to collect his son from nursery, but as usual there was no sign of a taxi when he needed one. With the clock ticking, Saes started to run. Over the Williamsburg Bridge, which connects the Williamsburg neighbourhood of Brooklyn with Manhattan, and on for another mile or so. A gentle trot at first, building to a steady gallop, and all in his regular street clothes. Eventually he reached the Financial District.
Saes felt light on his feet and wondered why running had never been so enjoyable before: “Getting up onto the bridge was good, but seeing all the people and looking around the city was even better. There was none of the pain and boredom you normally associate with jogging.” Saes began running through the city more regularly. What started off as a spontaneous decision by a young New York dad worried about being late for his son quickly blossomed into a global movement. It was yet another of those trends with its roots, quite literally, in the streets of New York. And one that has since conquered the world – over often winding and bumpy roads and lanes, sometimes dark and sometimes hidden.
Urban running seems to satisfy a yearning in us for both togetherness and meaning or variety in our often dull fitness routines.
Saes gradually convinced his friends to join him that summer, frequently at night as it was often too hot during the day. Every Wednesday evening they would choose a different route. On occasion they even ran through the early hours after a night of clubbing – and usually a bridge would figure somewhere on the route. In fact, discovering their city was as important to the members of the crew as the running itself. “From that point on it became more of a culture tour than just a ‘running for non-runners’ event,” says Saes, reflecting on those early days of the New York Bridge Runners. “We chose different bridges to connect us with the stories of New York City. It was an amazing learning experience even for a True Yorker like myself. After a long run we would cool off in the fountain outside the Supreme Court.”
Great pride and not a little marketing skill on social media
These days, you’d be hard pushed to find a big city without a running group in the Saes mould. In London there’s the Run Dem Crew, in Paris the Paris Running Club and in Berlin the Berlin Braves and the Run Pack Berlin. Asia has been bitten by the bug, too, with runners in Seoul and Hong Kong pounding their own street canyons and scampering over bridges. In Shanghai, meanwhile, Yuan Zhou – eyewear designer and boss of the new Chinese hipster label Chaireyes – founded the Dark Runners (“dark” on account of the late hour at which they run).
From the word go, the Bridge Runners and their many imitators have been enthusiastic online picture-posters. This wasn’t something they had invented, of course, but the way they put things together did set a different course. At a time when individualisation appeared rampant, here were people putting on a display of companionship, running in groups, taking photos, passing by interesting places, making it up as they went along. It’s a combination that has proved appealing to many, and the crews have set about spreading the word with great pride and no little marketing skill on social media. Sports brands quickly picked up on it, sponsoring events and trips. But at the heart of the movement lies a genuine need, without which it would never have spread so far and wide or drummed up so many supporters and emulators on Instagram and Twitter (under the hashtags #CrewLove and #Bridgethegap). Urban running seems to satisfy a yearning in us for both togetherness and meaning or variety in our often dull fitness routines.
“Running has gone from an individual sport to a social event, and this happened almost overnight,” says one of the members of the Manic Run Club in Toronto. Those who turn up for the runs are motivated not only by group training, but also the social element. The routes often finish in trendy bars – or bars that are now becoming hip thanks to the runners frequenting them, such as An Choi, where New York’s Orchard Street Crew often stop by to sample the frozen margaritas.
Running and nightlife
There is certainly nothing puritanical about the crews: Saes himself admits to liking a cool beer after a run. Many of the crews were even founded out of cafés and bars, and they use social spots that attract crowds of friends as starting points for their runs and to recruit new members. It’s not exactly a coincidence that cities with a vibrant nightlife are also home to a large number of running crews. The other thing the running crews share is a scepticism towards traditional sports club structures, with their secretaries and treasurers. The word “crew” comes from graffiti culture and is heavy with romanticism and implications of a group of like-minded people sticking together through thick and thin.
The urban running scene has spread rapidly around the world in recent years. Back in 2012 several crews in Berlin met up for a half-marathon and founded the #Bridgethegap community, which tweets photos, provides a source of mutual assistance and support and enjoys the #CrewLove, a hashtag also frequently used by the international scene. There are some things that separate the groups, but much more brings them together. Competition, more or less all the runners agree, is not the driving force behind this international phenomenon. Some groups do run faster than others – Copenhagen’s NBRO Running group, for instance, contains some particularly high-level performers. But the urban running movement is not really the right place for those who just want to crack their personal best and share an energy bar afterwards. Some crews split into slower and faster groups.
But that’s not the Saes way. He wants to run with every newcomer to the crew and get to know them all. And even though the routes have become more diverse over time, each fresh recruit to the NYC Bridge Runners can expect to start with a bridge run over one of the big three: the Brooklyn Bridge, the Manhattan Bridge or the Williamsburg Bridge.