Three years ago this spring, Matt Green just wanted to do something different for his birthday.
After graduating from college a few years back, he and some of his buddies fell into a typical routine of working, trying to get some kind of exercise in and then
ultimately hanging out at bars.
Although none were committed runners, they volunteered at the Nike Women’s Half Marathon—passing out water to runners in the finisher area—and were moved by the positive energy and sense of accomplishment the runners gave off. At the same time, they’d seen the spark of excitement around some newly formed running “crews” in New York City and London.
So Green decided that, instead of just going out to a bar and having a bunch of drinks with friends, he’d turn his birthday celebration into a 5K group run at midnight. It would still be set at a bar along H Street and there would be food and libations afterward, but the point was to do something fun—and unique—with running.
“We didn’t know how many people would show up, but it got big in a hurry,” Green, now 30, recalls. “We had 125 people out at midnight on H Street, not to go to the bars, but to go on a group run! All we really did was post it on social and people started sharing it, and it just spread. That’s how we found out social media marketing can work and start to build something.”
And that’s how the District Running Collective was born.
Green and his pals put on more themed events—including another Midnight on Mars later that summer. However, their informal Wednesday night fun runs based out of The Coupe restaurant also started to gain a following.
What began as a small group of 10 to 15 runners meeting at a neighborhood restaurant quickly grew to 40 or 50 runners. The low-key, anyone-can-join culture had no barriers to entry. It didn’t matter if you were already training with a group or if you’d never run before at all. All you had to do was show up and run 3 miles or so before having some 50-cent hot wings, kale salad and a cold beer while mingling with a diverse group of people.
The group only has a few rules and guidelines, and most are tied to having fun, being safe and making conversation: Headphones aren’t allowed, and you need to leave your ego behind.
“It became a thing, and people that we’d run by on the streets wanted to know what we were doing,” Green says. “We’d shout out, ‘We’re District Running Collective! Come run with us on Wednesdays!’ And then the next week, you’d see some of those people running. The cool thing is that it was attracting a lot of people who would have never considered running before.”
The group continued to grow into 2014, but Green says the retention rate fluctuated. Instead of making it just a basic Wednesday night run, he really wanted to develop a sense of community, where people could start training for races together and develop friendships outside of the group. (They avoided running around Washington D.C.’s celebrated monument parks, if only because they wanted to keep the runs within local neighborhoods.)
In addition to organizing long runs on the weekends and trips to races in New York City, Miami and Chicago, the DRC also organized a Christmas party.
“We rented a bar and everyone came out all dressed up,” Green recalls. “Normally we’d just see each other in running gear after a run. At the Christmas party, everybody looked completely different in nice clothes. That’s when you could really start to see people were interested in being part of a community.”
The Wednesday night runs continued to grow, so they found a bigger meeting point at the Colony Club restaurant and bar. Before long, many of the people who showed up but never considered themselves runners were training for their first half marathons with support from the group and loads of inspiration via Instagram posts.
“I was a very casual runner before I moved to D.C.,” says Ashlee Lawson, a 32-year-old marketing director who started running with DRC in 2014. “I heard about it and decided to go for a run because I was looking for something to do when the weather got better that spring. My first run sucked because it was cold and raining and I hadn’t run much in eight months. But it’s one of those things where you’ve gotta stick with it, and DRC gave me a reason to stick with it.”
Lawson encouraged four other friends to come out for the weekly runs and by that fall they ran their first half marathon together in Philadelphia. That kind of encouraging vibe has continued to spread: DRC has more than 5,200 followers on Instagram and 1,100 people on its email list.
Since 2015, the DRC has regularly attracted more than 100 runners for its Wednesday night runs, which is why Green smartly appointed captains to help keep things manageable and let runners self-
select which group they want to run with—the front-of-the-pack Flyers, the moderately paced Movers or the easy-jogging Cruisers—based on their own speed and experience level.
“For me, running is almost secondary to the community,” says Lawson, who became a DRC captain in 2015. “Running is sort of the common thread that holds us all together. It’s the reason we’re able to be this community and be social and become friends and have these relationships that hold each other accountable.”
This year the DRC has worked with D.C. mayor Muriel Bowser in her initiative to help the city’s citizens become more fit and lead healthier lifestyles. They also developed a grassroots partnership with Baltimore-based Under Armour.
Ultimately, Green says, DRC exists where fitness, fun and community collide.
“I didn’t think anything would materialize as big as it has,” Green says. “To see people come out who would never think about running just a few months later sign up for a race, train for a race and finish a race is really cool.”