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New York City’s First Lady of Running

Jessica Zapotechne has been at the epicenter of NYC's run-crew scene for more than a decade and her latest project, Girls Run NYC, brings community building to a whole new level.

Every Wednesday at McCarren Park in Brooklyn, N.Y., a couple dozen women gather at 6:30 p.m. sharp for their weekly track workout, although few of them have ever run competitive track in their life.

Many have been to a Girls Run NYC track session before, but first-timers need only check the group’s Instagram feed for its artfully styled weekly flyers disclosing the practice’s time and place, adorned with a certain type of female icon. One week it’s Bobbi Gibb, the first woman to run the Boston Marathon; other weeks it’ll feature Frida Kahlo, Joan Jett or Beyoncé.

Trackside, the tall lady with short blond hair and a big smile at the center of it all (including the Instagram account) calmly calls for a bit of stretching to start things off. One of the group’s longtime members who dutifully acts as her megaphone then echoes her, shouting, “OK, time for dynamic stretching!”

Girls Run NYC’s leader may speak softly but she carries a big reputation: Her given name is Jessica Zapotechne, except nobody ever seems to call her that. Ask nearly any regular group-run participant in New York City about “Jessie Zapo,” however, and they’ll all know her. There’s even a good chance that she introduced them to one of the many proliferating running groups known as run crews that are popping up in nearly every neighborhood in the Big Apple. For others, this 37-year-old art therapist who’s sometimes nicknamed “the First Lady” might have been the reason they came out in the first place.

Group running is having a moment right now, especially among recreational runners with little experience. Sure, run clubs and track clubs have always been around forever. In the past 10 years, though, an egalitarian vibe has swept through running as people in cities around the world discover the sport or find their way back into it, and go on to establish running groups, known popularly as run crews. They tend to explore urban areas on the run at night, and largely shun the staid, stratified trappings of traditional running-club culture. Instead they are full of runners of all speeds and abilities with less aspiration to podium or relentlessly shave seconds off their PR, but a strong desire to all go out for, say, ramen and beers afterward.

In fact, social media has spawned social exercising for all sports and types of workouts, and numerous studies by the American Journal of Sports Medicine and elsewhere attest to group exercise’s many benefits. In running’s case, it’s shattering the old stereotypes of the loneliness of the long-distance runner.

“For me, [group running] fulfills a basic need to be a part of the community,” Zapo explains. “Even though New York City has lots of people, it can actually be difficult to feel like you’re part of something. And also, there’s collective energy that’s shared when you run with other people. There’s an actual transfer of energy that happens when you run in a group. When someone is leading your pace group they’re expending a lot of energy that they’re sharing, and that you’re feeding off of. When you’re being pushed or pulled by other people, it can take you to new places and break personal barriers.”

Think back to the first time you got into running. If it happened at any point beyond the fearlessness of adolescence, you were probably scared. It’s easy to forget, but most new runners are. The desire is there, but running with others who are stronger, faster? The possibility of getting dropped—of literally being left for dead—is real, and intimidating.

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Zapo is in a sense New York City’s ambassador of running. She has been the founder or leader of several run crews in the past decade that have achieved a measure of renown on social media among runners, and attracted the attention of Nike and other brands in the process.

“Jessie is an amazing person to introduce people to what we do as a running community in New York City,” says Joe DiNoto, a friend and founder of Orchard Street Runners, a run crew in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. “She’s great at bringing people in and making them feel like this isn’t gonna be the most painful experience of their life.”

Zapo is a tireless organizer, but she also has a personality that’s magnetic in the sense that she makes people comfortable—after all, she often works with at-risk youth in her day job. It’s a quiet, humble kind of charisma, you might say, free of bombast or a cult of personality, as many who open gyms or push fitness programs often focus on. But that doesn’t mean she isn’t worshipped.

“She is my Dalai Lama,” says Rasheda Herndon, who has followed Zapo through everything, she claims. “She is extremely mellow. She’s very quiet. But she gives off this heavenly energy. I don’t even know how to really explain it, but she’s always there for you.”

There is also an authenticity to Zapo, everyone says, that comes from the credibility of being one of the first—and, for a while, only—females on the scene starting in the mid 2000s. She grew up in Ohio with five younger brothers, and so holding her own among guys came naturally, but carries huge respect among women. Zapo, who ran track in high school and picked it up again later in her twenties, found running the same way that many people do: As an honest, all-encompassing discipline that serves as a way out from a previously destructive—or at least unsatisfying—lifestyle.

“I was bartending, and really into nightlife,” Zapo says. “I love parties and being social, but I was developing some unhealthy habits. I got into running because one of my nightlife friends started BridgeRunners—he would always talk about this running group.”

Zapo says her running was mostly on her own and had never even considered herself a runner. But in 2005, when her friend invited her to a track workout in Chinatown, the group ran over the Manhattan Bridge into Brooklyn, then back over the Brooklyn Bridge back into Manhattan. That experience had a powerful impact on her.

“It’s beautiful and it’s also hard, and I was just hooked,” Zapo says. “I was coming back every week. I was drawn to the consistency: It was always there, it didn’t matter what else was going on. I loved that, especially when everything else was so crazy. I also realized that you can’t go out to happy hour after work and then go run.”

For Zapo, BridgeRunners, and group running, presented her the possibility of a whole new lifestyle. And a new her.

“It just sparked something for me, which was realizing that you can still be an athlete as an adult even if you didn’t go down that road,” she says. “And from running that one time a week I started running more times on my own, and then learning about these other running groups then learning about races, it opened up this whole other world that I was not even aware of.”

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Zapo took to running so intensely that soon she became one of the leaders of BridgeRunners. In 2012, she and another BridgeRunner named Knox Robinson, a former collegiate distance runner, trained a group of new female runners for the Nike Women’s Half Marathon in San Francisco amid BridgeRunners’ intentionally unstructured, sometimes confounding weekly runs. Nike was impressed, and the whole experience gave Zapo and Robinson an idea to start their own crew. So in early 2013 they invited 25 BridgeRunners to join Black Roses NYC, a Nike-supported private membership collective that applied an elite-style training regimen to recreational runners throughout a season, building toward a goal race.

The split with BridgeRunners was less than amicable, though, and no one involved goes into much detail. Black Roses was an unqualified success, and continues to be. But in early 2015, Zapo stepped away from Black Roses to start something she long considered vital: a women’s run crew. The group-running scene in New York City, like elsewhere, can be very fluid, with many runners participating in different crew runs throughout the week. Many of Girls Run NYC’s participants run in other groups, and with other crews around the city—but this one is just for them.

It’s the kind of place where, out of a few dozen women, some of them can run 6:30 miles for a marathon; others have never done a track workout in their lives.

Girls Run NYC’s most interesting and crucial attribute, though, has nothing to do with running, strictly speaking. The group uses the WhatsApp phone app to communicate information about training, weekly runs and races, but it’s taken on a life and purpose of its own. What has developed is a tightly knit community bound by running.

“It’s cool because we start to talk about stuff like work, and people are talking about relationships, their children, or deaths they’ve experienced,” Zapo says. “Everything kind of comes out in there, and it’s been really powerful as a safe place for women to speak about what’s going on. And when we get together to train, everyone’s kind of connected to each other on this emotional and physical level.”

“We’re able to call on each other at anytime for any reason, and you know that somebody is gonna be there,” says Ameerah Omar, a former collegiate heptathlete and a regular at Girls Run NYC. “Jessie’s created a community where there is a system of trust and accountability, and even though we’re all independent and live our own lives, we know that we have each other within running and outside of it.”

Girls Run NYC is free, and free of sponsorships, and Zapo intends to keep it that way for now. There’s no rah-rahing, no matching T-shirts or initiation rituals, and no pressure to increase membership that stretches beyond the typical satisfying pleasures of altruism, and the contagiousness and zeal of gospel-sharing that self-improvement often inspires. Growth is achieved either through word-of-mouth, social media or people simply walking up during practice and asking about it.

It’s low-key in one sense—big shoe companies are taking an increasing interest in the run-crew phenomenon, which, on the whole, is becoming more of a branded experience—but it’s not even as low-key as some of Zapo’s other projects.

In 2013 she started Bkfast Club, a weekly, early-morning easy run through Brooklyn. She started it as a way to get coffee with her friend, Ariel Roman. But soon others caught wind of it, or passers-by would ask to join the group, and now it’s a mini running hub full of artists, musicians, freelancers and other creative types whose schedules allow for morning runs followed by coffee that, again, has turned a lot of non-runners into runners.

Then there’s a monthly run and deejay night one Friday a month called Out to Cruise. Zapo was also recently tapped by Samsung to start a run club out of Samsung 837, the brand’s new experiential digital playground located in the Meatpacking District.

With such a hectic schedule, Zapo says she usually runs five days a week, but keeps her mileage around 30 to 40 per week. She also recently became a USATF Level 1 coach, which adds some expertise and authority to her many groups as she assumes more of a coaching role in them.

And her influence extends way beyond New York City. In 2011, when she was still a BridgeRunner, Zapo helped start Bridge the Gap with Great Britain’s largest run crew, London’s Run Dem Crew. It’s a movement that’s part outreach and part goodwill, in which crews from all over agree to meet at races across the globe and share local advice, routes to run or even a sofa to sleep on.

What started with crews in New York City and London quickly found fellow members in Paris, Berlin and Copenhagen, and then all over, including the Balkans, the Arab world and throughout Asia. Nowadays, Bridge the Gap meetups occur every month somewhere, usually centered around a marathon or half marathon.

Nearly everyone who knows her and knows the New York running scene agrees that Zapo’s Girls Run NYC is vital for the community, and essential for the growth and health of the sport.

“Jessie doesn’t do fluffy, and she doesn’t do pink,” says Charlie Dark, founder of Run Dem Crew and a longtime friend of Zapo. “I think that’s really important, because the industry at the moment, the way it talks to women, it’s either in a hypersexualized sort of way or it’s in a kind of ‘You’re not as hardcore as the boys, so here’s your little 5K with some pompoms’—or it’s the other extreme where in order to keep up with the men you must be bigger and stronger.

“Jessie’s finding a nice, comfortable middle ground that creates some real spaces to how women run.”