To find out the future of social running, it might be best to look to the past. New Yorker Mike Saes started Bridgerunners, the city’s original run crew, in 2004 after he was late picking up his son from school and couldn’t catch a cab. So he decided to run there—across the Williamsburg Bridge, from Brooklyn to Manhattan, in boots and street clothes. Saes liked the experience so much he convinced his nightlife friends to come out at night every week, and soon a movement was born: A running group for people who weren’t chasing fast times, just fun times through their own city, often with food, booze or dancing at the end—or even along the way.
Today there are dozens of run crews in New York City, often founded by people who first ran with Bridgerunners. And they’re in every major city and every continent, all affiliated through a movement called Bridge the Gap, with regular meetups around the globe and ever-escalating parties.
What’s the secret to group running? “It’s gotta stay fun,” the 45-year-old Saes says. “I think when running gets too serious, it gets boring, and people stop, or forgot why they came out.”
Bridgerunners and the run crew phenomenon have now been around for more than a decade. Below, Saes shared with Competitor what makes run crews different, how Bridgerunners remains so popular, and what’s next in the movement.
Make running your own
I was a graffiti writer, so I’d run from cops, or from other graffiti writers when I had to, but I wasn’t really an athlete. Most people grew up with running as a punishment. ‘You have to do 10 laps if you f— up in the drill.’ And now, for us, it’s our joy. We kinda flipped it. If you change running to more of a distance thing and not a speed thing, then everybody can run. When you do all the training and you’re trying to win, that’s when you get injured. But if you just jog it and enjoy it, you don’t really get hurt. That’s what I’m trying to show to people. I’ve got nothing against speed, I’m obviously jealous I don’t have natural speed like other people. I’ve never won a marathon, but I’ve been running every Wednesday for 12 years now.
It’s not just about the run
For run crews, the running is just one part of what connects us, but it’s really more than that. It’s music, lifestyle, art. When we travel we all go to museums, we do dinners, and we have a party and every deejay from each crew spins. This has been the tradition. It’s a real movement, like skateboarding and graffiti and hip-hop. We created a running movement.
Personalize your runs
We do our annual Harold Hunter Run [a local actor and skateboarder who passed away in 2006], which is our biggest run of the year. We raised $6,000 and had 550 people or so. Recently we put on an ultra where a bunch of the crews got together and ran 27 miles from Van Cortlandt Park to Coney Island—our version of the Warriors’ run from the movie Warriors.
Wait for the new runners
Bridgerunners is not for everybody. A lot of people go once and never come back. They complain that we’re a photography crew because we stop and take so many pictures. But for the new runners, every time we stop and take a picture, that means they can catch their breath. If you’re running a 12-minute mile, we’ll wait for you. We’re gonna be on the other side of the bridge waiting. And we’ll clap for you, and we’ll make sure that in the next couple of weeks you’re gonna turn 12 into 10, and 10 into 9. And I think that’s the real reward of crew running.
Run your city
Early on we decided to make running about the culture of the city. Make New York City the star and run through neighborhoods and teach people about them. Not only did you run 3 miles or 5 miles, but you got this great New York experience, and a lot of times we would give people stuff to take home with them—books about the Brooklyn Bridge, or one time we did a run with [photographer] Martha Cooper and we gave away one of her books. Or we run through Little Italy and talk with [Sopranos actor] Vinny Vella, or run at Yankee Stadium and talk to [rappers] Nice & Smooth.
People have this rule that if you’ve lived in New York for 10 years, you’re a New Yorker. But I’m like, if you run with Bridgerunners it’s eight years because you learn a lot by running with us. It’s our job to point things out, like ‘Yo, this is the best pizza,’ or ‘These are the best bagels,’ or ‘Let’s stop here and get shots.’ Or ‘Here’s the ice cream spot, let’s stop here and take a picture.’ I don’t think we really care about running really fast and getting our best times. We’re more about running 7 or 8 miles on Wednesday night, then eating and celebrating it.
Most people do their workouts in the morning and get it over with. The thing with Bridgerunners, and I’m sure it’s the same for any run crew, is you look forward to running. The difference between us and run clubs is those people [in run clubs] are looking at their numbers and they want to get it over with. Whenever we have a choice and I’m like, ‘Should we go the long way or the short way?’ The answer is always the long way.
Make it spontaneous
I don’t know where we’re running until that afternoon. Somebody could tell me there’s a concert here, or there’s an art show we could go crash, and we’ll do it. That’s part of the energy of ‘where’s it at?’ Because at the same time we’re showing up at these places and funking it up, making it more sweaty, we’re inspiring people. Because all of a sudden 50 people just came into this art show, appreciating the art, had a beer and now they just ran off. Two or three people who might’ve been at that show will be like, ‘Yo, I wanna join that gang.’
Race at night
The whole status quo of running doesn’t really fit my lifestyle because we all like to dance, drink and chill, and so we’re out till 4 in the morning. Which is why we needed to do our own races, running with the sunset. Why should we conform to what’s out there when we could create our own little world of running and have other people join us that don’t wanna get up at 6 in the morning? I love running, but it doesn’t have to be how it is and I wanna change it.
So I’ve been trying to lead the movement into doing our own runs where we start in the evening or late afternoon and we finish with the sunset and then we have a party and dance and shake out the lactic acid. I’m designing 50K ultras called Run This Town. The first group that wants to run 31 miles will probably start at noon or 1 o’clock. It’s basically a 5-hour run. We’re making them kind of a food tour where along the way you get food like Shake Shack custard, or maybe a local pizza place like L&B Spumoni, and we’ll have food trucks in between. Because in ultras you’re allowed to eat. For the first group doing all 31 miles, when they reach the 22-mile point another group will jump in. The energy of the new runners feeds the tired runners, and the group gets bigger and bigger toward the end. Then at the end we have a concert and more food trucks, and everybody’s celebrating. Now if that’s 31 miles, or 7 miles, or just farther than you’ve ever gone before, you can celebrate.
Don’t run alone
I knew when I started Bridgerunners 12 years ago that it could be global, but I didn’t think there would be the genuine crew love that I have for other runners, or that we all have for each other. It’s the adrenaline or the endorphins that you get from running, the runner’s high, and now you’re in a room sharing that with other people—that euphoric collective energy of running. So you can’t help but fall in love with these strangers because we all ran and we all sweated together, and now we’re all dancing together. It creates this kind of energy that’s amazing.