Never Run Alone: A conversation with Run Dem Crew and NYC Bridge Runners

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Running has long been considered the hobby of loners, high school kids who don't fit in with the jocks, or suburbanites trudging alone with an iPod. While we see athletes like LeBron James, Cam Newton, and Cristiano Ronaldo plastered everywhere, the image of the runner is seemingly absent from pop culture lore. Distance runs and camaraderie seem like antithetical concepts, but crews like London's Run Dem Crew and New York City's Bridge Runners are turning heads in two of the world's most recognizable metropolises while inspiring onlookers to join the throng.  With routes that explore paths both scenic and seedy alike, these running crews are looking to make the sport alluring to urbanites, to push themselves and each other. Both crews were on hand for the Shanghai Marathon, and we were fortunate enough to get a few minutes with DJ Charlie Dark from the London-based Run Dem Crew, who clued us in on the importance of culture and history. Mike Saes, a Downtown NYC veteran, began the Bridge Runners Crew and was also on hand to chat about urban exploration and the importance melding neighborhood awareness with improvisation.

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Charlie Dark

Founder of the Run Dem Crew

Can you explain the routes the Run Dem crew takes?

Charlie: The routes are thematic. We organize them around music. I make mixtapes we all download before the runs. So, in London, there are two famous estates that look similar, one in East London and in Notting Hill and they are 30 miles apart—and for one route, we run from one to the other. We always think about new routes. We go point to point, like to an interesting building or statue.

When your home city, London, hosted the Summer Olympics, RDC made an effort to document some of your crew's routes. Can you talk about the way the Olympics helped your crew get some well-deserved exposure?

I live right near the Olympic stadium. The reason RDC began was because I moved into the area. I was shown the plans for the stadium nearby. It was part of a way to encourage the community and our area, and that's why we began, to get exposure. It's important to document the neighborhoods in the city. We need documenting with words, art, and music for the next generation so they can know their past. We thought people could be more inspired by seeing someone normal running 4 miles than the athletes in the games.

We need documenting with words, art, and music for the next generation so they can know their past.

Do your other hobbies like writing and being a DJ influence your running?

I came to running by skateboarding and snowboarding. So the way that I run, I think like a skateboarder looking for openings in traffic. We in RDC are influenced by many other things besides running. As a DJ, I want to listen to dope music to inspire. When running, I want the dopest music to inspire myself and the crew while they are running. We also work with graffiti artists to paint things to visually inspire us along the route. Running doesn't mean that you stop what you normally do, with running you can still enjoy your life.

When running, I want the dopest music to inspire myself and the crew while they are running.

Can you tell our readers about Away Away Away?

Charlie: Running allows me to be in control of your life. It's not about a person's money, education, or friends. The road treats everyone equally. Running is a chance for you to leave your demons behind. Away Away Away is something we chant before every run, and it is a way to get all of our enemies and distractions away from us so we can go out and do what we came to do. It's a chance to clear the mind.

What advice would you give a runner who is looking to start or join a crew?

Charlie: If you can't find a crew, start your own. When I first started it was just me. It was me and other imaginary runners in my head, but then it went to six. Six members turned to 20 and then to 30. 30 went to 70 and to 100 and so on. Your crew may start with you running to the end of the street and then coming back and that's cool. The hardest thing to do is to just start.

If you can't find a crew, start your own.


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Mike Saes

Founder of the NYC Bridge Runners

Talk about your run to survive mentality and how it differs from running for exercise purposes.

Mike: We look at the exercise part as more of a benefit because we usually look at it as more of a lifestyle. We are here to do whatever we want, and then a few days a week, we get together to run about 7 miles. The health part is a benefit, but that's not the main reason we do it.

The geography of New York City presents unique opportunities for a mix of environments. How do you choose your routes?

We keep them fresh so we don't get bored. We center around the three lower Manhattan bridges—the Brooklyn Bridge, the Manhattan Bridge, and the Williamsburg. If we want to run six miles, we do the Manhattan to the Williamsburg. If we want to run 4, we do the Brooklyn to the Manhattan. So I switch it up all the time to make it different. We've done themed routes, like a Biggie run, or things for holidays. For bad weather, we use overpasses as part of the route. We did a few 10 and 12 mile runs to hit two new bridges recently—Borden Ave. and Greenpoint. And lately, we've been exploring, so I took out people for a 7 mile route. We kinda got lost and crossed over train tracks going up stairs, and at the end it was 10.4 miles. It's a wrong side of the tracks kinda thing sometimes when you're out there.

What are some of your favorite routes?

The new ones I just started. I did a 10 mile to go to the Queens bridge. For our Saturday runs, we run to Far Rockaway or Coney Island. We have a beer or a picnic afterwards, so we usually take public transportation or get a ride back. I also have a bike crew, where we can eat pizza and drink afterwards and can still get back, but running is a bit different because we wait up for people. Some didn't like to wait at first, but it's inspiring to that last person. We cross the bridge and wait and then meet up. We always want to inspire each other to do better.

Running is an individual sport, so can you tell our readers about what advantages there would be from working with a collective when running?

Our motto is never run alone. We don't run alone. A few years ago, I said it's easy to make excuses not to run, but if you have five or six people waiting for you on the corner in the park, it's going to make you show up. That's the first thing, and the second thing is you are running with pretty women and other competitive people, so running with others makes you do more. The trick to running is know that running is a boring sport, but when we run it's important to take the visuals and not think about your pain in your ankle or the mileage you cover. It's not like a home workout, as all of a sudden you're running up a bridge. It's really a mind game compared to when you're on a treadmill. The difference is that we think about the prospect of getting a drink at the end or the bonus at the end of the run.

Our motto is never run alone. We don't run alone.

We Bridge Runners actually look forward to the camaraderie and the event of running itself. It becomes inspirational for others to see what we do. We want people to see us running and think they can do it themselves. One way is to go out to the club the night before a marathon and then tell people I'm running the next day. 24 hours later, I'm out with my medal on after the race. Someone may be like—if this guy can do it, smoking and drinking, then I can do it. When I'm driving and I see people with lots of sweatshirts on when running, that's what I think real running looks like—real people doing it. That's why this relationship with Nike is important. We want to make running cool. Nike's old running shoes didn't look like the awesome shoes now, like the Flyknits. You can wear them at night and run in them. We run at night, we like kicks, and we go running together. It's not like basketball, where 10 people may or may not be good. With our sport, everyone can come in and run.

We want people to see us running and think they can do it themselves. 

Another interesting thing is if I run 26.2 miles tomorrow, I can run 30 the next day. There will be times when you can hit a wall. One time I hit a 19 mile wall, and it's painful. But, to be able to break through that on another day is awesome. There are really no walls because you eventually can go further than you did the last time.

There are really no walls because you eventually can go further than you did the last time.

Charitable work has become an important part of your crew. Can you talk about some of your favorite events so far?

We've been doing a Harold Hunter run for six or seven years now. He was a friend and a Downtown legend. He was inspirational to a lot of young black street skaters. A few runners told me about his foundation that sends kids to skate camps, so we thought it would be a perfect thing to get involved with. There is an event to send kids from the hood to skate camps. To me, sending a kid to skate camp to leave the projects and go to skate for a while is awesome. Now, I make sure our events have a meaning behind them.

Another is our Staten Island Shaolin run. We took a ferry in, and ran a few miles and ended up at a graffiti art center. It's three floors and we had a person give a lecture on the influence of Staten Island on hip-hop, the history of Staten Island before Wu-Tang, and other things, which was a great learning experience. We raised money for the space for them to keep going. I'm a born and raised New Yorker, and I am learning a lot too. One time, we learned about Little Italy 30 years ago. Over the years, it's become a learning experience about how neighborhoods change. We did one for Yankee Stadium, Fulton Fish Market, and even a 19 mile run and ended up at Spa Castle. We ran and got over near there in Flushing and a street was under construction, so we ran single-file on the side of the highway to get there. Some routers are like being a tourist in your own city. We have to keep our runners interested so that they don't focus on the pain in their ankle. Running is 90% mental and 10% physical, but that physical part is very important as well to treat the body right.

Running is 90% mental and 10% physical, but that physical part is very important as well to treat the body right.

What advice would you give people here for making running a more influential part of their lives?

Never run alone; run with the crew. Don't run parks; run through them. Run around. Take the path less chosen. If you see an alley, take it. Go for stairs; sprint up them. AS far as conditioning, teams need track work to get great conditioning. I only run 2-3 days a week, as I don't want to injure myself. One of those 2-3 days should be a track work out.  Take another day to do 3 or 4 miles yourself and do 5 with the crew. Don't take it too hard, so just keep the future in mind.

Don't run parks; run through them.

So to wrap up, Will Smith said that the two most important things are running and reading. He said running because there is a voice that tells you to stop. And when you beat that voice, you can beat anything.

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Special thanks to Charlie Dark, Mike Saes and Nike Greater China.
Produced by: Dan Hwang