Running culture in Los Angeles is changing, and that change is at the vanguard of the big-picture shifts happening throughout this country: geographic, demographic, generational, technological, social.
Traditionally, if you wanted to run with other people, maybe you’d gather a few close friends on a weekend morning to meet in Griffith Park or to run along the Strand, or you could join one of the informal runs hosted by a running shoe store. With a goal of training for a longer race, maybe a half marathon or to finally check the LA Marathon off your bucket list, you could join a group like the LA Leggers or the LA Roadrunners, large dues-paying communities providing structured training schedules and group runs. Trying to get faster and hit a goal time during a race? Join a track club, with weekly repeat sessions in locations clustered on the westside or South Bay.
But a new type of running culture is emerging: the night run crew. With an ethos of “reclaiming the streets,” these groups meet in front of Disney Hall or Mariachi Plaza or at the end of a Metro line and run on sidewalks from traffic light to traffic light through the densest, urban parts of the city. Workouts start as late as 10pm and are coordinated by technology, with often changing routes and locations broadcasted on Meetup or Instagram. There are no dues, and many runners hopscotch amongst different groups, using running as a vehicle to see art, get to know different parts of the city, feel like part of a party or adventure, share pictures, meet neighbors and make social connections, earn beer. And the group pictures that end each night reflect a shifting picture of Los Angeles: younger and more ethnically and racially diverse. Each of the nearly two dozen running crews differ in focus. For example, BlackListLA has mushroomed into the largest crew, highlighted by runners blasting personal boomboxes on a weekly route to view street art. Grand Park’s Rundalay is family friendly, with leaders sharing positive mantras, a range of pace groups including one for walkers or injured athletes, and monthly charity drives. Groups like the Boyle Heights Bridge Runners, Highland Park Runners, and Koreatown Run Club are neighborhood focused, aiming to build community amongst residents and guests alike, while DTLA Runners is a more loosely organized series of Meetups for downtown dwellers to connect and run. We Run LA locations change weekly to explore different parts of town. The Republic focuses on getting faster, with coached speedwork on the roads and special jerseys awarded to regulars most dedicated to pushing themselves to improve. Pushing the age limitations of a millennial (I’m 34), I straddle both the more traditional and new worlds. When I first moved to Los Angeles over a decade ago, I used the internet to find a track club that would push me to improve and be a structured respite away from my demanding teaching job. Every Tuesday, I drove from work in South LA to Santa Monica to run repeats with Track Club LA. But I’ve lived in Koreatown and Boyle Heights, and after some time away from running wanted to reconnect with the joy of running, be more engaged in the community closer to home, and experience the energy that seems to be radiating throughout urban Los Angeles. So I set a goal to join as many night crews as I could in a week, using social media to set a schedule. And I told my girlfriend not to expect me home until late . . . since I was going running.
Run #1: Rundalay Monday, 8 pm Distance: 3.5 miles
Rundalay is all about sweating out positivity through your pores. It starts with the meeting location: above the Grand Park fountain, with its alternating sequence of yellow, green, purple, and blue, kids splashing in the shallows, the coffee shop glow of Starbucks, and City Hall rising up behind all of it.
Assembled with me was a diverse group that included a wheelchair athlete with medals around his neck, who was recognized along with others who had raced the previous week. Runners were split up on the steps into pace groups for all abilities, labeled by innocent-sounding colors (I joined the “red group,” which turned out to mean “hustle to keep up”), before reconvening in one teeming, swirling bait ball of fish, happy in the safety of the group, hands joined in the middle, for call-and-response affirmations led by the group’s leaders: “I’m a runner. I can. I will. I’m inspired.”
To that mantra, we were sent off to careen around downtown, racing from traffic light to traffic light south, runners divided on opposite sides of the street nodding and smiling at each other. Stopped at lights, I may have met my annual quota for fistbumps.
The entire group convened in front of the Broadway Bar to take a picture, before heading back north to the park. Leaders used walkie-talkies to communicate amongst each other, and when a runner twisted an ankle, everybody stopped.
Loping back up the hill on Temple Street and down Grand to the finish, we zig-zagged down the ramps to hi-fives, upbeat music, a water station, and lots of Instagram pictures. I took some with new friends who had first welcomed me when I arrived early at the fountain. I met a runner who had left WWE Raw at Staples Center before the final events so she could make it to the run, willing to exchange comic violence for a Rundalay dopamine drip. I basked in the glow of such a positive and supportive group. A good way to start the week.
Run #2: BlacklistLA Monday, 10 pm Distance: 3.5 miles
Blacklist is less a run than a street party. It’s a place to break out glowsticks.
To hold a speaker in each hand playing MGMT or a classic soul jam and dance while waiting for a light to change.
To bring your dogs and comment on how they look like they are smiling. To take LOTS of Instagram worthy pictures of radiating skylines and streetlights.
To join a long, winding chain of people, snaking over bridges and through tunnels, to a stopover in front of a piece of art.
It could be a mural covering the side of an entire apartment block, or a genre-representative piece of graffiti slashed across an underpass. There will be an explanation of the artwork, and professional-quality group photos taken, before the massive human slinky springs onward back to the start.
My Blacklist experience began even before the run started, meeting a young runner swept into the culture through social media.
Walking down from Grand Park to Little Tokyo to double up with the group, I was joined by Luis Herrera, a student at Santa Monica College. He got his start by following his favorite comic, Kevin Hart, on Instagram, running his first 5k at a “Run with Kevin” event at Venice
Beach. Inspired by the energy of that event, he started joining downtown running crews and now is training for his first half marathon.
I completely lost track of time as our discussion veered into the upcoming NBA season and right up to the instructions from the Blacklist leaders, before I was suddenly following the crowd.
I don’t even remember exactly where we went. Though it was fun not to know. An adventure, a game of follow the leader. With everything that goes on in daily life, it was refreshing just to let go of control. All I had to do was keep moving and I’d end up somewhere new and exciting.
The route led to a parking lot on Beaudry across from Roybal High School, where we waited for the entire group to assemble for a photo in front of a mural. I took pictures with my friend from Marco (from my “home crew,” the Boyle Heights Bridge Runners). A runner in a Lucha Libre mask climbed to the top of an embankment for the group picture.
Then, one final rush through the second street tunnel, a surprise climb to Disney Hall, and back where we started.
Marco gave me a ride home. Originally from Honduras, as DJ Fuego he’s highly sought after for parties and quinceaneras. In his truck as we talked about run clubs, he asked that I correct his English, and I asked him to correct my Spanish. And after he dropped me off, I thought about how beautiful it was that in a big, disconnected city, running could bring us together and forge new friendships.
Run #3: The Republic
Tuesday, 8 pm
Distance: 1 mile warmup, 4–6 x 1200 repeats, 1 mile cooldown
No matter where you start from, The Republic is about getting you faster. Maybe you’ve joined other running crews, built a foundation, even done a race, but are curious to see if you pushed yourself just how much really is in the tank.
The Republic will push you. You’ll find a small group that wants to see just what they are capable of achieving, and a coach who knows his stuff.
You’ll eye members wearing those blue long sleeve Boston Marathon shirts and wonder “just how did they get those?” while thinking that’s something for other people . . . and then a year later realize you can be one of those people, too. They are the night crew equivalent to a track club . . . except they don’t always run on the track.
In the process, you’ll become friends with a tight-knit group, earn your after-run pints in the Arts District or Little Tokyo, and if you are exceptionally consistent, dedicated to the group, and committed to your own improvement, earn a coveted Blckshrt jersey.
I met the group on the corner near Spitz. The small talk was about the upcoming weekend’s Chicago Marathon. Passing by, a young woman stopped to ask about the group. She’d just moved to LA and was thrilled to find runners she could join.
The warm-up jog brought us under the Chinatown Metro station, where coach Bobby Elsinger led us through plyometrics, carefully explaining and modeling each drill. Then the workout: Repeats at 10k pace along a nearly deserted 1,200 meter stretch of Spring Street, past the under-construction Los Angeles State Historic Park (aka, the Cornfields) to the underpass of the Broadway bridge.
Coming back from an injury, this is the first time I’d done speedwork in over a year, and I was already sore from not checking my pace during the two runs the prior night. But I fell into rhythm in the dark, guided outbound by an occasional set of headlights and a neon sign near the bridge, and inbound by the yellow lights on the elevated Chinatown station and the lit-up skyscrapers beyond it.
Nearly silent except for my breathing, it felt like running on an isolated rural road. An unexpectedly serene gift so close to the buzz of the city.
Afterwards, the group retreated to the Arts District for drinks to celebrate Coach Bobby’s 42nd birthday as well as the final run of Dylan Kent, a long-time Blckshrt who was moving to Seattle.
I found Coach Bobby, a middle-school teacher by day, to be a meticulous and technically gifted coach, though he described his coaching philosophy simply as “learning from the mistakes I’ve made as a runner.” I made sure he had two beers in hand.
And for Dylan and the others, I got the sense that The Republic is not only a place to “find your fast,” but to find a home amongst a group deeply committed to each other, recapturing that feeling of being on a team . . even if you have never been on one.
Run #4: Boyle Heights Bridge Runners
Wednesday, 7:45 pm
Distance: 3.1 miles
I was eager for Wednesday night since I consider the Boyle Heights Bridge Runners my “home crew.”
I might be biased in my love for the Bridge Runners. I coached for nearly a decade with Students Run LA and trained with Track Club LA, but then I got burned out, injured, and stopped running.
A coffee with a neighborhood council member steered me to the Bridge Runners, and with it back into running and back into the community.
The group originally started in 2013 when David Gomez, who had been running with groups outside of Boyle Heights, asked “why can’t we have that here?” Co-founder Elisa Garcia from Espacio 1839 joined in, they recruited friends (including current leaders Rolli Cruz and Lizzette Perez), and with consistency the group steadily grew. Rolli notes that new runners are “caught by how much love is at the root of what we do. And a big part of it is the positive energy.”
Running with the Bridge Runners has the comforting feeling of hanging out in your living room with your large extended family. Your living room is Mariachi Plaza. The lights of the plaza and downtown remind you of lights during the holidays. This large family includes an array of teachers and truck drivers, social workers and small business owners, artists and organizers, all trying to support each other in being just a little bit healthier and happier. Reflecting the Eastside, this family, diverse in age and ethnicity, is largely Latino, a group that in the past may have had to go elsewhere to find a running community.
Milling about Mariachi Plaza before the workout, I notice the overlap amongst the running crews. Marco (DJ Fuego) was here, along with two other friends who were out at Rundelay. Another familiar face from The Republic last night, teacher Sylvia Cabrera, showed me the “Run Your City” app, a recently launched tool gathering the workouts of all the run crews in one place.
Gathered up in a group, Rolli calmly welcomed new runners and reviewed the route across the 4th Street bridge into downtown and back up 1st Street, which stays constant from week to week. After community announcements which included an introduction to a new neighborhood nonprofit (the Dad Project), everyone walked to the corner and started the run together.
With the consistent route, the run is like a soothing “greatest hits” collection of hills: a scamper down Boyle and the 4th street hill, a steady climb over the bridge crossing the LA River into Little Tokyo, a short interlude past an arcade and hip restaurant goers, then back along 1st street, the next bridge alongside passing Gold Line trains, and a final push up the hill back to Mariachi Plaza.
I start my watch at the beginning of the run, but don’t pay much attention to it. With the Bridge Runners, it’s not about time, but togetherness.
Facebook: Boyle Heights Bridge Runners
Run #5: DTLA Running Group
Saturday, 7:00 am
Distance: 9.3 miles
Based less on a philosophy than an organizing principle, If you are downtown just about any day of the week and looking for an organized run, the DTLA Runners have you covered. Over 3,000 runners have joined their Meetup.com hub, connecting to at least four runs a week and each other, with many users active on their Facebook group arranging additional informal runs based around work schedules.
A weekly schedule of runs includes a session just for beginners, two meetups around downtown with multiple pre-mapped routes at varying distances for each, speedwork on the USC track, and weekend long runs. Pizza and beer are often listed as post-workout options.
I originally planned to run with this group on Thursday night, but entered the wrong time on my calendar.
All the online tools and social media can’t substitute for double checking the time.
After four consecutive evening runs, I think I needed the rest anyway. Instead, I joined the group early Saturday morning as they prepared for the Rock n Roll Half Marathon.
Leader Andres Cruz reviewed the route: practicing on the race course, we’d head down Fig to 23rd Street, turn around, then head out and back on Wilshire all the way to Western.
Given the start-time, we were a quiet group. Yet somehow the time flew by. Just cruising down ordinarily busy streets, past the emerging line at The Original Pantry Cafe and out to a slumbering Wiltern Theater as the rest of LA was still waking up. It felt good to get up so early and feel like I’d accomplished something to start the day.
After, I chatted with Andres. A front-end web and app developer, I recognized his name on the “Run Your City” app. A leader of the Saturday morning group for four years, he said he built the app when he really should have been working.
At the end of a week joining so many running crews, I thought about this remark. When he should have been working on a project alone, he choose to build something linking all the running crews and bringing people together.
I thought of the connections to my interest in civic engagement, which goes back to my capstone class as an undergrad. I’ve read “Bowling Alone,” Robert Putnam’s landmark 2000 text on the decline of membership in community organizations and its societal implications. In it, he argues that as a society we have become increasingly disconnected from family, friends, civic society and democratic institutions. We eat less meals together, have friends over less often, belong to less organizations that actually meet. With those changes we have less social capital, less strength in our networks to share information, provide mutual aid, take collective action, and transform “I” into “we.”
After a week with downtown running crews, observing the cross-pollination of membership amongst them, their diversity by race and class, the growing spread of their reach and evolution into new areas of civic life (from sponsoring art projects, supporting local charities and activism, and even incorporating as their own nonprofits), I had the sense the Putnam may have been premature in issuing his civic death sentence, with new types of organizations emerging to replace the old.
My sense is that what Andres and so many others are doing is the real work at hand.
And instead of “Bowling Alone,” maybe the next book (or app) will be called “Running Together.”
Twitter: @DTLARunning / Meetup.com: DTLA Running Group /
Facebook: DTLA Running Group