Running Crews- A History

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Mike Saes captured by Akira Ruiz

With the global explosion of running crews, it seems like there’s a Bridge the Gap event most weekends. With this expansion the message can be diluted, and the origins and reasons behind the movement can be lost in the mists of time. Mike Saes is the godfather of crew running, as sure as Afrika Bambaataa is the godfather of hip hop. One of the commandments of hip hop is that you pay respect to those who paved the way. To quote Saes, “It came from gang culture to boogie crews, popping crews, b-boy crews and now it’s running crews. It’s the same exact hip hop energy which we find through running.”

Like hip hop, the Bridge the Gap movement was born in New York. The year was 2004, and legendary graffiti artist Mike Saes was late to pick up his son from school. Knowing a cab would be no help in the gridlocked traffic, he ran across the Williamsburg Bridge (Willie B) from Brooklyn to Manhattan, dressed in ordinary apparel. Buzzing from the runner’s high, Saes convinced friends including co-captain Cedric Hernandez and rapper Power Malu to come out once a week to run bridges before they partied. “Hot summer nights, we’d run at midnight or 10pm, get margaritas and beer.” Bridge Runners was formed, and they turned running culture on its head, flipping the record and relegating early morning rooster runs, clean living and short shorts firmly to the B-side.

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Charlie Dark, Run Dem Crew

Three years later, London based musician and poet Charlie Dark knew he needed to make a change. He’d recently lost a friend from the music scene, and when rehearsing a skit about Public Enemy for a one-man stage show, he caught a glimpse of his black power silhouette and was alarmed to see evidence that age was catching up with him. To lose weight, he began running alone under cover of darkness, before convincing a handful of friends to run with him one evening a week. When Charlie entered his first race, he couldn’t help feeling his face didn’t fit; culturally, something needed to change. Learning about Bridge Runners, Charlie recognised they were creating space for a more diverse running community, so he reached out to Mike Saes, bridging the gap across the Atlantic.

Surfing a wave of positive energy, Bridge Runners and Run Dem Crew grew into large, diverse collectives of creatives, pushing the boundaries of who can run, and what it means to run your city. One night in New York, Mike, Charlie and others discussed how every city in the world has an iconic bridge. Tipping his hat to the old school hip hop scene, Charlie suggested a Bridge Wars project where crews would try to claim a bridge in another city. Mike flipped this competitive idea on its head and spun it into an opportunity to bring people together. Bridge the Gap was the perfect moniker, paying homage to the origins of the culture and setting the tone for the future.

Charlie reached out to Paris Run Club, Amsterdam’s Patta Running Team and NBRO, from Copenhagen, inviting them to come to Berlin for the half marathon in March 2012. “That first call to arms where we descended on Berlin will go down in history as a landmark moment, especially if you take into consideration how the running scene has progressed and blossomed since,” said Charlie. PBs were achieved, international friendships formed, and, thanks to hard-drinking NBRO, the crew commandment “Run, Party, Repeat” was written.

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NYC/ MOS/ LDN

Speaking with Saes after I first ran with Bridge Runners, I asked him what he thought of the proliferation of new running crews, likening the game-changing impact of the foundation crews on running culture to that of the Wu-Tang Clan on hip hop.

“I like that,” he replied,”but I prefer to think of it as like the mafia. You have the five families: Bridge Runners, Run Dem Crew, Paris Run Club, Patta Running Team and NBRO.  There’s room for everybody at the table. But the five families sit at the head.”

When hip hop developed at South Bronx block parties in the 70s, nobody could have foretold that the culture would grow into a global art form with rap/ DJ/ breakdance and graffiti subcultures. With success comes brand interest and commercialisation, and it was only a matter of time until hip hop became an industry. Run DMC’s Aerosmith collaboration, Walk This Way, was a great record, but it also heralded the broadening of the audience to include mainstream rock fans. From there, it was only a matter of time before the cultural appropriation, homogenisation and dumbing down of hip hop through artists like Vanilla Ice. As the industry became more adept at marketing this new product, the quality and diversity of music getting major promotion declined.

Mike’s first run across the Willie B may have been an inauspicious beginning, but it led to a global movement. Just as with hip hop, major brands have taken an interest in that movement, supporting it insofar as it brings them to a new market, and continuing to exploit it for their own ends. We must defend the culture to ensure it doesn’t become as vanilla as the one it initially reacted against. In crew running, as in hip hop, it’s important to always keep it real, and to ensure that those new to the party understand the origin story and who it was that blazed the trail.

So, salutes to Mike Saes and the five families. All you new kids on the block, remember where this came from. When you run the Millie B (Millennium Bridge) in London, know that you tip your hat to the Willie B in New York, where it all started. Keep it fresh and push things forward. Bridge the Gap is much more than a hashtag.

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Bridge Runners, Below Hell, 2015, captured by Jason Lawrence.
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