GRAEME COUSINS puts on his trainers and joins a recently formed urban running crew as they take to the streets of Belfast
Running is very often something people only do when they are late for an appointment or chasing a bus.
And while you will often spot people about the Province in a tracksuit or other sportswear, the number who actually break a sweat whilst wearing it is disproportionate.
Therefore credit must go to the men and women of Northern Ireland who brave the changeable weather conditions to venture out for regular jogs – be it for a park run challenge, an ultra marathon or a quick burst on a Sunday morning to clear the cobwebs from the night before.
A modern phenomenon for those with an eye on both physical and mental health is the urban running crew – a group of people who get together late at night to explore their city at a sustainable pace.
We Run Belfast (WRB) is one such crew which was started by Andrew Agnew based on his experiences in London with a similar group of like-minded individuals.
Up until I began typing these words, WRB had been a secret organisation, communicating via a Whatsapp group and occasionally sharing photos and snippets on social media without giving too much away about what precisely WRB was up to.
Andrew invited me to join them at 8.45pm on a chilly Tuesday at the end of February, to raise some awareness of his running buddies and what they are out to achieve.
He said: “Until now WRB has been a well-kept secret. Our idea was to incubate it for a little while. I had thought it might just be me and a few friends, but even without really promoting it, it has grown.
“Now we’ve got a good idea of who we are so we feel the time is right to promote it.”
The 23-year-old from south Belfast explained the philosophy behind urban running crews: “Around six months ago when I was in London for a bit with work a guy told me about this urban running club. Late one night we went to this warehouse in east London. It must have been about 11pm. There were about 80 people there of all shapes and sizes. We just went out and started running around east London.
“No one had the right gear, some people were brand new to running. When we got back and there was a bit of a party almost. This had been going with that particular group for about 10 years.”
Run Dem Crew was formed based on the fitness habits of Charlie Dark who had found himself in bad shape, physically and mentally.
Andrew said: “The doctor told him he needed some sort of exercise. He was overweight and he didn’t have all the nice gear to exercise in. He did community work in the schools in the area. He didn’t want to be seen and have the kids make fun of him so he went out running late at night. As weeks went by his friends noticed he was getting healthier and happier and asked if they could come along too. It just sort of snowballed from there into a running crew.
“In lots of major cities there are these running crews. They’re not super serious running clubs, it’s just about feeling good and getting moving.”
We Run Belfast went on their first run on October 31 last year and Andrew said he was blown away by the turn out: “It was started by word of mouth and a single tweet.
“At one point I thought it was just going to be me and a few mates who I’d invited, but I was overwhelmed by the number of complete strangers who turned up just because they saw a tweet which wouldn’t have given them too much idea about what it was about but they just came down because it sounded like something new and interesting.”
“There were 22 people who ran that night. It was great.”
The crew meet in Oh Donuts, a cafe in Upper Arthur Street which specialises in coffee and donuts, and occasionally the runners will indulge in a donut or two after the run.
“I don’t think you’d get that with a proper running club. Hopefully we’ve burnt off enough calories to earn them,” said Andrew.
He commented: “The message is ‘just show up and run’. You don’t need to worry that you don’t know anybody. We have a great bunch and you’ll be instantly welcome. And no one will get left behind. We’ve a big range of ages and abilities.”
Another advantage of meeting in Oh Donuts, which is owned by Andrew’s friend Tim Graham, is the ready supply of coffee before each run.
Andrew said: “Coffee beforehand gives you a legal performance enhancer. A lot of cyclists will have a caffeine stop. That’s why you’ll see a lot of cyclists in coffee shops.”
On the Tuesday night I joined the crew as we covered roughly five kilometres to the Great Light in the Titanic Quarter and back.
The run started at 9pm and while some of the group splintered over the course of the run there wasn’t more than about three or four minutes between the first and last to finish, at around half past the hour.
So how does Andrew communicate to the crew when the next run will be?
“We have an Instagram page although we communicate mostly through Whatsapp,” he said.
“We’re still very, very new. We’ve done about 15 runs. To date we’ve had 58 different people throughout the different weeks. I’ve tried to get them all in a group so we can let them know when the next run is.
“It’s either a Tuesday or a Wednesday. We try to alternative it a little bit as some nights don’t suit people.
“It shows me that people are attracted to running by the fact that it’s being done in a group. It’s difficult to motivate yourself to go out for a run on your own.
“Plus, we emphasise the fact that it’s not a serious running group. We’re not really interested in how fast we’re going, or if everyone has all the right gear, it’s just about getting out there and feeling good, feeling part of something.
“We usually do somewhere between five and 10 kilometres. A few of the guys are very good runners and they would maybe do a longer loop, but the idea is to start and finish at the same time.”
Andrew said that the creation of “an inclusive and welcoming community” was even more important than the running aspect.
He said: “We’re the first urban running crew based in Belfast and, to the best of my knowledge, the only one of our kind in Northern Ireland.
“We’re a community that welcomes anyone to join us, grab a coffee and run the streets of Belfast at night.
“We completely believe that being part of an inclusive and welcoming community like this that looks out for one another and where no one feels out of place has the power to improve mental health, and is just good for the soul.
“Running crews in other cities typically attract people who wouldn’t have been runners before or even fit at all. It gets people moving.
“The thing that keeps them there is the community – getting to know other like minded people – and it being a very relaxed and enjoyable atmosphere, with no one taking the running too seriously.
“Running is so easy to get into. You don’t need expensive equipment to get started.”
He said: “Looking after mental health is central to running crews. For example most of the people who are coming along are less so my friends who were initially supporting it and more so people who have come along on their own who were craving a community like this.
“Now it’s a group of individuals that otherwise didn’t know each other who are starting to connect. Friendships are forming outside of the nights we run.”
Reporter enjoys work out for the body and mind
I was put off ever joining a running club because of a fear of literally getting left behind. Plus, and probably more importantly, I don’t like running.
Perhaps that’s not strictly true, I did go out for runs quite regularly when I was younger and playing sports, be it football or rugby, every Saturday.
The running was a means to an end, to build up fitness, to put me in a better position to indulge in contact sports.
But as the injuries have taken their toll, I’m coming round more to the idea of a more gentle way to keep fit.
Having not ventured out for a run in longer than I can remember – at least a year – I was a bit nervous about my experience with We Run Belfast.
I have a decent level of fitness, but would I be able to run for a prolonged period without a ball to chase?
The answer was thankfully yes, and what’s more the aspect of running in a pack at a reasonable pace made running feel less like a chore.
It was a refreshing experience in many ways, a workout for the body and mind thanks to the engaging chats I had with people I’d never met as we enjoyed five kilometres of cityscapes at a time when Belfast is getting ready for bed.
For more on We Run Belfast see instagram.com/werunbelfast