Confession, I’m not a runner. My brother is an 800m runner. My sister is athletic and my mum used to be a frequent 10K participant. But me? I skipped that gene apparently. But hearing Andrew Agnew of We Run Belfast talk so passionately about running, makes me feel like I’ve been missing out massively this entire time. What appeals to people, myself included, about We Run Belfast is that they’re so much more than a running club. For one thing, they identify as an urban running club, meeting up to run around the city under the guise of darkness and with an emphasis on support as opposed to skill. What drives We Run Belfast is their passion for community. They welcome people of all running abilities and make sure no one gets left behind. It’s a collaborative project from start to finish, from organising each run to encouraging one another during the run itself.
We spoke to Andrew about his experience with urban running clubs, why he started We Run Belfast and how we can get involved. Andrew’s passion and enthusiasm for the initiative is infectious, even as we communicated through email about the We Run Belfast story.
Can you tell us more about how you first got involved with urban running clubs and how you first heard about them?
I spend some of my working life in London, and a colleague told of me of an ‘underground running crew’ that meets in East London, late at night, and that I should check it out, which I did. I turned up, not really knowing what to expect, and was totally blown away. Everyone was so welcoming. We had some coffee, shared some stories and set off around the capital under the cover of darkness. A few people on the night explained that there are running crews in a few other major cities around the world and that a few times a year they all meet up – it’s like a family they explained.
I was hooked. I discovered the world of running crews through Instagram, learning about groups from Paris to New York City. I knew there would be a demand in Belfast, in fact, I knew it’s just what Belfast needed.
How did We Run Belfast get started?
This all started out of my love for running, and the overwhelmingly positive effect it has on my mental health.
I thought this is something more people need to know about. I recognised that there were some common misconceptions about the support and so I set out to remove some of the barriers to entry. I had to make it seem ‘cool’, and that it could be for everyone. I thought the key to my success would be getting people to run with others, but not like a traditional running club.
So, I wrote a tweet and sent a text to a few friends who weren’t runners and asked them to meet me at my friend Tim’s donut shop (Oh! Donuts) in Belfast. I said we would meet, have a coffee and a good time, and then set off on a short run at night around the city. I stressed to them that they didn’t need to worry about having all the right gear, the Garmin watch or newest shoes, they just need to show up.
I was totally blown away. 20 people showed up that first night, 10 of whom I didn’t know. Since that night a family has been created, a group that is connected by a love for running the streets together, looking out for each other, and pushing each other to be the best that they can be.
You’ve said that you felt the key to your success would be running with others and not in a traditional running club sense. Why was making this a group activity so important to you and what set it apart from a traditional running club?
Running crews are more than a club. Anyone can print t-shirts and run about together. But for us, it doesn’t matter who fast you can go, if you have the right gear or if you’re brand new – anyone is welcome at WRB. We don’t just care about people who are ‘like us’ or who ‘fit in’. Our crew is a family, we know each other by name and we care about what’s going on in the lives of our crew. Running fast marathon times and PBs are secondary to mental health. We completely believe that community has the power to cross boundaries and change lives, playing a small part in uniting our city. We have a deeper purpose and bring something radically new to the culture.
How does the group cater to different abilities within the people who come together to run?
Almost every night of the week members of the crew are running together – of all different abilities. Last night some of us who are running some fast times did a 10K and really pushed each other – it was really special. But we always do a full crew 5K on a Wednesday. We all run the same route and we all run together. This is the highlight for me because it’s what brings us all together, no one gets left behind. We’ve had guys and girls come along that had never run before. They started pretty slow but already most of them have completed 10K races and are now planning for longer distances.
Had you intentionally held off promoting the group for a while?
Yes. For the first few months, we didn’t want to shout about what we were doing. We knew we had something special, but we wanted to incubate it for a while with a small group that really get the culture.
How do you organise the runs?
This is a collaborative process. Every member of the crew has equal input into what we do and who we are. We discuss ideas for runs through the week and communicate them in really creative ways on social media. We print illustrations of the route and bring them to the crew runs before we set off.
What’s the vision for We Run Belfast?
Our big vision is to inspire more and more people to get moving and to get into a community. We’re particularly interested in engaging with young people in our city, to be positive role models to them and to show them how fun this running thing can be. It’s not about how fast you can go or getting a PB, it’s just about having fun with it, and connecting with like-minded people.
We don’t know where the movement is going to go, but we’re dreaming big.
How can people get involved?
Instagram. Reach out to us there and we’ll fill you in. We meet at a great coffee shop in the city centre, hang out, warm up and set off. I promise you’ll be hooked.