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How To Run At the End of the World: Tribe Called Run

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It is the height of marathon training season and if you’ve walked past R. House in Remington during a recent, steamy Monday twilight, you’ve probably noticed an enormous swell of runners pooling around the entrance. It might be a bit overwhelming, this cacophony of excited banter, glistening skin, ponytails, and brightly colored sneakers.

Maybe you’re out walking your dog—who is undoubtedly confused by the large number of humans gesticulating wildly in athletic attire. Maybe you’re just trying to circumvent the crowd to get to your fried chicken and cocktails. But maybe your interest is piqued. Maybe you’re curious about the neon-clad man listing off directions and street names over a bullhorn.

 

Will Walker

That man’s name is Will Walker and he’s the charismatic founder of the running collective A Tribe Called Run. To say this group changed my thoughts and feelings about what running could do and be would be a vast understatement. I’ve been a runner since I was about fifteen years old, which means that—as I shuffle through middle age—I’ve been a runner longer than I was a non-runner. But I never ran cross country or track and only recently started running as a social activity.

If you asked me why I run, I would probably tell you that I started around the time depression and anxiety kicked in so hard that I couldn’t sleep at night. I’d probably parrot some platitude about running being “meditative” for me. But now, as I train for my first marathon, I find myself wondering (to paraphrase Haruki Murakami) what do I think about when I think about running? How does running figure into my mental health regimen and my creative work? Is it meditation or ideation or more than that? And, if I’ve spent so many hours of my life doing this one thing, shouldn’t I consider what it means to me?

For Murakami, running is “both exercise and metaphor.” In What I Talk About When I Talk About Running (the running memoir every vaguely literary runner you know has read) he describes his running practice as solitary and uncreative. He doesn’t use his long runs as a way to generate ideas for his novels, but rather as a time to clear the mind and focus on self-improvement. A writer friend recently described Murakami as having an uncanny ability to “write about emptiness,” which rings true of his approach to running. It’s quiet and spare—disciplined, even. And, since the book is a rare example of a novelist writing about running, it’s easy to take it as a blueprint for a creative life that is also a running life. But what if you think—like I do— that running could be much more expansive than Murakami’s approach suggests.

It is also not lost on me that I’m re-reading this book, which Murakami partially wrote in Hawa’ii, as parts of the state are in cinders due to wildfires caused by the climate crisis. In fact, the title of this piece is lifted from Natalie Loveless’ How to Make Art at the End of the World: A Manifesto for Research-Creation, which in turn takes its framework from Timothy Morton’s Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World.

Loveless sees the arts as having a role to play in the contested epoch known as the Anthropocene, or the human-created ever-warming hellscape we now call the world we live in. She argues that the arts “offer modes of sensuous, aesthetic attunement, and work as a conduit to focus attention, elicit public discourse, and shape cultural imaginaries.” I think what Loveless is getting at in her book is that creative practices can be a mode of understanding and rethinking humanity’s place on our ever-warming planet. I wonder what role running might play? But more on that later.

 

Murakami’s take on running is a bit reliant on the “sufferfest” mentality a lot of people associate with long distance running in particular. Perhaps the most famous quotation from the book is, in fact, “Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.” For me, this quote evokes the trope of an individualistic mental toughness that marathoners and ultra-marathoners often use to describe distance running. It is also, unsurprisingly, a mentality that is often pilloried by non-runners. For example, in an episode of the podcast Overthink on the subject of exercise, philosopher David Peña Guzman quipped that running is a “kind of self-directed fascism.” 

Indeed, French sociologist, philosopher and poet Jean Baudrillard wrote, in his 1986 book America, “nothing evokes the end of the world more than a man running straight ahead on a beach, swathed in the sounds of his walkman…” I find this take both extremely funny and extremely French. Baudrillard is critiquing what he sees as a peculiarly American solipsistic indifference to our surroundings in the name of self-improvement that he reads as apocalyptic. In other words, we’re so focused on the end goal of physical fitness that we barely notice the world crumbling around us. For Baudrillard, we are amoral fitness machines.

I’d like to offer A Tribe Called Run as a small (and very Baltimore) counterpoint to this argument. If nothing else, Tribe feels hopeful to me. According to Walker, who is an Ohio native but moved here in 2000 to study engineering at Morgan State University, the group’s beginnings were relatively humble. He never intended to found what some of its members now call a “run cult.” The name of the collective comes from Walker’s longtime love of the 1990s rap group, A Tribe Called Quest. As a part time chef, he had previously organized “Quest-based” menus at Reservoir Hill’s Dovecote Café and wanted to extend the metaphor to his running practice. In 2020, Walker somewhat nervously organized a small group of friends to meet up at R. House in the height of the pandemic.

And, so, A Tribe Called Run was born at a “time when people needed it,” as Will put it. A few weeks in, when they blew up on social media, a whole new creative world opened up for Walker. Where running had previously been a contemplative space to “sort out” his thoughts, he began seeing the creative potential of running as community organizing—designing not only flyers but also activities to bring people together.

 

Caroline Lampinen
April Lewis
Margaret Rorison
Kira Wisniewski

And, Tribe is anything but solipsistic and indifferent. Every Monday run begins with a lengthy land acknowledgment—at the urging of artist and community organizer, April Danielle Lewis—that encourages runners to think about the national and local legacies of colonialism, slavery and racial capitalism as they run Baltimore’s streets. The group is BIPOC-led and prides itself on being inclusive, hosting events like an annual Pride run each year. And although Baltimore boasts a number of Black-led running groups, the American distance running world is predominantly white. As well, sponsorships of run clubs tend to focus heavily on elite athletes and major metropolises like New York and Los Angeles. 

For a sport that requires so little (just some shoes and a path), running can be remarkably competitive and non inclusive. I had always avoided group running for this very reason. Just do a quick Google Image search for Runner’s World and you’re awash in photographs of lithe, white bodies. So, Tribe’s existence is, in and of itself, radical and encouraging.

As Walker put it to me over a recent Zoom call, “people everywhere run;” people of all shapes, sizes, paces, and from all walks of life. Walker acknowledged that the metaphorical road can be bumpy: there is always work to be done when building inclusive spaces. But, “meaningful diversity in running” is an important and worthy goal. Indeed, when talking to members of A Tribe Called Run so many runners mentioned being inspired by such a diverse group of people coming together to run in community with each other. I’ve found it a place for learning and growing.

 

Unlike Murakami and Baudrillard—who essentially see running as a purpose-driven act—I might also argue that running can be seen as a space of exploration, of creativity. I have written whole essays in my head while jogging along the waterfront in Brooklyn or up those dreaded hills in Druid Hill Park.

I talked to a lot of creatives who run with Tribe and they all reiterated that running was a space for reflection, ideation, and healing. Filmmaker and curator Margaret Rorison told me that ever since she was a teenager, she has used her time “running to work through ideas.” Writer, musician, and emcee Eze Jackson mentioned the healing potential of running as an alternative form of stress release to drugs and alcohol, “which is typical and almost encouraged” in the music world.

Although running has always been a contemplative act for me, I was also drawn to Walker’s assertion that community organizing is in and of itself a creative act, so I asked a number of artists, writers, and musicians who all run with Tribe to tell me about their experiences. Kira Wisniewski, a creative organizer and community builder with Creative Mornings, Fluid Movement, and Art+Feminism, joked, “I’m apparently the type of runner who pretty much only runs at a ‘conversational pace’ because I am chatting the whole run. A lot of fun, collaborative ideation can happen during a 5-6 mile run!”

A number of people mentioned how supportive Tribe members had been of their creative careers. Muralist Caroline Lampinen even attributed her choice to pursue a creative career to conversations that happened on long runs: “Running specifically with A Tribe Called Run has had a major impact on my decision to be a full time creative. Prior to quitting my director level non-profit job, I spent hours on countless runs talking to all kinds of people: scientists at NASA, students at Hopkins, lawyers, nurses, and other creatives.”

 

These creative moments conjured while running solo or in community, stand counter to Baudrillard’s caricature of the runner as almost machine-like in their desire for fitness in the face of all else. I might instead turn to another dead French philosopher, Guy Debord, for an alternate way of thinking about running in the Anthropocene and late stage capitalism. I’ve often explored cities through running: meandering through streets I don’t know, stumbling upon the strange and beautiful corners of a place unfamiliar or even familiar to me.

What if running could be interpreted through the lens of Debord’s concept of the dérive, or drift, rather than as a purposeful march? Debord theorized the dérive as an unplanned journey through a typically urban environment, in which participants “let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there.” The purpose of this purposeless wandering is to resist the predictability and monotony of everyday life in late capitalism, or the end of the world we find ourselves in. You could argue that the purpose is to notice.

 

What I love about running and specifically about running with A Tribe Called Run is just this: everything you can see and learn on a long run in Baltimore. You might see graffiti and public art, broken sidewalks, sinkholes, farmer’s markets, methadone clinics, people waiting for the bus. You’ll definitely end up zigzagging through neighborhoods you don’t often spend time in. You might also learn about a fellow runner’s doctoral thesis in robotics, a nurse’s tough week, a painter’s wrist pain, and everyone’s hot take on Barbie.

All of this in turn becomes part of the psycho-geography of Baltimore, and of the ever-warming world we live in. And perhaps if we notice it all, we can think and rethink our place in it.

 

You can follow A Tribe Called Run on Instagram @atribecalledrun, or join them for weekly runs on Mondays at R. House at 6pm, Wednesdays at the Poly Western Track at 6am, or Saturdays at the BMA steps at 6:30am.

 

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