UNSANCTIONED RUNNING – Runner’s World, March 2024

It’s early evening in the basement of a running store in east London, and some of the fastest people in Britain have no idea what they’re doing.

The room beneath the clothing company Soar’s Shoreditch shop is stuffed with around 100 lean men and women in vests proclaiming allegiance to a range of venerable clubs and cool new crews, none of them entirely sure what will be asked of them just before 7pm. There’s Andy Heyes, a Team GB runner with a 64-minute half marathon time; Jonathan Escalante-Phillips, one of a few here who can knock out a 5k in under 14 minutes; and Jacob Allen from Highgate Harriers, who not long after this evening will come second in the Great South Run.  

They queue down the narrow stairs to give their names to a man in a cap at a laptop. He’s called Luke Myers, and in return he gives them an envelope containing a race number, a QR code and a completely blank piece of cardboard roughly the size of a bank card. Luke and two friends have been organising races as Unsanctioned Athletics since January 2023. This one is their ninth, their first in London, and their biggest so far.

We’re not allowed to scan the QR code yet, so spend the next half hour gawping at all the speedy-looking young people and speculating. Among the long-established clubs, Highgate Harriers are well represented in their black-and-white stripes from the 1880s, as well as the Mornington Chasers and Clapham Chasers. The newer crews have more esoteric names and jazzier shirts. There’s Coopah, Your Friendly Runners, Candy Racing and Embankment Run Club, which is the group Luke started in 2021 in Nottingham. I meet a friendly Gorp Girl, and learn that ‘Gorp’ stands for ‘Good Old Raisins and Peanuts’. There are a lot of Hot Boys, who are also girls.

Izzy Gelder, a 22-year-old architecture student from Chester, is here with Mornington Chasers and feeling intimidated by all the Soar-sponsored runners in their fancy expensive kit. ‘They’re like, mega,’ she thinks. She only took up running races recently because she had to stop doing triathlons after she broke both her wrists falling off her bike. As if she’s got a chance here!

Similarly, Joshua Mitchell, an underwriter from the Calder Valley west of Leeds, is 28 and has only done four proper races in his life. He’s been brought along by a friend and has no solid idea of what this is, but believes the trick will be to pick someone else who looks ‘quick and decisive’ and follow them.

The slogan on the Unsanctioned website is ‘No route. No rules,’ which is as vague as it’s possible to be. There is also a picture of a leaping tiger. I hope there won’t be tigers. The guy from Embankment Run Club, he’s the one to talk to. He’s done their races before. He says they usually give you a few checkpoints that you can run to in any order before returning to the start, but one time they put 20 people onto a tram outside a pub in central Nottingham, told them to ride it til the last stop, get off and run the 10-ish km back to the pub. The ‘No rules’ bit means you can use your phone, so his advice is to put the checkpoints into Google Maps, keep one earbud in and let the Google lady tell you the way. I didn’t bring my earbuds. 

At 6.55, Luke finally permits us to use the QR code and learn that tonight we need to visit the tube station outside St Paul’s Cathedral, the Rough Trade East record store near Brick Lane, and a pub beside Hackney’s Victoria Park called the Royal Inn, in any order, before returning to finish at Soar HQ. At each checkpoint someone will put a numbered sticker on our blank piece of cardboard. We’re then given 20 minutes to plan our route before the start.

The buzz in the room softens as people ruminate downwards at their phone screens. Someone tells me he intends to run as fast as he can to Rough Trade first, because he thinks there will be extra prizes for the first person to each checkpoint, and as that one is kind of in the middle, most people will opt for one of the others to begin. I lived in east London just over a decade ago, so am mildly confident in my ability to find the most famous church in Britain and then head east without slowing down to look at a map.

At 7.15 we move onto the street outside, blocking the traffic for the couple of minutes it takes for Luke to get us into a rough line and sound a horn. When he does, we scatter.

Hang on a minute. Have I been tricked into doing orienteering? Just because someone with a moustache and a few leg tattoos invites you to Shoreditch, doesn’t mean whatever you’re doing will automatically be unprecedentedly cool. They already tried that with 10-pin bowling, and bingo, and ping-pong. But Luke started his Run Club, and then Unsanctioned, because he did feel that there was something fundamentally dull and unappealing about running culture as it stands.

He took up running about seven years ago in an attempt to liven up his commute to a sales job in the food industry in Ipswich, and ‘fell down a rabbit hole with it.’ He ran for Nene Valley Harriers in Peterborough, then Kettering Town Harriers, and built up to a 2:39 showing at the London Marathon. But when he and his girlfriend, now wife, moved to Nottingham at the tail end of Covid and tried out a couple of others in the hope of making new friends, they realised they had fallen out of love with traditional running clubs. ‘There was no one our age. It all felt very old school, very political, quite cliquey,’ he explains. ‘All this deep-rooted tradition that isn’t allowed to change.’

He had been aware of the rise of the crew scene since London’s Run Dem Crew started to get attention, so decided to start his own and keep things as simple as possible: a weekly 5k jog between two bridges on a traffic-free riverside loop, with the option to do it twice and make it 10. Followed by beer. Two years in, Embankment Run Club has over 300 members. ‘It’s accessible. We have zero red tape, we’re not affliliated, you don’t have to sign a membership form. You can just turn up and run with loads of like-minded people.’

Putting my cynic’s hat back on, I wonder if a crew is just a running club that’s good at Instagram. But maybe that’s all it takes to bring a younger, more diverse crowd into the sport. Unsanctioned co-founder George Rees Jones is a videographer with a content production studio called Commuter Films. He provides a pack of photographers to snap the Unsanctioned races with distinctive style (I have to admit even I have never looked cooler in a race photo) which can be shared freely on participants’ social media, as well as the smartly designed official site. 

Luke, George, and Gareth Maguire, a physiotherapist who handles the business side of Unsanctioned, met at Embankment Run Club and came up with their idea during a pub rant about ‘generic’ races. ‘Running a few laps of a park, getting your medal and goodie bag and going home again – it’s not that interesting or exciting,’ says Luke. They had heard of Orchard Street Runners, a 12-year-old club in New York that organises unusual events including the Midnight Half, a rough half marathon between checkpoints by any route you choose, and the Bread Route Race Series, which follows the old bread delivery route taken by founder Joe DiNoto’s baker family and starts at 2am. ‘They created this really underground scene of runners doing cool races and going away with good prizes. That led us to Unsanctioned Athletics. “No rules” and “Racing redefined” became our two mantras.’

Five minutes into the race, I’m already worrying that most people went to Victoria Park first. Am I doing this wrong? But there is a smattering of fast people zipping along near me, skirting pedestrians and bolting in the bus lanes. Our race bibs hopefully help to reassure bystanders that we’re not escaping a crime scene, which is what it actually feels like. I could be a character in a violent computer game, fresh from a carjacking.

Izzy is one of those that goes to the park first, soon finding herself in a group of five of a similar pace. There’s one other woman among them, who she immediately feels she needs to beat. ‘But I also have no idea who’s winning because we all went in different directions.’ Later she’s on her own, and begins to follow a man up ahead who seems to have chosen the same route as her. It feels a bit dodgy to her around Hackney, and she is noticed, as is the fate of all lone female runners. ‘Some guy spat at me, and there were people making comments. But people outside the pubs were like, “Go girl!” which was nice. I felt like I was running through the unknown. I didn’t know what would be around the corner.’

Joshua, meanwhile, has realised that the two other guys near him are definitely faster. ‘The only way I can even attempt to be competitive in this is to take a few more risks,’ he thinks. He starts to run in the road, with the flow of traffic. ‘I was actually moving quicker than the average speed of the cars. I certainly didn’t want to get hit because I knew I would come off worse. Any accident would have been my fault, but you’re not thinking about that when you’re running five-minute miles.’

My stickers say that I am 13th to arrive at St Paul’s, and 17th to Rough Trade, but only 86th to the pub, proving that most people went the other way. But there’s something about the atmosphere of this race, the rule-breaking night time speed that I’m moving at, that makes me feel bullishly confident. I talk to some outside drinkers for a moment, revelling in my daredevil status as a participant in this maverick race no one has heard of, then run confidently off – in completely the wrong direction.

I may be alone in a park at night, but others like me are getting lost in unsanctioned races all over the world right now. If I was in Auckland, New Zealand, I could be joining in with Race09, a monthly evening event with a start line sprayed in chalk on the road and either a finish line revealed at the last minute or a series of checkpoints. ‘We are for risk takers, rule breakers, competitors and racers,’ they say. In Milan, there’s Mind the Gap, which is now on its eighth race. ‘Almost the whole time I felt like I was inside a video game,’ participant Maria Vittoria Nanut said about her experience. Across the Atlantic, Don’t Trip in Toronto has put on adrenaline-pumping races as short as a mile, while Runk in Montreal has been operating a range of formats since 2018, including races where you need to collect items along the way.

At the other end of the scale is the Speed Project, a 340-mile relay from LA to Las Vegas with no set route. Teams of six typically take about two days to complete it, but the record of 29:21 was set in 2023 by a bunch calling themselves Daddy Braddy’s Stallions.

Vincent Ghyssens has so far organised two races under the Octane banner in Brussels, Belgium. His events are invitation only, and as with all the others look incredibly cool on Instagram, but he’s more interested in speed than wild goose chases. The first event was called ‘Freefall’ and was essentially a huge descent – the equivalent of 20 stories over 5km. The second was ‘Infinity Loop’. He picked a circular 1.7km Strava segment in the city and gave people a week to achieve the fastest time, with a grand finale race together at the end. ‘It was a blast!’ he says. ‘The format really lent itself to creating build-up, with runners going to try the segment on their own and hyping each other up. And we shattered the previously held record.’

For the brands, it’s catnip. Vincent has been collaborating with Ciele clothing, On shoes and an alcohol-free Belgian beer called Thrive. Unsanctioned Athletics have put on races supported by On and Salomon as well as Soar. According to Rob Wilson, Head of Marketing at Soar, even the fact that these races are small is appealing. ‘We get so many inquiries from traditional events that it ends up feeling like background noise,’ he says. ‘What really jumped out to us with this was how different it feels. The content they produce is modern, progressive and forward-thinking. They’ve taken something fun and made it even more enjoyable, which feels really cool.’

The common thread with all of these races is that they’re always changing. It means that you can’t stroll up knowing that you have the fastest 5k time and be certain of victory. There will always be spanners in the works and banana skins beneath your feet, and that’s a thrill. ‘Because of the different formats, people with different skillsets can compete elbow to elbow,’ says Vincent. ‘It’s exciting to play with those dynamics and take people by surprise.’ They also tend to have been conceived by people who haven’t been raised as runners. They’re outsiders. As we learned, Luke Myers is a relative newcomer to competitive running. Vincent is a lifelong skateboarder: ‘I wanted to find a way to take that counterculture feel that skateboarding has and clash it with something that is currently very mainstream.’ And as we shall see, it really started with a bike race.

This all came about because of David Trimble’s birthday party. In 2008, the New York cycling enthusiast wanted to celebrate his 26th birthday with both his bike racing friends and his ‘normal’ friends, ‘and the only way to do that was to put on my own race,’ he says. The Red Hook Crit was born, a race around the industrial Red Hook area of Brooklyn for riders of fixed gear bicycles, which have no gears and no brakes. It consisted of 24 laps of a short course – just 1km – in the ‘criterium’ format, which means if you’re lapped, your race is over. The final took place at night, was very fast and very exciting, with tight corners and lots of crashes, and a rowdy party afterwards. Within a decade it had acquired near legendary status and expanded to include sister races in Barcelona, Milan and London. But it had also become very expensive to put on. The last one was in 2018.

By 2011, the event had become an all-day affair and David had added a 5k running race around the same course. The following year, he got together with Joe DiNoto from Orchard Street Runners and the pair conceived the Midnight Half, with checkpoints to hit and no set route. In 2019 they put one on in east London. He was inspired by participating for many years in ‘alleycat’ races – informal events for city cycle messengers where the victor will be the person with the most finely tuned knowledge of shortcuts.

As with the Unsanctioned guys, David felt that cycling could be refashioned to feel more exciting: ‘Part of the reason I organised that first event was because I found traditional cycling events to be really boring and uncool, but the urban cycling events felt really cool and had this cool community around them.’ Eventually the Red Hook Crit ended up being sponsored, not by a bike company but by Rockstar Games, the makers of the blockbuster Grand Theft Auto series in which your protagonist hurtles around a city committing crimes.

He’s not crazy about the term ‘unsanctioned racing’ for these events – he prefers ‘street racing’ – but agrees that it gives them a rebellious feel. ‘“Unsanctioned” just means that a governing body isn’t involved, which isn’t relevant to this anyway,’ he says. ‘“Unpermitted racing” would be more accurate.’ But maybe that wouldn’t look as good on a T-shirt.

Another race series that has developed an enticingly edgy identity is Darcy Budworth’s Take the Bridge. An interior designer from Oregon who moved to New York to study and more recently relocated to LA, Darcy was inspired by joining Orchard Street Runners and taking part in the first Red Hook Crit 5k. ‘It just felt like a very badass vibe,’ she says. She was organising her own 5k races as the president of her trad running club, the New York Harriers, but they weren’t getting noticed next to the events put on by the city’s dominant club, the New York Road Runners. So in 2015 she tried something different.

Take the Bridge also takes place at night, with checkpoints to hit, and you’ll either start or finish on or run over a notable bridge. ‘I never liked races where you’re lost in a crowd of thousands doing the same route. It doesn’t feel personal to me. It’s just a hamster wheel.’ She has put on races all over the US, and one in London in 2019, usually for no more than a few dozen entrants. Actually, she talks about ‘throwing races’ – not putting them on – the way you would throw a party. Talking to her, I get the impression she almost preferred her races during Covid restrictions, when no more than 20 people could take part and they had to keep it a secret to avoid spectators and drop-ins. One participant at that time said it felt like Fight Club.

‘The cops always come,’ she says, insisting that they’re generally fine with what she’s doing once she’s explained it. ‘It’s just us taking back racing and saying that we want to do it in our own way.’

She also likes to elevate women with her races, trying to work with local female co-directors when she visits an unfamiliar city, and putting on some races for women only. ‘Men LOVE our races – men always think they can do everything. They love risky things,’ she says. ‘But sometimes women feel more scared to sign up. They see the badass photos on Instagram and think they wouldn’t be fast enough or couldn’t run a red light. I try to cap a regular race at 50 men and 50 women, and it can be hard to get 50 women. But when I do an all-women race – oh my gosh – I don’t have enough spots for them all. The New York one sold out in 10 seconds.’

Back in Hackney, I’m hunched in a shop doorway staring at my phone, trying to make sure I’m finally heading west. I haven’t seen any other runners for a while. A few drinkers outside pubs have said: ‘They went that way,’ but I can’t tell if they’re helping or drunkenly pranking me. Eventually, a flock of Hot Boys floats past in matching green vests, with the grace and unity of purpose of a murmuration of starlings. They definitely look like they know what they’re doing, so I follow them for a bit and regain some lost confidence.

Joshua has already finished and won the whole thing. He covered 10.37km in 34:06, while second place Andrew Heyes ran for 35:21, a distance of 10.69km. ‘I could tell that the guy in front of me was a faster runner, so the only way to beat him was to outbrave him on the roads,’ says Joshua. ‘I must have won because I was literally willing to throw myself under the bus.’

Izzy is also surprised and delighted to finish as first woman, running quite a bit further – 11.05km – in 40:49. ‘They made me hold up a banner and took loads of photos of me. That’s not what normally happens at the end of a race. Usually you feel quite anonymous,’ she says.

There’s also a generous prize for Harry Blofeld, who comes 41st overall but turns out to have found the shortest route – just 10.30km. When I finally return, I’m disappointed to see how many people are already there, lining up to let Luke write their GPS stats onto his clipboard, but at least it means I get a big cheer. Later I learn that only four of the 105 entrants ran further than my 12.13km, which is a pretty embarrassing way to come near the top this evening. But there is pizza, and beer, and much nerdy debriefing chat to be had. I’m having an excellent time.

‘That was f***ing dangerous! I nearly got hit by a moped and it was entirely my fault,’ says a Highgate Harrier. I agree that at certain points, race adrenaline made me temporarily forget my Green Cross Code. We all signed a waiver before taking part, freeing Unsanctioned Athletics from ‘any and all liability whatsoever for any injuries, loss, expense or damage to the racer and racer’s property,’ but even so, wouldn’t an accident be a very bad look for the organisers and their sponsors?

‘We lay it on pretty thick with the waiver and our safety briefing at the start, and stress that people shouldn’t put themselves in danger,’ says Luke. ‘But at the end of the day we’re all big boys and girls. You can’t get public liability insurance for people running around in the streets so the responsibility is on the runners.’

Rob from Soar is still happy to put the company’s name on the banner: ‘Clearly there is added risk that you don’t have in a closed race. But they do go really heavy on the safety element and this is 100 people, not 10,000, so the probability of an incident is so much lower.’

Darcy, who’s been doing this for much longer in the highly litigious land of America, says she hasn’t had any issues. She uses bike marshalls and tries to keep people on less busy roads, but she also says she tries to ‘scare them a little’ before a Take the Bridge race begins: ‘I remind everybody that these races are risky, and if we want them to continue to happen, we all need to take responsibility for everyone’s safety as we run.’

I ask Tower Hamlets Council for their opinion on the Unsanctioned race that happened in their borough, but they don’t seem too concerned: ‘This is the first time we have heard about these kinds of races in Tower Hamlets and so we will monitor the situation,’ said a spokesperson. Luke says that the only contact he’s had from officialdom to date was a councillor from Nottingham’s Newark & Sherwood District asking if he could please put on a race in their area.

So how big can these things go? David and Darcy, the American veterans, might offer some words of caution to their British counterparts enjoying a first flush of popularity. Their experiences might be compared to an indie band accidentally having a hit record and having to decide whether or not they feel comfortable gigging in arenas. The Midnight Half ended up being sponsored by Nike but is now ‘a bit defunct’ as David puts it. He has moved to Girona in Spain and is working in a consulting role for Nike, designing routes for their marathon training programme. ‘We had different methods and decided to go our own way,’ he says of his co-organisers in Orchard Street Runners. ‘I was actually kind of happy with where it left off, because I never expected it to go as far as it did.’

Darcy quit her day job and entered into a partnership with the clothing brand Lululemon to put on Take the Bridge races all over the world in 2021, but is now back designing store interiors again. Take the Bridge races are still happening regularly, but on a smaller scale again. ‘Expectations changed and the races became very highly produced, and it stopped having the vibe of a renegade run,’ she says. ‘It wasn’t fun for me any more. Honestly, I’m a little burned out right now and trying to figure out what’s next in my life.’

Luke sounds like he knows what he needs to do to keep Unsanctioned feeling special: ‘We don’t want to do anything for more than about 100 people,’ he says. ‘The bigger it gets, something gets taken away from it. So it stays exclusive, but it’s also inclusive. People feel really strongly that they’re a part of this club, or whatever it is. This gang. This cult.’