The rise of women's run crews

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The next great women’s movement just might originate on the roads and trails. Around the world, women are banding together in run crews. The speed and strength they’re building lasts long after they cross any one finish line in particular, as do the friendships they forge on every run.

To celebrate the launch of THE NEW STRONG™, a female-focused apparel collection from ASICS, here are three inspiring stories from girl-group leaders across the country.

The woman: Mary Wright, 33, Santa Cruz, California
Her crew: Arete Women’s Running Club
Her story:

Mary Wright had a big goal: running a marathon in under three hours. She also had a job as a teacher, two small children (and a third on the way), and a brother-in-law who was dying of cancer.

What she was missing, though, was a team. She wanted what she had as a runner in high school and university, a group of women with similar aspirations and lifestyles who could help her navigate both the sport and the rest of her life.

That’s why she decided to start one with her running partner of more than 20 years, Melissa McConville. On one run in the woods three years ago, they hatched a plan to craft a new type of female running club: one that included serious athletes but didn’t take itself too seriously.

Mid-run, they came up with a name: Arete, a Greek term that translates to excellence. “To us, it means living up to one’s fullest potential,” Wright says. “In doing that you need to pursue athletics, but also incorporate balance and enjoyment.”

They approached women about joining and soon had a team of strong, fast women. From the start, the group had a different feel from co-ed teams. “Men can sometimes get weirdly competitive,” she explains. “We liked the dynamic of having women only, something that’s just for us. We own this.”

A few years in, Arete has eight locations and about 400 members. “So many women wanted this,” Wright says.

Each city’s group has its own flair but follows the same basic programming. They meet twice a week for workouts and follow training plans written by Wright that are geared toward local races of various distances.

Importantly, each one stays true to the crew’s core values. “Whether you’re trying to qualify for the Olympic trials or bring consistent running back into your life, do what works. This is a no-pressure environment and we want it to help you live to your fullest potential.”   

With the support of her newfound squad, Wright fought through her grief, gave birth, and learned to navigate life with three kids. Not least, she reached that sub-three-hour goal—not once, but twice.

The woman: Kelly Roberts, 29, New York City
Her crew: Badass Lady Gang
Her story:

Kelly Roberts doesn’t embody the word “shy.” She’s an outspoken blogger who writes about running and body image, a marathoner who shares her journey widely, and a self-starter who founded the storytelling platform She Can & She Did.

But she swears that, whenever she joined run groups, she was always the woman in the back fiddling with her phone and trying to muster the courage to stay. She was often left behind because of her slower pace and often asked questions like, “What’s a K?” and “What’s a tempo?” “I just felt so stupid,” she says.

All that changed in January, when her online community for runners called Badass Lady Gang become an IRL phenomenon. Hundreds of women in more than 55 groups around the world meet weekly (or more often) to do a low-key speed workout. Roberts hosts groups in New York City and oversees an expanding network of other female leaders. The crew’s Facebook group has more than 7,000 members.

Though the movement is young, Roberts is already seeing the power it gives its members. On a recent night in Brooklyn, she watched two newly-acquainted women connect over shared experiences with alcoholism. “It was like a conversation you would have with a friend you’ve known for 30 years,” Roberts recalls. “That’s what this is all about, meeting people who speak your language.”

When the women meet, they log intervals to increase their strength and endurance over time. But their relationships extend beyond the sport: When non-running challenges surface in their lives—like unexpected job changes or family issues—they provide reinforcement.

Roberts herself has used running to cope with the grief of her brother’s passing and her own body insecurities. Having the chance to share these experiences with so many others has given her a renewed sense of empowerment.

“The emails I get from people who never thought they would be athletic runners or be able to enjoy getting sweaty, that’s what I find most rewarding,” she says.

The woman: Jay Ell Alexander, 31, Richmond, Virginia
Her crew: Black Girls Run!
Her story:

A decade ago, Alexander trained for her first 10K solo. Occasionally, her husband tagged along. She had terrible shoes and nontechnical clothing. Her most enduring memory is of the sheer difficulty and the discipline it required to get out every day.

Two years later, she helped launch her local chapter of Black Girls Run!, a nationwide organization of more than 250,000 members that works to increase minority representation in the health and fitness industry. Before long, Alexander, a public relations professional, took on BGR as a client. And as of last April, she’s the owner and CEO of the 70-city operation.

“We’ve created a very inclusive community where women from all walks of life, of all shades of color and all fitness levels can join us on the pavement without feeling intimidated,” Alexander says.  

The programming varies by location. In the Twin Cities, for instance, members meet for three to five runs per month, while in Atlanta, they can choose from more than 20 meetups each week. Levels range from walk-to-run training to marathon preparation, but the welcoming vibe is a constant.

Ultimately, the power of the group itself enabled her to lead it. When she took over, Alexander closed the Atlanta offices and moved all operations to Richmond, Virginia, where she lives now. Relocating required a complete rebuilding of the company.

To do it, she relied heavily on all the women she’d logged miles with over the years. “It takes a special person to train for and run races—we’re not normal human beings,” she says. Not only will her fellow crew members join her for early-morning runs, they’ll also answer her late-night questions about management and marketing plans. “I count on them to help me on the business side, because we build trust on the pavement.”

She’ll lean on them again to take on her next challenge: her first pregnancy. Many of her leaders already have children. Because of the run crew, she has access to the collective wisdom of a group of women who will help her in this new stage of life—both on and off the road.