The City Runners Story: A Club is Born

This is the second in a series of blogs written by London City Runner’s founder, Tim Navin-Jones, about the history of the club. In this instalment, he describes how LCR grew from an idea into one of the biggest running clubs in London…

THE START

When I moved to Bermondsey from Leeds, my brother, who I’d run with since I was small, took me for a run on the incredible route over Tower Bridge then back over Millenium. It’s hard not to be impressed on this run as through the sweat you soak up all the magnificence that is London. It never gets old. It’s the exact same loop our club has done for 10 years along the river so I’m guessing tens of thousands of people have followed in my brother’s footsteps. 

Before I went it alone, I googled ‘running club near me’ with every variation of wording I could think of. I couldn’t find anything. The only clubs I could see were based near parks away from the city. In central London in 2010, there were just gyms with monthly payments and I didn’t think that’d be my scene, I wanted someone faster than me to train for a marathon with and to meet people with a similar interest in my area. I’d been in a gym once at university and remember seeing a bloke with a string vest staring at himself in the mirror while doing reps with a dumbbell – it put me off for life and I made a pact with myself never to go back in one!

I’d joined the Serpentines but they were miles away from where I lived, so I decided to go for it and start my own club. I remember thinking as long as more than one person turns up then that constitutes a club rather than a run with a friend! Having already had a background in marketing and recruitment, I designed a logo and from various potential names, I went with ‘London City Runners’…

Right from the start, it felt really exciting when anyone actually turned up! Initially I spread the word at work and through all my friends. I put up leaflets on the local community boards. I built a website and started trying to work out how to feature on Google and got registered on just about every running-related forum, and even random non-running related forums like Mumsnet! What became clear from the start was that there was a big geographical demand for a running club in central London. My poor housemate had to have his privacy interrupted each week with a whole load of sweaty runners dropping their bags. From the first run onwards the numbers pretty much just doubled every time. It soon became clear the club wouldn’t fit in my flat! 

Very first run in May 2010 when Gordon Brown was prime minister! Long before Facebook and social media was a thing.

I managed to convince a pub round the corner called the Leather Exchange to let us leave the bags there. In return we would ensure they were selling a whole lot of drinks on a Tuesday. After a couple months you could see that our club wasn’t quite fitting with the pub’s business plan! Having people there on dates alongside smelly runners meant despite the large quantity of custom we were giving them, we understandably weren’t made to feel welcome. Like a lot of our venues I started getting it in the ear… tell them not to leave their bags there, tell them to dispose of their cups, we have an event on so you can’t attend this eve and need to find an alternative… it was then that we began to dream that one day, we might have our own space. 

We wanted to be somewhere they appreciated the custom a bit more. The next venue was somewhere that we really bedded in. It was Shortwave Cinema, which was slap bang next to Bermondsey Square, and was ideal for big groups of runners to meet and drop their bags. This enabled me to generate a bit of a snowball effect around the club and really start promoting it. 

It was fascinating watching Bermondsey Street bloom into what it’s now become from when the club started. When I first moved to into the area it felt a little bit stabby! The area has certainly come a long way since the 60s and it was quite a spectacle watching the Shard being built. As local residents, we even got invited up to the top for free. 

SOCIAL SIDE

Initially I got a little grant that enabled me to build a more convincing website and get kit.  We were then able to concentrate on our raison d’etre which was for it to be a really (genuinely) friendly welcoming place for people to run and have a laugh. I never minded orchestrating it on the side of my job. There were so many amazing people who appreciated what the club was about and wanted to help however they could. This theme has thankfully always carried through and the club has always been great at bringing the best out of the majority of people. 

Sometimes people joke around with comments like ‘it’s a drinking club with a running problem’ but we meet after the run and socialise because bringing people together is one of the best bits. It started to become apparent that while many other clubs claim they have a social side because they feel they need to pay it lip service, at London City Runners it is absolutely at the heart of what we are all about. No one particularly remembers or places significance on what time you do a 5k in. Far more important is that you enjoy running and it’s a massive added bonus if you have good chat and are a pleasant person!

Friendships started to form, relationships started to flourish and this spurred me on to arrange  regular socials and events and for it all to remain completely free of charge. In bringing everyone together in a communal place, it then just grew organically.

Bands have formed from the club and many people have found housemates and made connections. Most notably, to date, we’ve had over 10 marriages and over 15 babies (that we know of) that stemmed from meetings at the club. 

The socials ranged from just about everything – from 118 themed fancy dress nights, to charity fund raisers and boat parties. Curries at Nawaz (nearby curry house) were the most popular and frequent. 

EVENTS, RACES AND FOREIGN TRIPS

We’ve had trips all over the world with the club in Amsterdam, Edinburgh, Nice and Budapest, to name a few of the big ones. We also have a number of other ski trips and holidays and each year the London Marathon has always been a big event in our diary. 

London Marathon 2018 Cheer Squad

We even had a private screening of a running film in Shortwave called ‘Town of Runners’ with an Ethiopian coach who trained countless Olympian medallists in a place called Bejoki. In 2012 we also managed to get our local MP Simon Hughes to start a 10k for us in Southwark Park to help generate some funds for the club.

PRESS

Initially we just got press in the local publications like Bermondsey Live, but as time went on we started to enjoy a great variety of publicity. We got on the telly on ITV and BBC World and as well as on German TV. We were in publications from Japanese lifestyle magazines, to French sport magazines and Runners World…

AWARDS

By about 2013 we’d really started to really grow and I remember a really amusing time when I met Boris Johnson (then the Mayor of London) while on a Boris Bike waiting for the lights on London Bridge! I remember him saying he’d seen us running along the river and said ‘I’ll have to join you at some point’! I thought it was really decent of him to get someone to respond the next day…

Our energy also started to get recognised and awarded from England Athletics and London Sport and we won Running club of the year from Men’s health. As well as this we would give out our own awards at socials for quite amusing categories (taken in good heart!) like tightest/most embarrassing shorts and the heaviest breather award!

CHALLENGES

We had to run through rain, snow, riots and not one but two terrorist attacks in our area. Right now, we’ve even having to endure a global pandemic! What has differentiated us from many other clubs that rise and fall has been keeping the club as a constant and this meant volunteering or getting a replacement volunteer three times a week for TEN YEARS! It’s a lot more difficult than you might think especially when like anyone you have times when you’re going through a tough time at work or you have relationship problems. There were certainly moments that things got a bit much like when I found out my spine was fractured from an accident and needed surgery. The most upsetting thing was that at that point, I could no longer run.  Meeting Kerry in 2016 was a game changer though. We immediately connected and she gave me the support I needed at that point to take the club to the next level. 

ENTERPRISING

I’d already tried and tested a few ways of raising funds. It started with selling my home-made brownies, pasta, scotch eggs, focaccia and sausage rolls. I then started to do also step up the merchandise sales. At one point I’d turn up with a suitcase full of merch looking like del boy! I’d also started really enjoying doing some running tours around London. Working with  Kerry we started doing a whole lot more including a running focused yoga session in a gym in north London and we had the second fastest British female marathon runner, Mara Yamauchi, do a talk for us in Doodle Bar. The great thing with such a social media presence we felt we could fill just about any event we put our hands to. We did numerous charity events and also started re-vamping the website. We also started placing more emphasis on what’s become one of the most satisfying parts of our club, the Couch to 5k programme. 

VENUE

At times it felt like I’d created a monster! The tricky bit was outgrowing venues. It seemed to follow a trend where a venue would happily accommodate us then sometimes with very little notice we’d be asked to move on. When this happened an 8th time, we realised it was a case of go big or go home!

By a country mile the scariest and most incredible part of this story, though, is what we’ll cover in the next blog…when we became the first running club in London to join together and start our very own bar!

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