How Koreatown Run Club is bringing people together
Sharing the pain: Running through L.A. with Koreatown Run Club
Words— Ben Kriz
Photography— Celia Spenard-Ko
Duy Nguyen (above, left) and Mike Pak started out running with a few friends and three years later it’s evolved into a tight-knit community from all over Los Angeles and the world—and it all goes down in one of the city’s best and most diverse neighbourhoods.
“You could have stayed home but you made it out,” cries Hakim, one of Koreatown Run Club’s captains, over a group of about 70 runners.
For most people, running is about just that: making it outside. If you can get the sneakers on and get out the door, you’ve already done the hard part. And it’s that’s kind of attitude Duy Nguyen and Mike Pak, the club’s founders have. Just two young creatives whose motto may as well be: Fuck It, Let’s Give It A Try.
In three short years they’ve turned a small running group with friends into a city-wide community event that runs four-to-five days a week and attracts Angelenos from every corner of the city.
“Breath in. Breath out.”
We’ve joined them at Beer Belly, a popular craft beer joint, for their weekly Thursday night 3 or 5 mile run in the heart of Koreatown. It’s nearly 8 p.m and a large crowd starts to gather in the parking lot, stretching and chatting away. After a few announcements from Mike regarding training and the upcoming L.A. marathon, Hakim emerges and leads a mindfulness exercise to get everybody in the right headspace.
“Think about tonight because this is what it’s all about. The connection. The family. As I always say: strength, love, compassion, and all of that good stuff this is why we are here. It’s all about how we do on it on Thursday nights and every night we get together. Mean it, run with it, and let’s have fun."
Then they’re off—dozens of runners down the cracked sidewalks of Koreatown.
It’s this community that has not only brought about collaborations, pop-ups, and sportswear partnerships but brought people together for a common purpose. It’s all the result of two guys who just want to give it their best go.
"...if you don’t like it and you’re still doing it and sharing your misery with people you can talk about it after and rate your performance—that’s why all these run crews are so cool."
How did Koreatown Run Club come together?
Duy Nguyen: Mike and I are both from Virginia and actually met out here. We became friends and started working on projects together. We even toyed with the idea of starting our own soccer team. I ended up going to Haiti to help shoot a documentary about these runners who were running across the country. I went down there and I saw what running could do and how it could bring people together. It was like The Real World like, “Seven strangers, running across the country…”. So I came back and said to Mike, let’s forget soccer and start a running club.
Mike actually has the handle @koreatown. He’s the mayor. He’s the unofficial mayor of Koreatown. He got the handle and he’s smart and interesting on Instagram so he started posting meme stuff, food stuff, the typical IG content but also he had a voice. He did things in the community whether it was throwing parties or other things—he was very much a part of the handle he had.
So about three years ago I just made a flyer, posted it, our friends came out, we did it every week and then more and more people would show up. Less of our friends came out when they realized, oh you’re doing this every week? Okay good for you but we’re out. But then the people who lived [in Koreatown] came out, people who lived in other neighbourhoods came out. Coming here isn’t easy—it’s in the middle of things, it’s not close to the highway, if it’s rush hour it’s busy, so if we can get people coming here we’re doing something right.
Running is often thought of as quite solitary. What is it about running in a group that’s so appealing?
Duy: I feel like there’s a ritual now. You show up, you talk to your friends, you go out for a run. If I had to go out for a run by myself, I wouldn’t even know where to start. I’m not used to that feeling. Running in a group makes me want to run. It motivates me. A lot of our runners are newer runners so it pushes them too. It helps them get started. If you start running super-competitively, that may not be a group activity, but general running and recreation and getting better and just helping with life in general I think can all be solved running as a group.
Have you bonded with some of the other run crews around the world? You have the community here but there’s an even bigger community of runners and run crews all over the world now.
Duy: Yeah for sure! When we started we didn’t know about run crews. I was browsing Instagram and was like, oh there’s some dudes doing this in New York! L.A.’s weird because I feel like people don’t come here as much. There’s this huge ocean and this huge nothingness in the Middle of America and it’s difficult to come to L.A. [from Asia or Europe]. Plus the way marathons are scheduled [makes it difficult]. But on Instagram everybody kind of knows each other through these run clubs. Anytime I’ve visited a place I’ll check what run crews are out there and everybody has been more than open like, you need a place to stay? Let’s do it. Luckily I’ve been able to go to a couple of places and meet up with people.
Mike: It’s nuts. And they’re not just runners. We always have a ton of stuff to talk about other than running. For some reason, everybody is a fucking DJ or an artist or a curator or writer or something interesting and you find out they have mutual friends the world is really small.
Why do you think it is that this run crew idea has popped up all over the world?
Duy: I don’t know what it is but it’s something about running that kind of draws this type of group out. Especially this kind of running. You’ve got the marathoners and people who ran in high school that [hardcore] crowd – which I don’t think most of us are.
All the people who don’t like running and are still running with us; I feel like you can share that pain with somebody. If you enjoy it, you can run with five other people you can run by yourself, any time—no problem—and like it. But if you don’t like it and you’re still doing it and sharing your misery with people you can talk about it after and rate your performance—those are the kind of people who do this and that’s why all these run crews are so cool.
Mike: I’ll be honest with you it’s really intimidating joining a running club. Somebody like me would never join a running club. But when you make it seem like it’s possible and you can have these like-minded people who are also starting out or are new to this—that’s when it’s incredible. It’s special to see people come out. We don’t really praise or promote that we’re these fast guys; we’re just normal people.
Duy: We also don’t want to be known as the party crew either. We can. We do have parties. But our runners do have real goals.
You’ve said in the past that you actually hate running.
Mike Pak: [laughs] I’m pretty known as the running guy who really fucking hates running. Then you know after doing it for two and a half years you learn to really love it. We definitely love running.
Duy: Love is a strong word. Hate is more right than wrong.
Mike: We enjoy it! We enjoy running after doing it for quite some time. Don’t get me wrong.
There’s also that feeling right before you decide to go for a run where you hate the idea, but after the run you feel great.
Duy: I feel like you feel great after a run because you’ve stopped running [laughs].
You’ve been doing a little merch? Is this just part of promoting the club? To connect everybody better?
Duy: Make money baby! [laughs]
Mike: Where’s the fucking cash?
Duy: Everybody wants to have their own streetwear brand and then yeah you make some shirts and a couple of friends buy it and then you're stuck with 50 shirts, but we have this group of people that support us and like things to wear. It only made sense–you’re not a run crew until you have your logo on a black shirt [laughs]. We did it because we can do whatever we want and it's fun for us to make things and have people care about it. It already has a built-in foundation.
What makes somebody ideal to join up with Koreatown Run Club.
Duy: Just the average person who wants to run. Anywhere from I'm An Experienced Runner to I Just Want to Hang to I've Never Run And Want to Hang.
Mike: Yeah we have people who don’t even run. They just show up for the beer and get wasted and we join them after. I was that person for a while [laughs].
What’s your favourite spot in Koreatown?
Duy: I like to go to Magal. This Korean BBQ spot. It’s really cozy. And they’re from Korea.
Mike: What kind of kick am I on right now? This week I’m on Thai pho. It’s always changing. Everything is so accessible. Every different type of food from Korean to Mexican to Japanese. Iki Ramen. Really good.
Mike, you’re gearing up for the LA Marathon. How’d it go last year?
Mike: The worst! Six hours and two minutes. Running for six hours, shitting my pants…I took an Epsom salt bath the night before. I’m not going to do that this year. Peanut butter toast in the morning. Six-oh-two; I promise you. I’m going to blow that out the water. I mean I haven’t really been training either but every time I run I’m going to be thinking, six-oh-two, six-oh-two, six-oh-two. [Editor's note: We can report that Mike completed the 2019 L.A. Marathon in six hours and twenty minutes. Get 'em next time, Mike!]
Do you have any marathon training tips? What's the best way to get out there?
Mike: It’s like a life checklist thing. I would say do it and prove to yourself that you can. When I did finish I collapsed and I had to ask these two guys next to me to help me up. These two big dudes helped me up and were like, can you walk? And I was like, No! But I’ll figure it out! I couldn’t even walk to the car…buy anyway advice? Test your god damn mind!
Duy: Train with a group. Have people hold you accountable.
Mike: Duy came up with the idea and approached me and almost three years later I can’t believe we a have a run club, man! It’s really inspiring to see Duy now actually signed up to do the Haiti run [aftering being there to film it]—nuts. I can only imagine doing 16, 30 miles a day, and doing 200-plus miles in a week. This is my second marathon that I’m doing and never in a million years did I think I would do any kind of marathon or any kind of race. Duy definitely holds me accountable. Without this man, I wouldn’t do shit!
Keep up with Koreatown Run Club on Instagram.