The men ran in the punishing heat, street by street, block by city block, past North Philadelphia row homes and corner stores and people who stared as if maybe the group was a mirage — until they heard their calls.
“Miles up! Guns down!”
“Miles Up! Guns Down!”
“MILES UP! GUNS DOWN!”
The 20 or so men, from their early 20s to their late 50s, began their five-mile run at Logan Elementary School, where three teens played basketball nearby a memorial to their 20-year-old friend who was shot and killed in May.
They made their way through about a half dozen streets via Logan and Olney and Nicetown, their sweat-soaked shirts and shorts clinging to their skin as cars honked in recognition and, sometimes, pointed appreciation.
“Y’all are sexy!” a young woman declared from her stoop.
Before a brutal five-mile run that ended back at the school, they stopped at the corner of Wagner and Tabor, where they met 11-year-old Gio Ganet outside his family’s water-ice business.
I wish everyone could have seen the look in Gio’s eyes as he took in the group alongside his father, that glimmer of discovery that cracks open the world just a little bit wider.
“I really like that,” Gio said before rushing back inside to help his mother.
It’s why these men — predominantly Black and Latino members of Black Men Run Philly and Swagga House Run Club — are out there.
Black Men Run Philadelphia is the local chapter of the national running group started in Atlanta in 2013. Swagga House Run Club was founded last July from the Elkins Park tattoo studio by the same name to honor a friend and fellow runner who died by suicide.
Together, the groups are taking their brotherhood to Philadelphia neighborhoods most hurt by gun violence to defy stereotypes and statistics.
“People are used to seeing runners downtown and in certain neighborhoods in Philadelphia, but not so much people who look like us running in neighborhoods like these,” said runner George Morse, one of the leaders of Black Men Run Philly and a deputy sheriff in the city Sheriff’s Office.
Lawrence Harrington, a case manager who works with people with behavioral and intellectual disabilities, leads the group with Morse.
“The goal is to show up, as a united front, to show that there are other, healthier ways to deal with stress and anger that is harming our communities,” he said.
The routes aren’t randomly chosen. They are the Philadelphia neighborhoods where these working family men grew up — and where many still live, a visual and visceral message that even the toughest terrain can be conquered by planting one foot in front of the other. Preferably in a pair of running shoes.
“Miles up! Guns down!”
That’s not just a catchy hook coined by one of the runners fortuitously named Leroy Miles, who works in IT.
Not one runner I talked to had been spared the impact of gun violence.
“There is no way to live in Philly and not be affected,” said Joshua Perez, who, with Ron Pichardo, founded Swagga House Run Club.
In 2010, Morse was shot and nearly killed.
In March, around the time that the two groups began talking about collaborating on a series of runs, Miles’ cousin, Antonio Walker Jr., was shot and killed.
He was 15: “A track star, on the right track — literally” one of his grieving teachers wrote about the beloved young athlete.
At a balloon release hosted by the teen’s family, the two groups ran in his honor. They followed that with what they thought would be a month’s worth of runs through the city. But that has now turned into a planned summerlong “Hood 2 Hood” running series.
It’s not unusual for curious and amused residents to stop them to talk, or, as Philly rapper Freeway did on a recent run, endorse their efforts. People have been known to run or bike alongside them. Everyone is welcome, and no runner is left behind. They’ve already held seven runs that included neighborhoods in North, South, and West Philly. If you want to run with them, or if you want them to include your neighborhood in a run, contact the groups on Instagram. (And check out the sweeping drone videos by fellow runner and resident hype man Marcus Rivera.)
In addition to the runs planned for the rest of the summer, many of the men are also working together on other outreach efforts and mentorship programs.
“We want to make our presence felt and show young guys especially that what they might see in their neighborhoods isn’t all that Philadelphia has to offer or all that their lives can be,” Miles said.
Step by step, block by block, mile by city mile.