Harlem Run Group Bringing The Funk To Uptown Neighbors

Harlem Run captains (left to right) Kai Ng, Raydime Polanco, Joseph Shayne, Alison Mariella Désir, Amir Figueroa, Mike McGlarkner, lead the way on weekly runs starting in the historic uptown neighborhood. Courtesy of Anthony Geathers

NEW YORK -- The stifling humidity of New York City summer has finally given way to the crisp fall weather -- a temperate climate that is a runner's dream.

On the corner of 124th and Malcolm X Boulevard (Lenox Avenue), just one block away from the renowned Lenox Lounge where legendary jazz singer Billie Holiday once serenaded crowds, and a mere minutes from the Apollo Theater, 60 Harlem Run members scuttle to the starting line of their weekly exercise. As the group prepares to launch one of its many runs, school children dash from their stoops to the sidewalk, clapping and chanting, "Run, run, run!"

The group's members vary in race and age, and some wear an aquamarine Harlem Run T-shirt as they laugh, hug and shake hands while the sun falls between iconic brownstone buildings. Men and women ripple off into five groups -- some will run as many as six miles; others will walk. The walkers, nicknamed the "sexy pacers," represent a deliberate decision by Harlem Run to ensure all participants feel included.

Inclusion is important to founder Alison Désir ,30, who will race in the 2015 TCS NYC Marathon. She breaks the ice with new members by asking them their favorite foods or the dates of their next races, her eyes zooming in while she cheerfully listens to each response.

"Do y'all run every week?" a woman with shoulder-length braids asks Amir Figueroa, one of Harlem Run's five captains.

"Yeah. Harlem Shake every Monday at 7 o'clock," Figueroa says of the local restaurant that serves as a meeting spot for runners each week. "Come."

The woman repeats his words: "Harlem Shake every Monday." She turns to her friend, releases a short smile and says, "We coming next week."

After a few moments, Désir checks her watch. It's time to start running. Her 5-foot-5 frame enters the middle of the circle of runners. She counts down from five and the groups take off.

Désir has seen her group grow with support from people in the community; running connects native Harlemites and transplants who now call Harlem home.

"The neighborhood is gentrifying," Désir says, "but running is the vehicle that brings us together." She wants locals to participate in the weekly Monday gatherings, conversations, runs and walks, in hope that by exercising together it will unify the community.

The group's routes take runners by changes all around the neighborhood -- past StreetBird, a hip, new restaurant opened by famous chef Marcus Samuelsson; past a sleek Italian eatery; past African Muslim vendors selling African-inspired accessories and American-centric clothing; past a Yemeni bodega owner sweeping his sidewalk. All make up the cornucopia of new Harlem, whose historic black culture, dating to the Great Migration that ended in 1930, now mingles with an influx of new cultures as the area's population booms.

Désir, who is mindful of the shifts in her neighborhood, is also hopeful that her group will, in some small way, help bridge the cultural gaps and bring neighbors together. But she stresses this was not her original goal.

"When I started, I didn't think that I was this black woman at the center [of a running organization]," Désir says. "I was like, I'm somebody from the community who wants to run with other people."

After a difficult romantic breakup in November 2012, Désir decided to create the running group, which increased from five to 15 members within the first few months. By 2015, the numbers ballooned to approximately 100 runners, one of whom -- Kayla Lauricella -- has been using Harlem Run to help her train for the 2015 NYC Marathon.

Désir's passion to promote a positive environment spills into the structure of her organization, as well. There is no membership fee to join, and only a few rules. Among them: Run happy; always bring a friend; give back to Harlem; and respect the community.

We caught up with seven women from Harlem Run to discuss what the organization means to them.

Alison Mariella Désir

Age: 30

Hometown: Harlem, New York

"The energy and the community spirit have brought everyone together. Running is our vehicle, running brings us together, but it's really about the movement for social change. If you can empower people through fitness to feel better about themselves, they then [will] get an idea of what they deserve and are worth. I'm in awe of what's happening."

April Cargill

Age: 51

Hometown: Harlem, New York

"I've been running since high school. I like the fact that they split us up into different pace groups because you don't feel overwhelmed and you also have something to aspire toward, to run a little faster. I love that I've met so many people from my neighborhood that do what I do. And I can bring my younger relatives to get fit. It's free fitness -- there's nothing better than that. I'm a little addicted [to running] and it's nice to meet other people who are addicted."

Raydime Polanco

Age: 30

Hometown: Harlem, New York

"I always dreaded running, but would sometimes try to run on a treadmill. It was different running with a group of people because I realized that although I could run long distances, I was not fast. When I joined Harlem Run, Alison and everyone were very warm and inviting. I was greeted with genuine excitement, a smile and a hug. It made me keep coming back, and soon enough I was no longer the last runner. I will be celebrating my one-year run anniversary [in November] with Harlem Run."

Adalgisa Rivera

Age: 31

Hometown: Bronx, New York

"I joined Harlem Run as a volunteer for Father's Day [this year]. I've learned about healthy meal preparations, how to exercise, and stretch among other areas [in my body]. One of the biggest reasons why I continue to come back is because Harlem Run is a community and they leave no one behind. Additionally, I am a very structured and organized person and I love, love how organized everything is and how important safety is to Harlem Run."

Kayla Lauricella

Age: 24

Hometown: West Milford, New Jersey

"I used to be overweight, then I started running by myself. I lost over 80 pounds. It was a slow process. It took four years. As soon as I started coming to Harlem, it totally shattered all those [preconceived notions] I had about it. I've met people from all different cultures and so many different races -- it was so eye-opening for me. And now, I make the trip from Jersey, which is not that long, it's like a 20-minute ride. This community is just amazing."

Terria Clay

Age: 27

Hometown: Detroit, Michigan

"I started running in a very sparsely populated area in [Michigan], and running became a love of mine. I saw signs about Harlem Run in the neighborhood, and posts on social media. The members of Harlem Run are incredibly supportive of every runner on every level. It's just awesome to see that much support for everybody. And I run more easily with people."

Jenisha Watts is a senior researcher at ESPN The Magazine and is working on her first biography. You can follow her sports and pop culture tweets at @iamjournalism.