Old Port Pub Run builds connections and camaraderie.
The back porch of Liquid Riot on the Portland waterfront is thick with fog and crowded with men and women wearing gray shirts and neon-colored sneakers. They hold goblets of local beer with frothy heads of foam, and more than a few of them have sweat running down their faces. “I was starting to get Castaway levels of crazy today,” jokes one 30-something guy who works from home. “I needed this,” he says to his companion. The two runners raise their glasses in a toast to the evening—and to the fact that they both made it out of the house to hoof it around the city.
It’s odd to see so many people wearing athletic gear at a bar, but this is the Old Port Pub Run. What’s unusual for most happy-hour drinkers is par for the course for this athletic group.
Founded by Leslie Dillon in 2014, the running club is a motley crew of longtime friends, casual running buddies, and recent transplants. “I think people who are new to the area end up coming across us because we’re a free organization,” Dillon explains. “There’s no membership required, no fees, and there’s no commitment. You’re not expected to come every single week or to run any set amount. You come when you can and you do what you can.”
This loosey-goosey model appeals to runners of all stripes, from the serious—Dillon is a three-time marathoner who is currently training for the 2017 Boston Marathon—to the casual jogger. “I wasn’t an athletic kid,” Dillon admits with a laugh. She started running in junior high, when “for some reason” she got the idea to join the track team. “In my mind, I was a sprinter,” she recalls in a self-deprecating, semi- serious tone. “They kept moving me from event to event. They tried me on the 100 meter, then the 200-meter. I wasn’t good at any of them. But they finally moved me up to the longest event, which was a mile-and-a-half race. I ended up surprising myself and everyone else by doing very well.” She’s been running ever since.
When she moved to Portland in 2014, Dillon realized that she craved the social aspect of running with a group, not just the heart- pumping rush she felt from finishing a race. “I knew it would look a little overzealous if I just stopped people on the trails at Back Cove to ask, ‘Do you want to be my friend? Do you
want to run with me?’” she says. “I knew there was a better way to meet people. I had been
in a similar running club in New Hampshire, and I figured I could start something like that, using social media and word of mouth to get the word out.”
The impetus, she says, wasn’t really about exercise. It was about meeting people, making friends, and finding her tribe in a new city.
The group started small, with just a few runners meeting once a week to jog around the Old Port. Soon, however, it blossomed to double- digit numbers. In the winter, 12 to 15 runners come out every Thursday night. In the summer, 20 to 30 runners might join up to jog along the sidewalks and cobblestone streets of the Old Port and East End. They run in rain or shine, over slick bricks and in icy conditions. Some Pub Runners don’t run at all. “It’s okay to walk, if you want,” says Dillon. “You can do three miles, five miles, or even just meet up afterwards for the conversation. It’s about accountability, not about commitment.”
“Through Pub Run I’ve run in just about every extreme weather situation—below-zero, gale- force winds, torrential downpours, blizzards, and hail storms. Being a year-round running group in New England you end up running in some crazy circumstances. Sometimes it’s hard to believe, but it’s so much easier to get there and brave it with a group,” says Shannon Jenkins, a 27-year-old preschool teacher who was one of the early adopters of the Pub Run. She heard about the group through Facebook, and after her first run with Dillon, Jenkins was hooked.
Twenty-five-year-old Karoline Zacharer also learned about the Pub Run from social media. “I had literally just moved to Portland,” she remembers. “I knew nobody in town, I was here for less than a week, when the Old Port Pub Run randomly followed me on Twitter. It was on a Wednesday, and the runs take place on Thursday, so I thought, ‘I’ll go tomorrow and check it out.’ I remember calling my mom on the way there because I was so nervous.” Although she was a little apprehensive about meeting strangers for a workout, Zacharer says the Old Port Pub Run quickly became the highlight of her week. The running community, she says, “truly feels like a family.”
“We have a joke that women come first, then the men,” says Dillon. “We tend to see women finding us online, joining up, and then convincing their boyfriends or husbands to come along, too.” As a result, the group is fairly evenly split along gender lines, although it does tend to skew on the younger side. “A lot of the runners are younger than me now,” she says with a laugh.
As the Old Port Pub Run grows, Dillon plans to offer more special events. She recently organized a pop-up Pub Run with Shift, a fitness boutique on Market Street, and has offered discounts on race-entry fees and other running events to the group. In June, Dillon and 11 other pub runners participated in the first Rock Lobster Relay, a 200-mile race that follows a route from Bar Harbor to Portland. Some of the group also participated in September’s Trail to Ale, a 10K put on by Portland Trails. While the Pub Run may expand, and runners are certainly honing their abilities, there is one step that Dillon is still unwilling to take.
“I want to keep it free,” she says. “That’s what makes us stand out. There are other ways to provide cool experiences to our community.” Free, friendly, and fun—with this model, the Old Port Pub Run seems destined to become a Portland staple.