This is what community looks like.
By Amy Sowder
Running clubs can feel exclusive and elitist to runners who love the sport but don’t fit the typical profile. The Prospect Park Track Club (PPTC) is different.
Sure, you’ll find the usual bunch of young, sleek speedsters among the club’s hundreds of active members spanning neighborhoods beyond Prospect Park in Brooklyn.
But then you’ll notice something else — something felt more than seen. Everyone seems to feel at home in this club.
“It makes being in a big city feel like a small town,” says Crystal Cun, 32. “Anytime I run in the park, I see a familiar face. You end up doing things with people beyond running.”
PPTC runners hanging out after a run. Photo by Jimmy Leung.
PPTC welcomes and embraces newcomers, whether they’re runners who fall to the back of the pack or ones who stand out for reasons other than their finish times.
And unconventional runners aren’t just accepted — they’re celebrated.
Take Michael Ring, 54, who joined the club in 1991 because he heard the club helped runners get into the New York City Marathon and provided a bus ride to starting line. Over the years, he had completed 29 marathons, including ultra-marathons on half a day’s notice.
Then, in 2014, he had a stomach virus that turned into acute motor axonal neuropathy, a severe version of Guillain-Barré syndrome, causing his immune system to attack his nervous system, which led to muscle weakness and paralysis.
“I went from marathon-ready to quadriplegic in three days,” says Ring.
He was hospitalized for four-and-a-half months. But during that time, PPTC members visited him in the hospital almost daily, and afterward, they rallied around him as he fought his way back to the starting line.
Ring running the 2017 NYC Marathon. Photo courtesy of Michael Ring.
Ring says he isn’t religious, “but my running friends did what church friends would do. I had my own community.” PPTC member Nicoletta Nerangis even became his “running social worker,” helping him navigate the new world of being a disabled athlete.
In 2017, Ring finished his 30th marathon — his first since his illness — alongside his teenage son Nicholas and Nerangis. Some PPTC members jumped in and walked beside Ring for a couple miles, while others formed a special cheering section for him at the finish line after nightfall, more than nine hours after the start.
Ring at the 2017 NYC Marathon finish line. Photo by Amy Sowder.
“It was amazing,” says Ring. This club offers the kind of support that’s rare to find anywhere else.
Chaya Wolf, 34, joined PPTC in 2013 because hardly any women in her Orthodox Jewish community ran and she craved company on her runs.
“I was looking for people who spoke my language outside the Jewish community,” says Wolf. “For me, joining the club was the best thing that ever happened. I don’t know what I would do without my running buddies.”
Wolf organizes strength training sessions for the club, and she loves running on weekdays and competing in Sunday races. (Saturdays are out because that’s the Jewish Sabbath.)
Because her faith has a strong tradition of modesty, requiring women to cover their collarbones, elbows, and knees at all times, Wolf wears black leggings under sporty skirts when she runs. While other runners have noticed her somewhat different running ensemble, it breeds conversations about her faith rather than scrutiny.
Wolf (second from the left) with her running mates. Photo via Chaya Wolfe.
“It’s cool. I stick out, and I embrace it,” says Wolf. “And that’s what I love about PPTC: It’s such an all-inclusive community of diversity.”
Not only are PPTC members of varying abilities and faiths, their ages fall on a wide spectrum.
When Lisa Maya Knauer started jogging in the early '70s, women’s running shoes weren’t even available in Scranton, Pennsylvania.
Like most female runners back then, Knauer had to wear men’s running shoes or generic women’s sneakers. The market for this kind of shoe was just starting: In fact, women weren’t even acknowledged in the Boston Marathon until 1972.
Still, Knauer jogged off and on over the next four decades, until her friend, Murray Rosenblith, encouraged her to join his PPTC running club. Knauer was 58. Her first run with the club was the Dyker Heights Lights Run in 2015, which goes through an elaborate holiday light display. Afterward, people meet for a drink in a warm bar.
Members of PPTC on a winter run. Photo courtesy of Lisa Maya Knauer.
“Someone brought cookies, and I thought that was really sweet. There was this camaraderie. I got this great sense of this club being very supportive,” says Knauer.
Knauer, now 61, has led club fun runs to restaurants and to see fireworks on the beach. She started a subgroup within PPTC, the Slow-and-Steady Runners, for runners who worry about not being able to keep up with the pack at the club’s other group runs.
The club’s support even helped her meet her goal of running a marathon before she turned 60. Now she’s training for her fourth.
PPTC makes it clear that running is for anyone and everyone — and at its core, it’s about bringing people together to joyfully move as one.
Photo via Chaya Wolf.
Many of these PPTC members would’ve continued to jog alone like they did before they learned of the club if not for that smile from someone in a PPTC shirt at a race’s starting corral or the shouts of encouragement from a cluster of red-shirted hooligans on the sidelines.
These highly competitive people accept that everyone is an equally valued team player in PPTC. Sure, beating your personal-best time is important, but so is enjoying those you meet along the way. Exclusivity isn't cool.
“When you wear the PPTC shirt at a race, you always have a friend, even if you go there alone,” says Ring. “It’s an amazing cross section of Brooklyn people of every age, ability, race, and sexual orientation.
“We’re just people — people who like to run.”
This story was produced as part of a campaign called "17 Days" with DICK'S Sporting Goods. These stories aim to shine a light on real occurrences of sports bringing people together.
Share image via Lisa Maya Knauer.