Interview: Knox Robinson of Black Roses NYC

By Mario Fraioli |
“People want to know about culture right now,” explains Knox Robinson. “Like you know, everybody out here has probably suffered through Yasso 800s before they found out it’s not really a marathon indicator, but not everybody is tasting peanut butter tea, so it’s like the culture element of that is actually ascendant and that’s really what’s exciting.” Photo: Zach Hetrick

I caught up with New York City-based runner, writer and coach Knox Robinson a few days before the 2018 Boston Marathon at Tracksmith’s Trackhouse for a live recording of the morning shakeout podcast. We talked about his run crew, Black Roses NYC, what “running culture” means to him and what its future looks like, his recent trip to Ethiopia and Kenya, where he spent time training with Mo Farah, Abdi Abdirahman, Eliud Kipchoge, and others, how he’s been able to run personal bests in his early 40s despite already having over 20 marathons under his belt, and much more.

RELATED: Going Long: An Interview with Knox Robinson

Welcome to the Trackhouse, presented this morning by Linden and True Coffee. I’m Mario Fraioli, host of the morning shakeout podcast. We’re going to do a 30-40 minute episode here. It’s myself, good friend, Knox Robinson of Black Roses New York City. Knox is a first time guest on the podcast, second interviewee for the morning shakeout and we’re going to talk about a lot of things here this morning, from the Boston marathon and what’s going on this weekend to your recent trip to Ethiopia and Kenya, where you got quite a bit of time with some of the best distance runners in the world.

Shoutout to at all the Boston marathoners here at the Trackhouse. We’re super stoked to be in the building with likeminded like minded folks. This is awesome.

I am super excited to welcome you to the morning shakeout podcast, so thank you for coming on the show here live from Boston, first ever live edition of the morning shakeout podcast. Let’s talk a little bit about this weekend. Black Roses New York City, you have quite the presence here. How many of your squad are here in town on Monday?

This is a special year for Black Roses. I mean, we’re a rag-tag program just kind of getting it in, in the streets in New York City. And what started off as one, two, three guys a few years ago, now we had 15, 16 people qualify for the race this year, we’ll have 14 or 15 line up on the day. So it’sbeen an exciting road, no pun intended. But also what’s exciting is we’re delivering nine women to the starting line in Hopkinton. I really got to give credit to the women who are involved in the program early on, two or three years ago. One of my co-captains Danielle McNeilly, we were sitting around, you know how it is, that the environment at the starting line, the weather was warm, it was on its way to being hot, but the guys were sitting around and basking in the ambiance and sort of feeling full of ourselves that we had made it this far and Daniel does gets an expression on her face and she just says, “Ah, this is messed up.” And I was like, “No, don’t worry about the heat. Just makes sure you hydrate, don’t go out too fast.” She’s like, “No, I’m the only woman here from the squad and it’s you four or five guys.” And I was like, “Oh yeah, well I guess it’s on you, let’s get some women out here.” And two or three years later we have nine women on the starting line. So I couldn’t be more proud to shout the women from Black Roses NYC who are lining up and also the squad who have traveled from hither and yon to show up to support.

Let’s let’s talk a little bit about the squad. I mean, you’ve told me in the past that we are not running club. You don’t like that word: running club. “Running clubs” are for the guys running around in short shorts, which sometimes you do, but what is Black Roses New York City?

Black Roses, it’s a collective. Well, let me rip off Hunter. S Thompson: It’s a collection of a God’s own prototypes. That’s kinda the only way to really describe ’em. It’s a collection of wild individuals who have found themselves at the intersection of New York City street culture and a love for digging deeper into the magic and the mystery of long distance running. That’s a fate I wouldn’t wish on anybody because it truly is a transfigurative journey. But it’s a group of 30-35 people in New York City who meet up two or three times a week and get after it on the training level. And so it has the trappings and the format like a traditional running program and yet that’s probably where the comparison ends.

What are the backgrounds of a lot of members of the Black Roses and how does that differ from other groups that are out there?

Whereas a lot of running groups, at least in New York City, are filled with the monied beneficiaries of inherited wealth and work down on Wall Street, destabilizing developing nations and even indeed our own country, Black Roses members are out-of-work bartenders, “creative professionals,” perpetual head hunter liaisons, sneakerhead aficionados, we have some high-class barbers in the squad, and basically I don’t even know what everybody does, like I’ve never asked anybody what they do. They just come out and run, get treated like [inaudible], and go home. So it’s not really about what people do and where they’re coming from—it’s about where they’re at.

And you’re the founder and leader of the squad. What do you do? What does Knox Robinson do? I think that’s a question that a lot of people are wondering about out in the running world who have seen you through social media and otherwise.

I like to say I’m a writer, I’m a writer. It’s my first love. And I think running and running culture is a vehicle for expression for me right now. So, while curating the Black Roses experience is a chance to bring together a concatenation of these values, it’s also an opportunity to project my own particular view or my own sensibility of what I think running and running culture looks and feels like.

And this idea of running culture is something that you are promoting, that you’re writing about through all of your work, through the Black Roses, through the various places that you’ve visited. I don’t want to ask you to define it, but what is this idea of running culture to you? What does it mean in a sense?

If you check it out now and it doesn’t—it almost seems like a garden variety term, but you know, even a few years ago you would never put the two words next to each other, running and culture. Running obviously, as previously mentioned, was the purview of these Sepia tone images, you know, from our archives and culture, obviously, was the pulling shogun down with the edamame of the Amazon River Basin. Again, if you look at the history and the present day frame of running that we all celebrate and fall in love with, it does have its own tenets of culture that are created organically and are perpetuated by the individuals in their culture. So several years ago I just started really digging on the idea that these ideas and these values that we share as runners maybe passed, maybe riffed upon, but ultimately like passed onto other runners and turning future generations onto that idea of the culture.

And what do you see going on in running culture today? With Black Roses and some of the places that you’ve been, like this idea of urban running crews popping up all over the place, certainly in New York City and worldwide. And you guys were just over in Valencia for the world half-marathon championships and I know you took a bunch of people out in Berlin last fall and there were other squads out there. Let’s talk a little bit about the rise of these urban running crews and how they fit into today’s running culture.

I mean, it’s fascinating. It’s amazing to be here on Newbury Street, just a few blocks from the finish line of the Boston Marathon. It’s the 122nd, you know, and it’s great and so many people have gone to the expo and picks up their bibs. You know, Boston is almost exclusively a marathon you have to qualify for with a time that you’ve trained for and run. And yet there’s so many people here now celebrating in the spirit of the weekend, you know? You wake up this morning and I checked on instagram and the running group Black Men Run from Brooklyn are out in Mattapan doing a Boston marathon hood run that they call. So there’s like 10 brothas out, like wildly referencing the Boston Marathon and doing their own 5K-10K this morning, just celebrating in the culture. So, it’s gone from the amazing legend of Boston Billy and Johnny Kelly and you know, and Katherine Switzer and Ted Corbitt, and now it’s just being embraced by people who might not even ever line up in Hopkinton. And that, again, is endemic of culture.

And what does that do for the sport of running as a whole? Does it help support it? Does help diversify it? Do you think it’s strengthened, this idea of running as a sport and something that people are competing in?

I mean, the main goal is just to sell a lot of sneakers from a sneaker company so they get rich and then we don’t. Like the main idea of for running is just to sell shoes. That’s what I hope. No no, I’m just kidding. Just kidding. But no, I mean like really, if we are improving our cardiovascular health, if we are rewriting our bonds of connectivity as communities and as people, if the city of Boston is perpetually able to see itself in a different way every new marathon season, that’s incredible. And if other cities are inspired and other cities connect, if there’s people here who you know, are maybe kicking a drug or alcohol addiction or throwing off like a family legacy of, of heart disease or other lifestyle diseases, and if people here just want to like get out of their job or they’re deadend relationship and I want to start putting one foot on the other and maybe run a marathon, it’s tough to hope for anything more than that. If it just increases in aspiration and inspiration, I don’t know man, it’s tough to really want to do more than that. And I know that’s not how to sell sneakers, but that’s what feels good in the heart.

Let’s switch gears for a little bit. I want to talk about you and specifically your Instagram account, @firstrun, which you started in 2012, if I’m not mistaken. Talk about the impetus behind @firstrun and what the words themselves, “first run” mean, and what they represent in your work.

Yeah. I started @firstrun in 2012. In a previous life I was the editor-in-chief of the Fader magazine, which is an independent music magazine coming out of New York City that really looks at all world music but primarily hip-hop in the music. After being editor of the Fader, I’d spent some time in the music business just kind of on sabbatical, getting trouble with rappers and skinny jean bands. But around 2011, once I saw the running boom we’re currently in taking off, the magazine guy in me kind of kicked into gear and so I spent like a hundred grand just like putting together the pieces for a super expensive lavishly produced running magazine that was inspired by like Monocle magazine. It was going to be a very lush, rich-man’s magazine because I rather erroneously thought, “These Olympians are in high-altitude training camps and they’re sitting back in like hot water tubs living the good life. All they have to do is jog every day and eat the best food.” That’s a good pitch to a rich dude: “There’s a hot tub, here’s some lobster, here’s just jogging twice a day.” And that’s what the magazine was going to be. Spent all my money on it. And then when it came time to push the button to like send it to the printer, I was like, well, “Instagram is more fun.” So I now have like 80 percent of a magazine just on a hard drive. And so I’ve just been having a good time on Instagram ever since. So @firstrun, although it does sort of highlight my own exploits, it does also look to tell the stories of other more sort of interesting personalities on the running scene.

And what are you personally interested in right now?

I’m on the left, man. I like looking at left-field running culture, I like people doing things in a different way to meet people that I don’t even know their real names. I just know their trail handle and I’ll go into LA and you know, brother will be like, “Yo, take me out to the desert and let’s run” and I’ll go get lost in the desert with like an interesting personality as much as I like to tramp down and look at gold medalists and needle them for any insights that they might offer. They both are actually pretty challenging to do.

Along those lines, you just spent a few weeks in East Africa. You went to Ethiopia first and spent some time with Mo Farah, Abdi Abdirahman, that whole Mundane team. Abdi’s running here in Boston but most were training for London. What was that experience like and what did you learn from it?

It’s funny, in core running, in the establishment, the brands and the coaches and the federations, and all the people who are benefiting from the efforts of runners, they think it’s about the workouts and the little numbers on the paper and the records. It’s not. Being out there with those guys was pure lifestyle. The entire time I was in Ethiopia, nobody who ever emailed me, texted me, sent me a DM on Instagram, nobody ever asked me about a workout. This is Mo Farah, he’s won four gold medals, like nobody asked me what he did on Tuesday morning. Anybody only wanted the recipe for the peanut butter tea that you drink at the hotel. I’m still getting hit up like, “Yo, you better post that recipe or else I’ma get it.” People want to know about culture right now. Like you know, everybody out here has probably suffered through Yasso 800s before they found out it’s not really a marathon indicator, but not everybody is tasting peanut butter tea, so it’s like the culture element of that is actually ascendant and that’s really what’s exciting. I mean, I was watching Mo, and Abdi, all these guys. In Mo’s camp he’s got like four or five Olympians just like walking to the track in the morning as his homeboys. The entourage is like all Olympians, it was super crazy. I was watching this insane workout and it’s ending up with him, let’s just say basically say he’s running 4-minute miles or whatever. First of all, on the easy runs, the easy runs are done in complete silence with like military precision and they just go out seven, 12 miles, whatever, not talking, just flowing on the dirt. When it came time for the track workouts, he’s a Drake playlist off of the speaker on the trackside and halfway through the workout he says, “Hey ‘mate, would you mind going in my bag and getting my iPhone X out. The security code is such and such and such and such. Would you want to take photos and videos of me so I can post later?” And I was like, “You want me to go in your bag, open your phone and film you while you’re just running, like to prepare for the London Marathon?” So the idea that it’s about creating a vibe in your group, and the energy, and the camaraderie, and the lifestyle really caught me off guard more than anything.

What similarities did you see with other running groups that you’ve been around throughout your career?

It’s self-serving to draw lines of connectivity between Black Roses NYC and…but setting aside the unfortunate appreciation of Drake and his music, that’s one connection. The other thing was Mo and his coach never talked about the workout until it was time to do the workout. Like nowadays in our concierge culture, we want our internet coach giving us a four-month plan to the day, emailed ahead of time—no shots to any coach who’s on this podcast, that’s not a criticism of any well-credentialed coach—in the room, but these guys would get all ready and warm up and then go up to the coach after the warmup and be like, “What are we doing?” And I was like, “Whoa, these dudes are like ready for whatever.” So what I realized is, ultimately at Mo’s level and at a certain level, maybe after a sub-elite level, you only know you’re going to do one of three things and so you spend the night before laying back in your bed going through the options of what each of those could possibly be, preparing for each one, so when the coach tells you what the workout is, you’re ready to go, you’ve already prepared. I realized that’s an incredible corollary for race day because if you’ve already cycled through all the possibilities before the race unfolds and when those things happen as a matter of course, you’ve already prepared for them. And so, note to the coaches and your 6-month PDFs, pick up the phone to your athletes or send them a text or just try to make it a little more immediate, make it a little more visceral, make it a little more kinetic and crack it off in the moment and see what happens, foster that connection, because that gives the athlete ownership of their own workout. The athlete then has more of a stakehold in their own work.

I like that. I was listening to Mike Smith, who is also from central Massachusetts, he had a line not too long ago and he said, “As a coach, I’m sitting in the passenger seat. The athlete’s gotta be driving. I’m just telling you, ‘Hey, watch out for that rock in the road, go left here, take a right.’ But the athlete has to take ownership and be driving the ship, I’m just here to make sure they don’t go completely off the cliff here.”

Exactly. When I was a music manager, I didn’t go to business school. I didn’t really come out of like any kind of business background. So I just kind of fell into managing bands. I really hung to this idea that it’s about creating the context for an artist to pursue their best work and I just carried that on to Black Roses. Black Roses, say what you want about it—win, lose, or draw—it’s about creating the context and the platform for people to pursue this dream of running.

And how does something like that continue to evolve over the next few years?

If people stick with it, people generally do get a little bit faster, people might get a little more ambitious even though they get restless as well. And so rather than that cycle that you see of hype and excitement and energy and injury and then coming back into some new learnings, Black Roses in our 11th season, our fifth or sixth year, you see this culture that’s starting to be baked in and now I have to kind of feed that machine. And they’re in the room here now, like these people who started off kind of like falling in and out of races and training for 10 days and then taking 15 days off and now people are figuring out what happens when you do it consistently and you gotta keep feeding them fire and kind of be like, “OK, cool, now you’ve unlocked the consistency, now you’ve unlocked really what it is and now what you’re going to do with it?” And even in my own group, as a little tiny culture, it’s been fascinating to watch that cultural setting. It’s really amazing to feel it, you know?

Going back to East Africa, did you end up in Kenya after Ethiopia?

I did go out to work with The Swoosh with Jason—Jason Suarez is in the building, @notafraid2fail, amazing photographer, check out his photography—so Jason and I went out to work with the Swoosh to document innovation that we’re going to see on Monday. It may be planted in their brands. I’m not gonna say it’s footwear, it might be a microchip installed at the base of their skull. But, good chance it’s footwear. So we got a chance to look at Kipchoge speaking about this innovationand document some of that. And I did get to work as a stunt double for Kipchoge….Our ankles, the melanin in our ankles, and our calf structure are almost…identical, at speed, with a blur.

Let’s talk about Kipchoge for a little bit. You were fortunate enough to be out in Monza last May for the Breaking2 Project and spent some time recently with him in Kenya. Talk about the man and the about the man and the presence that he carries about him pretty much everywhere he goes whether he’s on the race course or just walking around talking to people on the street.

Eliud Kipchoge is another one of God’s own prototypes. There was this moment when we were out at the camp, the Global Sports Communication camp and photographers had gone off into the woods to scout and everyone was chilling out, and Eliud just brought this lawn chair over the next to mine and then just sat right next to me and started checking his phone next to me and we just like hung out in silence—a bro moment, like, for an hour. “Should I ask him for marathon advice? What should I ask him?” But it was just two dudes. So that’s incredible. I do have a saucy piece of gossip that I’ll probably get killed for but because I’m here: Kipchoge’s in shape. You’ve got to realize I’ve got crazy conflicted loyalties for London, living with Mo for three weeks, then I go out to see Eliud who is an inspiration for me. When Kipchoge crossed the line in Monza, I wept. It was heartbreaking, and excruciating to watch. So there’s this 40K route that Kipchoge runs, obviously it’s eight to 9,000 feet, on dirt roads, rolling hills, and his group, obviously he’s got the best in the world, he’s got Abel Kirui, he’s Geoffrey Kamworor. And then he’s got a couple young guys in the camp who they don’t even know their names. who are in the camp, who they don’t even really know their names. They are just dudes from the backwoods.

Are they the unofficial punching bags of the group?

Yeah, except they’re like better than anyone else in the rest of the world. So there’s this guy named Wild West. His town is so small, I don’t even know if it has a name, and he’s running around the track. He comes out with the t-shirt over the long sleeve and he’s got some like L.A. Gear shoes on. I mean, he’s probably in some Nikes. And Patrick Sang, the coach, is looking at him and we’re just like, “Who is that guy?” Coach just says, “That guy, he’s Wild West.” So there’s this guy named Wild West who can keep up with Kipchoge. That’s all he knows. So they go out on this 40K run and leave the cars going. [Abel] Kirui steps off at a certain point, Geoffrey [Kamworor], who was training for his world half victory, he stops at 30K, and Wild West just keeps up with Kipchoge for 40K. This is the route Kipchoge ran a month before Monza and when we were in Kenya, with Wild West, he went a minute faster than he ran a year ago getting ready for Monza.

So if I’m reading between the lines here, what you’re telling me is that Kipchoge is going to be hard to beat in London?

I’m not saying that. As they say in Flatbush back in Brooklyn, “man-fit.” Man-fit.

Let’s go back to you for a little bit. You’re how old now? 43? You ran a half marathon PB just three weeks ago in Valencia, 1:10 and some change, you ran a marathon PB last fall, 2:33 I believe in Berlin. And you’ve been at this a while. You’ve run how many marathons?

I believe Monday is going to be my 25th marathon.

So what’s allowing you to run at your best in your 40-somethings. I mean, you ran collegiately, you’re not new at this, you had a little bit of a break while you were doing the music thing. But you’ve been running a while. You’ve got some miles on your legs. What changes have you made to your own program? What have you learned from some of these people that you’ve spent time with over the last year or two that’s allowed you to jump to the next level?

Some answers are simple and now sexy, like running more. But ultimately around 2015, I was doing my thing, I was running my 2:45, 2:40 marathon, a flat one, a hilly one, a hot one, a cold one, I was just running the same time. It was cool, and I haven’t really told this to too many people, but I was kind of bored, I was on the cover of Runner’s World, and I was kind of like, “Ah, this is the end of the road, I’m on the cover of Runner’s World. I’ve peaked. There’s a black dude with dreads on the cover of Runner’s World. We’re done.” And then right after that, a handful of innovations came out—Maurten sports fuel, the Nike 4%, and Headspace, as an app, and these sort of marginal gains sort of reinspired me and reinvigorated me to just tweak that final little percentage out of my running, which was actually the inspiration for @firstrun. In 2011, I ran the New York City Marathon, not really thinking about and stressing. I had just come back from a wild fashion week in Paris with Kanye and acting crazy. And I just went out in New York on good vibes and got a hundredth place. And I was like, “How did I do that?, interesting, tiny acting crazy and I just went out on a hundred and how do I do that without really stressing it?” So I got interested in unlocking that vibe but now we have the tools at our disposal, whether it’s rethinking our sports fueling and trying Maurten last year at the marathon for the first time and thinking, “What if there’s no wall here?” Running and running culture is predicated on the wall. But running through the wall is just something to figure out and solve. What if unlocking the mental aspect isn’t just Alberto Salazar finding a crucifix in a grotto and turning into gold on his bedroom dresser? But what if there’s actual steps? And obviously Buddhism’s been talking about it for thousands of years. What are their actual concrete steps to increasing your mindfulness? So all those things kind of came together for me to really have unlocked another element of potential and then share that with Black Roses and communicate that as a writer to the people. So I’ve really been on a journey of, again, what is taking rather uncharitably described around professional cyclists and certain elite athletes as marginal gains. What does marginal gains mean for us as regular people? What does marginal gains mean for your nutrition and your sleep and your hydration on a day and your training in general?

And how much would you attribute to, in your case, let’s call it the hype? Like you’ve got people who are really interested in your journey and want to support what it is that you’re doing and want to learn from the things that you’re doing. How much does that motivate you when you’re putting on your shoes every day and getting out there and putting in that track workout, or putting in that long run and making what I’ll call those not-so-marginal gains?

And because I’ve been at it a long time and because I’ve watched my dad run, and I kind of grew up around running culture, there’s no connection between my personal running and whatever happens on social media or in my own house or in the rest of the world, or even really with Black Roses. My running is just inextricably linked to whatever I’m doing, which is amazing because now I’m freed up to act like totally crazy, talk a bunch of trash on your podcast with a wild ego, out of control, and it doesn’t change what I’m going to do in the marathon on Monday. So what I want to do to talk about running and share through my work as a writer and as a curator of photography and cultural experiences, the two are invariably separate, which is special.

Last bit before we wrap up here, tying this all back to running culture, what is its future? Where do you see things going here in the next five, fifteen, fifty years?

With this running boom, let’s say this is the third running boom, when this running boom hit you’d be hanging out in the streets in New York and I know I was kind of early and people in my creative class who have worked with Run Supreme, all these legendary New York street brands, guys who are at Vice media now, we kind of came up together as a peer group in New York. Guys would see me in the street that first year and be like, “The running thing, it seems like a fad.” And I’d be like, “Nah, it’s not really a fad.” And then you’d see the guys in the street the next year, “The running thing, it’s a real trend, right?” And I’d be like, “I don’t know if it’s a trend. What if it’s a consciousness shift?” And so, what I would hope for—and now you’re going to see those same guys running the Brooklyn Half Marathon in May—what I hope for is that running is experiencing what is part and parcel of a consciousness shift and a lifestyle and a value shift even though we’re beset by so many challenges, politically and culturally, in our own lives, in our bedrooms and in our boardrooms, and inside of out borders and outside of our borders. I would hope that we’re running for our species as a tiny step forward in our evolution. Obviously running was one of the things that precipitated our evolution 85,000 years ago and I’m really optimistic that the energy that you see on Boston Marathon weekend might be bottled up and sold at top dollar [laughs]. No, the energy that you’re seeing at Boston Marathon weekend might be a small example of how we might reconnect as Homo sapiens and make our way together as they say, you know, se hace el camino con el correr—we can make the road by running. So I hope in my heart of hearts that’s what we’re going to do.

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