Going Long: An Interview with Knox Robinson

By Mario Fraioli

Knox Robinson: ardent purveyor of running culture. Photo: Zach Hetrick (Courtesy of Knox Robinson)

Knox Robinson is a New York City-based runner, writer and coach. He is the co-founder and captain of the Black Roses NYC run crew, and an ardent purveyor of running culture. Robinson ran collegiately at Wake Forest before stepping away from the sport for the better part of a decade to work in the music industry, where he managed the careers of various artists, and also served as the editor-in-chief of Fader, a magazine dedicated to covering hip hop and indie music, style and culture.

I caught up with Robinson last month to learn more about his background and unique perspective on running, and discuss the role that culture and music have played in shaping that point of view. We also talked about the current running boom, how Instagram brought writing back into his life, and much more.

In your own words, who is Knox Robinson?

I would just parry that and quote the American poet Amiri Baraka. He would describe it as “a long-breath singer, would-be dancer, strong from years of fantasy and struggle.” I think that’s what it was. Actually, I think it was “fantasy and study.” That’s what it is. I don’t know, sometimes it’s easier to understand a question like that, you kind of think of what resonates in your mind. That’s from his poem, “Numbers, Letters.” Fantasy and study — strong from years of fantasy and study.

You sort of live at this intersection of running and music and culture and writing. How did you end up there?

I think that I came to all of this, honestly, I grew up … I realize now that it’s a little absurd, but I guess the stuff that I just saw growing up I took for granted that that was what life was all about. I thought that this was how a man lived his life, surrounded by music and going out for a run with his friends on Saturday, and trying to beat your friend, but usually your best friend got the better of you. Growing up in San Diego in the late ’70s or early ’80s, that’s just sort of how my parents set up their life, so even though my relationship with my dad has had a lot of up and downs on an acute level, I think what I saw growing up was what I just assumed were the basic tenets of a man’s life. I just finished installing my turntable. I’m bringing some vinyl down to my new apartment in Brooklyn where I’m living with my girlfriend and our baby, so I’m definitely still racking up the miles and listening to records.

Running has been in your life for a long time. You grew up around it and just assumed that’s how life was lived. How was [running] first introduced to you? Where did you first come in contact with running or come to experience it for the first time that you remember?

My dad was rank and file in the running boom of the late ’70s and the early ’80s, as was underground in southern California, so Coronado Bay Half Marathon, 10Ks here and there. I guess, you know, hero-worship works early on where you think your dad is going to go and win the race and when your dad doesn’t win the race you’re crying. Now, I go look back at photos, or I would start to look at my dad’s times when I was a teenager, I realized my dad was just a middle-to-back of the pack guy, who by his own admission always saved it up for the finishing kick, what he liked to describe as “saving something for the fans in the stands.” So my dad would just basically [jog] the whole run, hit the finishing straight and then kick, passing a woman with a walker and then a dude in an upright wheelchair. My dad doesn’t mind kicking those people down. Even though those were the glorified images that I had as a young boy, they kind of stuck with me.

My early impressions of the sport were that community vibe, that lifestyle, it was something you did with your friends. It wasn’t a perspective on training or sort of like, you know, loneliness of the long-distance runner. It was lifestyle, which I guess makes me prepared for the more cozy and comfortable lifestyle aspects of this current running boom. Elite runners and core runners might cry, but for me it’s pretty familiar.

But you did end up following what I would call a traditional route for a competitive runner. You ran collegiately at Wake Forest, and you’ve run pretty fast, mid-2:30 marathons and some other quick times. Given what you just told me, how has your relationship with running evolved since those early days in San Diego, through your more traditional competitive years in high school and college and maybe a little beyond, to what you’re doing now?

I wonder if my relationship to running has evolved at all. I wonder if I’m actually only going back and re-imagining what I understood, growing up in southern California, that dream-time of teenagers, when I was finishing last-place in the 2-mile. My mom still jokes that the team would be on the bus with the engine running, waiting for me to finish the race. They would be turning the lights off because it took me so long to finish the 2-mile, and then I’m still falling down and crying in histrionics like it was the biggest athletic achievement effort ever. From there, going on to be one of the top runners in my area and mixing it up with some dudes who still have records in New York State decades later. I wonder if I am going back to re-explore that space and what that magic was, and also kind of take some of that magic and mystery and bring it up into the present day and just share it with new runners who are just kind of getting into the life. And that’s what’s really exciting now, is there’s such a huge lateralization of excitement and interest and curiosity and a hunger for insight, that it’s a chance to really share, whether that’s sharing a quantitative coaching perspective or an opportunity to create a space for people to explore the more qualitative aspects of running. Whether that’s meditation or soul-searching or hiking out in the trails and getting weird. I kind of like to work back and forth on those things too, so I kind of feel like more and more these days I’m just getting back to who I was as a 16, 17-year-old kid running in the woods outside of Buffalo.

And you’re how old now?

I’m 41, almost 42. I’m as straight and narrow as I was when I was 17. I like to think that I’m in like 15:35 5K shape. It’s 20 degrees outside today, I would need a couple strides, but I’m in sub-16 shape. I still feel like I got it, and that’s crazy.

What do you attribute that to? Is it being able to train harder, train smarter, being willing to do things differently, consistency over the years, or what? Many guys, when they get to your age, when they’ve been running for as long as you have, even if they’re still competitive, they start slowing down. It’s interesting to me, as you’ve reconnected emotionally to those years when you were running at 16, 17 years old, getting started, getting excited, and now you’re running as fast as you were back in your younger days. How did you get there?

In my less charitable moments, sometimes I wonder if I’m completely embalmed at all and more preserved from, what did Baraka say, “years of fantasy and study,” years of hard living. But also, we are in this amazing time where there is so much information and a kind of transparency that you can pick training practices and ideas and philosophies that keep your running very progressive and keep it very fresh. And also, in full disclosure, I took my 20s off, and once I stopped running in college, I didn’t run until my son was born 13 years ago. At the end of my twenties, the experience of watching my son come into the world, that moment was such a transfiguring sight and experience to be there, that I started running the next day. From there, it was quickly running a 1:15 half [marathon] and qualifying for the New York City Marathon automatically. In those early years, before this running boom hype started, I was just getting it in in Brooklyn and again reconnecting, but doing it almost blindly, reading less of running message boards and Let’s Run[.com], and dabbling in the club scene in New York. And then things got really crazy when I moved up to Beacon (NY) in an apartment on the Hudson River into the woods, and on the roads one day, I met this dude who qualified for two Olympic Trials in the marathon, five years older than me. Hunter S. Thompson would call him one of God’s own prototypes. This guy is definitely that guy: Let’s Run fantasy pro, blue-collar runner and he’s from the area. He drives a bus for the local school district, did some odd jobs and is still fit, fades in and out of injury because he’s super intense. But the experience of moving up, meeting him, and then training with a guy on that level … he didn’t ask questions, none of the guys in the group asked questions for what I did or what I was coming from and it was awesome just to be later in life and to walk into a training group all of a sudden. You just throw yourself at it on the track and go home after, and it wasn’t that big of a thing.

So moving up into the woods kind of shot me forward to where I am now. I’m getting long with the answer, but when I first started running for those first few years — 2004/5/6 — I was doing what everyone else was doing: Brooklyn, the races, the club races, this training plan or whatever, but when we moved up into the woods and to this guy who had run at the highest levels of the sport on a national level and gave me crazy insight and he did it without internet, did without the phone, did it with just straight, hardcore, running up and down the hills out in the country. That was awesome.

Robinson on a one-day, 90K run through the Sonora desert in 2015. Photo: Daniel Klinckwort (Courtesy of Knox Robinson)

You briefly alluded earlier to moving back to Brooklyn soon. You’re pretty embedded in the New York City running community. You just described how you sort of got there, but talk about the club scene in New York right now, and the club running scene in general. There are traditional clubs — New York Road Runners, Warren Street Athletic Club, groups like that — they’ve been around for a long time. They’ll continue to exist, but you’ve got your club, Black Roses, you’ve got Nike+ Run Clubs now, a lot of other brands and non-brands are starting more social run clubs in big cities. Talk a little bit about this new running boom, these clubs that are forming, and what it’s doing for running in major metropolitan areas.

I was rapping with someone, Caitlin Phillips, who’s a local elite and qualified for the last Trials marathon. I was running with her this week, and I was like, “Man, when I started in Central Park, we had the uniforms and you could really put it on a pedestal.” And then the North Brooklyn Runners runners came out, and they were all black — black uniforms not black people — they were in Williamsburg. Black little singlets that they stenciled on and, “Oh wow, a running club in Williamsburg.” It was a super social thing, going to the bar after and all of that stuff was cool. I was messing with Bridge Runners at the time, it was totally a left-field running outfit but it didn’t have aspirations of competing in a marathon or any kind of performance aspects. It was social and cultural, not social in a way that North Brooklyn was, like a scene, but members who were like Gangs of New York with talent.

And so what’s awesome now about all of these crews is that there’s a spectrum: there are some that purely social, and some that are intensely performance-driven. The fact that they’re also kind of playing with the culture element or recognizing that you’re representing the city or the neighborhood or space or a cultural theme — beyond just running two races a year for just a club — that’s a cool cultural conversation.

Talk about your crew, Black Roses NYC. When did you start it, what was the impetus behind it, and where does it stand today?

I was in one of the founding urban running crews, Bridge Runners, that just kind of made sense. There’s a downtown arts and culture scene. I was in that group for a while and then in 2011 I came to the New York City Marathon. I came in 100th place, but I told people that I was going to get top 100 beforehand, because of course you’re a core runner in the New York City Marathon if you do, and the year before the Olympic Trials is going to give you easily 30 or 50 places.

So when I nailed it, everybody downtown in the scene and the music biz were like, “Yo, how did you know you were going to get 100?” They just knew the top notes, you know? And I was the last name on the first page of the results in The New York Times, which is all they care about, right? Your ex-boss is looking at the top ten, he’s looking at the last names to see if he knows anyone, and then “Ah, boom!” So it went something like, “Damn, who is this guy who was hanging out at Fashion Week in Paris with Kanye, getting thrown out of clubs and getting off the plane to getting hot in the New York City Marathon?” People started asking me, how did I do it? So instead of everyone kind of selling themselves as experts on the scene, folks were like, “Oh, this dude really kind of did it.” Then it was like, so what’s the deal with the Yasso 800s? Are those real? Should I do them the day before the marathon? Is this the right way to do high knees?” And all that kind of stuff. I saw that there was a need for practical advice.

I rather begrudgingly started to bring that to the downtown running community. Not that there wasn’t this Olympian who passed through here a decade or so after his glory years, and not that other people hadn’t run marathons, or not because I didn’t think they could run anything like that, but I had a certain perspective.

How many members are in your crew now?

We’ve got about 40 people on the books. We’ve been around since winter 2012, so four years ago. Maybe 20–25 active members, which is a lot. It’s just me, I found it with another woman, Jessie Zapo, she’s gone on to start Girls Run NYC, a women’s group. The community’s pretty small. But yeah, Black Roses is intense. It’s people from all of those New York subsets, art curators and book editors and out-of-work bartenders and marketing operatives. We all come together, and I don’t ever really know what anybody does. Maybe to a fault I never ask, they kind of come out and meet at the track and my job is to make them hurt, which is definitely an interesting sort of endeavor. That’s as much as I can handle. Along the way you find out that, “Oh, man this dude is a top graphic motion animator in the country.” You never know, because you’re just kicking it and training guys and girls.

Would you describe Black Roses as a competitive social club?

The view is already low if you use the word club because club denotes split shorts — and now split shorts are coming back in, and now split shorts are cool. But [clubs are] split shorts and super intense dudes with people freaking out about their shit. Almost everybody freaks out before a marathon, so the core signifiers of what’s a club and what’s a crew are not actually very instructive. I would never cop to calling us a club. We are performance-based, but we are equally grounded in a New York City street culture. So whether that’s checking out some of our surrounding places on the east side, or running to some dim sum restaurants in Chinese neighborhoods in the outer boroughs. Those are like regular endeavors for our crew and carry the same importance as performance does for us.

Robinson, right, rolling with his Black Roses teammates in the New York City Marathon. Photo: Zach Hetrick (Courtesy of Knox Robinson)

You’ve done a lot of work in the hip-hop space, in the music space. You were an editor of the magazine Fader, and have done some other things. Talk a little bit about those years and that area of interest in your life and how it influences what you’re doing now as a running coach and as an influencer in the running space.

I ended up as an editor-in-chief of that magazine, and it’s an exciting publication now. It’s super relevant to indie music and whatnot, but at the time it was just coming out, it was even more laceratingly exciting. It was that visceral to be covering Kanye’s first cover or MIA’s first cover or The Strokes when they were first coming out, and to really not have any guard because we were worrying about some image we portrayed to outsiders or something. You just had to be present. You didn’t need to have like a Harvard degree to write, you didn’t really need to have any degree, you just needed to have a personal perspective, a point of view.

For me, to come up as a young writer, in that environment, where I could write whatever I wanted to — it just had to be good — I learned a lot and I grew a lot, a lot of lessons, a lot of understanding responsibility. Not so much that freedom, and the feeling you get when you see your stuff in print, none of that came very quickly. It was more like understanding responsibility, to take advantage of it and respect it. To put out something that is crucial to a kid, to give this idea of what life in New York City was like in the early 2000s to a kid in a high school…we just wanted to send a message to people outside of the hype to let them know that it was real, and that I was real, and the music was good, that your own identity — and your own path — was valid.

I want to switch gears and talk about Instagram for a bit. Your handle is @firstrun. Talk to me a little bit about why you chose that as your handle and not something more obvious like your name.

It was actually the advent of Instagram that brought me back into writing. Everything happened after the New York City Marathon. People all of the sudden were all over me, asking me. I didn’t hang out my shingle, I was wearing suits eight days a week and kind of a high-flying music manager, definitely burning the candle at both ends and it was probably unsustainable. The idea occurred to me that there was a tremendous opportunity to do something in running and I had a knee-jerk reflex to start a magazine. And again, this is not to steal anyone’s thunder or bandwagon that I was on the scene, but First Run was an art-directed, considered running journal — maybe a little more sexy, a little more female-friendly, a little more multi-veiled in its cultural apparatus. But I took my money from being in the music business and shot 80 percent of this magazine. So I had fashion photographers flying into a high-altitude training camp in Mexico with Leo Manzano, Jacob, Kyle, Shannon Rowbury, so I was randomly in the mix with them. I was really crazily just commissioning and shooting stories. I had 80 percent of it done and when it came time to drop 10 or 20 thousand dollars on putting out the magazine, Instagram was heating up and it was the summer of the 2012 Olympics, and I was out there kind of messing around. It was kind of cool to be doing stuff in the moment. It was kind of cool to produce a long run for folks and document it on Instagram, like it was feeding all of these serotonin receptors that you would get seeing it in a magazine.

So First Run was going to be that publication. Obviously it plays on art and literary levels in terms of the first run of something and that inspired the name. And also, you know, everybody has a first run. It’s a super obvious idea, but it’s super cool to kind of think if you and I could rap to everybody about their first run: Geoffrey Mutai, Richard Branson. I can remember mine, we know what Kenenisa [Bekele]’s latest run was, but when was the first time that dude laced up? So that’s where that came from.

Building off that, one of your most popular hashtags on Instagram is #runningculture. We’ve talked a bit about that throughout this conversation, but when it comes down to it, what does running culture mean to you?

It’s incredible that that hashtag exploded. I wish I could take credit for it. I’m using it longer than anyone I knew. I am definitely on the hook for stealing ideas or whatever, so I don’t know where it came from. Apologies to whoever invented it, but it’s crazy to see mainstream publications just drop it as a matter of course. Writing an essay in Outside magazine about running in urban areas and dropping in “running culture” and the idea that you put two things that you and I know back in the day didn’t really meet. You’re literally like, culture, when you’re studying the first year in a university, Napolean Chagnon and Yanomami, “Culture 101,” and running — the intersection of those things is crazy.

So the idea that we as runners have demonstrable cultural practices, not unlike the Yanomami have, is a super cool idea to me. We can elongate on that idea that we have this subculture and that’s cool.

You’re very much urban-focused in your approach to running and culture, but you have a home out in the woods and you like to get on the trails a little bit and do some exploring. You’ve got the #beentrail thing going on. Tell me a little bit about that and its significance.

A guy in Black Roses came up with that, I definitely gotta give credit back to this guy. But it was after [Hurricane] Sandy cancelled the New York City Marathon. Everybody was kind of in shape or even if they weren’t really running at that point, that’s like the peak season of New York City running, so everybody was hyped up. We needed to do something and we saw on some message board or something about a fat ass 50K. We got a van and we all rolled out to this tiny town in East Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania. We go looking through all these towns. It was like a 50K, savage, no timing, no places, no awards, and awesome production. You come through halfway and a dude had massive hot trays of ramen noodles just waiting for you, all the candy, hot drinks, and then he was pouring out Wild Turkey in the drinks. It was the awesomest experience to run a 50K in the woods, seeing bears and shit, but at the same time none of the quasi-lead trappings where everyone was like, “but my finisher’s medal!”

Been Trail at its provenance is directly related to a guy who was in the mix for a while and ended up starting a DJ collective with Kanye’s cousin and it was called Been Trill. Trill, obviously, is slang for something that’s true and real, a type of regional sort of rap. These guys would play this music and their name was Been Trill, so we just in the moment said, “Oh, this is Been Trail!” Riffed it off, and people on the inside, people when they hear about it think it’s hilarious, people who don’t even speak English use it and made it popular in Indonesia. It works. As a pop-up experience in the woods, our own Been Trail, obviously New York has that, so you definitely need to get out there and run some mountains and the Hudson highlands, which are in the Catskills. At the same time, last year we had a Grammy-winning bluegrass band play and then the best street DJ in New York City came up and totally deconstructed the Pablo album, late night, in an outdoor lean-to, DJ set, as people are dancing, like 15 people are dancing, out of their minds in the middle of the woods, police show up. I don’t know how the police showed up to the woods. I don’t know what wild animal called the police on us in the woods, but they showed up and they were so freaked out they didn’t even know what to do. I was just like, “Hey, yeah what’s up? No, we’re runners! Everybody’s really twisted right now …” and the DJ is just playing these Kanye cuts and the cops just kind of left. They didn’t know what to do. Do that and still messaging the best practices in plant-based nutrition, and meditation and self-concern. To put it all together, that’s sort of what that experience is like — it’s not just about DJ sets but also this sort of exploration of deeper meaning through running trails.

Last question, tying this all together, what footprint do you hope to leave on running and what lasting impact do you hope to leave on the sport?

I was just a kid in love with it, and I’ve just stayed in love with it my entire life. I mentioned to you that conversation when I told my guy from Nike, “I don’t want to change the direction of the sport. I just want to contribute to the community.” And he was like, “Yeah…I want to affect the very grain of it.” It made me think, “Wow, that’s super ambitious.” Now a few years later and taking this work a little seriously, I hope I’ve been able to paint a picture of the full dimensionality of running, opening that space to build ties with people, beyond “oh, you’ve reached your fitness goals” or have it seen as the purview of rich white men. I’d like full-figured women of color to be seen as a runner, and I’d like to help push the understanding that Kenyans aren’t fetishized superhumans from the other side of the planet; they’re just like us: runners who have highs and lows like everybody else.

So I feel like, if anything, I hope to mix it up, add some nuance and some storytelling and problematize people’s assumptions about what running culture looks and feels like — what it is and what it could be tomorrow, for all of us.

“So the idea that we as runners have demonstrable cultural practices, not unlike the Yanomami have, is a super cool idea to me,” Robinson says. “We can elongate on that idea that we have this subculture and that’s cool.” Photo: Zach Hetrick (Courtesy of Knox Robinson)

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