words: dan marrett, richard issa, and reggy vil
images: matt vernot & richard issa

When discussing great American cities, Philadelphia isn’t often mentioned in the same breath as New York, LA, or Chicago. The limelight tends to shine on the energetic places; the places where humans go to get lost or found. The City of Brotherly Love is where people go to belong. It’s also where Richard Issa and Reggy Vil sparked a friendship, and through the Issa Run Crew keep the city moving with purpose and inclusivity in both race and races.

Richard used to run with Original Propaganda Athletic Club. Over the years, a desire to spread his wings and build something he could call his own led him to found Issa Run Crew. At its inception in June 2017, the club began as a casual commitment, with only a handful of friends regularly running.

At the time, when Issa was finishing his races, he saw the same Black runner finishing ahead of him. “At the end of a race in Philly, you don’t spot too many Black people.” He says. “Especially when you’re a fast Black person.” Issa used the motivation of being beat by the same runner every time to narrow the gap. The two bumped into each other while training for Chicago 2018, and Issa finally introduced himself. The mystery runner was Manu. The two linked up before the race, attended the 3run2 shake out run, and recovered post race in the Edge Athlete Lounge. A friendship was formed, and eventually led to the addition of track workouts, now a fundamental part of the IRC program.

In a short span of time, though, it grew rapidly in numbers. More importantly, it grew into a tightly knit community. Two years later, IRC Monday night social runs host a large crowd to shake off together, but the core of their weekly program is on the track. Each member establishes personal objectives for the races on their calendars, and they lay it out on the track weekly to push towards those goals.

The dynamic has transformed some members. Vil recalls a new member’s experience. “When I met Neil during the summer, he was a little reserved,” says Vil. “He didn’t let a lot of himself shine. Just getting through his workouts and breaking through different barriers, he gained confidence. He started to show his true colours, and it was incredible to see. He broke through so many mental barriers training for Chicago; you have no choice but to change through that. To mature and to grow.”

Vil is a self-described runner who enjoys racing. He moved to Philly from Long Island, NY in January of 2018. It had been lonely in the run world on Long Island. Outside of the half and full marathon weekend—which draws in 40,000 people—Vil was accustomed to running by himself, with no training regimen. “Seven days a week, five miles; that’s all I knew.” When he moved to Philadelphia, he wanted to use running to meet people and become part of a community. He saw more people running on the streets, and wanted to be a part of the scene. When he did attend club runs or events, he was the only Black person in the mix. Every time. He started window shopping for clubs via Instagram, searching for terms like “Philadelphia runners.” He stumbled upon IRC’s profile when an unsanctioned race they organized, River to River, popped in his feed. He saw something special about IRC. It seemed like they had substance. They felt like a family.

Putting aside disappointment with his performance at River to River, Vil found himself connecting immediately with Issa and other members at the afterparty. “That night sparked everything for me,” he recalls. Issa invited him out to a track session, a night that confirmed the gut feeling he felt. This was a group that pushed and supported each other to exceed their personal limits. Together they would find the best of themselves.

While he didn’t feel pushed out by the other run clubs he had met up with, or told not to be there or come back, he didn’t leave wanting to hit up their next group run. There is a world of difference between opening the door to talk or inviting someone inside. Both can be considered welcoming, but one is more hospitable. That’s what he got with Issa and IRC. Richard cared, he asked questions, he wanted to know more about Reggy as a runner and a person. 

Issa also ignites the competitive side in his runners. Most have raced before, but rarely with specific intent. He digs in to lock down running goals. If they don’t have any, he helps build goals together. The track sessions enable Issa to go beyond social runs. This is where he can push members to improve times and set PRs. “I don’t care how fast you are,” he says. “I care about what your individual goals are. Everyone’s fast is different. We’re here to cheer for you when you achieve it, and to help you reach it.”

Helping someone reach a PR takes more than leadership and an understanding of goal setting. Issa ran track in high school, up to 400 Meter, and played soccer in college. He never received formal coaching training, but his desire to equip himself with the tools to further his family is all he needs. He looked up to runners like Matthew Luke Meyer, Dannielle McNeilly, Tim Downey, and Francisco Balagtas in New York, studying the gear they used and the workouts they pursued. When in doubt, he asked questions with humility.

Above coaching, Issa gets to know his members personally. You get the feeling that he might invite you over for dinner and with genuine interest ask about your kids while filling your wine glass. The magic of Richard Issa is how he pulls together the resources and energy of a community and channels it to his crew. In turn, they gravitate towards him and eagerly push themselves. Vil puts it in a simple yet impactful way, “it’s hard to reject positive energy.” Issa exudes it. You can tell the level of pride that he feels for the members of his team, and his sincere appreciation for the accomplishments of IRC members. He draws from those moments to feed his energy, cycling it back to the club to continue to push them even further. “Same team, same dream. We live it. On and off the course.” 

As lockdown, protests, riots, and marches took the place of run crew meets, Issa supported his crew. He called to check in on them. The depth of the relationships he creates highlights how running brings this crew together. Their bond is more like a family. When running is pushed to the side, he’s still leading.

“It’s important to have diversity of thought.” Says Vil. “If running is all your group is based on, that’s well and good, but I’m looking for more. That’s what we’re trying to bring to the community. That feeling of inclusiveness.” The census breakdown of Philadelphia is disconnected to what Issa sees on the streets, the trails, and at races. The population is a percentage point away from being majority Black (43.6% vs 44.8%) but the run community doesn’t reflect this number. Issa wants to change that. “Is it because some people don’t see representation, so they don’t bother to show up?” he says. “Maybe they are concerned about being in a corner amongst a large group of white runners.”

The IRC cares about the communities they run through regularly. Earlier this year, a fundraiser—and a cumulative 1000 miles as a crew over one week—raised more than $1500 for Broad Street Ministries, who provide meals and services to those in need. Taking it a step further, Issa has teamed up with his friend Tim Downey in NYC to start a monthly initiative called “More Than Miles.” Open to all runners, the goal is to amplify voices in their communities and provide opportunities to give back and engage at a local level. Each month they work with different organizations to bridge the gap between them and those underserved. They want under-represented runners to feel more comfortable coming out to their club runs or attending events. In the medium term, it can help balance the scale in Philadelphia. More representation. More than miles. “Instead of making a big push to go out and somehow get people of color to come out and run with IRC, I’ve decided to take a more biblical approach. Jesus traveled around preaching to the masses and helping those in need. And that’s what we have been trying to do – getting out there and using running as a way to give back to those communities.”

The growth of IRC as a diverse group can draw on inspiration from Issa’s background in nightlife. He would throw a good party and people knew to show up. Issa didn’t chase after a crowd. For the crew, he has never—and will never—actively recruit members. When runners feel the wrong kind of attention, reaching out to shake hands is the right move. It’s no surprise the IRC has grown and become home for BIPOC runners. Like one of his parties back in the day, word spreads and people find them.

Creating a more inclusive run club has no overnight solution. There is no plug-and-play approach. For IRC, it’s happened without specifically focusing on diversity. By focusing on being hospitable and creating genuine relationships, the outcome of inclusivity worked itself into the equation. The beautiful discovery of Richard Issa is that he has fostered inclusivity for IRC simply by being an amazing human being, and caring deeply for those he meets. It’s an idea that transcends running. Be good. Succeed.