TEDxUCLA 2016: Push. Pull. Stretch.

Can running save our cities?


About Peter 

Peter Abraham helps purpose-driven organizations tell their stories. Through his experience with entrepreneurship, content creation, and technology, Peter’s developed a unique point of view that encourages business to be a force for positive change in the community.


This is Hayley Hickey. Her mother was a drug addict. There was no father in her life, only some of her mother’s boyfriends. By fourth grade, Hayley was the one raising her younger sisters. One of her mother’s boyfriends started physically abusing Hayley and then her mother went to jail. It was time to get out.

So she called her grandmother, who ran a foster home, and moved in with her. Hayley was for sure what you’d call an at-risk teenager, at risk of teen pregnancy, drug addiction, or worse. Every risk factor was in place.

But that’s not what happened. Hayley overcame those challenges with the help of a community. She started training with students from Los Angeles at her middle school. It’s a program that trains thousands of teenagers every year to run the full Los Angeles Marathon. Seventy percent of these kids come from below the poverty line. They’re from rough neighborhoods. But they train in groups at their schools for six months. They put the work in, and it becomes a kind of adopted family.

Hayley loved running, and she trained every day with the group at her school. They had a goal. They provided her with emotional support. And together they achieved something heroic that they wouldn’t have on their own. Hayley learned that running is a great metaphor for success. You get out of it what you put into it. The tools are so simple. Running with a group at her school, training for a marathon. A small community that becomes part of a larger community. Shared physical activity as a tool for success.

I met Hayley when I was working at the LA Marathon. At first, to me her story seemed like a classic American tale of individual grit and she is a very impressive young woman. But she didn’t accomplish this transformation of her life without the help of a community, of runners, who invested the energy to accomplish something extraordinary: completing a full marathon. When I meet Students Run LA kids around LA, as I do from time to time, I always ask them: what did they learn from the experience? And they all say almost the exact same thing. “It taught me that I can do anything.” Which explains why over 90 percent of these kids go on to college. That’s a mindblowing stat for kids living beneath the poverty line.

Students Run LA has transformed over 60,000 teenagers with this program. I was so inspired that I joined their board. There was something going on here, and I couldn’t let it go. I could see the power of transformation that running in a community had over all of these individuals.

And I wondered, could that also influence a larger group? Could running scale up to impact a city or a country? It sounds far-fetched, but it’s not. Aren’t we, like Hayley, an at-risk society?

Look at our balkanized political process, the widening difference between the haves and the have-nots. It’s about more than the money. We’re living behind walls and building even bigger ones. It’s no wonder there’s a growing sense of isolation and a skyrocketing suicide rate.

But shared physical activity, and running in particular, offers a solution.

When I grew up, I was always into outdoor sports. I loved them. But as I became an adult, I had to let some of those go. I ended up producing television commercials for many brands, including fast food, soda, even cigarettes. I was unfulfilled, unhappy, and uninspired, trying to sell people things they didn’t need.

I had a crisis of purpose. So I stopped doing it. I needed to bring meaning to my own life.

The same time, I had to support my family. I could see this power around running and I wanted to bring that to a larger audience. So I decided to start a running event, because that’s what you do when you’re in crisis, right? You start a 10K?

But a few years later, there were 4,000 people standing on the beach in Santa Monica at that 10K, the Santa Monica Classic. There was a virtuous circle created when thousands of people came out to sweat together. Community contact brings so many great things: health, increased happiness, decreased violence, even better economic outcomes. And a strong community is at the heart of a great culture.

I was asked to join the Los Angeles Marathon and help rebuild that event, which had lost its connection with the community totally. Even the churches were unhappy with the event. For the new LA Marathon, we wanted, we wanted to, we wanted people to feel the connection between their neighborhoods and the rest of the city. We wanted to inspire athletes and connect communities, all the communities in LA.

So we started a new route that started at Dodger Stadium and ended at the Santa Monica Pier. Along the way it went through downtown LA, Silverlake, Hollywood Boulevard, Sunset Strip, West Hollywood, Beverly Hills, Century City, and all the way to the beach. And then the running clubs, the businesses, the city councils, the ethnic groups, the religious organizations were all connected by a running event.

We spent months meeting with the churches in particular, evangelizing our idea of connecting the entire city with a running event. They embraced the idea and took a kind of ownership. They sent their choirs out to sing to the runners as they went by. The Roman Catholic Archdiocese even did a blessing of the shoes ceremony the day before the race at Saint Vibiana’s Cathedral.

The day of a major city marathon, you can feel the uplift in energy. It’s palpable. It makes us feel proud. More importantly, it allows us to connect with each other. And the more opportunities that we can provide for that kind of connection, the better our, the better our lives are.

Think about it: your family, your friends, your neighborhood, your sports teams, they’re all part of this idea about community, and shared physical activity is such a great way to do this. It’s an equalizer that puts all of us out there together. Running is particularly great because it scales in a way that no other sport can. It’s really hard to get 25,000 people out playing tennis at the same time. But running — here’s what I love about running. It takes no equipment. You could even run barefoot. You don’t need a field or a park or a court. You can be rich or poor or young or old. If you can’t run, walk. If you can’t walk, use a wheelchair. And here’s the really important thing about running: when you run, you’re at street-level. You look people in the eye when you go by, and you become part of that place you’re running in.

All these unique qualities made me wonder: could running affect the physical landscape of a city? The way the buildings and the places look and feel? And if that happened, would it make cities better places to live? Would it improve the lives of people who weren’t even runners?

I started going out around LA with these new running clubs. They’re younger and they look different than any other running clubs I’d seen before. They’re in their 20s, they run mostly at night, they communicate via Instagram and Snapchat. The driving force behind their runs is not fitness or competition. It’s social experience. Their goal is community connection.

These are like social clubs that meet on the street and then happen to go for a run. They have names like Electric Flight Crew, We Run LA Crew, Night Terrors. They sound more like bands than running groups. Here’s Blacklist LA. They’re the youngest of these new running clubs. They have over 15,000 Instagram followers. They run to see public art. That’s their mission. They run mostly in downtown LA late at night. If you go out to one of the runs at ten o’clock on a Monday night, you’ll see hundreds of people out running together and having a great time. Some people are carrying portable speakers with them, blasting music, having fun. It feels like an event, like we own the streets tonight.

I thought, what if Blacklist LA could use art as a tool to bring the running community and the city of LA together? So we partnered with the apparel company Lululemon and the Do Art Foundation, a public art foundation, a public art organization. Do Art brought fantastic artists who created all these free public art installations in different mediums, huge painted murals, wheatpaste posters, cardboard structures. We connected all the art with a four-mile running route.

On the night of the event, we unveiled it on one of their Monday night runs. Six hundred people came out to see the art and run together. The art, in turn, inspired the city. Some of these installations are permanent and they’ll be around for years. Blacklist made the physical parts of the city look better, and they brought human energy with a community of runners.

It all comes down to those two things. Those are the two key pieces of a city: physical structures and the humans that live there. Picture yourself on that run with 600 people. Do you feel isolated? Do you feel scared? Or do you feel energized? Do you feel inspired? And do you feel happy like those people? When we get out on the street and we experience new things and we exchange that energy back and forth, we want to contribute. We want to take part in things.

I want to encourage all of you to run. And I mean specifically to take up running. Sure, you could play golf at a country club, you could play tennis at a private court, you could play hockey at a rink. But those sports hide you from view. They separate you from the rest of us. Running gets our faces seen by friends we haven’t even met yet. It gets us out of our cars and back into our neighborhoods, and then we become part of a larger community.

Do you remember Hayley Hickey from Students Run LA? I spoke to her this week. I hadn’t talked to her in years. I wanted to know what she was up to. She just graduated this week from UC Berkeley and she’s planning on attending medical school. And she’s sitting right up there, you can say hi to her.

By joining a community of runners, Hayley ran through the wall that was holding her back. She told me that that community of runners was the single most important influence on her teenage years. This one thing.

Building community with shared physical experience really can change the world. Thank you.