The run club that's bringing people out of their apartments and into new friendship groups

IT'S summer 2020, Manchester is in lockdown, and Ancoats resident Deborah Todd is getting bored of going running on her own. She posts a message in the Facebook group for her apartment building Royal Mills to see if anyone fancies coming with her. 

We're neighbours but we wouldn't know each other if it wasn't for run club

The next morning, five people turn up, though not all in the same place. They eventually all meet together at the right set of doors: the big red ones on Redhill Street and set off on a socially-distanced 5km run around the city centre. The Ancoats Run Club is born.

Hailstones on Redhill Street and canal, Ancoats.jpg
Is anyone really going to turn up in this weather? Image: Confidentials

Jump forwards to January 2022 and the club has over 150 active members and runs five times a week, sometimes more. Its members do marathons, park runs, and regularly head to Rudy’s for pizza and beer. It’s a social scene built around running and it’s thriving - with a busy WhatsApp chat full of photos and banter and plans, and another 500 or so people watching from the sidelines on the club's various social media pages. 

Despite its popularity, it’s 7am on a wet and wintry Friday morning when I arrive at the big red doors, and I can’t help wondering if anyone will turn up to run in this weather. It's still dark and hailstones are bouncing off the cobblestones outside the Royal Mills foyer. 

Ancoats Run Club in Castlefield
Quick photo stop in Castlefield Image: Stuart Smith

I’m early so it’s just me and the security guard for ten minutes or so. But by quarter past, the sky is clearing and there’s a small group of us, in hats and waterproof jackets, ready to hit the streets.

As Deborah tells me later, “If we say we're doing it, there's no way it would be cancelled.” She asks the rest of the group, “Have we ever cancelled?” The consensus is no. If you’re going to be a runner in Manchester, you can’t let a bit of rain or a biblical-style hailstorm put you off.

Two runners by a canal in Manchester.jpg
Exploring the city's canal network Image: Ancoats Run Club

Everyone runs at their own pace

We set off through the Northern Quarter on one of their regular routes. I consider myself to be a runner but if you saw me, you might say "jogger" is the more accurate term. Or sometimes, "walker". My point is, I don’t run fast and I like to stop for breaks. So my main worry here was, will I be able to keep up?

“There’s no pressure. Everyone runs at their own pace," says Deborah. Stuart, who’s leading the run today, says it’s more like a social club that runs, rather than the other way round, and it’s true that talking is still possible at the pace we’re keeping. Every so often, the faster runners stop to let everyone catch up, and in this way, nobody gets left behind.

I find that reassuring at this time of day when the city centre is still waking up. We head along Portland Street and over to Castlefield then drop down onto the canal path, where a guy is warming his hands on a fire he’s made out of litter. 

Runners climbing steps with tower blocks in background
A rare Manchester hill Image: Ancoats Run Club

The beauty of the city when it's quiet and at its most spectacular

Safety wasn’t Deborah’s reason for setting up the club but there’s no doubt that running in a group allows you to go places you wouldn’t venture on your own. And when you’ve not got one eye on who’s following you, you’re free to notice everything else. 

Like the silhouette of the buildings against the plum-coloured sky, and the reflections of the neon bar lights on the canals, and the way the night is gradually turning into day as you cross from one side of the city to the other.  

The cityscape is always changing; with the sunrises and sunsets that the club often experience on their runs, and with the seasons.

Says Deborah, “The council are really good at theming through the year. At Chinese New Year we run to the lanterns, and at Halloween, we go and find all the monsters. We run to the Christmas lights. Last night we went to the Glade of Light Memorial. We’ve been cherry blossom hunting in the spring. Out to Salford Quays to see the Floating Earth.

“We get the beauty of the city when it's quiet and at its most spectacular.” 

Group shot of Ancoats Run Club with Halloween monster in Manchester
Hunting the Halloween monsters Image: Ancoats Run Club

Post-run coffee and croissants

By the time we circle back to Ancoats about half an hour later, the city is wide-awake. We all pile into Off The Press in the Express Building, the group's usual Friday coffee spot. The team there know them by name and the manager Mike brings us all a slice of banana bread as a Happy New Year treat. 

Deborah, who was on the school run rather than the actual run this morning, arrives and fills me in on what the club is all about. 

“It was just something to do and a way to connect," she says. "Because if you imagine, we're all in our flats on our own. It just grew from there.”

Members of Ancoats Run Club at Off The Press in Ancoats
The Friday morning runs end with breakfast at Off The Press in Ancoats Image: Confidentials

That was in lockdown when socialising was banned (for most of us, anyway). But even out of lockdown, making connections in a city isn’t easy. 

Peter Cotter joined Ancoats Run Club when he moved to Manchester in summer 2021. He knew nobody on his first run, but he did recognize one person as the guy living next door.  

He says, “We're neighbours but we wouldn't know each other if it wasn't for run club.

“A lot of people are newcomers to Manchester who don’t know anyone. I work from home all the time - how do you meet people in that situation?”

For home-workers, the early morning runs take the place of a catch-up in the office kitchen while the kettle boils, and the evening runs are a mobile version of post-work drinks. 

“Just having that chat in the morning before work is so nice,” says Peter. “You don't feel as isolated.”

Runners with canal and Beetham Tower
Running towards the sun Image: Ancoats Run Club

Can't we make it better? 

There are a lot of good things coming out of this group - friendships, new roommates, romances even. And we haven’t even touched on the fitness side of running or the competitive element of the sport. Because, while the weekday runs are intended for all fitness levels, there are plenty of serious runners in the group, including GB AG triathlete Dean Evans amongst others. 

They’ll go for a pre-run before the main run, or head out together at weekends on a faster or long-distance route. One member, Paddy, is training for the Mont Blanc Half while others will do the Manchester Marathon.

Not everyone is interested in running at that level but everyone gets to share in the collective glow. Says Deborah, “We’ve all helped motivate each other. We've all helped in that training. It’s empowering in that way. We're all a team.”

Runners in woodland in Manchester
Spring is on its way Image: Ancoats Run Club

I tell her I get a strong sense of community spirit, even after just spending an hour or so with them. It’s not something I ever really felt when I lived in a flat in Manchester myself. It makes me wish I’d known a group like this at the time. 

Deborah agrees. “I thought, can't we make it better? Can't we just link up a little bit?

“It's that old-fashioned, suburban community that you used to have but we've done it in the city centre through running. It's something we’re so proud of.”

And rightly so. No need to run a marathon, they deserve a medal just for that.

Want to run with Ancoats Run Club?

Join them for your first run on any Tuesday evening at 6.30pm or any Friday morning at 7.15am. Meet outside the big gates of Royal Mills on Red Hill Street. Just turn up and you'll be made to feel welcome. It's free. Head to Ancoats Run Club on Facebook to find out more.

Read next: Manchester’s most relaxing classes and activities

Read again: What's on: Manchester fitness, sport and wellbeing in 2022

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