Yankees baseball and the South Bronx pair together like peanut butter and jelly. Distance running and the area on the other hand? Hardly synonymous. However, thanks to two action-oriented history buffs and some open-minded Bronxites, taking the 2, 4 or 5 train to 149th St. – Grand Concourse to meet at Frank Sigel Park for a run is far from a preposterous idea.
If Justin Mashia, 38, had it his way, you would describe Bronx Sole as “the running group for non-runners.” When he founded it in 2016 with Bronx native, Pedro Rivera, 34, the two had a big goal in mind: Give residents of the “forgotten borough” a weekly opportunity to tap into their inner-athlete and engage in a healthy lifestyle, something that’s hardly promoted or available in the Bronx.
In fact, for the last eight years, Bronx County has been ranked the number one least healthy county in New York, which is a shame for the third-most densely populated county in the entire U.S.
“I was like ‘is no one going to do anything? Is no one going to help people that aren’t very active? They’re just going to ignore it?'” said Mashia, who’s originally from Portland, Oregon.
So, he spoke with Rivera about the bombshell news and the two formed Bronx Sole, a running group with history lessons at its core.
“We have no pace, we just run what’s comfortable,” Mashia explained. “We have a run group, a run-walk group and then a walk group, so everyone can find a comfortable place to cover three to five miles each week.”
But in a place where bodegas, liquor stores and fast food chains outnumber health clubs, juice bars and farm-to-table joints, what’s the big draw for residents who might be intimidated by the idea?
“The history,” Mashia said. “The people here, they have the most pride out of all the boroughs. People make sure you know they’re from the Bronx, and they love where they’re from. So, because people are already prideful here, we thought teaching them about the history would make them even more proud to be from the Bronx. And we’ve been right.”
Endless History In the Bronx
Mashia, who works as an electronic graphics operator for 21st Century Fox, initially met Rivera at a Manhattan-based run club hosted by Nike. The two bonded over the sport at first, but then it was Rivera who got Mashia interested in Bronx history. He would even bring Mashia on walking tours of the borough on the weekends.
“I had no idea the history was this rich,” Mashia said. “To find out the Lincoln Memorial was carved here in the Bronx and the Capitol dome was made here, it was was amazing. The dome was actually built in the Bronx and they shipped it in pieces on the river down to D.C. No one ever talks about those things. I told Pedro, maybe we should incorporate history, because if I’m fascinated by it, that could be the thing that brings people out of their house.”
Rivera wasn’t a believer that history would be the thing to captivate Bronxites, but that soon changed when residents saw posts on social media and came out in droves.
In fact, since Bronx Sole’s inception, the group has been as large as 48 runners strong in a given week, and only two weeks have been cancelled due to inclement weather.
It’s even a draw for people from other boroughs and nearby states.
“One guy is a teacher of molecular physics. He comes from work in Brooklyn and he lives in New Jersey, and he comes because he wants the history,” Mashia said.
Lifelong Bronx resident Valerie Williams comes for the same reason and more.
She found Bronx Sole on Instagram when she was looking for a group in her borough to run with rather than logging miles solo or making the trip to Manhattan to run with one of the many groups there.
“I was just blown away by the history of the Bronx because I’ve lived here practically all my life and the places that we run to, I’ve never heard of,” she said. “Plus, it helps me mentally and physically. I started running three years ago and it’s changed my life. I was almost 200 pounds at one point, and I lost a lot of weight. Bronx Sole is this whole network of people that’s supportive of you becoming healthier no matter what.”
Going the Distance for the History
On a humid Tuesday night in late May, a group of 17 Bronx Sole members took off underneath the waning sun. The pace was comfortable, the chit-chat was well underway, the smartphones were up documenting the fun for social media and a few of the men were showing off their “guns” by doing pullups on a stoplight while waiting to cross the street.
Dodging pushcarts, broken glass, pot holes and trash bags piled high on the sidewalks is commonplace. Seeing a large group of runners pounding the pavement? Not so much for the borough’s residents. Heads turned, children cheered and, on occasion, questions like “what’s going on here?” were asked. For that, Mashia was a quick-draw with business cards containing information about the group.
“Come join us,” he said with a smile. “We’re out here every Tuesday, rain or shine.”
With a “no runner gets left behind” philosophy, stopping every six blocks or so was par for the course.
The first history stop featured a lesson on East 139th St. and Willis and Alexander Avenues. Mashia pulled out his iPad to show pictures of what the area used to look like.
“This was an artist colony. In 1901, the Willis Avenue Bridge opened and Willis Avenue was widened,” he explained. “Edward Willis was a real estate businessman in the 1860s whose property spanned east 143rd St. between Alexander, which is where we just came from, to Willis Avenue. So although not much is known about Mr. Willis’s namesakes which includes the bridge, playground and school, his legacy has spread across the Bronx.”
Runners wiped sweat from their eyebrows and listened intently, appreciating the radiant secrets of their borough as much as the moment to catch their breath.
All About the People
Although Mashia isn’t a Bronx native, he might as well be.
“When I first moved here, I felt connected to the people here more than anywhere I’ve ever lived,” he said. “And that was actually before I started the running group. I remember telling my mom ‘I don’t want to live anywhere else in the world. I love the people.’ The Bronx gets a bad rap. People still think it’s like it was in the 70s, filled with chaos and fires. It’s not. This borough is overlooked and, in some ways, I think that’s a good thing.
The last Tuesday of every month, Bronx Sole members refuel at a local “mom and pop” restaurant to support small business. After the run-ending high-fives and cool down stretch, they unite their shoes, kick back and swap stories over platefuls of food. After all, it’s the “togetherness,” not the miles, that makes the Bronx and its history-charged run group.
“The people who make up Bronx Sole inspire me. They’re resilient, friendly and influential,” Mashia said.
And now, not only are they learning history, but they’re making it, too.