Running On Beer

Members of the Running for Brews Chattanooga Chapter enjoy local craft beers and each other's company post-run. Photo: Ryan Gibson

The club that runs together, drinks together.

On a cloudy yet humid summer evening in Chattanooga, Tenn., a group of 30 runners gather in front of the Brewhaus Bar at 7 p.m. sharp. In the muggy heat, the crisp, foaming top of a craft ale on tap sounds preferable to running 3 miles around the neighborhood, but this is first and foremost a run club—the beer comes second.

The group in Chattanooga is a part of Running for Brews, one of the largest free social running clubs—with 16 locations across the nation—that incorporates beer drinking in their weekly group runs. It’s one of the many (and one of the most successful) beer running clubs that has capitalized on the growing trend of imbibing a few cold ones after a happy hour run.

“It’s interesting to watch one person come in and not know anyone, literally new to town, and they leave Running for Brews with new friendships,” says John McMahan, a former personal trainer, now the co-founder and events director for Running for Brews. “We’ve had three marriages through Running for Brews; my own relationship came about in RFB St. Pete. Meeting new people and making new friends—that’s what Running for Brews is.”

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The first Running for Brews group was founded in 2010 in Dunedin, Fla., by Kevin Bupp and five other runners. Shortly after, through a mutual friend, Bupp met McMahan, who at the time was completing his MBA at the University of Tampa. One day (over beers, of course), Bupp asked McMahan if he wanted to start another RFB in Tampa Bay, Fla. Five years later it’s considered RFB’s benchmark location.

What had started with six members in Dunedin and seven in Tampa Bay has now grown to 10,000 members nationwide. Chapters such as the St. Pete and Satellite Beach locations in Florida see as many as 90 runners weekly.

RFB has expanded to several states and cities, mostly in the southern and eastern regions of the country, with groups as far west as Boulder, Colo., and Tempe, Ariz. But the club maintains a local, communal experience unique to the brand, no matter the city or size of the group.

“After we did Tampa, we started having a couple establishments approach us and be like, ‘Hey we’d love to have a running club come to our bar location.’ That’s when we really developed the business model and put together a game plan on how to start a Running for Brews in every city across the U.S.,” McMahan says.

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From there RFB has grown organically. Each city has its own RFB Facebook page managed by an appointed organizer. Often, new cities are established either by organizers moving to a new city and vetting out an appropriate craft brew bar (an RFB requirement), or by having members vote for a city of interest.

What attributes to RFB’s success and others like it? Unlike more serious run clubs, beer running clubs focus on the social rewards of running. It doesn’t matter if you’re slow or fast, a marathoner or someone who hasn’t ran a mile since high school—these clubs put on a casual, non-intimidating atmosphere that welcomes newcomers and veterans of the sport alike.

“Everyone who comes to Running for Brews is a real runner, but they’re not dedicating their training to the max,” says McMahan, who started running when he joined RFB since its inception and has since run 5K, 10K, half marathon and half Ironman triathlon races. “It’s really cool to watch someone come to Running for Brews, do their first 5K, and then see them do a full marathon.”

Susanna Kirby, a 23-year-old medical scribe from Chattanooga, is one of those cases. A swimmer in high school and college, she had participated in a few 5K races before joining RFB, but wanted to push herself even further. Within a year, she had run three half marathons and recently completed her first half Ironman. Seven months after joining, she became RFB Chattanooga’s new organizer.

“I immediately fell in love with the group,” says Kirby, who has only missed four weeks worth of runs since becoming a member two years ago. “Running for Brews Chattanooga is the group you can work out with and the group you can unwind with after a stressful day. Our saying is that we are ‘cheaper than therapy.’”

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In the final stretch, the group of 30 Chattanoogans—now sporadically banded in sweaty twos or threes along the course—make their way back to the bar. They run on the Chattanooga River Walk and turn around just beyond the University of Tennessee’s practice football field. They pick up the pace as the sun begins to set. A cold, rewarding, thirst-quenching brew awaits them at the finish.

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