Running is changing. Daring new trends in pop culture, hungry strides in sporting performance, and an unquenchable desire for bold new forms of self-expression are all shaping it into something more personal, more creative, more powerful than it was before.

Nowhere is this being more keenly felt than in the world of running races. And when you consider the unchanging, often formulaic nature of conventional mass participation events, it’s not surprising that creative runners on a mission to bend racing to their less orthodox wills would look to rip up the running race rulebook in a quest for something different.

That’s why underground run crews around the world are forgoing the fees and fanfare of official races in favor of under-the-radar events that are free from constraining rules or prizes. These unsanctioned races — born from unadulterated enthusiasm for running and a truckload of grit — are tugging at the very seams of the sport. What’s more, given the increasing publicity they are garnering, they are only going to tug harder from here on in.

Revving up when the rest of the world is least expecting it, unsanctioned races spring into existence when a creative runner has a wild idea, a new goal, and a vision of how to achieve it. They entice runners to escape the crowds and see their world, their teammates, and themselves in an exhilarating new light. Often physically and mentally taxing, these events are intended to push boundaries, break conventions, and rewrite what it means to get from Point A to Point B.


New York’s free-form Midnight Half Marathon, which ran from 2012 to 2016, quickly became a staple in the underground running scene, spawning a host of offshoot events. Unlike the New York City Marathon, it weaved through Manhattan and Brooklyn without barricaded roads, major sponsorships, hordes of cheering onlookers, or even the light of day.

Joe DiNoto, founder of the Orchard Street Runners (OSR), dreamt up the Midnight Half back when he used to run downtown late at night. Drawn to the emptiness of the evening streets, he imagined a new kind of road race. The idea didn’t come to fruition, however, until unsanctioned bike race organiser David Trimble joined OSR and brought with him his expertise in putting on unofficial events. They set out to establish an unorthodox running experience that would leave behind the trappings of mainstream races. "It's so impersonal and so unaffiliated and unattached to anything real, I don't see the point,” said DiNoto in an article by Vice Sports. “I wanted to offer something else for the people that are like me."

The delicious sense of mutiny that comes from operating outside of rigid racing structures breathes a reckless energy into unsanctioned events. “New York is the city that never sleeps, and so to have a marathon that runs through traffic in the middle of the night is very fitting,” Mac Schneider, the winner of the 2014 Midnight Half, told Vice Sports.

Though unsanctioned racers start an event together, they can split off in any direction they think will get them across the finish line first — just about anything goes as long as they hit predetermined checkpoints along the way. Though daring, racing is not supposed to be dangerous — OSR’s website features a few basic safety guidelines: runners are not allowed to wear headphones and must obey all traffic laws. Beyond that, common sense and awareness reign.

The very first Midnight Half comprised 54 adventurous street runners, starting and ending in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Over the years, the number of runners more than doubled, bringing together plodding amateurs and some of the fastest runners in the city. DiNoto and Trimble refused major sponsorships, and never made any profit from the race. Entry fees remained relatively low and went towards funding the event, including timing chips, course marshals, and the large L.E.D. race clock that marked the finish line.

With the success of the Midnight Half, DiNoto and OSR branched out into smaller, more specialized races, including competitive men’s and women’s 10Ks, as well as the OSR 30, an ultra race around Manhattan. “When you have mass starts...there’s no real identity there because of the wash of people you have to accommodate,” DiNoto told Timothy Clark on the Personal Record Podcast. “I can focus on these local, elite-level runners and cater to every little aspect of their experience to give them something dynamic and unique.”


The rebellious impulse to run in new ways has started to bubble up around the world, not just in the Big Apple. Groups such as Swords Warsaw, a run crew based in Poland, are a case in point.

“We created this group because we all wanted to run a little different,” said Morgann Le Chat. “Not to focus on performance but to be able to tell stories and have our own little gang, be a bit punk, you know?” Run culture can feel rigid, constraining, or repetitive for those craving a gutsy edge. Swords is for those who are fed up with routine, who are inspired to stretch the way things are done.

Swords big stab at unsanctioned racing is their “Border to Hel” relay. During the event, which took place for the first time in 2018, runners work together to power through a monstrous 430km in a mere 36 hours. They press across fields, woods, and through cities, during freezing cold days and the pitch black of night. When not racing, the runners take turns driving the support van, sleeping in it, and shouting words of encouragement out the windows. Collaborative, exhilarating, and unforgettably insane — this is why unsanctioned running events are changing the sport.



“I've been witness to Olympic Trials and great marathons, but the drama on the last hill to Vegas was the best racing I've ever seen.” That’s what Zach Hetrick had to say to Tempo Magazine after photographing the Speed Project, an unsanctioned 550 km ultra relay from Los Angeles to Las Vegas. During the race, teams of six pound through city streets and across vast expanses of inhospitable desert for two days and nights — starting at the Santa Monica Pier and not stopping until they reach the Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas sign on Las Vegas Boulevard. To add insult to insult, the last 160km of the Speed Project features a steady, grinding incline and temperatures reaching up to a scalding 115°F.

Speed Project was started by Nils Arend in March 2013, when he and five other restless runners decided to find out how quickly they could run the route. Exhilarated by the experience, Arend wanted to introduce more runners to it, so he set up the challenge as a relay event. Speed Project has no pause buttons or timeouts. It doesn’t end until the teams reach the finish or pass out. Running through the heat of the day and the dark of the night they race against the clock and battle intense fatigue.

“On foot. No rules.” doubles as Speed Project’s motto and its unofficial guidebook. Runners chart their own paths and make their own decisions. While each runner is anticipated to run one-sixth of the total distance (a whopping 90 km) over the course of the relay, the reality is that dehydration, injury, and fatigue can knock a runner out, leaving teammates to pick up the slack. Last April, Team Sunchasers, a co-ed group from France, broke the race’s standing record by 31 minutes, completing the task in 35 hours 49 minutes.

With demands of such magnitude, it’s not a race for the faint of heart. A post attributed to @bromka on Speed Project’s Facebook page sums up why some runners are prepared to take it on: “In the history of relays, I can’t imagine there’s ever been a face-off this brutal, for this long, for this little: there is no prize but gold medal, no wristwatch or wooden wheel, no reward but self-respect. Nothing to gain except everything we live for as endurance athletes. Sometimes the point isn’t to finish unscathed, it’s to sprint together into guaranteed destruction just to discover where you will fail.”

For better or for worse, these runners are in it together, transforming the conventional relay race into a radical act of cooperation and trust, and creating an experience that extends far beyond just completing another run.


Running is all about finding your footing and pushing your limits. It’s about being strong enough to stand alone, and connected enough to know you don’t have to. Whether you’re looking for the thrill of uncharted terrain, fierce competition, lifelong friends, or a departure from the formalities of traditional events, unsanctioned racing is the new running you’re looking for.