Running Local: How the Venice Run Club Strengthens Community in LA

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, by Fabienne Lang

Photography by: Greyson Tarantino

"Are you single?"

That's a question that might catch you off guard when you join the Venice Run Club in Venice, California. But for founder Justin Shields, it's more than just small talk – it's a clever way to break the ice and build connections among members.

“There’s something about being vulnerable that forms real connections, and there's something about asking people about their relationship statuses that’s shocking, especially in front of a huge crowd,” Justin explains.

This Club tradition began innocently enough when a friend asked Justin to inquire about a newcomer's availability. Some outsiders jokingly call it the 'Tinder Run Club', but its purpose isn’t about matchmaking. While some members have found love through the Club – Justin himself met his wife there – it's merely a natural byproduct of like-minded individuals coming together to pursue shared passions.

Its main point is to bring a local community together to create positive change.

Justin and his wife. Photography by: Grace Wilson

Social Impact through Running

Led by California-born and raised Justin, the Venice Run Club isn't just about pounding the pavement – it's about fostering connections, celebrating inclusivity, and strengthening the very fabric of Venice.

The group was founded in 2020 by Justin and his friend Tyler Standley, following the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd.

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Feeling stuck yet compelled to take action in the midst of a global pandemic and increased civil unrest around racial injustice, Justin and Taylor wanted to “do something that’s bigger than us,” Justin explains. They embarked on a 48-mile challenge called the 4x4x48 Goggins Challenge. Created by ultramarathon runner David Goggins, the challenge sees people run four miles, every four hours, for 48 hours, culminating in a total of 48 miles.

The duo ran the challenge over a weekend in June 2020, calling it 48 For Floyd in honor of George Floyd.

2021 Saturday Run. Photography by: James Tanner

“That’s when my life shifted,” Justin recounts. “That moment right there. We raised money; it came out to roughly $60,000 in about ten days.” Even though neither of them had experience with fundraising, they managed to raise funds for Campaign Zero, an organization working to end police violence.

From this initial challenge, 48 For Change was born, their non-profit aimed at bridging the Venice community through running and supporting local organizations fighting for social justice.

“I always had the mindset of “Each one teach one,” a phrase that goes back to the days of slavery, explains Justin. “What can we do for others to make the world a better place? I've always liked being a leader, bringing people together.” His passion for people is evident.

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Since its inception, 48 For Change has seen remarkable success, raising over $110,000 and organizing various events, including 48 For Floyd, 48 For The Kids, and 25 Days of Change Toy Drive. Their funds have been donated to local organizations implementing social change like Campaign Zero, Chick Tech, and Smash (supporting women and minorities in STEM), among others. Their aim is simple: run and help as many people as possible.

The Venice Run Club

Recognizing the sense of community that emerged from the initial 48 For Floyd challenge, Justin thought to himself “I’m going to create a run club.” He decided to create a permanent space for runners to come together – thus, the Venice Run Club was born.

The start of the Club had its initial first-step wobbles, taking a few months to find its feet. After posting about the Club’s first run on his Instagram, Justin was feeling confident and excited on the first Saturday morning of his Run Club, recounting: “I’m walking down the street on Venice Beach with my roommate who’s joining me, heading to the starting point, I’m excited.”

Then: “Nobody’s there”. In the end, one other person joined them and that marked the Club’s inaugural run.

Fast-forward to 2023 and the club has seen tremendous growth, perfectly epitomized by 1,100 runners showing up to one of its Wednesday track night runs. Now, hundreds of runners join weekly track workouts on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, and long group runs along Venice Beach’s iconic boardwalk on Saturday mornings. They have also seen their participation in the LA Marathon skyrocket: "In year one we had 35 [participants], year two we had 70, last year we had 175, this year we have 310," Justin explains.

1,100 Runners at the Wednesday Track Meet. Photography by: Grace Wilson

In fact, the Club has grown so much it had to relocate its original starting point to a bigger one to accommodate the high volume of runners. While the club has expanded significantly, Justin remains committed to keeping it local and connected to Venice. "I want to do less, but do it better," he says, emphasizing the importance of maintaining close connections within the club.

“I’m all about intimate, personal connections, so every person who shows up to a run I’m going to find out who they are and find out a little about them,” he explains.

“It's not me that makes the club. I may have the top-down effect, but it's the people in it that make the club. The relationship I have with people, hopefully that rubs off on everyone else. That's the ‘Each one teach one’ mindset that I put towards everything,” he says.

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Connection is key for Justin, who ensures that newcomers feel welcome by personally introducing them to the group. “We still do introductions for everybody. I get all the newcomers to stand up on a wall and I ask them questions,” he says – including asking the infamous "Are you single?" question to break the ice.

Embracing Venice's Spirit: The Abbot Kinney One Race

To continue celebrating Venice's vibrant culture and running community, Justin and the Venice Run Club are now gearing up for their very own and very first annual USATF-sanctioned race, the Abbot Kinney One race.

Held on March 10th, 2024, this inaugural one-mile race down Venice’s historic Abbot Kinney Boulevard – named after the man who founded and developed Venice – will showcase the best of Venice while supporting local runners.

With various heats and categories, including a dog mile, a family-friendly race, and an elite group, among others, the Abbot Kinney One race “will be accessible to everyone,” Justin says. “This will be a great challenge for the people who want to push themselves, as well as for other people who want to chill, jog, or maybe just try something new. It will be accessible for them too.”

Venice Run Club at the LA Marathon. Photography by: Mia Polcyn

"I love community. I love our people. I love Venice," Justin says, expressing his excitement for the event. “It's all about providing value to the city, but also to runners. Just seeing a gathering of people around a shared interest is fantastic. I'm just excited to see how things shake out."

On top of being accessible to runners of all ages and abilities, the race will “have a bunch of great partners, including On and Electrolit. We're setting up a nice runner festival village after the finish line so everyone can come and enjoy the day together before and after their race.”

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As the sun rises over the Pacific horizon and the sound of waves echoes through the streets, the Venice Run Club remains steadfast in its commitment for local connection and community spirit.

By harnessing the power of running to strengthen bonds, foster inclusivity, and ignite change, Justin and his fellow runners are proving that the heart of Venice beats strongest when its residents come together as one.

There’s still time to join the Abbot Kinney One race and take part in history. Sign up here!