Novices and veterans swell the ranks of a new, local running club
At 8 a.m. on a recent, frigid Sunday morning when you’d have been hard pressed to get most people out of bed, more than two dozen runners gathered in a circle in the parking lot of the Millburn Public Library for the SOMA Fox Running Club’s weekly dash up Brookside Drive.
What made them brave the snow and 21-degree chill to come out and run?
“People,” one runner shouted.
“Community,” another chimed in.
“Accountability,” said a third.
“I can eat whatever I want!” exclaimed another.
The runners, clad in tights and race-emblazoned pullovers, sporting Goodr sunglasses, gaiters, sneakers, and hats of all colors, rubbed their hands together and shuffled back and forth. There were hugs and smiles all around.
“It’s JOMO,” explained Thea Cogan-Drew, a Maplewood resident and president of the group’s board of directors. “Our new word. It means Joy of Missing Out.”
The SOMA Fox Running Club (SFRC) got its start at an unusual time for new clubs to spring up: smack dab in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, barely a year old, the club boasts 270 members – including former Maplewood Mayor Frank McGehee – and three weekly runs: Sundays at Brookside; the Wednesday track workout; and the Friday “social fun run.”
“I came to a Friday social run and that was it,” said new Maplewood resident Andrew Masterleo, who moved with his wife from San Francisco. He found the group by Googling running clubs in Maplewood and joined right away.
Lela Moore, clad in a SOMA Fox Running Club tech tee and a glowing Noxgear running vest, found the group the same way. She had been running solo during the pandemic before discovering the Foxes.
“It’s just such a great social outlet,” said Moore, who recently moved to Maplewood with her family from Brooklyn. “This is how I met people.”
In the middle of a pandemic is when runners needed a club like this most of all. Schools were closed. Offices were closed. Races were canceled. Suddenly, there were a lot of local runners with a big need to run (hello, anxiety!) yet nothing to train for.
The Foxes’ head coach, Stephanie Shiau, was one of them.
She and two friends had won spots in the prestigious Berlin Marathon, which was to take place on Sept. 27, 2020. They had registered as a team called the Jersey Foxes. When the race was delayed, they kept running. Then other races, such as the Chicago Marathon and New York City Marathon, also postponed their events.
Enter Jessica Lituchy, who partnered with a friend to organize a casual, non-official race on the streets of Maplewood and South Orange in December 2020 called the SOMA Fox Chase.
The race included three distances – 10K, Half Marathon (13.1 miles) and Marathon (26.2 miles) – with all proceeds going to MEND, an interfaith network of more than 20 food pantries and community partners throughout Essex County.
Lituchy already had plenty of experience organizing races such as the popular 10 Days of 10Ks event series to raise money for MEND. The SOMA Fox Chase – whose logo, created by local artist Shauna Cagan, is an image of a plucky fox wearing a mask – attracted more than a dozen runners, prompting Lituchy and Shiau to begin talking about what else they might do.
“We wanted to create something structured for the running community,” said Shiau, explaining that coming from the city where she had run with the New York Road Runners club, which puts on the marathon, she was looking for something like the Dashing Whippets Running Team or New York Flyers.
By January 2021, the pair had founded the SOMA Fox Running Club, with Lituchy taking the helm as executive director. The group is now incorporated as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization and is an official member of the Road Runners Club of America (RRCA), a national distance-running organization that offers insurance and support to local running clubs.
The cost is minimal – just $35 annually for an individual or $50 for a family – and that gets members access to a private Facebook group, weekly emails, discounts on running gear, and all the club runs. Merchandise and special events cost extra.
The group designated MEND as its official charity partner, pledging to donate a percentage of all race and merchandise proceeds to the organization, and adopted Cagan’s artwork as its logo, adding one thing to her fox – bright red running sneakers.
“We didn’t want to be sexy foxes,” explained Lituchy. “We didn’t want to be overly feminine or masculine, either. We wanted to be ridiculous and scruffy and open to all.”
Being open to all was of the essence, Lituchy said. There were already numerous running groups in SOMA, including Will Run for Coffee – an all-female social running group in which Lituchy, Shiau and many of the club’s board of directors had previously run together; as well as Sole Runners; the MapSo Tri Club; After Party Tribe; Sassquad Trail Running; and Black Men Run, among others.
“There are already specialized groups in the area – and that is great,” Lituchy says. “We definitely didn’t want to compete with other groups, and we encourage our members to be members of multiple running groups. We wanted to offer something additional for the community.”
As such, the SOMA Fox Running Club doesn’t put on events that other organizations are already doing, such as the turkey trots hosted by the Seth Boyden Elementary School PTA and D&I Fitness.
Instead, the group hosts quirky runs. In April, they organized the
second annual One Hour Fox Run (how far can you run or walk in an hour?); come December, there will be the club’s ever-popular Cookie Run, on a route that goes past the homes of volunteers who supply goodies.
The group also holds unofficial art runs, where runners can use their running trackers, such as Garmin or Strava, to map routes along neighborhood streets that spell out words like “SOMA Love,” “BLM” or “MLK” – or show up to cheer (or run!) in full-body Fox onesies.
“Our goal is not to raise money; it’s to put on events for anyone who loves running – or anyone who loves to hate running,” Lituchy said.
Still, the group has managed to donate $2,290 to MEND in the last year, according to MEND executive director Robin Peacock, who is also a SOMA Fox runner.
“Through their innovative events and community-building efforts, they have raised both funds for and awareness of our work,” Peacock said, adding, “They are just plain fun to work with, too!”
“We like to have fun,” Shiau said, laughing.
“We try to be goofy,” Lituchy clarified.
The group sponsors or encourages members to run in other local races as well: SOMA TogetheRun/Walk 5K, Newstead 5K, SOMA AAPI Run, North Jersey Pride Run, and, of course, the 10 Days of 10Ks. Beyond those races, and large-scale nearby events – such as the NYRR NYC Half on March 20 in which 30 Foxes took part – the bread and butter of the Fox Running Club is its weekly runs.
Kim Rosen, a longtime local runner who has lived in South Orange for 22 years, said she loves knowing that if she turns up on any of the group’s scheduled run days, there will be a group waiting.
“It takes the work out of looking for people to run with,” she said. “I would have lost my mind during the pandemic if it wasn’t for these folks.”
Marc Struwig of Millburn, who found the group on Facebook, agreed. “I would be lying in bed drinking coffee if it wasn’t for this group.”
Rosen, Struwig, Masterleo, Moore and Lituchy were among about a dozen Foxes who got a special treat on a recent Friday morning: running with professional athlete Olivia Baker, a South Orange native and 2014 graduate of Columbia High School who had just competed in the 800-meter for Team USA at the World Athletics Indoor Championships in Belgrade, Serbia.
“This warmed my heart. It was so fun,” Baker said after doing five miles with the group.
The club plans to welcome Hellah Sidibe, the first Black man to run across the United States – 3,061 miles in 84 days, do the math! – on May 22 at 9:30 a.m. at the Millburn Public Library parking lot. Sidibe will speak to the group (it's free and open to the public) and then hit the pavement with them, Lituchy said.
But first, it’s 6:30 a.m. and that means it’s time to run.
Malia Rulon Herman is a longtime runner on hiatus due to (what else?) a running injury. She has run previously with many of the Fox Running Club members and looks forward to running (or walking!) with them again soon.