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The cops showed up just as we were congregating at the makeshift starting line. About 45 runners had huddled into the middle of Fanny Bridge, in downtown Tahoe City, California, and race director Darcy Budworth had a megaphone she was using to stop traffic in both directions.
“Get out of the road!” the policeman yelled outside his driver’s side window, lights and sirens blaring. Budworth shouted a quick “Go!” to those of us in running garb, and with that, the race began, hastily and before any of us could get arrested.
Budworth’s unofficial, unsanctioned race series is called Take the Bridge. The idea is to throw out everything you know about running races—that they’re rigidly organized, individual events with set courses and a serious, competitive energy—and introduce something more fun, renegade, and communal to the running world instead.
The Anatomy of Take the Bridge
Take the Bridge races are held at night, in dozens of cities and towns all over the world—including New York, London, Chicago, Boston, and Toronto. Instead of a set course, race organizers share two or three checkpoints with participants hours before the race. (Budworth always taps a local running club or shop to help determine the checkpoints.) Runners start together and are required to tag each checkpoint in a set order before they can head to the finish line, but the route they take between points is up to them. Some runners will cover six miles; those with sneaky shortcuts and superior navigation may run four and reach the finish quicker.
“Unsanctioned, to me, means we don’t ask permission from anybody,” says Budworth, an avid runner who works as an interior designer and recently moved from New York to L.A. “We don’t get any permits. We don’t close any streets. It’s very much toeing a line. I have an aversion to people telling me how to do things.”
Budworth launched Take the Bridge in 2015, while she was serving as the president of the New York Harriers running club. In an effort to lure in runners looking for something different, she put together a pop-up night street race that crossed a couple of New York’s finest bridges. She wanted the race to feel safe but also disruptive—stopping traffic, running in bike lanes, crisscrossing bridges. The inspiration for a checkpoint-driven race was derived from a New York City bike messenger race with a similar format.
“I like to joke that Taylor Swift broke Ticketmaster, and Take the Bridge broke Eventbrite.”
These days, the Take the Bridge series has an active Instagram feed and a slightly obscure website (you sign up for races via Eventbrite). The events themselves have a lawless, illicit vibe, like you’re part of some secret, underground club while standing on a starting line drawn in chalk. It’s intentionally hard to find an upcoming race schedule.
“Do people need to know months ahead of time to train and plan for this? No,” says Budworth. (In case you’re wondering, the next Take the Bridge will take place on August 24th, in Montreal.)
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Most of the races are kept small, limited to 80 or 100 runners. At a recent women’s Take the Bridge race in New York City, in July, the course had two checkpoints at statues and plaques celebrating women in New York history. The event sold out instantly, so organizers expanded the entry to create the biggest Take the Bridge race yet, with 148 female racers. “I like to joke that Taylor Swift broke Ticketmaster, and Take the Bridge broke Eventbrite,” says Stephen Alan Wilson, head of timing and scoring logistics for Take the Bridge. “Within a minute, we had a waiting list.”
Picture a 10K running race blended with an orienteering-style adventure race—that crosses a few bridges for its namesake and ends at a bar—and you’ll get the concept of Take the Bridge. Running shouldn’t be such a serious, solo activity. It can be fun and bring people together, too. Runners I spoke with who’ve competed in Take the Bridge night races in cities like Austin, L.A., and New York say the events have a refreshingly communal and almost punk rock feeling (boosted by the fact that they almost got hit by cars along the way).
“You’re trying not to get lost, while running hard, while looking at your phone, while navigating around cars and pedestrians,” says longtime Take the Bridge runner and volunteer Caitlin Wilterdink. “It’s a lot, and one of those moments where you will definitely make a plan and then throw it out the window.” Adds Parker Caton, a Brooklyn-based runner who’s signed up for a handful of Take the Bridge events: “You may get lost, but that’s kind of part of the fun.”
On Trails with Take the Ridge
In 2022, Budworth added a new trail-focused spinoff called Take the Ridge. I competed in a Take the Ridge trail running race held in the Lake Tahoe area, where I live, in late June. When I received the checkpoints from Budworth via email the day of the race, I considered my route—I had hometown advantage with in-depth knowledge of my backyard trails. But then at the starting line, friends were whispering about various cut-through trails and sneak-arounds. This is a race where shortcuts aren’t forbidden but celebrated. I had planned to stick to my original route, but along the way, I had to make a few critical decisions at forks in the trail: follow the group or head my own way?
“This race format levels the playing field. The super-fast people don’t always win. They can get lost or go a longer way,” adds Budworth. “You have to be on your toes, be hyper-aware of everything around you. That’s the person who’s going to perform the best.”
For $25, I got entry into the trail race in Tahoe, a T-shirt, a drink ticket, and free appetizers after the race at my favorite brewpub in town. The race was limited to 80 participants. At least four professional photographers dotted the course, capturing gritty, in-the-moment images that were later emailed out to us to be shared on our own social channels, if we wanted. Whatever was collected in registration money was handed back to the top runners in the form of a prize purse. That hardly seems like a profitable business, though brand sponsors do cover most of the expenses these days.
“It’s a passion project. We’re lucky if we break even,” says Budworth.
Salomon was the main sponsor of Take the Ridge, with a fleet of their latest trail running shoes on display near the start. Did it feel weird that a covert, unauthorized race had a corporate, big-budget sponsor? A little. It didn’t start that way, of course, but sometimes an event that begins at the grassroots levels—without sponsors or rules—has to grow up and join the establishment just enough to stick around. Turns out, you can’t stay punk rock forever. Besides, for brands, it’s a total win.
“Darcy has created something really unique,” says Erin Cooper, senior marketing manager for Salomon North America’s running category. “But the whole reason we’re attracted to it is we want to get out of the way. She does this for the community of runners, so it feels authentic. It doesn’t feel gimmicky. As a brand, it gives us a chance to make what feels like a special connection with a small group of runners.” (Brands like Nike, Altra, and Lululemon have supported the race series as well.)
At the Tahoe City race, professional mountain runner Dani Moreno, who lives in Mammoth Lakes, California, was a favorite in the women’s category. Though these races are meant to be fun and casual, they have begun to attract elite athletes, like Moreno, who was in town for another race and decided to sign up on a whim. Moreno started out in a strong lead but then got waylaid with missteps in navigation.
“I tried following others, but it didn’t go perfectly, and I had to improvise a bit,” she told me after the race. She sped by a bunch of runners on the final descent toward the finish but then, attempting a shortcut, ended up in thick bushes at the finish line, while watching another woman runner take the win as she bushwhacked her way in. No matter. She’s still calling it one of the most fun races she’s done this season.