In just two short years, William Walker has combined running, community, good vibes and inclusivity to create something truly special.
"I hate talking about myself," bemoans William Walker (Will). "But I definitely appreciate being here!"
It's a theme that is evident throughout our conversation. Will doesn't look for credit for doing what he does in the running space. He's not remotely interested in how he might gain from it personally. In fact, Will had to be gently coerced into founding the running crew that he now leads.
Will founded Baltimore's A Tribe Called Run in June 2020, in the midst of the COVID19 pandemic. At the time, Will’s community were desperately looking for a way to maintain health & fitness in the midst of restrictions and uncertainty.
We think Will's community knew that he was the one who could make that happen, even if he didn't. They were looking for a leader - and they certainly found one.
Fast-forward to today, and A Tribe Called Run is thriving. The crew meet three times a week (unofficially four) to run, connect, and support one another. The crew’s members encompass Baltimore residents from all walks of life, countless races and ethnicities, and diverse sexualities.
This is the running story, the values and the inspirations of the man behind it all.
"Keeping me in sports was a way of keeping me out of trouble"
"By day I'm an engineer," explains Will. "I work for the government in the defense industry. By night I’m a run crew leader - and I'm also chef on the side."
"All those good things!" he beams.
Will has lived in Baltimore for 22 years since moving from Cleveland, Ohio to attend college at Morgan State University ("Big shout out to the HBCU's - I always love representing them!").
Growing up in Cleveland on the east side, Will's childhood was a happy one, supported by parents who always made sure he had opportunities.
"My parents were always busy working," recalls Will. "My Pops was a cop and my Mom worked in healthcare. Keeping me in sports was a way of keeping me out of trouble. They were always there to support me and foster any creative things that I wanted to get into."
"They had me doing whatever sports were in season," Will continues. "Football, baseball, basketball… even golf when tiger woods was popping!"
Of the myriad of sports that Will tried out, it was football and baseball that stuck with him, before he eventually focused on football at Morgan State.
"Football is a money sport," Will explains. "Especially growing up in a black neighborhood. To get good contracts you’ve got to be a football player or basketball player."
"But I should have stuck with baseball," he laments. "That was the one I was actually good at!"
"I wouldn't hesitate to send my kids to a HBCU…. One thing that people don't think about is the diversity that you experience."
It's safe to say that Will enjoyed his time at Morgan State. So much so that he stayed there for a grand total of 9 years (6 years as an undergrad and a further 3 as a post-grad)!
"I made lifelong friends there," acknowledges Will. "I wouldn't hesitate to send my kids to a HBCU. One thing that people don’t think about is the diversity that you experience."
In compiling this series, we've heard the running stories of Black runners from cities across America. A frequent recurring theme is the fact that, in many of the spaces our interviewees found themselves in, they never encountered people who look like them.
Will was lucky enough to find a truly diverse space earlier in life - and it's little surprise to us that he found it inspiring.
"You meet a ton of people from a lot of different places: Caribbean students, African students, and even people from different cultures within the United States."
"It demonstrated that every black kid doesn't have to be a hip-hop artist or an athlete. We can be artists, poets or quiet academic types."
"As a teenager you've got to be in the cool crowd - but in college you get to do what's cool to you," Will continues. "Seeing people of different cultural backgrounds exploring who they are was just dope. I wouldn't take it back for anything."
Sporting and academic choices also influenced Will’s decision to attend Morgan State. Already fascinated by engineering, the college had a relevant course ("I went on a college tour and they had this simulation that looked like video games!") and he also had the opportunity to walk onto the football team.
However, it didn't take long for Will's dual interests to become incompatible.
"My first year I had this summer program for engineering students," Will explains. "They kicked my ass! We were in the books from 8am-3am. There was no chance to work out, and that killed any chance of walking on in freshman year."
"In my sophomore year, I walked on in the Spring by the skin of my teeth" he continues. "But in order to do it, I sacked off the books and failed Calc 2."
"College ball isn[t a hobby, it's a job," Will muses.
"If I didn't have running as I was going through that break-up… who knows?"
The academic demands of college brought an end to Will's football playing days - but running was waiting around the corner; it would go on to have a profound effect on his life.
Not that he was hooked from the start! Will dabbled with running in 2013 and again in 2015. Both times, the primary aim was impressing girls(!), but in doing so Will also discovered that running was a great way to get-to-know a new neighborhood. After entering the Morgan State 5k in 2015 (and being appalled at his performance), he even began to take it more seriously.
However it wasn't until 2017 when Will's life fully intersected with running.
"I'd been through a real tough break up," Will explains. "I was in therapy and my therapist told me to continue to work out and run."
"I knew that running had been making me feel better. She explained it to me: 'you know why? It's because your endorphins are up when you're running'. After that my running was consistent. 5 days a week, deep-diving, learning and reading - trying to absorb whatever I could about the sport."
Will is in little doubt about the impact running had on him, during one of the most difficult periods of his life.
"Shout out to another run crew here in Baltimore called Riot Squad,'' says Will. "Their motto is 'Running is our Therapy'. That’s exactly what it was to me, in tandem with the actual therapy."
"If I didn't have running as I was going through that break-up, who knows?"
Will continued running, but even as the trauma of the break-up faded, he was still running solo - and still using running as a mechanism to help him process his feelings and the stresses of day-to-day life.
"I needed that time to be alone," says Will. "Between working 9-5 and trying to be somewhat social, that was my time to sort shit out. Whenever you're going through a situation, it’s always 'What if?' and playing through different scenarios. Running was where I did that."
Eventually, Will became more open to the idea of running with others. Occasionally he ran with Riot Squad, occasionally he ran with his buddy and former roommate ("When I moved out, I missed the fellowship. Running was the time that we could reconnect").
Will now understood some of the benefits of running with others, and where it fit into his life, but little did he know the extent to which he would go on to champion it.
"We didn't want to take chances… but everybody still wanted to do something healthy"
Engineer by day, budding chef by night, Will possesses a unique combination of attributes: the calculating mind of an engineer, and the creativity and experimental attitude of a chef. In subsequent years, he began putting those skills to practice for the benefit of the community.
"I created a thing called 'Brunch and Burn' with a buddy of mine," explains Will. "He was a personal trainer, I was getting into being a Chef. We were trying to get Black people within our community to live a better lifestyle through movement and healthier food choices."
Then, enter the pandemic. COVID19 left few lives untouched, even for those who were never directly affected or never caught the disease. In Will's story, as with so many others, it represented a sudden shift in lifestyle and priorities.
"Brunch and Burn slowed down a lot during the pandemic. Eating is such an intimate activity and we didn't want to take chances," recalls Will. "But everybody still wanted to do something healthy."
"A few friends reached out to me and there were some rumblings about starting a running crew. I was unsure at first because we were still in a pandemic - was it safe?"
"I also thought to myself - if I do it, I want to put proper energy into it. I don't want to half-ass it," Will continues. "I was passionate about running, so I wanted to make sure it got to something real."
Will Smiles. "Now here we are - still rocking and rolling after two years!"
"They thought it was the United Nations"
Today, A Tribe Called Run meets three times every single week. The group has a Monday session, a speed session on Wednesday mornings, and a long run on Saturdays. On Saturdays, members can choose between a 5, 8 and 10 mile distance depending on which stage of their running journey they are at.
It's just one example of the inclusive approach that Will has fostered in A Tribe Called Run - the run crew that embodies the very essence of a tribe.
"I'm a huge Tribe Called Quest fan," Will admits. "When you see music videos from them and everybody in Native Tongues, they look like they're having so much fun!"
"You know, we deal with so much shit throughout the day, that when we come together to run, I want it to have a good vibe - just like those videos."
It's little surprise that runners of all abilities and all walks of life have been attracted to the good vibe Will has created as the crew's leader.
"Somebody said to me 'I thought this was the United Nations'," laughs Will.
"We have Black, White, Asian, Latinx, and a ton of LGBTQ runners. Everybody can be themselves here and feel safe. It's amazing to see people growing into themselves just by being part of this run crew."
"There are even side communities built outside the crew," Will explains. "There's a women's groupchat - and they go out hiking and go bowling together all the time."
"I'm extremely grateful for this journey…. I'm still surprised by it all."
Despite having only existed for just shy of 2 years, A Tribe Called Run has already had an incredible impact on communities in Baltimore. The crew directly and indirectly support individuals and local organizations alike.
"When we do fundraisers, they always have a focus on community give back," explains Will. "Whether that's raising funds for local track & sports teams, diaper banks, food banks and so on."
"Individuals in our community also reach out when they need support. For example, they might have suffered a death in the family," Will continues.
"It's a beautiful thing to see that people are comfortable enough to share that kind of stuff. It makes you realize that you're taking on a big responsibility to maintain and foster that safe space."
A Tribe Called Run has grown immeasurably - in both size and breadth of impact - in such a short space of time. We’re curious to hear what Will makes of this journey, and what the future holds for the crew.
"I don’t know exactly what the future holds for A Tribe Called Run," says Will. “But a big shout out to the captains of the crew. They're the thought-leaders and it’s them who will help shape this group."
"I'm extremely grateful for this journey… I'm still surprised by it all," Will continues. "I have no coaching background. People call me 'Coach' - but no, I'm not a coach."
"I appreciate that comparison and I am very humbled by it - but I don't want to take away from people who have been coaching for years and making a big impact."
As the interview comes to a close, we thank Will for his time, and let him return to what he does best: putting workouts together, leading runs, offering advice, creating training videos, and the vast range of other things he does to support the diverse running community that he has built.
If that doesn't make Will a coach, we're not sure what does.
Sidney Baptista is a running coach, leader & activist who founded PIONEERS Run Crew in Boston. William Walker is the founder of Baltimore running crew A Tribe Called Run.