The Nine Four
WORDS: Dan Charles
PHOTOGRAPHY: Deon Van Zyl (Nine Four)
In a conversation with Martin Scorsese for the documentary “Public Speaking”, Fran Lebowitz explained how, as a child, she couldn’t find any sense in the unnecessary risk involved with an activity like climbing trees. To her, climbing a tree only ever makes sense if “behind you, are Nazis.” I’ve always felt the same way about running.
I used to believe that the only time it was ever appropriate to accelerate beyond the pace of a brisk walk, was if you were either being chased by someone dangerous (like a Nazi) or if your Uber was about to cancel on you. But now - after being peer-pressured by family members into running the 2 Oceans Marathon with them several years ago - I own a decent pair of running shoes, I have a medal hanging from my book case and there’s a box of plasters sitting in my bathroom that I apply to my nipples to keep them from chafing. On paper, I guess, I’m now qualified enough to call myself a runner.
Despite owning most of the equipment of a diligent runner, I still find it incredibly difficult to commit to actually going out for a run. As somebody that carries around a rolodex of anxiety disorders in his head, I’m keenly aware of the numerous mental health benefits of regular exercise. But, regardless of my awareness, it’s those same anxieties that also keep me tethered to the confines of my apartment.
However, earlier in the year - while vacantly searching through some Instagram stories for a semblance of a serotonin boost - I came across a post from the prestigious Cape Town-based running crew, The Nine Four. The post was an open invitation extended to anyone, at any fitness level, who might be interested in joining them for a “sexy paced” 5km open run along the Sea Point promenade. Although I had grown to appreciate the idea of running as a leisurely activity, I still had my reservations about joining something like a running crew. Logically, I could understand the safety benefits and the sense of camaraderie and accountability that comes with being a member of a running crew - in fact, for someone with my absence of diligence, it would probably be very helpful. But, again, my sense of social anxiety had always convinced me that I would be incapable of fulfilling both the social and physical obligations of a membership. Making polite and charming conversation whilst teetering on the brink of collapse several kilometres into a run? Nightmarish and inconceivable. But, even so, the opportunity of this open run managed to pique my interest.
Since its formation in 2013 – after local director and photographer, Paul Ward, had been introduced to a running crew called The Berlin Braves during some time abroad - The Nine Four has established a quiet reputation as one of the most tight-knit and tenacious running crews in Cape Town.
I first learned about it from some Instagram posts shared by people that I knew who had joined them, and I was immediately struck by the image and the attitude that the crew portrayed. With their iconic white rabbit logo, stark black Puma-sponsored uniforms and the consistently striking documentation of their crusades across Cape Town’s concrete-coated CBD - The Nine Four looked far more compelling than anything I had come to expect from
a running crew. They came across as more of a rock group than anything else - which, in a way, gives prominence to one of The Nine Four’s mantras: “One Band, One Sound.” Having considered all of that, if there was ever going to be a crew worth pushing past my anxieties to investigate, I figured that this would have to be the one.
As difficult as it was to convince myself to attend the open run, the run itself proved to be even more challenging for me than I had anticipated. After meeting the crew and exchanging a few introductory fist-bumps at the starting point, I was determined to make a good first impression by pushing myself a bit too hard at the beginning of the run. Despite not having done any serious training since the start of the pandemic, I was sure that I could get through a casual 5km as easily as I could in the past. However, at just past the halfway mark, my breathing started to get more laboured and I could feel my legs beginning to tender their resignation from the rest of my body. Feeling humbled and a bit humiliated, I had to slow down to a walk to catch my breath.
Keeping an eye on the back of the pack during the run was a member of the crew called Henry who, despite my insistence that he should carry on with the rest of the group, stayed behind while I recuperated. Now, having to make awkward and out-of-breath small talk, this type of scenario was precisely what had dissuaded me from taking part in any physical group activity: being seen as a burden and holding people back from what they had set out to do – not cool.
But my dread began to subside as Henry took the time to explain the ethos behind The Nine Four that has kept the crew moving from strength to strength for almost a decade. The Nine Four is a crew that is less focused on running and more focused on the community cultivated within it. It’s a collective built to accommodate anyone from any background who is determined to challenge and better themselves while, most importantly, supporting and encouraging each other along the way.
It’s in that spirit that crew runs through the city together as a unit. “One Band, One Sound.” In that particular instance - that included me and the sound of my heavy breathing as I hobbled my way to the end of the run with Henry and rejoined the rest of the crew.
As satisfying as it would be to end this article by saying that I’ve carried on running with The Nine Four ever since that day, that would be untrue. Although I did feel a great sense of personal growth within those quietly vulnerable moments of the open run (and I did end up joining the crew for a few more runs after that) I still find myself tripping over my old mental hurdles on my way to the next starting point. But, since then, I do feel a lot more confident in my running shoes. Instead of saving my stamina for running away from things that scare me (like Nazis), I’m steadily working up the speed to run towards feeling a bit easier within myself. And, when I’m fast enough, maybe I’ll catch up with The Nine Four again.
The Nine Four