Interview

INTERVIEW: How COVID-19 birthed Run Club Abuja, the most active run club in Abuja

At the start of 2020, if anyone had told Henry Okelue he would start the most active run club in Abuja, he would have laughed off the prediction.  

Around that time, he was a regular 43-year-old man who lived a solitary active lifestyle. 

Then COVID-19 came and Henry, like many others who became less active because of the pandemic protocols, found out he had added weight.

And that changed everything. 

“I woke up one day and discovered I had a potbelly,” he says. “That was when I knew it was time.” 

Pricked by this desire to destroy his belly fat, Henry decided it was time he joined a fitness community. 

Running alone like he had done since 2019, can be likened to setting himself up for impossible. So he searched through the internet for a running community to join. 

He had no luck finding one and an Instagram message he sent to Nike running club remains unreplied. So he reached out to friends and discussed the idea of creating a social running club in Abuja, where he resides. 

That birthed the Run Club Abuja

Describing the run club, Henry says “Run Club Abuja is a lifestyle club where members meet from time to time to build an attitude of keeping fit and being healthy through running and walking.”

Unlike other run clubs, Henry stressed, this run club is different because they see exercise as a lifestyle. So they infuse social activities into their runs. 

For this week’s profile interview, Henry tells NewsWireNGR’s Oladele Owodina how the Run Club Abuja has enhanced the lifestyle of its members, grown the club’s membership base to over 90 and given back to society.  

“I will be 45 by September, but when you see me I don’t look it and I hope to keep it that way by the time I get to 60” – Henry Okelue – Founder, Run Club Abuja. 

Henry Okelue

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity. 


Tell me about the Run Club Abuja 

Run Club Abuja is a lifestyle club where members meet from time to time to build an attitude of keeping fit and being healthy through running and walking. 

We started the club because we could not find clubs to join. It was during the start of the pandemic and I was looking for a running club I could join. I reached out to Nike Run Club on Instagram because they have a running club across cities in the world.

I asked them what it would take them to start a running club in Abuja, but till the moment that I am having this interview, Nike Run Club has not replied to the message on Instagram. 

So I felt if these people won’t respond, what stops us from setting our own? But I did not want to set up one. I still wanted to join a club. So I searched for run clubs in Abuja. I found one, but it looked like nothing was happening. 

I spoke to someone about the idea, and she said it would be fun. She said people are looking for communities they can gather around and find motivation to do what they want to do. 

That was how I came up with the name Run Club Abuja. I posted on Twitter asking if there was anyone who would like to join a running club in Abuja. People responded positively, so I felt this idea would fly. 

So I set the first day to meet. It was July 11, 2020. We met at Jabi boat club; it was about 10 of us that showed up that morning and that was how the Run Cub Abuja started. Today we are a community of about 90, so we have grown from 10 a year ago to about 90 people.

We meet on Saturdays at 6: 30 am at locations round the city. We meet round the city so that people have an opportunity to know Abuja a bit more. When we run, we run about 5 km or 10 km into the city, so we see places.

On Wednesday, we meet at Jabi lake park to run 5 km. Few weeks ago, we celebrated our one-year anniversary, and it culminated with our charity half-marathon where we raised about 2 million naira for the Not Forgotten Initiative school in Asokoro. We also had our one year dinner party. 

When did you start running?

I started running on January 5th, 2019. I had been dodging it for a long time. I had a friend who also runs, and she had been encouraging me to run and I had been dodging for a long time and eventually I woke up one day and discovered I had a potbelly and I knew it was time. 

Why running and not some other sport?

I had a friend, her name is Lucy Mbabazi, she is a Rwandan. She runs, so every time she runs; she tells me about it so she planted the seed in my head. When I decided it was time to take my exercise life seriously, because it already planted the seed in my head and running, unlike golf, is not expensive, all I needed was a good pair of running shoes and I already had one before I started running. So rather than golf or football, I chose to run because I had runners around me. 

You started with 10 and now you are 90 within a year. How did you grow this fast? 

After a while of starting the club, I saw it was bigger than me so I set up a board of admins. I brought in like 7 people to join the decision making of the club. 

To keep people interested and not make the club boring, we decided to infuse some social activities into what we do. So rather than just monotonous running, we started to organise a lot of parties within ourselves. We have outdoor movie nights; we have game nights; we do karaoke, paintballing and other social activities. Those who did not have a social life now begin to have a social life because in the club, you get to meet people and we encourage people to network and form meaningful relationships. 

For people looking to join the club, how do they join? 

We have made joining the run club as easy as possible but we want only serious people. Because we have found that it is very easy for people to come into the community and just wait for the social part of the community and ignore the thing that brought us together. 

So for people to join, we require that you take part in our runs or walks. We expect you to take part in our activities at least three times. So it is a combination of coming at least three consecutive Saturdays, Wednesdays or a mixture of Saturday and Wednesdays. That shows us you are really interested in what we do. 

After you have crossed the three meets requirement, we just ask you to buy our club t-shirts and any of our club merchandise (mugs, towels, face caps) so that we can have money as profit that we keep in the club to provide water, lucozade and the likes for members. We ask this because we currently don’t ask members to pay dues.

We then add you to the club’s WhatsApp group. This is where we share all the information about our activities, like where we run and others. And it is a very fun group we have. 

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What are the activities at the club? You said you run Saturdays and Wednesdays 

On Saturday, we meet at 6:30 am. Like I said, we meet at different locations across the city – Maitama, Asokoro, Gwarinpa, and other places. We map the route and do 10km or 5km depending on each member’s preference. And on Wednesdays, we do just 5km because people have to go to work. 

Do professional trainers run with you?

No. It is mostly enthusiasts and we would prefer it like that because we don’t want to be under pressure. Running should be fun, we are not athletes or competing in the Olympics. We are just trying to make sure our health is where it should be and people who want to lose weight can gradually lose weight. 

Any plan to extend beyond Abuja? 

I have no plans to. I live here and so long as I live here, I just want it to be Abuja. But we have members who used to live in Abuja but have moved to Lagos, Canada and other places. We have other people who live in different parts, but their friends bring them to run with us when they are on a visit to Abuja. 

Maybe along the line, these people will want to start a spin-off the run club where they are, I appreciate that because the more the merrier. But for now, I am limiting myself to Abuja because this is where I am living.

What are the biggest testimonies of members of the club?

There are so many testimonies. There is a member of the club that reached out to me and said thank you so much Henry for what you have built here. She said she did not know she was going to have a social life while she tried to keep fit. In fact, she has made meaningful friends so far since joining the club. We have had other testimonials of people who have built business networks because we have all kinds of people in the club. 

We have CEOs, former military officers, amid others. These people provide guidance and help to younger members of the club. We have had about four people share their Run Club Abuja experience on social media so that people can see what this is about. It is an inclusive community and we do not discriminate on race, gender or sexual orientation. 

There is a guy called Uche. During the pandemic, he discovered he was getting out of shape; he had no stamina and before he ran 50 m he was already panting. Then he saw a friend of his who is a member of our club posted running statistics on social media. That motivated Uche to join us. 

So the first time they came, I don’t think Uche lasted 2 km, and he walked the rest of the way. But now, Uche ran 22 km non-stop at our half kilometre last week, he has shared his experience on Twitter 

People like Uche give me a lot of joy because I see them achieve what they want to achieve. 

How RCA made me fit – Uche

What are the goals for the community in the next five years? 

So our goal and hopes for the future is for the club to grow bigger and I hope that under my leadership, the support of the admins and the general support of the community itself that we will keep the community together as one. 

And we do not exist for running or walking, we also exist to positively impact our community. We hope we can do more charity walks going forward; we hope the community will get to a point where it would have attained global recognition so that Nike would get back to me for a collaboration. 

But the important thing to us is that the journey to fitness and life continues. Five years from now, many of the people in the community now would have added years. We want to continue to be healthy because a healthy person is an asset to the country. 

So we want to be able to affect our immediate community and our nation positively by our activities and by the things we do

I saw 2 million naira through a charity walk, am I right?

Yes 

Can you give examples of some of your charity walks?

We are a new community even though in just one year it seems like a lot of people have heard about us. The charity we did for the Not Forgotten Initiative school where we raised 2 million naira that we are going to invest in building them classrooms and kitting up their computer rooms is the first we have done. 

In the future, we have decided that we are going to do more charity walks and more community walks. Hopefully, by the time we celebrate our 2nd year anniversary, we will have a portfolio of the charity work and community work that we can tell you about. 

But as an example, when we went for a picnic at Mpape, we went with bin bags to clean up the refuse we created and the one the other people that came around created. We cleaned up the environment before we left. Those are the ways we can affect our community and we intend to do more. 

RCA members celebrating club’s first year

What are the challenges you have faced so far?

When you are dealing with humans, you face so many challenges. I have built some communities in the past where I have brought people from across Africa together in a quasi-community and I have learnT from my experiences being part of communities since 2005. 

I know that when you build this kind of community, it will be made up of people of diverse characters, people with different egos, temperaments and sensitivity. We have had clashes of egos, temperament and clashes of sensitivity, but me and my board of admins, Yemi Efuntoye, Eunice, Tokunbo, Okoye, Joy, Maya, have succeeded so far and we hope to continue to put in place rules and regulations that help us. 

People have resisted those rules but at the end of the day they found out that is for the good of the community, 

What is your personal running routine like?

So my running routine before I started the club was running when I feel like. So there have been times I ran every day of the week, and times I ran every day of an entire month. But due to age and the club, we now have something we call the monthly challenge where we all agree on a minimum number of kilometres each person must cover in a month. For now, it is 110 km minimum that each person must cover in a month. 

So for me to cover 110km, I run at least 3 times a week. I run on Saturday, Wednesday and the next Saturday, so in between the two Saturdays I try to run two times, Wednesdays and any day of the week so that I will be able to make that 110km. 

And since it is not good to eat heavily before running, I run early in the morning. I used to be a night runner; they call me a ghost runner. I run at night after work within my estate but for now I run in the mornings, so by 6:30am my stomach is basically empty and because of the weather in Abuja or in Nigeria, morning is still the best time to run. So my running routine is run in the morning, run at least 3 times a week and make sure I cover at least 110km a month.

Is 110km not too much? 

I know a guy who runs 500km in a month.  

Wow, that is more than 10 marathons in a month. Is this not too much for beginners? 

The World Health Organisation says for you to maintain some level of wellbeing, you should try to do moderate intensive exercise of 150 minutes a week. So if you run 30km per week you will meet that 150 minutes, you could run 20km, 30km but be as close to that 150km as you can. 

For new members, we tell them it is gradual. That is why we have a 5km part so those people can manage a 15km run, there is no pressure. When you’re ready to join the 110km challenge, you will see by yourself that you are ready because you can’t just start off from 0 and jump to 110km. You will get knackered and never come back. 

How does running make you feel?

It makes me feel good. The thing about running is that when you have gotten to a point where your body has become accustomed to running, it becomes like an addiction. Your body keeps telling you there’s something you need to do and you have not done, so even when you run away from running for an entire week, the following week your body will sort of fight you. 

Especially at the end of the run, you sleep, think, talk, and become better in everything you do and you begin to feel accomplished at the end of the run. Asides from that, you look good. I will be 45 by September, but when you see me I don’t look it and I hope to keep it that way and by the time I get to 60. When you run, you feel good, look good, you think well and everything just feels good generally 

So for people who are looking forward to joining you, what word do you have for them ?

I will tell them sleep is the enemy. The first thing is to defeat the enemy because we wake up by 6:30am. So set an alarm, tell yourself I want to come and also believe that Run Club Abuja is a community where everybody loves another person. It is a place where you can build meaningful relationships and networks that would be useful to you.

At the same time, you begin to be part of a lifestyle that keeps you away from the hospital more, your blood pressure will be under control, you will begin to work towards being the way you want to look and a fit body is mostly a healthy body. 

When you are fit the chances of you falling sick is less so look at it as a win-win situation and look at it as part of getting to know more people and building a social life that is very enjoyable so we welcome as many people as possible who want to come. We don’t discriminate, just come and be a part of us. We have CEOs, retired military officers, law enforcement officers, teachers, doctors, bankers, lawyers and even youth corps members. It is a big tent and everybody is welcome 

A message to your members 

I have the best team and without them, this club would not be where it is right now. We did not see this happening July 11, 2020, when we started, now everybody is talking about us. We get messages every day asking how to join, you guys have been the reason Run Club Abuja has stayed the way it is and I will not change you guys for anything. 

Hopefully, we will take this club to a way bigger place and I hope that at the end run club Abuja will outlive all of us. Bravo you guys are the greatest and I am so proud of everything we have done together. 

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