Healthy Talks with Team Wepa Captain Gerardo Rodriguez
By Jesse Specs Spellman / Photos by RCS Images
New York City (not New York State) is a diverse city, not including Staten Island. If you’re from New York City there’s usually only three reasons you go to Staten Island: driving through to get to Jersey, if you’re running the NYC Marathon, or Wu-Tang (okay that last one wasn’t a reason but you get the idea). The NYC run community is also a melting pot full of diverse and awesome runners which at times go overlooked because most of the road races that take place are in a spot that doesn’t represent us, mostly in Manhattan’s Central Park. What most run clubs in NYC especially the outer boroughs have done these past few years is establish a foothold in the urban run culture essentially becoming household names in the run community. One of those names we all know and have come to love is Gerardo Rodriguez otherwise known as Gee/Oso Blanco and founder of the one and only Team Wepa NYC run club based out of the Q boro, Queens NY. This month we have some healthy talks with Gerardo as we discuss running, proper presentation in his community, the creation of Team Wepa, and everything else running.
MSM: Welcome to MSM. In our chats before this you said something that stood out to me “everyone deserves a seat at the table”. This is so true especially for people in the run community that don’t get the full recognition that they should. Did you ever think that you would find yourself essentially being a pillar in this run community?
Gee: First of all let me say, thank you, for allowing me to be part of such an important platform. As we discussed before, this community is so diverse… and it’s amazing that MSM is able to highlight members of the community that doesn’t necessarily look like the majority of runners that we have become accustomed to seeing on race day along with being highlighted in major publications. As far as being a pillar… I’ve never really looked at myself as such. My objective has always been to INSPIRE those runners that felt they didn’t belong, inspire those that were afraid or felt like outcasts. It’s always been about creating a community in Queens. I wanted Queens runners to know that they didn’t have to travel outside of the borough to get some miles in and find some dope vibes.
MSM: Take our readers through the beginning of your fitness and running journey. What was it that made you get into running? Running, an easy sport to start with, but super demanding when you go deeper into the rabbit hole.
Gee: In March 2015, I lost one of my former students/ basketball players to Soft Tissue cancer. Rasheem King was young, athletic, and always energetic. His passing really made me start evaluating my everyday choices differently. He was 24 when he lost his battle to cancer, and at the time I was 35. I said to myself, I need to change my ways if I want to stick around for my own children. I mean cancer doesn’t discriminate and I definitely was not living a healthy lifestyle. I told myself that I needed to make healthier choices and be more active so that I could expand my lifetime. At the time, I was dealing with asthma and high blood pressure and I needed a change. A friend of mine, Melissa John introduced me to Nike Run Club and begged me for about a year to join. I kept turning her down probably because I was intimidated. I mean, I was a 245lb Puerto Rican man that didn’t really see many runners that looked like me or ran in the neighborhoods that I lived in. Growing up in Flatbush, and then migrating to Corona, Queens you didn’t really see as many runners in the neighborhood unless it was on TV during that first week in November. But YES, once you’re in it’s like a drug that goes through your veins, you get that runner’s high and that desire to want more running, more miles, more challenges, and that rabbit hole really does swallow you up.
MSM: As you dove deeper into the rabbit hole with road racing especially distance running, were you still in love with it? Personally, I hated it (lol), but I was always drawn back for more. What were your early race experiences like?
Gee: Those first few 5K’s really had me wanting more. Like how much further can I go, what other distances can I conquer? I’m assuming that every runner goes through that progression of a 5K, 10k, half, full and if you’re really gangsta the ultra. So yeah, the same happened with me, except for the fact that I got injured after my first in half in Brooklyn in 2016. I developed a slight neuroma in my left foot that kind of slowed down my progression. The crazy part is that simultaneously the injury happened when I started thinking about starting up WEPA. I really should’ve taken a break from long-distance running but I felt like there was an opportunity to start something special in Queens. So I had to make sacrifices and keep it going for the squad. I eventually ran my first and only marathon in 2017 which was painful due to the injury. I trained under the guidance of Wilpower fitness. Wil was amazing but the underlining injury didn’t allow me to have a successful 26.2. but trust me, I’ll be back soon… hopefully in 2021.
MSM: I see that there’s a genuine love for running when it comes to you, what is it about running that creates so much joy not only in yourself but also in your team? It seems as if it’s a trickle-down effect with everyone.
Gee: I used to joke that if a tree could talk, I could convince a tree to come running with me. I fell in love with running right away. I wanted to share that passion with everyone that I knew. I wanted them to know that it wasn’t corny or super difficult. It didn’t matter how fast you were or how fit, all you had to do is give it a try and somehow you would find that joy as well. I think thats what makes people comfortable with WEPA. There is no judgement, no competition, no flexing for the gram as we really try to inspire each other and try to inspire others to give running a try.
MSM: Team Wepa is such a large part of this run community, the run singlet is always recognizable on the pavement, what led to the inception of Team Wepa? When was Wepa born?
Gee: That means a lot to me. Making sure that our runners are recognized has always been one of my goals.
WEPA was born in the Summer of 2016. A few people close to me started seeing my progress on social media and asked if they could join me. So we started Track Workouts in Forest Park on Sunday mornings. We went from two people showing up… to having 12 – 15 runners showing up consistently. I couldn’t believe it… like I wasn’t a running coach or came from a running background… but somehow, WEPA was able to inspire people to come and run with us. That following winter we started signing up for different races and different experiences. A lot of people didn’t think I would last two weeks… and here we are almost 5 years in, with almost two dozen marathoners, 40+ members and memories that will last forever.
“It didn’t matter how fast you were or how fit, all you had to do is give it a try and somehow you would find that joy as well. I think thats what makes people comfortable with WEPA. There is no judgement, no competition, no flexing for the gram as we really try to inspire each other and try to inspire others to give running a try”.
Gerardo aka Oso Blanco
MSM: New York City is so diverse, yet we all still struggle finding all of ourselves to be represented properly in the run community. I find that almost all run clubs in the outer boroughs do a great job in representing their neighborhoods and where they are from. Was this one of your goals when you launched Team WEPA NYC?
Gee: 100%. Queens is actually ranked as the fourth most obese borough in NYC. I want the community in Corona, Queens to know that running with a crew is a way to feel supported, to feel welcomed and to not be intimidated at all. Running is the only sport that doesn’t restrict you to a certain space or doesn’t require a membership. You should be able to run all over the city and feel comfortable in your own environment. People shouldn’t think that we’re running from someone or we’re running because we just did something negative. We’re out on these streets because we believe that our health is important. We feel like it’s important for our communities to feel comfortable enough to explore the neighborhood in some funky running kicks and running tights. It’s important for our youth to see us working together as well. They need to know that we are working towards a common goal and doing it as a collective.
MSM: A leader is only as strong as his/her teammates that are walking or running with. For our readers let’s dive into some of the WEPA family. We can all see the strong bonds not only in the races but also cheering and also outside of running. What’s Wepa life like?
Gee: That same energy we give out during races or events is the same way we always are. I like to have a good time, I love giving off good energy in hopes of receiving it back. That’s exactly what we are about. good vibes, good energy because you never know what a person is going through. You don’t really know why a person decided to show up to your run and you want to make sure that this individual goes back to their families or loved ones and says yo, that was fun. I want to do it again and next time I’m gonna bring a friend or two.
MSM: Proper representation, something we’ve heard a lot of these past couple of months “WE ALL SHOULD HAVE A SEAT AT THE TABLE”. What are some of the things you’re doing to stay consistent in the run community to help make this happen?
Gee: I think sometimes we feel like we don’t have choices. Like we feel like we have to participate in races or events that don’t really feel inclusive. That’s not necessarily the case as there are so many things that we have done throughout the years. Whether it was raising funds for Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, creating designs for Run for Justice, or having an event like Run2Vote. It’s always been important for me to be part of the social issues that impact our communities. In Queens, we developed a community – Queens Running Collective which is made up of crews and clubs around Queens. We have been putting on an event every month highlighting issues that have impacted our communities. From Black Lives Still Matter to Run2Vote, we want to make sure that our communities feel supported and are also educated on the obstacles we have to overcome every day not only as runners… but also people of color.
“My objective has always been to INSPIRE those runners that felt they didn’t belong, inspire those that were afraid or felt like outcasts. It’s always been about creating a community in Queens. I Wanted Queens runners to know that they didn’t have to travel outside of the borough to get some miles in and find some dope vibes”.
Gerardo aka Oso Blanco
MSM: We all struggle with feeling 100% comfortable running even in the neighborhoods that we frequent. I find myself when plotting a route, making sure that I don’t cross into those unwanted neighborhoods especially when I’m running solo ESPECIALLY as a Black male. Have you ever found yourself facing this same reality as a runner?
Gee: Yes. I feel the same way at times. You can ask anyone that runs with me and they will tell you that I greet everyone. No matter if you think that you’re better than me, you will acknowledge me. If you’re staring at me I’m going to say good morning, or hello because a lot of times people aren’t expecting that. They can stare all they want, it’s not gonna make me stop running in “your” neighborhood. You shouldn’t be intimidated by me or people I run with. In conversation with Wil (Co-captain of Run Hustle Run) we had a dialogue about the people that will return a hello or a cheer. Certain demographics won’t acknowledge us, but it’s not gonna stop me from greeting them. They will acknowledge my presence and you will give me the same respect that I give you. It may take longer than we expect, but you will not continue to make me or people that look like me feel uncomfortable on these streets.
MSM: Your work isn’t only focused solely in the run community as you also work with our youth. I feel like this is super important because we’re essentially planting the seeds for the next generation to actually see what it takes to create change not only for them but the communities as well. What made you get into working with our youth.
Gee: I started working with the DOE in 2002. I started teaching in 2005 in East New York Brooklyn and it’s probably the best decision I made. I remember when I first started teaching, I knew that I could get through to the young men, because I was once in their shoes… my concern was the young ladies. Someone pointed out to me that it’s important for our girls to also see a man of color in front of them. It’s important for them to see what characteristics are important in a man. Far too often men of color are depicted in the media as being negative and my objective has always been to change that narrative. Like I said before, anyone that I came in contact with, I wanted them to join me on this running journey. I want our children to get a head start in the world of running so that they can be healthier and find an outlet from the everyday obstacles that they have to overcome.
MSM: You’re also a basketball coach. That’s pretty awesome, what is that experience like?
Gee: The experience has been very rewarding. Being able to help the young men that I’ve coached navigate through not only the sport of basketball but also everyday life as a young man was very challenging. As young men, they go through so much, so many changes and so many obstacles that they have to overcome. I’m just glad that they were able to trust and confide in me, enough I was able to coach them to accomplish a common goal. I’ve coached in East New York Brooklyn and Fresh Meadows Queens and I can tell you that the challenges that our boys face can be very different. However, being consistent and being able to be someone they could trust has always been my objective. I wanted them to know that I would always be in their corner no matter what. Last year I even tried coaching a girls basketball team before the pandemic. I was so excited for the opportunity, however, we didn’t even get a chance to play a game once everything shut down.
MSM: Have you ever been challenged by a player? I’m sure in your mind you’re probably saying you can smoke them on the track if it came to that.
Gee: Haha, I don’t know about smoking anybody on the track. You’d be surprised how fast 14-year-olds are. There was a time when I could actually challenge my players and you know beat them in a game of basketball. However, father time caught up with me and it wasn’t looking so pretty out there on the court for me. I think the boys challenged me differently, whether it was trying to keep them out of trouble, girl issues, and other issues as far as home life those were the real challenges.
MSM: Puerto Rico, you represent your home and culture TO THE FULLEST! Still feeling the effects of Hurricane Maria, you were very vocal when it came to the leadership of the island and its nation. What are your thoughts on the progress that you’ve seen these past few years? Do you feel it has improved or are there still necessary changes to be made?
Gee: I think that removing the former governor was a step in the right direction. However, the current governor really didn’t want the position. She was appointed by default and really wasn’t ready to take on such an important role in the government. The most current elections seemed like they were rigged, and it may just be the same old politics as usual. I would like to see Puerto Rico become independent one day. I think that’s what would be best for the island and for our people. The United States has a stronghold on the island and a lot of times doesn’t have our best interest at hand.
MSM: Speaking of changes Team Wepa was very vocal when it came to spreading the word this past November when it came to voting. What were some of the strategies you used to get folks involved and to the election centers to vote?
Gee: Yes, Run2Vote was an amazing event. I think the objective was to get people to understand how important it was for our communities to vote. I know many people get discouraged and say that “it doesn’t really matter who we vote for” or “if we vote at all” and I disagree with those statements. I think a lot of times people think that communities of color are going to vote Democratic automatically and since they think this way, a lot of times these politicians don’t even come to our neighborhoods to campaign or to even help us. They figure if they get a few votes from us, the votes will probably lean in one direction anyway, so why even bother. My objective was really to get our people to understand that their votes do count and that even though this year may be a little more hectic at the voting polls with the long lines that it’s still important for us to go out there and cast our ballot. It was still important for us to exercise our right to vote.
It was dope to see the Queens Running Collective come together and also other running crews use their platform to show the importance of voting in 2020.
MSM: You guys when not running usually end up having one of the largest cheer sections at the largest races whether it be The Brooklyn Half, the Queens 10k, and the largest race The New York City Marathon. I’m usually in the zone when running that race but I know when to look for the Wepa crew, we’re on different run squads but I will say y’all give so much life to us runners. Pure energy. What are some of your favorite races to be a part of inside and outside of NYC?
Gee: Everybody knows how difficult race day could be. You train for weeks, months, and no matter what you never really 100% prepared. Anything could happen during race day. I think we try to make sure that people feel that good energy. People need to know that there’s people out there supporting them and making sure that they have a spark of energy. It may not always be successful, you may not always get the time that you were looking for but at least you know that some folks were willing to be out there to cheer you on and support you. I think you named my three favorite races. NYC Marathon, BK Half, and Queens 10K. That’s home cooking right there. Chicago 2018 was mad fun as well and we’ll have a good time wherever we go. We would run, cheer, party, and dance to Bad Bunny even if there was a race on the moon.
MSM: With Covid life in full effect how have you managed to keep yourself and the Wepa squad consistent on the pavement?
Gee: Back in March, I started running on my own. I’ve been trying to get over some injuries and just wanted to rebuild my base. I think running on my own and posting and showing my progress allowed me to convince the squad that it was OK to run and stay active during the difficult time. Someway, somehow I was able to inspire and motivate them to get back on the horse and keep up with the lifestyle.
“They can stare all they want, it’s not gonna make me stop running in “your” neighborhood. You shouldn’t be intimidated by me or people I run with”.
Gerardo aka Oso Blanco
MSM: Along with Wepa there’s also Los Weponas (the ladies of Wepa), what went into branching off to form the ladies of Wepa?
Gee: I think when building a family it’s important to keep adding branches. When the Bridge Runners crew first started, I believe Saes vision was to have different crews develop all over the world. Crews that derive from what Saes and Charlie Dark have built with the Bridge The Gap movement in the beginning. WEPA has so many female members that we thought it was important for them to also have a platform where females could feel comfortable running together without any pressure from the fellas. Far too often you hear about horror stories that happen to female runners and I think it’s nice for them to create a tribe of women that support one another and feel more comfortable because they are running together.
MSM: You’re a family man, the example you’re setting is a beautiful site to see, we commend you for that. Do you see your kids wanting to run a race with you at some point? Joining you on the pavement for a 5k/10k/ half or even a full?
Gee: Oh man that’s the ultimate dream. To one day have both of my sons running with me whether it be a 5K or 26.2. My oldest son has run with me, PowerMalu and the Bridge Runners. My youngest son ran a PaceRuns 5K with his mother in Queens a few years back. Maybe one day when I’m old and gray (I’m already there actually haha) but it would be awesome to run with my two boys. It’s crazy because I’ve always been super athletic and into sports and they are totally opposite. This new generation with all the tech and the devices, really haven’t gotten into much sports. My youngest played basketball for his fifth-grade team and I was excited. I don’t think there’s anything else better than cheering on your own kids and seeing them do well.
MSM: What’s next on the horizon for Gerardo and the Wepa team?
Gee: Well I just ran a half marathon to end the year right with my boy Fred. The Queens Distance runners held a few half marathons and marathons to end the year and we thought it was the perfect way to end 2020 and next year will make five years of existence. I still remember people telling us that we wouldn’t last two weeks and here we are five years later. It’s such a milestone and such an honor to be able to be part of such a huge and important run community. To see people grow and to see how many people we’ve inspired, it’s just been an amazing ride.
MSM: For our fellow runners that might be interested in getting some miles in where they can catch the Wepa meet up (with social distancing obviously)?
Gee: Every Thursday night, we explore Corona Queens and the neighboring areas. We meet at All The Right on Corona Ave at 6:45pm and our run starts at 7:00pm. We usually run between a 5K to 5 miles depending on how Spicy I’m feeling, hahahaha.
MSM: Last question, I see on your IG page #Ilovemyjays one sneaker head ALWAYS recognizes another, give us your top 3.
Gee: Awwww man. In No particular order:
- Air Jordan 1 high – Shadows
- Air Jordan 4 – Black/ Cement
- Air Jordan 11 – Concords
From team Mid Strike to you keep pushing brother, we salute you, your team and everything you’re doing.