Family–Run Business

Hector Espinal, founder of ‘We Run Uptown', knows he has always been a bigger guy, heavier even. But he’s brushed aside the asterisks to pursue the best version of himself. A full-time runner and a full-time Dad, he wants his message to be one of longevity in both life and style.

Words by Good Counsel

Videography by Justin Bridges

Portraits by Justin Bridges

If you run uptown, you know Hector Espinal. Having spent twenty-three years growing up in Washington Heights, he is the source for the oral tradition of the neighborhood and unquestionably has the qualities of a mayoral candidate wrapped up in his self-professed love for street-fashion subculture. That’s the beauty of the late-blooming, 5’9”, 236 pound runner who, four years ago would never have thought to lace up for 26.2 miles across New York’s five boroughs. He is more than the sum of his labels: “Big + Tall,” “sneakerhead,” “fashion-forward,” “runner”—all having meaning but all standing behind and none more important than—“Dad.” As Hector tells it, running has allowed him to pursue his better self in life and style while providing a persuasive argument for stamina in striving for one’s dreams that holds true for his blood family and his chosen family—“We Run Uptown”—the running collective which he founded.

Tell us a little bit about you. What’s your name? Where you’re from?

I’m Hector Espinal. Born and raised in Washington Heights, so I’m born and raised in uptown New York. I’m a father of two, I’m a runner, sneaker enthusiast…. This past year 2017, I became a marathoner… ran the New York City Marathon. I’m the Founder of We Run Uptown, a running collective. We’re bridging the gap between fashion, music, and running. 

As an athlete, what got you into the style game? 

The style game came before the athleticism or the running. I’ve always been a bigger guy so I’ve always tried to compensate… the way I dress, or what kicks I have to compensate for the weight. That was just me being self-conscious. That started at a really early age. I had messed up teeth, I wore braces, and then I needed glasses. I had to pick: either be “blind” or braces ‘cause I didn’t want to do both and that was just me in junior high school. When I got to high school that’s when I really started making my own choices. I went to school in the Lower East Side so that really influenced my style. That’s when I got first introduced to Alife, Supreme, and Stussy.

Has it been frustrating not being able to find the exact thing that you want in the size that you are? 

It’s hard. I can never, I was saying this earlier, I can never go into regular stores, The Gap, or any stores like that and expect to find jeans. I’m willing to pay more for longevity—spending the extra dollars for more wears. Growing up, I always had to shop at the husky section; I had to go to the adult section and the pants never fit me. I was never comfortable in my clothes until now. But think about being in seventh grade and wearing adult pants that don’t fit you—having to cuff them twice. My parents weren’t spending a lot of money on tailoring; I let mine rip in school.

When do you think was the point where you started to form your own identity? 

I am just a regular guy, you get what I’m saying? So how do I stand out amongst all these other fit guys? I’m always heavier so I started putting much more focus on clothing. I got my first job. I was making some serious change… and that’s when I really got into fashion because I had my own money. I started collecting sneakers. Nike SBs and Shelltoes, shell-toe Adidas, Vans… really limited stuff. I started getting into the subculture. I remember the first pair of SB’s I bought… at that mom and pop shop in Chinatown. It’s the one that’s in the mall in Chinatown and you have to take an escalator down. They do a bunch of Supreme reselling. That started it off for me.

Have you had any key mentors or role models in terms of solidifying your own personal style? 

It was more word of mouth and just seeing what the cool guys were wearing… the whole hip-hop culture… Freshness Mag was one of the first blogs I stumbled across. Just being around the culture… being downtown; I never felt awkward but I did feel—a sense of belonging. You want to be accepted by your peers and once I started going to these sneaker lines and I was meeting these people and I was doing what I was doing… I was able to convince my friends uptown, to come down.

How do you think crossing over, leaving Uptown and getting Downtown, changed or challenged your personal style? 

It was just an adjustment period for me. It was, everything in general—the running scene as well. I feel a mistake a lot of us make is we get comfortable, and, as with anything in life, once you feel comfortable you stay there and you get stuck there. Me leaving my postal code, stepping out of that comfort zone and interacting with people that didn’t have the same upbringing I had was important.

What prompted your interest in running?

It was a health thing for me. I was in a really bad weight. I was 290 lbs. I’ve always been a bigger guy but I was at the biggest that I’ve ever been. I kept buying these extra larges but I knew damn well that I wasn’t an extra-large anymore. One day I was like, “This isn’t my size anymore.” My sister jumped on board and she goes, “I’m going to take you, let’s go for a run.” I’m like, “You don’t run”, and she’s like, “neither do you so we bout to go not run together.” When she went back to school I was by myself again… I wasn’t going to run by myself, it wasn’t fun. I pretty much started begging people on social media “Meet me at 156th Street and Broadway. We’re going to go run two miles.” And if no one showed up I would then put up another message, People started coming out. I started feeling more confident and I started losing weight naturally. No crash diet, no crazy… there’s no cheat code. It was just me putting in the work… eating the right foods and running my ass off. Just running.

How did the run game affected your self-image?

I had been wearing a lot of oversized hoodies because I wanted to mask the weight. I wasn’t really wearing denim. I wasn’t wearing chinos. I was just wearing sweats. Any excuse that I had to not show up to a family gathering, I would try my best to not to go because I didn’t want people asking me the same questions. In a Latino household, everyone feels super comfortable to ask you about your weight. That’s something that everybody feels comfortable talking about. As I lost the weight and I became more comfortable—I also became more comfortable with the running. And with the way I was dressing. I wanted to show up to a run get dressed so people were able to see, “Cool, he’s a runner but he also has a sense of style.” 

What role do you think community played in helping you get over some of those obstacles?

Coming from having no athletic background to four years later, running a marathon… training for it, I broke down. Physically I was destroyed—mentally, emotionally…. I was barely getting any sleep. “I don’t think I want to fail.” That’s what I was thinking. If I fail… not only did I document this for 16 weeks but Nike NYC was also interested in sharing the content. Now if I flop, I look like an idiot to the world. I kept overthinking it. I didn’t want people to connect my failing with my weight or my failing with my size. That was my biggest fear. I thought I was going to get trolled, and no one did that. It was all positive energy. The running community and the Uptown community helped push me to where I needed to be.

What was it like to cross the finish line of a marathon, your first?

I expected more out of it. I crossed, I’m standing there, my phone’s dead now at this point, my watch is dead, and I’m just like, “I finished.” I just finished running 26.2 miles and I’m like, “Cool, where’s the exit?” You have to walk a mile just to get out of Central Park which is crazy. Mile 21, the cheer zone, that’s what kept me going through the whole race. I’m thinking, “My kids are at mile 21. My family is at mile 21. My squad is at mile 21. The vibes are at mile 21.” I was the last one people were waiting for.

People were there in the rain for the same amount of time I was running, waiting for me to get there. It meant a lot. It validated me as a runner. No one can tell me, “Oh, Hector, I don’t want to run a half with you because you’ve never done it.” No, I ran a half, I ran a marathon. If I did it, you can do it.

Something as simple as putting one foot in front of the other completely saved my life.

You keep on pushing, keep on running every Monday with your crew. In your mind, what helps you get up and go?

When I started, it was for more selfish reasons. It was more about me. I wanted to look good in clothing that I couldn’t fit in before. If you don’t feel comfortable in something, it doesn’t matter what’s the name, what designer it is, you’re not going to be able to rock that. You’re not going to feel confident because you’re always going to be adjusting it. It happens to me a lot. My weight is distributed to my stomach so I’m usually yanking. Now, my thought process is a little bit different. Now, I’m doing this for longevity. I want to be able to chase my kids. My kids are young. I’m 26. I have a three-year old and I have a one-year old. How am I going to tell my kids, “I’m tired, I just ran for ten hours today. I’m going to just chill.” Do you get what I’m saying? You can’t do that. I’m trying to be there for them. I feel like if I continue to run I’m going to extend my life and I’m going to be able to instill the values that I learned from running in my kids. Whenever one of my sons tells me, “I can’t do that,” or, “I don’t want to try this, I don’t want to fail,” I can always tell them, “in 2017, I trained for the New York City Marathon and I thought I was going to fail but I kept pushing. I never gave up.” I’m able to use that now as an example for anything I want them to apply themselves to in life. I could have said the Marathon was too hard. Imagine if I said I didn’t want to try it. But I did—and I finished.

Talk about why it’s important for you to be honest about how difficult the running regimen is.

I’m a big guy that gets fly; I’m a runner. There should be no disconnect. It’s not, Hector is big, “he dresses nice, and he runs.” It’s all together. It’s all interwoven. I feel like more people can connect with me than they can with the person that won the race. I ran a marathon in 6 hours and 21 minutes. You get what I’m saying? I am the average runner. I’m a real person. This isn’t genetic, this is just me being me. When I have a bad run, here’s my bad run. I wake up in the morning and take my kids to daycare. I have to work. I have to find time to make it home to run errands, to go to BJ’s. This person that has to do all that… that’s what life really is. It’s more realistic to be the kind of runner that I am, to use my journey as motivation, as a catalyst to get you there. 

Final thoughts on what’s most important to you in all of this?

My family, that’s number one. Running, for sure. Running has completely changed the trajectory in which my life was going. Something as simple as putting one foot in front of the other completely saved my life. It gave me purpose, it woke up things inside that I never knew I could do. Running has made me stronger—both physically and mentally—and opened my eyes to a world outside of Uptown.