One Thursday night in April 2021, two dozen people scurried up steps that led to the entrance of the Racanska Gallery in Mexico City’s hip Juárez neighborhood. Sweatsoaked with elevated heart rates, they had rushed as fast they could to this nondescript crevice of the city, which was the mouth for an afterparty and also served as the finish line of a four-mile unsanctioned race that had traced mostly trafficless streets in the dark.
Unconventional is one way to describe the escapade. Exciting, competitive and intimate is also how 28-year-old race organizer José Luis Vega Alatriste, who works as an architectural engineer, explains the nature of this experience. He has orchestrated roughly a half dozen races like this in various areas of Mexico City since February 2021.
It all started with a small event Vega Alatriste spearheaded in collaboration with the group he trains with in Mexico City, Dromo Run Crew. Together they organized a low-key unsanctioned race — as in a running competition not affiliated with a national or local association — on the streets of an upscale neighborhood. The event operated like a franchise race that was part of a U.S.-based unsanctioned series known as Take the Bridge. Runners had to make their way to certain checkpoints as fast as possible enroute to the finish. That was pretty much the only directive. Rules were few. But that was the point. Run fast, run hard and don’t get lost.
The unruly approach to racing counters what many consider the norm. Unlike in an “official”, AKA standard experience, where a competitor is one of thousands of participants on a clearcut route that requires permission and permits, Vega Alatriste’s first version was none of that. No permits. No aid stations. No markings to offer direction of the route. His race became an alternative experiment of sorts, which only added to the intrigue of the event.
Most people don’t clock a personal record in this style of racing, which takes place on routes that sometimes factor in nontraditional racing elements, like sprinting up steps or around bystanders. And it all happens at an elevation of approximately 7,200 feet above sea level. Hence, the name of the race series, Lactic Acid Culture. “Everybody just felt so much lactic acid in the race,” Vega Alatriste says.
Needless to say, the alternative experiment was well received and not just by the competitors. When photos of the initial unsanctioned race were shared on Instagram thereafter, the race lit up on social media and Vega Alatriste’s DM plugged with messages from other runners in the city that wanted to know when the next event would be and how to sign up.
“It sounds like such a simple experience, just a street race with your friends,” he says. “We weren’t expecting it to have such an impact.”
Running is only part of what makes the experience unique. There’s a whole social element afterward — toasting with beers to the backdrop of a DJ in an intimate space — that rarely exists, if it even exists, in a mass participation race. Vega Alatriste’s races pocket roughly 20 men and 20 women. He says the limited entrants is a sweet spot that makes the race competitive and close-knit, but also allows him to keep it safe. That his races aren’t permitted is not a concern. “We aren’t really doing anything that’s illegal,” he says. “Running in the streets or invading the car line is not illegal. So we aren’t really afraid of being fined.”
Due to a high demand after the first unsanctioned race he helped host, Vega Alatriste organized another iteration just a month later and hosted it southwest of the city center in Coyoacan, a historic borough with cobblestone streets and known more for artisan markets and art as opposed to a place to venture for a run. The bohemian area is touristy during the day, but mostly hushed after hours.
“Most people would never come to this area to train,” says Vega Alatriste, who had discovered a desolate street in Coyoacan on a solo run during the pandemic. “Nobody really knew about it. So I just wanted to show off this great area,” he says. “I scout for areas that don’t have a lot of traffic and also give the runner an experience of the neighborhood.” Vega Alatriste has hosted races in Polanco twice as well as in Santa Fe, the financial district southwest of the city center.
That’s the added benefit. His races expose people to other places that can be suitable for running outside of the more standard areas of Mexico City, mainly Bosque de Chapultepec, the largest urban park in the city; and La Reforma, a wide avenue that crosses the heart of Mexico City from Chapultepec Park to downtown. As Vega Alatriste puts it, “the neighborhoods in Mexico City are incredibly diverse. The city is a monster. You can drive for an hour and a half and still be in the city.” So why not take advantage of what Mexico City can offer to a runner? “We could spend 10 years doing these races and find new routes without any problem,” he adds.
That the race happens mostly incognito in a city of 22 million people adds to its uniqueness. The LAC races have been described by previous participants as a tough adventure. “None of us had competed in a race style like LAC — fast, urban and without rules,” says Emiliano Hernandez, who has been to every race that Vega Alatriste has organized. “What makes LAC great is that it has its own essence.” Each race is held at 9 or 10 p.m., typically on a Thursday, and ends not simply at the finish line, but with a curated afterparty. One race included a beer produced specially for the event, Vega Alatriste’s version of a race medal. The races are a sharp contrast to most running competitions in Mexico City that often start early in the morning on a weekend and often take place around the same areas.
In the past, Vega Alatriste has cherry picked runners from all over the city to participate, inviting them through social media. “I was so surprised that people immediately answered, ‘I’m in!’”, he says. But Vega Alatriste’s races explore what had been an untapped market in Mexico City that continues to grow.
The idea of a curated racing experience that involves competitors already acquainted in the running community is what has piqued Sofi Kim, who has lined up four times of Vega Alatriste’s races. She appreciates the adrenaline and excitement of this atypical race style, something that had felt absent during other competitions she has participated in the past. The nonconformist approach is what sways her, and others in the community, to keep showing up to the races Vega Alatriste organizes every other month.
“These races are creating a running community in Mexico City that was not united before,” Vega Alatriste says. “Nobody really cares about their times. They care more about spending a great time with their friends.”
For more on Lactic Acid Culture visit them on IG. Give photographer Edgar Garcia a follow too.