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Built in Little Burgundy

How David Joseph built a community of runners in the community he grew up in

David Joseph, 36, is a Montreal native – Little Burgundy, specifically. The neighbourhood, which borders the northern end of the Lachine Canal, has been his home for most of his life. Little Burgundy is also home to his running crew, YAMAJO. The crew meets twice weekly to run together, but for Joseph, an experienced runner himself, it’s about so much more than that. The crew is his extended family, running the same streets he grew up on. 

Joseph has been an athlete since childhood, participating in every sport possible – everything except running. “In team sports, running is a punishment. I didn’t enjoy running. It was what you did when you did something wrong,” he says. “I did cross-country in elementary school, because I got to skip school. But my primary sport was basketball, which I played in university.” Joseph attended Bishop’s University in Lennoxville, Que., where he studied sociology.  

Finding running and bringing others along

Following university, Joseph came back to Montreal and, wanting a break from basketball, he started participating in Spartan races to keep active. But to be competitive, he needed to improve his running. “I was training for Spartan and the opportunity came up to raise money for Haiti, where my parents are from, and get free entry to the Banque Scotia 21K de Montreal,” says Joseph. “I wanted to give back to Haiti, so I fundraised and reluctantly ran it. It was a horrible experience. I wore basketball shorts and shoes. It was tough, but as a competitive person, I wanted to do it again and do it better.” Joseph has changed a lot since then – for example, he once ran four marathons in 16 weeks, which, he learned, was “too many marathons in that amount of time.” 

Following his first half-marathon, he started training more consistently, and friends asked to join him. “We were far from a crew back then, but that’s kind of when YAMAJO started unofficially forming.” 

That was 2014. One of the original members was Cid Merisier, 42, a childhood friend who’d recently taken up running. “When DVD [David] started YAMAJO, I started running again,” says Merisier. “It’s so good for my mental health. Really, my main goal with running is just to be healthy. If I can run until I’m 80, I’ll be happy.” Merisier was born and raised in the Rosemont neighbourhood, but works with kids from a project in Hochelaga, and also as an insurance underwriter.

While never an official crew member, Joseph’s mother, Yasmine Joseph, 56, also took up the sport, due to her son’s influence. “My mother has always been an active person, says Joseph.  “Friends would see my mom at the gym and tell me, ‘She’s so strong.’ But she became a runner when I did. I paced her for the last 20K of her first marathon. She doesn’t run with the crew, but she follows everything that’s happening.”

New crew in town

Back in 2014, the run-crew movement had not yet hit Canada, but Joseph became aware of the concept from time spent in New York City. “My sisters, aunt and cousins live in New York, and I still spend a lot of time there,” he says. “When I was getting into running, on one of my first trips to New York, I challenged myself to seven days of running with seven different crews. There’s actually a big difference between a club and a crew, and I wanted to bring back my ideas and make our Montreal friends’ running group into a friends’ running crew.” Thus YAMAJO was born. 

Joseph wanted his group to be informal – which is why he gravitated toward a crew. “I wanted the crew to have a flexible and fun structure,” says Joseph. “In our crew, we have a party at brunch almost every Saturday, post-workout. Members travel to watch races they’re not even running in. Many people come for the social aspect above all.” The crew that started with him and two others has grown to a consistent 75 attendees and meets three times a week: track on Wednesdays, a Saturday workout and an optional Sunday long run. 

Joseph started the crew, but its energy and enthusiasm are carried out through his fellow crew members. The people who stay, lead and participate embody the YAMAJO spirit. “You never know what people are going through,” says Joseph. “Everyone has had a hard day before. Sometimes people don’t want to talk, sometimes they just want to run. The people we bring on, like pacers and captains, bring the same energy, and they value inclusivity above all. Inclusivity was how the community was built, so it’s genuinely part of the fabric.”

There’s no pressure to perform, and no speed or ability cutoff – you make it in the crew by believing wholeheartedly in the pursuit of openness and community. Joseph uses his platform to promote inclusion, while helping others come to love the sport of running. “I was raised to be open and accepting of everybody,” says Joseph, “regardless of where someone is from, their age or their gender. My mom moved to Montreal from Haiti with her 13 brothers and sisters when she was 16. I was raised in a melting pot of different communities.” 

The crew meets in Little Burgundy, but it includes runners from all over Montreal. Merisier says if it wasn’t for the crew, he never would have explored the area. “Honestly, if it wasn’t for David, I never would have come to Little Burgundy. You could hear bad things about the neighbourhood, but now that I know about this amazing area and have a new family here [in the crew members], I think it’s great.” 

Becoming more competitive, keeping it fun

The group started with an all-comers mandate and a commitment to everyone having a place at YAMAJO. While that remains, the club brought on sponsor Under Armour in 2019 and recently expanded to include a racing team for members who were looking for a little more. Erito, the performance team, is coached by Rob Watson of Vancouver and geared toward members who are looking for more competitive opportunities. “A performance team is something that I’ve always wanted to create,” says Joseph. “Through watching other crews, I’ve seen that it’s possible to be social and performance-oriented. Members who were improving quickly wanted workouts and races. We wanted to help them improve and get them professional coaching.” 

Future plans

Joseph has big plans for YAMAJO. He hopes, one day soon, it becomes his full-time job. “I’m hoping to turn it into a sports organization,” Joseph says. “My dream job would’ve probably been to become a university athletic director – and that’s what I’m low-key doing with YAMAJO. I grew up playing all sports and I want to bring that to local people.” He hopes to one day have adult sports leagues, kids leagues and a run-specific lounge. “The lounge wouldn’t just be a gym, it’d be a place dedicated to runners.”

Personal growth

Taking it easy is an important aspect of marathon training. Patience is key to succeeding in the event – but it took time for Joseph to come to terms with this. “It took a while for me to learn that with running, I have to be patient,” he says. “For me to go out and run slow, even though I know how important it is, it’s hard for me. I don’t like holding back.” 

After years of refining his craft, Joseph is now focused on helping others refine their own. “When I started, I could really focus on myself, and I saw big improvements in my performance,” he says. “But as the crew grew, I needed to focus more on the group than on myself.” Building YAMAJO is now where Joseph is focusing his energy – and like the marathon taught him, his patience and vision are building the foundation for something impressive. 

Oh, and don’t ask why the crew is called YAMAJO. “No one knows what it means,” says Joseph, “but it’s provocative.” 

You can catch members of the YAMAJO run crew running this week for the virtual Under Armour Eastside 10K.