When, at 5 a.m. one recent weekday, Autumn Saxton-Ross awoke to the sound of heavy rain slamming against her Bloomingdale rowhouse, the 25-year-old picked up the phone. Would the Big Daddy Running Club still convene, she asked Darrell C. Fogan on the other end.
"Don't be a punk," he told her. When she tried to rephrase the question, asking his advice about rain gear, the group leader snapped back: "I don't care what you put on. Just get your butt out here."
Moments later, residents of the Northwest Washington neighborhood who peeked through shutters and blinds witnessed the ensuing spectacle: a pack of men and women coursing down the middle of the street, dodging mud and puddles and getting sloshed by passing cars.
"They were swimming down the street," recalls Marsha Botts, a new club member who opted out of running that day. "When I saw that, I knew they were serious."
In the five months since Fogan, an adjunct professor of physical education at nearby Howard University, and his brother Von launched their running club -- free and open to all -- it has become a welcome, if curious, sight in the neighborhood off North Capitol Street and beyond.
Four mornings a week, anywhere from eight to 25 runners and walkers -- college-age to senior citizens -- can be seen high-stepping it past burned-out shells of buildings and trash-choked alleys in Bloomingdale, LeDroit Park, Shaw and Adams Morgan. On their two- to five-mile jaunts, the runners have become adept at dodging malt liquor bottles and other unsavory remnants of nighttime foot traffic. But the view also includes barometers of change, such as a "For Sale" sign planted in front of a tiny Bloomingdale row house. Asking price: $400,000.
As Fogan intended, the high-visibility group is serving a dual mission. It's promoting better health in a population at high risk for heart disease. And simultaneously it's building a sense of neighborhood connectedness.
"I think it's invigorating to have the neighbors see minorities running for reasons other than the police," says Maurice Hill, a 39-year-old club member who has lived in Bloomingdale all his life.
Agrees Cassilda Trotter, a 21-year-old triathlete and Howard University senior, "Besides getting people in shape, it brings the neighborhood together."
Says Fogan, "We're sending positive energy waves throughout the community."
Bloomingdale's health profile might make it seem an unlikely candidate for an outfit like the Big Daddy Running Club.
According to the D.C. Center for Health Statistics, Ward 5, where Bloomingdale's majority African American neighborhood is located, has the second highest rate of heart disease and stroke in the city. (The dubious distinction of first place goes to Ward 4 in upper Northwest; both wards have a higher percentage of residents 65 or older than most other District wards, according to U.S. Census figures.) Citywide, just as nationwide, heart disease is the leading cause of death; in the District, it caused one in four fatalities in 1999.
But Fogan, 39, has made addressing problems in urban health his life's mission. After studying fitness and martial arts in China in the late 1980s, he formed Metro Wellness Institute, which provides CPR and health training to companies and conducts fitness boot camps.
Fogan says physical fitness is the best defense against heart disease, the leading cause of death for African American men and women. Despite some improvement over the past two decades, in 1998 the rate of death from heart disease was 30 percent higher for black adults than for whites, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The American Heart Association attributes the disparity to heredity and lifestyle -- including sedentary habits, the kind that don't sit well with Fogan.
But to Fogan's eyes, Bloomingdale's health wasn't the only thing that needed fixing.
When Fogan and his family moved to the community in 1998, they noticed that most residents kept to themselves, socializing very little. "It was a residential area, not a neighborhood," he says.
Fogan's solution: Practice tai chi on the sidewalk each morning in front of his rowhouse. When that caught neighbors' attention, he welcomed them to join him. They did. Then they joined the running club -- and kept with it, surprising even Fogan with their dedication.
"I'm shocked and amazed that people get up at 6 a.m. in the rain, people over 72 years old and who've had a stroke coming out there," he says.
What keeps people coming despite the hour and the weather? The physical results (more on that in a moment), the camaraderie and a little of what you might call group reinforcement.
"It's easy to get up because people motivate you," says Frances D. Hines Jr., a maintenance worker who's lived in Bloomingdale all of his 26 years. "You don't want to be the one that doesn't get up."
Sara Small, a 25-year-old who works in Fairfax County as a teacher, learned this the hard way. If she tries to sleep in, she says, "they are screaming your name outside, waking up the whole neighborhood."
Fogan adds variety to the running routine by injecting elements from his boot camp, such as bleacher climbs, push-ups and tai chi warm-ups.
After five months, Big Daddy is claiming results -- psychological and physical.
Hakimah Muhammad, a 39-year-old English teacher, travels 50 minutes from her Silver Spring home to experience that sense of community each Sunday. (She's one of the few club members who is not a Bloomingdale resident; after she attended his boot camp, Fogan invited her to join the running group.) "It's worth it," she says. "It's not just an athletic experience, it's a family experience. Darrell has the ability to make you enjoy working out. If feels more like fun than a chore."
It's an experience that has also yielded tangible results. Von Fogan has lost 40 pounds since December. Other core members have lost on average about 10 to 15 pounds. (This reporter, who is also a member of the club, has lost one dress size.)
The group expects even more positive results from a month-long fast it was scheduled to begin today -- no smoking, alcohol, sugar or fried or fatty foods until June 28.
Not all the reviews, however, have been glowing.
At least one neighbor has complained about the racket the club makes during its 6 a.m. runs, talking trash and telling off-color jokes accompanied by Von Fogan's infectious belly laugh. Club members shrug off the criticism, saying the banter helps them stay motivated and alert.
Then there's the group's sometimes-jarring appearance. At times, passersby can be forgiven for mistaking the club for a gang, especially in the days when one dog-phobic club member carried a stick and a chain for protection.
As the group charges through the neighborhood, prompting double takes by drivers and walkers, Darrell Fogan clearly relishes the attention.
On a recent run up North Capitol Street, a carful of onlookers stopped to ask what all the fuss was about. Fogan lagged behind the group to answer and issue his standard pitch: "Big Daddy Running Club," he yelled out. "Come and get some!"