Technique really matters to the dedicated Washingtonians who work out with the November Project, a free run club and boot camp — when it comes to hugging, that is.
“Your hips have to be in,” instructs Janeen Porche, 37. “No church-lady hugs,” adds pal Traci Johnson, 46, demonstrating the off-limits style by sticking out her rear end and gently tapping Porche on the shoulders.
And don’t even think about extending an arm instead, explains the always-smiling Kyle White, 29: “We don’t believe in handshakes.”
What they do believe in is the grass-roots movement started in 2011 in Boston by Brogan Graham and Bojan Mandaric, two former Northeastern University rowers who made a pact to exercise together throughout the month of November (hence the name). When friends — and, eventually, strangers — began to join them as they ran the stairs of Harvard Stadium, they decided they didn’t just want to get stronger and faster. They had a new goal.
“We want to change the way people see fitness,” Mandaric says.
They welcomed people of all athletic abilities to their workouts. All they demanded in return was that folks be ready to sweat and socialize. Within a few months, hundreds had taken them up on the offer, and interest bubbled up in exporting the program to other cities.
One of these offshoots — called “tribes,” in November Project parlance — launched in the District last year under the guidance of Danny Metcalf and Steve Christensen.
“It was clear this was something I would love. Nothing like it exists,” says Metcalf, a proud goofball and Ironman triathlete who’d heard about the November Project from friends. Christensen had just moved from Boston, where he’d trained with the founders, and recognized the potential for another “weird and positive” community.
Prospective leaders “pledge” to show their commitment before they’re allowed to use the November Project name. So the first D.C. gathering last September was just a handful of people running the stairs of the Lincoln Memorial at 6:30 a.m. on a Wednesday.
“There were four of us,” recalls Kathleen Hodge, Metcalf’s roommate and his business partner in a line of nutrition bars they produce at Union Kitchen. Over the next month, they went to bed every Tuesday night asking one another, “Think anybody will come tomorrow?”
Each week, more people did. The leaders experimented on them with various break-the-ice activities.
One of Metcalf’s greatest discoveries? “When I tell people to tickle under each other’s chins, they do it,” he says.
At many other free fitness groups in the area, it’s possible to show up and not feel as though you’ve actually met anyone, Christensen says. At the November Project, a workout without a personal connection is a failure, no matter how many calories you burn.
The nature of what they do promotes that attitude, Metcalf adds. In a traditional fun run, people break off into pace groups, so someone who can dash a seven-minute-mile won’t see much of the 10-minute-milers. Fall to the back of the pack and you might end up completely on your own.
Because November Project workouts keep participants together in the same space, there’s constant interaction. “So someone like me can get a quality workout with all of my best friends. I just run extra sets,” Metcalf says.
By late October, Metcalf and Christensen had earned official tribe status. It was just in time to earn a mention in a Runner’s World cover story about the November Project. The piece chronicled the meteoric rise of the Boston workouts, which were by then attracting up to 650 people — a mix of Olympians, ex-college athletes and recent couch potatoes.
That publicity boost brought more people to the D.C. workouts. The quirky culture that had formed kept them coming despite the most miserable winter in recent memory.
“In negative-8 wind chill, when you’re doing burpees, you really bond,” says White, the handshake opponent. “The type of people who do this are the type of people I want to hang out with.”
They keep getting more quality time together as workouts are added to the schedule. The current lineup: Mondays at 6:30 a.m. at Meridian Hill Park, Wednesdays at 5:30 a.m. and 6:30 a.m. at the Lincoln Memorial, and Fridays at 6:30a.m. in a different spot each week. The group also holds special events, such as last month’s Better Than Bedtime, a costumed 5K held simultaneously in all of the November Project cities. (There are now 17 tribes, including one in Baltimore. The District tribe, which attracts up to 350 folks for workouts, is second in size behind Boston’s.)
This rapid growth has turned the November Project from a weekly habit into something more serious.
“I believe the word she used was ‘cult,’ ” said Jeff Greenstein, 27, as he and his girlfriend, Emily Schwartz, 24, reached the finish line for Better Than Bedtime, which ended at a U Street bar. She’d persuaded him to give the November Project a try, and from the looks of the couple — dressed as a pair of Angry Birds — they were now equally hooked. “We’ve done 20 workouts in a row,” Greenstein boasted.
To understand what inspires this devotion, imagine the scene at the Lincoln Memorial on a recent Wednesday morning. It’s just before 6:30 a.m., and the sun is struggling to get up. The hordes arriving, however, look wide awake, especially as they form a tight circle and start hopping. They go through a shouting call-and-response routine. They spin around, bop their neighbors on their heads and then interlock fingers with a partner, make eye contact and whisper, “Connection.”
They’ve been told to wear either blue or gray today because they’re marking the anniversary of the official end of the Civil War with a themed workout. Their shirt color determines their team. Each person is supposed to run the stairs of the memorial eight times (because it’s August), do 20 burpees (because it’s the 20th day of the month) and take a lap around Lincoln (because that’s approximately 2,014 feet). Finish early? You can do stairs or burpees or take over a struggling teammate’s lap around Lincoln (or join in).
And they’re off. And they’re happy about it.
“This is the best workout and the best time. I used to wake up early to work out on my own and dread it,” says Stephanie Cencula, 27, who lives in Dupont Circle. Four months into her time with November Project, she still looks forward to hitting the stairs. “It doesn’t get easier, but you expect how hard it is,” she adds.
Cencula, like several other folks out this morning, is on her second workout of the day. It’s possible to do both Wednesday sessions — as long as you’re still standing. Christina Lopez, 26, of Cleveland Park says she does doubles because it’s the only way to see all of her November Project friends. (Lopez has come a long way since February, when she was so out of shape that couldn’t do a single pushup.)
Christensen dashes around, offering high-fives and admiring the view of the Washington Monument against a purplish-blue sky. “It’s the best way to start the morning in D.C.,” he says. It would be a perfect day, if only Metcalf were here, too.
His co-leader is in Portland, Ore., for surgery to remove a brain tumor. With Metcalf out for a month, various members of the tribe have pitched in as “Danny of the Day.”
Keith Ives, 29, who has the role this morning, remembers that at his first November Project workout in December, Metcalf had introduced him to the term “race everything,” and encouraged him to push himself. He’s taking that message to heart, cheering on both teams to finish up so they can get to the next activities he’s planned.
“We’re going to line up, blue facing gray,” he shouts. Then they partner up for squats, high-five pushups, a plank exercise (one person holds the position for a minute, while the other hops over his or her legs), and, of course, hugs.
The crowds storm the stairs one final time, and they take a seat for the presentation of the positivity award. A piece of an old oar is frequently bestowed upon a tribe member who exemplifies the November Project spirit. Today’s winner is Solo Kwon, 39, of Centreville, who delivers a stirring acceptance speech: “Each and every one of you inspires me. I’m in the best shape I’ve ever been in because of you.”
Want to join the tribe?
The November Project glossary:
The November Project’s favorite hashtag is #justshowup. But learning this lingo will help you understand what the heck is going on at a workout.
Grass-Roots Gear: November Project shirts aren’t bought. They’re earned. If you go to a workout, you’re entitled to bring an article of clothing to be spray-painted with both a “Nov3mb3r Proj3ct” stencil and one depicting the local tribe’s symbol. In the District, that’s a picture of the Lincoln Memorial. Painting happens on Mondays at Meridian Hill Park while folks exercise.
Lincoln Log: That’s one run of the Lincoln Memorial steps, starting at the reflecting pool, reaching the top and then heading back down. On PR Day, the last Wednesday of the month, members do 17 (or 13) for time.
Spice: Although running is the basis of both the Monday and Wednesday workouts, participants have to perform other exercises, too. These moves, such as burpees, planks, hip raises and push-ups, are the “spice.” The Friday workouts are all spice.
Verbal: Did you tell a friend that you’d come to a workout? Or mention it on Facebook? That’s a verbal, and it’s a commitment that the November Project takes seriously. Anyone who “breaks” a verbal is fair game for a “We Missed You” post on social media involving embarrassing photos. To “dverbal,” short for a double verbal, means someone is doing both of the Wednesday morning workouts back-to-back.
Weatherproof: There’s no such thing as a snow day at the November Project. Participants meet rain or shine or polar vortex.
It’s time to snap the group photo. There are two rules: You need to have a straight face (no smiling!) and a straight back. The resulting image is a powerful one, with Lincoln sitting in the same iconic pose in the background. The plan is to post it on social media sites, where it will motivate even more people to come next time.
Part of what’s fueled November Project growth is FOMO — or, fear of missing out, says Chris Cantergiani, 45, of Bethesda. He’s the D.C. tribe’s unofficial photographer, known for his talent for capturing folks mid-stride with grins on their faces. “You see this stuff on Facebook, and you want to do it, too,” he says.
Mandaric and Graham envision a future where everyone everywhere can participate. They just need to figure out how to continue to build a brand based on the idea that no money changes hands, no names are ever collected and the only commitment people make is their word.
Good thing they’re used to going up hills.
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