On a hot Saturday morning, about 20 men and two women gather at a small park at 23rd and P streets in Northwest Washington. They’re here, just as they are every week, for a “fun run” through an unshaded stretch of Rock Creek Park. Many are already sweating as they warm up, but the heat doesn’t stop them.
They’ve run through worse.
For three decades, members of the DC Front Runners — the local outpost of a global running club for gay people and straight people who like gay people, according to longtime member J. Ford Huffman — have run through heat, humidity, rain and snow.
They’ve run through the devastation of HIV/AIDS.
On Saturday, they’ll celebrate the club’s founding with a gala event. DCFR — one of dozens of chapters created worldwide since 1974 — was founded in the summer of 1981 after a couple of local runners began cold-calling numbers they’d culled from a 5K race roster during a gay pride weekend.
“A lot of people weren’t ‘out’ at the time, and they were freaked out” when they got the call, recalls member Marcel Acosta.
The club’s creation was “a new, dangerous thing to be doing,” says Brian Beary, the club’s archivist. “People could lose their jobs for being gay, and not just the military guys — everyone was at risk.”
As a result, last names were never printed in the club’s newsletter, and some runners ducked out of the usual photo ops after races.
But for many, DCFR became a refuge of sorts, a healthy alternative to other social options for gays in Washington. “People saw it as a safe place,” Beary says. “A place beyond the bars.”
But within the first year, the DCFR safety net suddenly grew slack.
In 1981, cases of a bewildering new disease began emerging in Los Angeles and other cities. By 1982, it had a name — acquired immune deficiency syndrome. AIDS.
Because of its initial prevalence among gay men, AIDS was called “gay-related immune deficiency” and “gay cancer” by some.
“People were afraid,” says Acosta, who was a member of the Chicago Front Runners before moving to Washington in 2001. “Members were dying, and no one knew why. You’d be running next to these strong runners week after week. Then they’d waste away, and then they’d die.”
About 15 DCFR members have died because of AIDS, Beary says.
Members organized “pledge runs” to raise funds for local charities and health organizations, crafted an AIDS quilt panel in 1987, and planted a memorial grove of trees in Rock Creek Park.
“It’s shocking that this was only 20, 25 years ago,” Beary says. “It’s hard to imagine how frightening it must have been.”
Despite the anxiety, the group never stopped running.
An attitude of “friendly competition,” Huffman says, extended into training runs, which have always been open to anyone who wants to join — man or woman, gay or straight, runner or walker.
“I started as a walker,” Huffman says. “When I joined 17 years ago, I’d never run before in my life.” Huffman was dedicated, even volunteering as the club’s walking coordinator. But the running itch got the best of him.
“There’s nothing like a brisk four-mile walk,” he says, “but I wondered what it would be like to run that distance.”
Afraid of “peer pressure and failing,” Huffman kept his running a secret from the other club members. In a twist of irony not lost on Huffman, he injured himself on a two-mile jaunt. When he finally “came out” as a runner, the Front Runners “embraced me with open arms.”
Huffman is now preparing for his 34th full marathon, the Marine Corps Marathon on Oct. 30.
“The camaraderie and support I got from Front Runners made the difference,” Huffman says. “I came to recognize that running, for me, is a miracle.
“In high school and college gym class, gay people weren’t supposed to participate,” he says. “And if we did, we’d be made fun of. Front Runners is an athletic club for anyone with any ability.”
Beary, a solo runner when he joined DC Front Runners after moving to Washington from Dublin in 2006, has added 10 marathons to his résuméand has developed an enviable penchant for long, hilly runs.
But for many, the running club today serves as much of a social purpose as it does an athletic one.
“I ran on my own for years,” says Blake Rushin, an Alabama native who is the club’s women’s outreach coordinator. “Then I met people who were members, and I became very interested in the social aspect.”
Rushin, who is training for the Army Ten-Miler next month and throws the word “marathon” around like it’s no big deal, doesn’t remember many of the specifics of her first run with the group — only that “it was cold, and I was nervous.” Crossing the street into the little park at 23rd and P streets NW on a chilly morning more than a decade ago, she quickly realized that she had no reason to be. “Now they are an important part of my life,” she says of the Front Runners. “They’re an important part of my social circle.”
Thirty years later, Beary says, “we don’t have the same issues we had then.” Younger members “are able to take it for granted — and that’s a good thing. But at the same time, we shouldn’t forget where we came from.”
To that end, Beary and Acosta co-produced a documentary about the Front Runners and gay life in the District that they plan to screen at Saturday’s celebration, which will be held at Hotel Palomar.
“I hope that 30 years from now, DCFR will be as vibrant as it is today,” Beary says. “I believe there will still be a need for it. Gay life has been ‘mainstreamized,’ but gay people still have something to share with each other.”
Even something as simple as a morning run.
“When we make that turn at the beginning of the run, off P Street and into Rock Creek Park, I love to look up and down around that curve at all the other runners,” Huffman says. “I can’t tell you how wonderful it was to see that when I was beginning with the club and to think, ‘These are gay people.’ Gay people are athletic. Gay people are not to be hidden. Gay people are like everyone else.”