At 6:17 on a Wednesday morning, Gold Medal Park in Minneapolis was empty, dark and sliced through by a bone-rattling breeze. By 6:29, there appeared to be a rave going on at the top of the hill. People in odd combinations of outerwear — shorts and a down jacket, four or five shirts layered, neon Lycra and plaid flannel — bounced in tight formation, shoulder to shoulder, like an excited amoeba. Still bouncing, they clasped hands with their neighbor, and dispersed, twosomes hurtling down the hill and around Gold Medal Park, laughing.
Running around outside until your head gets all sweaty and making friends, normally the bailiwick of the playground, has been co-opted with quite a bit of success by the November Project. This free fitness group meets year-round outdoors at 6:27 a.m., regardless of weather. And meaningfully, you don’t sign up — you show up. Like the playground, November Project’s appeal is its old-school authenticity — the workout is heart-thumpingly real, the springtime grass and the 10-degree windchill are real, the friendships are real.
Brogan Graham and Bojan Mandaric, two crewing athletes living in Boston, made a pact to work out every day in November 2011 as a way to jump-start their fitness through the winter months. That was the birth of the November Project. There are now tribes, as participants call them, in 48 cities across the United States, Canada, Asia and Europe.
Having experienced November Project in Madison, Wis., friends Ben Bauch and Holly Krajnik hatched November Project Minneapolis with a Facebook post in January 2014. Now, Bauch, 26, and co-leader Natalie Heneghan, 25, of St. Paul bring a boom box, a poster-sized handwritten roster, attendance stickers, and six kinds of energy Wednesdays to Gold Medal Park and, currently, alternating locations Fridays That’s apparently all it takes to get somewhere between 30 and 60 people outdoors and moving at dark-thirty in the morning.
Well, there is one more thing — the very active, very real November Project community. Almost the entire group adjourned after the workout to nearby Open Book for coffee, where we asked some devoted tribe members what got them out of bed that cold Wednesday morning.
Lives in: Maple Grove
Day job: Fairview Health Services marketing
November Project participation: three years
Why: “A friend of mine told me about November Project. I had been running with other groups, but they were somewhat competitive. I was looking for something new, something different. Immediately, I liked the positivity of this tribe. It was super challenging, but because everything is circular it doesn’t matter if you’re fast or slow. You can’t even tell who is ahead. I couldn’t believe how embracing everyone was. I do a lot of stuff outside of the workout with these people — bike rides, parties. Some of them had a Friendsgiving.”
Lives in: Minneapolis
Day job: manages logistics for tea importer
Participation: one year
Why: “One morning I was running and saw these people working out by the river. It looked fun, so the next week I tried it out. It’s a cool way to experience the city, going to the Hennepin Bridge or over in St. Paul. But the biggest thing is the community. No matter what level you’re at, they’re so encouraging. Even people with injuries come to the workout just to be with this community. Sometimes it’s hard to make friends after college — you hear that from young people. What was different about this group is that not everyone is young. Something else that stuck with me is their hashtag: #freefitness. You don’t need to sign up for some expensive program — you can just show up. Everyone’s there no matter what kind of weather. People are going to be running that hill, so there’s that accountability.”
Lives in: St. Paul
Day job: biostatistician, University of Minnesota
Participation: four years
Why: “I heard the buzz about the original Boston tribe and wished we had one here. Two weeks later I found out we did! The first time I came, the workout was so tough, I was literally shaking by the end. They gave me the positivity award, I think, as a way to get me to come back. I came originally for the zany workouts — it’s like adult recess, it’s play — but I kept coming back for the community. You know the first question at a cocktail party: ‘What do you do?’ Nobody at November Project has ever asked me what I do. They’re more interested in me as a person. They’re very social, very accepting. The typical age barriers and stratifications don’t seem to be present. For me, the community piece has become the most important. I mean, the workouts are great and as serious as you want to make them, but this is a really different way of connecting with people. At my stage of life, you tend to not meet many different people — life is pretty stratified and the few contacts you have are your age and socioeconomic class. Here, I’ve met so many people that I wouldn’t have ordinarily.”
Lives in: Minneapolis
Day job: Paralegal
Participation: four years
Why: “A friend bugged me to come, so I did. The group helps you be accountable — to know they’re going to be out there every Wednesday and Friday helps me get through the winter — but the biggest thing for me is the community. You come for the workout and stay for the community. Fitness groups are often intimidating at first; November Project felt different. It was so inviting and welcoming, it was easy to come back. And I’ve made lifelong friends. There’s a social page [Facebook]. People will just say, ‘I’m going to this pub’ or ‘I’m going on a bike ride. Who wants to come?’ We do a lot of things together outside of this workout. Now I’m evangelical [about November Project]. People will say, ‘I’m too old. I’m too fat. I’m too slow.’ But it’s really true — you can just show up as you are. It’s a hard workout, but it’s not competitive at all, and Ben and Natalie always provide modifications. Once you start, you don’t not come. I’m injured right now, but I showed up.”
Lives in: Minneapolis
Day job: Director of education, Bakken Museum
Participation: two years
Why: “I’ve worked out a lot over the years — I’m a certified personal trainer — and I was feeling stale. I’m a competitive white-water canoeist so, yeah, that’s challenging living in Minnesota. I was looking for a way to stay active in the winter. Some friends in Washington, D.C., and New York saw that there was a November Project in Minneapolis and said I had to go. So I did. I was hooked in the first five minutes. It was super dark and cold, they put on a Muppets song, and we were doing pushups in time to this Muppets song. A bunch of adults laughing and doing pushups in the dark with mittens on. Also, on that first day, people made a point to learn my name and to really connect. That was profound. Maybe my favorite thing is that winter doesn’t faze me anymore. I used to hibernate, but now I realize that you just put on some layers and get out there and you can enjoy it. There’s no reason not to get outside.”
Sarah Barker is a freelance writer from St. Paul.