In the pre-dawn chill
at Harvard Stadium, nearly 100 groggy fitness enthusiasts look up when a voice bellows: “Turn to the person next to you and give them a hug.”
Members of the crowd, many sporting bed heads and unshaven faces, dutifully turn and hug their neighbors. Then they begin a grueling workout of running up and down scores of stadium steps for the next hour.
Hundreds of locals are turning out three times a week at 6:30 a.m. to hug and socialize before running stadium steps, sprinting up hills, or knocking out a muscle-searing series of sit-ups and push-ups. The group is called the November Project, and the organizers liken it a “grassroots morning workout tribe.” There’s no instructor, no pressure, and members heartily cheer each other on. It’s not about winning, it’s about participating.
The fledgling fitness group is free and open to all ages, but most participants are in their 20s and early 30s, which is fitting, say experts who study the generation, known as Gen Y or Millennials. Could it be that the every-kid-gets-a-trophy ethos they grew up with is becoming part of adult culture?
“This is so totally Millennial and so different from how every other generation dealt with exercise,” says Michael Hais, coauthor of the book “Millennial Momentum.” “There is group support, it’s free, there are positivity awards. It’s got everything a Millennial is looking for.”
That wasn’t the intention of founders Brogan Graham, 29, and Bojan Mandaric, 31, when they started the November Project last November (hence the name). The former Northeastern University rowing team buddies simply wanted to motivate each other to work out through the winter. But in April, when they started inviting others to join them for their Wednesday morning workouts at Harvard Stadium, the numbers started multiplying. They have since added Monday and Friday workouts around the city, occasionally drawing as many as 300 athletes. Since spring, approximately 2,000 people have trained with the group.
“It’s just one of those things that we didn’t expect to blow up,” says Mandaric, a Web technology specialist. “It was all word-of-mouth and social media. But now you have all of these people coming out. You have someone from the Boston Bruins working out next to a dude who suddenly gets off the couch because he wants to get fit. Nowhere else do you see that mix.”
It’s a go-at-your-own-pace environment with a strong athletic core, and thanks to Facebook, Twitter, and the project’s blog, it’s evolved into a community of people who have struck up friendships and regularly socialize. There is a weekly award for the person who best exemplifies group spirit. On Nov. 1, the group celebrated its one-year anniversary with a twist on the famous running of the bulls. They called it “the running of the bowls” through the alleys of the Back Bay and asked participants to dress in white and carry bowls.
“It sounds cheesy, but it’s rare to see something uplifting like this,” says Claire Wood, 30. “It’s helped me feel more open-minded. To see these 30-year-old guys being encouraging and inspiring is a lot of fun.”
Wood, a senior product manager in the running division of New Balance, and a few of her colleagues who participate in the group were so excited about the November Project that they gave away free sneakers to members who showed up for six or more workouts in July.
New Balance isn't the only brand that sees the November Project as a way to reach new customers. Puma is giving away merchandise to group members this month. Meanwhile, Graham and Mandaric are looking to trademark the name and expand into other cities. They are still working out a business model, but they would eventually like to turn their feel-good exercise regimen into a business with the help of investors or corporate sponsors.
It may be a difficult to replicate the November Project in other cities. Many participants say its success is based on the combination of Graham’s bigger-than-life personality and Mandaric’s thoughtful friendliness.
“Part of why people do this is Brogan’s personality,” says Ashley Shaffer, 27, a brand designer at IDEO in Cambridge. “It’s the confidence he’s putting out there. He believes in everything he’s doing 100 percent. You see that, and it’s inspiring.”
Graham, a marketing manager for the Hubway bike-share program, says his motivation for founding the group with Mandaric was not purely for training purposes. He ran in many races and trained by himself, but was looking for like-minded runners in Boston.
“I moved here from Wisconsin,” Graham says. “I’m a friendly and outgoing guy and I was turned off because Boston wasn’t friendly. . . . I’m a hugger. So now at the November Project I say, ‘Turn to the person next to you and hug them.’ I want people talking to each other.”
That desire to turn exercise into a group activity is part of why the November Project has become a hit with young fitness fans, says Seth Mattison, a speaker and writer on Gen Y.
“We grew up doing everything in teams,” Mattison says. “When it comes to fitness, the last thing this generation wants to do is jump on a lonely treadmill and pound out five miles by themselves.”
That’s not to dismiss the social appeal of the gatherings. Young professionals meet people with similar interests. Graham says he fell in love with his girlfriend while training with November Project.
But the real draw seems to be the support the athletes say they get.
“It’s funny, because I should hate this,” says Patrick Burke, a 29-year-old law student. “I’m not a morning person, and I’m not big fan of ‘We’re all going to be friends and encourage each other.’ But it’s gotten to the point where I can’t wait to get out of bed and do this in the morning.”