Long before sunrise, before the perspiration, comes the inspiration: a quick pep talk to stair climbers in the dark, cool, concrete stands of Harvard Stadium.
“I need you to give out exactly seven bear hugs to the people around you,” barks the November Project drillmaster to more than a hundred stair climbers at 5:30 a.m. on a recent Wednesday.
The morning’s goal is to climb up and down half the stadium’s 31 rows, circle back under the stands, then repeat three times.
It’s hard to get out of bed while it is still pitch dark, but a surprising number of Bostonians do just that. They get their workouts done before the rising sun kisses the top of the John Hancock Tower.
At Harvard Stadium, some wear headlamps or point cellphones at their feet to illuminate the stairs.
Newcomers to this free national fitness movement that started in Boston in 2011 are welcomed with open arms (including the one who says his only previous experience at something like this was a 12-step program).
“Love the 5:30 newbies,” says the group leader. “Follow along and you’ll probably be OK.”
“It’s a wicked workout,” says Adam Sogoloff, a wine and spirits executive who easily beats the traffic into the city from Marblehead. “The camaraderie keeps you coming back. It’s a great group of people, all ages and fitness levels.”
Grace Ramey is a Belmont High School senior who arises at 4:45 a.m. to get here. She says she gets energy from the others.
“It gets really hard in the middle and you want to quit,” she says, “but if you stop for, like, two seconds, people will come by and say, ‘Come on, you got this, keep going.’ So that’s helpful.”
But this isn’t the only place in town for early exercise.
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On a Thursday, everyone who arrives at 6 a.m. at the Institute of Contemporary Art also gets a hug. The event here, known as the Daybreaker, starts with an hour of yoga, then morphs into a Monster Mash dance party. The philosophy here is, “Instead of the gym, we hit the dance floor.”
“I’m a yoga teacher,” says Izzy VanHall, who stands on her head and watches dawn invade the Seaport. “I love the idea of waking up to movement and connecting with other people and listening to good music and being playful. All that stuff we need more of.”
Sarah Somogie, a doctorate student in psychology who dresses in pink Halloween pajamas, agrees.
“It’s calming to any anxiety that you have,” says Somogie. “Let loose, be a kid again. Why not?”
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On Friday morning at 5:15 a.m., the flashlight beams of joggers bob up and down on the sidewalks off Memorial Drive. The river is inky black, with the exception of green lights gliding across the river to the soothing sound of many oars slicing into the Charles River as one.
“I think one of the beautiful parts of rowing is when you’re able to row while the city is still quiet behind you,” says Melisa Ongun, the University of Washington assistant rowing coach.
“Yes, it’s definitely hard to get up while it’s still dark. [But] there’s no better way to start the day than experiencing the majesty of the boat rowing so fluidly beneath you on calm, flat water at 5:30 in the morning.”
When the racing is over, Ongun gets a huge hug from another rower. There’s definitely a pattern here. Hugs are healthy, says Ongun.
“I mean, humans are social creatures,” she says, “so anytime you can get a hug, it releases endorphins, so that is good.’’
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Doing good is also a motivation for early risers. On a recent Sunday at 4:21 a.m. at Adams Field in Quincy, Walter Bentson greets old friends who arrive to support the Angel Fund with a hug.
Bentson, 63, a survivor of primary lateral sclerosis, has helped raise more than $700,000 to fight ALS with his “100 Innings of Baseball” game, now in its 14th year. Bentson even umpires behind the plate for three hitters.
One player, Nick Rotolo, a psychologist, says the participants are “a little bit crazy” to play all night and all day, but it’s well worth it.
“This is the best two days of my life,” he says.
Stan Grossfeld can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.