Why do an Olympic track star and a Stanley Cup-winning defender for the Boston Bruins don neon and go meet a bunch of bartenders, moms, and yoga instructors at the crack of dawn? To hug them. Also, to stay in shape. For the past 19 months, a growing cadre of fitness buffs, including former 800-meter runner Nicole Teter-Downin and Bruin Andrew Ference, have been gathering at outdoor spots around Boston. On Mondays, they do push-ups and sit-ups in public parks; on Wednesdays, they sprint up the Harvard Stadium stairs; on Fridays, they run the city’s hills. Hundreds of people turn out, rain, snow, or shine, some of them in spray-painted clothes. The crew’s leader, a hulking six-foot-six former college rower named Brogan Graham, who prefers spandex, commands everyone to hug. Good vibes ensue. Then everyone in the crowd pumps their fists, screams “Fuck yeah!” and gets after it.
This is the November Project, an unsanctioned, grassroots fitness community organized through social media that is quickly catching the attention of prominent gear companies. Graham, 30, and Bojan Mandaric, 31, former members of Northeastern University’s crew team, tweet the workout locations a few nights before each session. Think of it as a fitness flash mob—CrossFit meets Critical Mass.
“It’s like a cult,” says marathoner Ian Nurse, a 35-year-old chiropractor who runs with the November Project every week, “in a positive way.” Graham, who makes his living as a marketing manager for a bike-share program, says, “It’s just hundreds of friends playing at 6:30 a.m.” He sees the project as both a serious fitness group and a rejection of anonymous, device-driven urban life. The core of what people want, he says, is not fitness but interaction: “We’re building community and accidentally getting fit.”
It may sound a little corny, but the huggers are onto something. Brogan and Mandaric recently launched an offshoot of the project in Madison, Wisconsin, and similar groups have emerged across the country, among them ParkRun, a nonprofit that organizes free weekly 5K races in Chicago and Houston; NYC Bridge Runners, a long-distance running community that trains twice a week; and Denver’s It Burns Joe Fitness, which hosts a free full-body, boot-camp-style workout three times a week at Red Rocks stadium. The November Project, though, seems to have the most traction. Recently, New Balance, Nike, and Reebok reached out to discuss partnerships with the group.
“With the state of the economy and our reliance on technology, millennials’ desire for community is heightened these days,” says Claire Wood, senior product manager at New Balance. “We’re desperate for it. The November Project provides fitness and helps erase loneliness simultaneously.” Besides, she notes, “these are potential lifelong New Balance customers.”
So far the partnerships have been few. In March, New Balance filmed a promo with the November Project and gave away shoes to participants in Madison and Boston who attended a certain number of workouts. But Graham and Mandaric want to take the group national, hoping to travel to five cities in the next year to train volunteers. They would also like to quit their day jobs—which would require money. “Grassroots only goes so far,” says Bern Prince, head coach at Reebok CrossFit in the Back Bay area of Boston, which partnered with the shoe brand to get on its feet. “You need a big company to make it appealing to everyone. That’s not selling out—that’s reaching more people.”
Graham and Mandaric don’t see it that way. “You can’t say grassroots and have it look and feel like a corporation,” says Graham. “The minute Nike or Reebok put their name on it, there’s going to be a little bit of a problem.” He also says the group will “never, ever” charge for its workouts. There’s an obvious tension between statements like this and partnerships like the one the November Project forged with New Balance—major gear companies, after all, don’t buddy up to startups out of charity. But the group is still finding its way. For now the plan is to keep adding tribe members through unconventional means. This winter, crazed followers took to the streets of Boston, using large stencils and power-wash machines to imprint the November Project logo onto sidewalks and buildings and plastering cars with fake parking tickets that read “#FREE #GRASSROOTS #RACINGFIT Fuck Yeah, November Project.”
“We would rather just have a bunch of ridiculous events and grow this thing until it’s insane than take money from anyone,” says Graham. “It sounds cocky, but we don’t need any help.”