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Crowd Sourced: How Running’s Social Subculture Exploded

The November Project and other socially focused running formats are exploding in popularity.

The November Project and other socially focused running formats are exploding in popularity, and turning out some top athletes in the process. The result? Running will never be the same.

Orrin Whalen is hugging everyone. He’s even giving me a hug—a big, tight, squeezy one, though we just met. The 22-year-old freelance art director is about to lead a 6:30 a.m. workout at the Hollywood Bowl, an outdoor amphitheater tucked into the hills not far from the world-famous Hollywood sign. But not before he and his workout co-leader, Angelo Neroni, 25, embrace nearly every crusty-eyed person walking toward the big tree by the parking lot. All 60-something of them.

“Before, we’d be here at 6:29 like ‘Where the f— is everyone?’” Neroni says, referring to seven months ago. That’s when they launched the Los Angeles chapter of the November Project alongside four other cities. Created in Boston in 2011 as a training pact between two friends, November Project is a booming fitness movement that now has “tribes” in 17 cities, and has been featured in Runner’s World, Boston Magazine and on NPR. As many as 700 people have come to a single workout. Each of these popular early-morning get-togethers is free and full of cussing and twentysomethings.

The workouts are a far cry from the typical storefront run; they’re not divided into pace groups, and nobody runs more than 600 meters continuously. By the end of the hour, nearly everyone at the L.A. session will have covered 1.5 hilly miles broken up with countless burpees, dips, bear crawls, jump squats and pushups, all on a short looped course that ends in a tunnel of cheering, high-fives, a positivity award and bear hugs. (“It’s about having an open heart,” Whalen says of the hugging.)

Such an untraditional and touchy-feely run workout like this one could be easily written off as a CrossFit-inspired fringe program with no chance of replacing traditional run clubs. But it’s really part of a larger movement; those huggy millenials driving November Project’s rapid growth are changing running culture forever—starting with a takedown of the word “runner.”

“We don’t like to put ourselves into a bucket of runners, or a bucket of CrossFitters, or a bucket of yogis,” says Bojan Mandaric, 33, co-founder of November Project. “We’re all across the board and I think that’s the future of the urban athlete.”

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Ask Mandaric how he thinks November Project is changing running, and he’ll say it’s through the group’s concept of community. “We’re establishing a sense of accountability,” Mandaric says. “When you say that you’ll meet someone on the corner to go for a run, if you bail then all of the sudden you’re the a—hole.” (You might also end up on NP’s ‘We Missed You’ page, an online forum for humorously shaming no-shows.)

The workout structure also builds that community. The circuit format makes it so “elite athletes run with people who’ve never run up a hill,” Whalen says. “No matter what level you’re on, you’re still connected. There’s no ‘Oh s—t! I’m slow,’ or ‘I’m the fastest!’”

That doesn’t make NP unique, however. Any runner will tell you track workouts are similar, with fast runners training alongside slower runners. And for more than three decades, running has been a social, community-oriented sport.

“There’s a book [published in 1959] called The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner,” says Mark Washburne, 58, president of the U.S. Running Streak Association. He’s run at least a mile every day for the past 25 years. “The joke is that it’s so last century. By the time I did a race in 1984, running was pretty much a social event.”

Hash running clubs, for instance, were growing in popularity throughout the 1970s and 1980s. A hash run was simply an excuse for club members to hang out and run for fun, following a random course set in flour or chalk or something similar by a member who ran ahead.

If the community aspect of NP isn’t revolutionary, perhaps something much more subtle is driving its popularity: its inclusiveness.

“We’re not putting a badass athlete up front,” Mandaric says. “It doesn’t matter how fast or slow you are, everyone’s a valuable member of the community and that’s how we’re going to present them.”

For example, when pro hockey player Andrew Ference started showing up at Boston NP workouts, Mandaric says “we didn’t give him more attention than someone who’s trying to train for their first 5K.”

Add that everyone-is-awesome philosophy to NP’s rejection of labels like “runner”—and the hugs—and you’ve got one very powerful, completely unintimidating gateway drug to, well, running. NP Los Angeles is certainly creating runners, even if the people who show up don’t refer to themselves that way.

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“I’m not really a runner, but I’m running a 5K this weekend!” says a man as he runs up a steep hill marked “Zee Beech” at the NP workout in Los Angeles.

“I don’t know, three miles?” Neroni says when I ask how far he ran to get to the workout. When I ask what he’s training for, he replies, with zero hint of snark: “I’m training for everything.”

The days when runners were prepping myopically for standard-distance races are ending. The new urban athletes like Neroni want to tackle everything and be ready to jump into anything. That just might include the traditional 5K, 10K, marathon and beyond, but their race calendars aren’t limited to those events.

“You see the explosion of color runs and zombie runs and themed events,” says Rich Harshbarger, president of industry trend tracking non-profit Running USA. “There’s a culture of wanting to be a part of something fun, something that’s unique.”

That doesn’t mean that this new wave of runners will destroy amateur competitive running with a love of strange events and unfocused preparation. Au contraire, these urban athletes are true competitors. Case in point: When November Project groups from around the country participated in this year’s North Face Endurance Challenge marathon relay in Madison, Wis., they swept the top six spots.

“When we go to race day, it’s f—ing race day,” Whalen says. The group workouts have trained these guys to race—not by pace, but by feel. “Just find who you’re fast with and push each other,” Whalen says. Two weeks ago, he qualified for Boston at the Ventura Marathon with a 3:00:35.

“When I ran the marathon, I wore a watch,” Whalen says. “But all of training, didn’t wear a watch at all.”

That pure running experience this group seeks extends to a rejection of headphones. “You’re separating yourself from the community” with them on, Whalen says. “I don’t even use them running alone because—and this sounds really f—ing cheesy—the sound of your own breath and the feel of your heart beating is really f—ing cool. And you’ll hear different s—t too!”

Of course in this society, it’s legally risky to get a large group of people together to do anything, even if they just want to hug and run and listen to their own hearts beat. At the very least, somebody must help unpaid group leaders like Whalen and Neroni navigate liability insurance. Right now that task is up to Mandaric and his co-founder, Brogan Graham, 31, neither of whom currently make money off of November Project.

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“We’re looking for some local partnerships to continue to do what we’re doing,” Mandaric says. “But we don’t want to tie ourselves to a specific brand. Every time you put a brand name next to your own, it’s not as genuine, especially because we’re not selling our service. The beauty of the grassroots fitness movement is there are no sponsorships.”

In every respect, November Project and its devotees are a throwback to a stripped-down, pure version of the sport; one where the training group isn’t affiliated with any store or product, and people show up to run simply because they enjoy it and want to share that joy with others. (And November Project makes it easy to share; just before everyone leaves the Hollywood Bowl, Whalen and Neroni hand out hundreds of circular pieces of paper stamped with #NP_LAX workout details, then urge everyone to “make a connection with a stranger” and hand him or her this token.)

Perhaps the only thing really new about this new wave of “urban athletes” who run 5Ks and marathons and relay races, train in untraditional ways, love to race, hug and eschew any kind of membership dues is how unintimidating and welcoming they are. There’s no doubt this burgeoning culture of acceptance is influencing other running movements, like beer and happy-hour runs. If November Project is a glimpse into the future of running, the future looks promising.

“We’re not just a gateway drug to running,” NP L.A. member Marilyn Nguyen says. “We’re a gateway drug to being happy.”