It's 5:15 a.m., and I'm headed to my first November Project workout at the foot of Denver's Capitol building steps -- the "#DestinationDeck." I function so poorly in the morning, both physically and mentally, that I'm sucking down coffee on my drive to avoid making a fatal mistake.
While I could sleep until 8 a.m. and lie in my warm bed reading the "November Project: The Book," which came out Tuesday, I've been told I must experience an NP workout in order to truly understand the community.
Having sensed my disdain for early morning anything, Denver leader Molly Thayer, 26, tells me: "Nobody is a morning person. I'll buy you breakfast if you regret coming." An invitation to breakfast with a complete stranger leads me to "drop a verbal," in NP parlance. "I'll be there," I tell Thayer.
The night before the workout, I get a friendly text reminder from Denver co-leader Dan Berteletti. The November Project is founded on accountability. Even its lingo is counter to our cultural commitment phobia where cancelling can be done in one simple disengaged text. If you "break a verbal," you might find your face on the NP "We missed you" page.
I'm intrigued by how quickly this grassroots, free exercise movement has spread across the country in just a little over five years. Originally started in Boston as an early morning accountability and progress tracking agreement between founders Bojan Mandaric and Brogan Graham, two Northeastern crew teammates, the November Project now has "tribes" in 30 cities across the U.S., Canada, Serbia and Iceland.
What other group offers free "balls to the wall" (as I was later instructed during the circuit) workouts using your city as your gym (stair climbs, park push-ups and partner core work, hill sprints, and the occasional use of a costume prop) led by uber-enthusiastic individuals voluntarily leading their community before the sun rises two to three times a week, 365 days a year? Although born in colonial Boston, the November Project sounds completely counter to our American competitive capitalistic model. There's no hidden incentive for these leaders; they aren't promoting a business. Like others in their NP "tribe" they all have day jobs to get to after the workout.
Laura McCloskey, a 30-year-old physical therapist, is the first woman to start and lead an NP group. Her tribe in San Francisco was the third NP to be "inducted." Like many of the original leaders, track and field athlete McCloskey is connected to the NP project as an alumna of Northeastern University where she met Brogan and Bojan.
McCloskey first became enamored with the group after witnessing its collective generosity. During a trip to Uganda, where she was helping a friend build a triage center in a small village, McCloskey organized a mile race at the local school and asked for shoe donations for the event. Before she departed, NP Boston tribe members sent her hundreds of shoes in response to a single post on its Facebook page. "This was an epiphany -- the response revealed the power of this community," McCloskey said. She decided to start and lead a tribe in San Francisco that, in three years, has grown to more than 150 participants. With regards to the first NP book she says, "We are excited to share our story with a new demographic. We used to joke about world takeover, but this book shows us it just may be possible."
McCloskey described how NP serves our increasing desire for facetime as technology becomes more and more dominant in our daily lives. "We hug, let our guard down for an hour, make eye contact, and tell each other, 'I'm glad you're here!' And we mean it." I learned this firsthand when I extended my hand at my first NP workout and was given a big warm sweaty hug in return.
The transient and increasingly mobile nature of city dwellers makes the instant community aspect of NP appealing to transplants. When Molly Thayer (my NP leader) moved to Denver for medical school from her hometown of Boston almost three years ago, NP was the familiar family she needed to adjust. She had joined the Boston tribe her senior year in college, just a few months before relocating to Denver. "People return to NP because they leave a workout feeling more connected to their community -- not because their butts are getting tighter," McCloskey says.
The community runs deep -- like family roots deep. Jen Ference, a 38-year-old teacher, joined her brother Andrew (a Boston NP alum and now Oilers player) in leading the NP tribe he started in their hometown of Edmonton. Despite their harsh winters (minus-20 F), Ference says she and her co-lead Nadim Chin still have 100-150 participants. Unlike team sports, Ference explains, NP is not seasonal and there are no levels or specific skills required. "Lots of people pay for a gym membership and never show-up. But because in NP people are forced to interact, accountability naturally develops."
In many ways, NP serves as a surrogate family -- something a gym could never do. One Christmas morning, Jen Ference and Andrew Ference welcomed two newbies who came for the community on a day when they couldn't be with their family.
For co-founder of the San Diego tribe, Ashleigh Voychick, 30, NP is a family affair too. Voychick is often joined by her husband, brother, father, 67, and seven-month pregnant sister-in-law for the bi-weekly workouts she leads. Voychick and her two Northeastern physical therapy classmates, Jessie Craik and Lauren Padula, were the first all-female led tribe. Voychick admits that while she and her co-leaders (Craik now replaced by Padula's boyfriend Angelo Neroni) provide a nurturing environment, they can also deliver a mean workout. "Men wondered if we could dish the workout when we began." With over 100 consistent participants (close to 50/50 men and women), they proved they could.
My 6:15 workout ends at 7 a.m. sharp with a seated gathering on the Capitol steps, a few more affirmative hugs with complete strangers and the passing on of the "positivity award" -- a "Denver" engraved oar handle (symbolic of NP's roots). I walk to my car both uplifted and confused. I feel I just attended a boot-camp (without the pressure), a hybrid sorority-fraternity function (without the exclusivity) and a spiritual revival (without the expectation to convert) all rolled into one.
No regrets, so no breakfast on Thayer's dime -- but I'll be back.