What started 4 years ago as a simple monthlong workout pact between two former Northeastern University oarsmen in Boston has grown into an international fitness phenomenon. November Project espouses free, public, all-weather, outdoor group sweats that turn strangers into friends and connect everyone to the city in which they live. It’s been described as everything from flashmob fitness to “the fight club of running clubs” and a cult. But November Project prides itself on defying categories.
In November Project: The Book, Brogan Graham (a.k.a. BG) and Bojan Mandaric, in their own spicy, big-hearted words, chronicle, along with tribe member and writer Caleb Daniloff, their fitness movement’s genesis, evolution, operations, membership, “secret sauce,” and future—and along the way, show you how you can get fit and societally engaged. The book also includes illustrated workouts; the keys to meaningful civic engagement; information on using your city as a gym; advice on starting an NP tribe; tips on growing, sustaining, and invigorating membership through social media; and thoughts on the collective power of community.
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About the Author
Caleb Daniloff is a contributing editor to Runner’s World magazine and the author of Running Ransom Road, a memoir. His work has appeared in numerous outlets, and he has received multiple awards, including a nomination for a Pushcart Prize.
Read an Excerpt
Maria Cesca wasn't sure this was such a good idea. Her husband and sons thought she was nuts. Her flight had landed late the night before and she was rolling on 3 hours of sleep. But here she was, at 5:45 a.m., shivering and bleary-eyed in a deserted bus stop at the corner of Harvard Street and Commonwealth Avenue in Allston, a gritty neighborhood in west Boston. A cold rain was lashing the stop signs and the wind swinging the street lights. The 48-year-old Florida warehouse manager was nervous as she peered down the empty boulevard while scanning for the number 66 bus. Not a soul or machine in sight. She bounced from foot to foot, trying to keep warm, no idea what lay ahead.
All because of the big guy.
On a recent trip to Boston from her home in Coral Springs, the Brazilian- born Cesca and her 23-year-old son Pedro, a graduate student at Boston University, had been running the Esplanade along the Charles River. They stopped to take a selfie with the iconic MIT dome across the water in Cambridge as a backdrop, moving the camera this way and that, trying to get the angle just right.
"A big guy stopped running, approached us, and asked if we wanted him to take our picture. I answered yes, thank you. The big guy took the photo and asked us where we work out, then started telling us about something called November Project. I was so surprised with his kind gesture, taking his time to take our picture and talking with us. In South Florida, people are always in a rush. I went to my son's apartment and looked up November Project at the computer."
Cesca didn't have a chance to check out the curious group during that trip, but found herself in Boston the following Thanksgiving week. She thought about the big guy again and emailed him, asking whether the workout was still on for the next morning despite the monsoon beating down on the city. Within minutes came the reply.
"We always train. The weather is only an excuse for those who decide to NOT show up. Also, the early morning is harsh on the well-rested and the sleep- deprived. 1/2 the world is 'tired.' Pop out of bed and go intro yourself to Bojan tomorrow. I'm training with our November Project group in San Diego tomorrow morning. The tribe is strong. BG."
Finally, Cesca spotted headlights sweeping the lacquered asphalt, the beams clouded by mist and sliced by furious lines of rain. The bus stopped and the doors hissed open, water dripping off the hinges. She climbed aboard and paid the fare. It was just her, the driver, and two men sitting in different rows. As she stepped forward, she noticed the men were dressed in striped leggings, fluorescent wind jackets, and running caps. Cesca wondered if they were headed to the stadium, too. She took a seat, making note of the storefronts out the window, paying attention to the route.
One of those men was 46-year-old Nicolas Flattes, a sales associate at True Runner, which had just opened a store in Newton. A technical rep from New Balance named Sara Wild had recently visited the staff and told them about a local social-fitness group, that it represented a fresh direction in running, and was even the subject of a Runner's World cover story. Flattes thought it sounded weird and crazy, but interesting. He knew Wild was a sub- 3:05 marathoner and a one-time professional soccer player, so "my first impression was that the group might only be for ultra and elite athletes. I thought I'd have no place there."
But he also thought that some quad work might speed up his recovery from a calf muscle tear he'd suffered while training for his second half-marathon. The leg injury, however, was the least of his pain. The previous year, his 11-year marriage had collapsed and it was still raw to the touch.
"The relationship went up in smoke as if it never happened. We had two children, a six-year-old daughter and a one-and-a-half-year-old son. She told me to move out and get my own place. It was a complete shock. Our marriage had been rocky and we had moved from Boston to Vancouver in the hopes that things would get better, but they only got worse."
After his ex-wife gained full custody of their children, Flattes found himself shut out, even by one-time friends. Numerous attempts to see his kids failed. Exhausted and worn down, he went home to Boston to regroup with family and figure out his next move. Five months later, he was nervously jostling on a city bus on his way to a strange stadium at the world's most prestigious university. "I had no idea what was going to happen," he said.
The bus whined to a stop across the road from an iron-gated athletic com£d, across the river from Harvard's main campus in Cambridge. Flattes followed a short, tanned woman and the other man down the steps and back into the wet blackness. All of them headed in the same direction. They smiled shyly at each other and walked between two brick columns. Were they even allowed to be here? Through the rain, Cesca and Flattes could make out points of light bobbing a few hundred yards away, headlamps of runners going up and down.
"It was a magical image," Cesca recalls. "It looked like the lights were flying. Everything was new. The rain getting in my eyes was so cold. I could hear some voices but I couldn't see the people yet, only the lights."
They passed the end zone of the football field and rounded the corner of the gray concrete stadium. They found an open archway that led into the lower cavern. A number of bikes were chained to the wrought-iron fencing, rain-beaded helmets dangling from the handlebars. Flattes could make out concrete columns and staircases leading up to a square of bruised sky. He was chilled and glad to be out of the rain. "I made my way up the back stairs to the top of section 37 and put my bag in the driest place I could find. Then I saw a guy run up at top speed, stagger behind the wooden bleachers, and throw up. I thought, this must be the place."
Nervous, Flattes then made his way down to the group gathering at the bottom, all arms and heads, writhing on a metal landing that overlooked the northern end zone. It looked like 100 people at least. He was impressed. Clouds of breath rose here and there, mingling, vanishing. A shirtless Asian dude was wearing a swim cap, goggles, and Hawaiian board shorts. An older man was barefoot. People were chatting and laughing and hugging; others kept their heads down against the pelting rain. Flattes looked across the artificial turf, emblazoned with a red H in the middle, toward the goal posts and scoreboards. He scanned the red Ivy League championship banners that rung the stadium's upper portico. The most recent national title was dated 1919. This place was old, he thought.
Built in 1903 and shaped like a horseshoe, Harvard Stadium was designed to conjure a classical Athenian coliseum, complete with an upper colonnade and gated archways. Inside, the 37 seating sections are each terraced with 30 rows of concrete benching. At ground level, gates give way to the field. You can almost picture lions being released to eat the Christians or hapless professors denied tenure. One writer described the arena as "the aristocrat of American sports amphitheaters."
When it rains, the stadium smells earthy, like history, and, fittingly, it has a claim on several firsts. It was the first stadium built for U.S. college athletics and was the first permanent--and largest--reinforced concrete structure of its time. But perhaps the arena's most famous first was as midwife to football's forward pass, a development that not only saved the game, but pretty much shaped the NFL we know today.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, football was a hot running and kicking game on college campuses. But it had morphed into a blood sport, a mash-up of rugby and bar brawling, with punches, eye gouging, throttling, pig- piling. And death. At the end of the 1905 college football season, 18 fatalities were reported across the country, along with dozens of disabling injuries. Harvard's president demanded rule changes or he would scrap the program. And if the sport were killed at Harvard, many feared it was all but doomed at the national level.
So U.S. president (and Harvard alum) Teddy Roosevelt stepped in. He organized the Intercollegiate Football Conference--a collection of 28 colleges and universities and the forerunner of the NCAA--which came up with 19 rules to make football safer. Among them, no tackling out of bounds or below the knee, and no striking the ball carrier in the face. It shortened games from 70 minutes to an hour and instituted a mandatory 10- minute rest between halves. There was a push to widen the playing field, too, but Harvard Stadium wasn't built to budge and school officials nixed the idea. As an alternative, they adopted the forward pass, one of the first programs to do so. And, in 1906, the Crimson's first pigskin sailed through the Boston breeze. The forward pass helped popularize the radical changes to the game, and along with it came the rise of the star quarterback and entirely new playbooks.
"It's hard to tell what's sweat and what's rain," a voice laughed behind Flattes.
It was Sara Wild from New Balance. Her wet hair, slicked back and ponytailed, was plastered against her neck. "Glad you made it," she said. Wild had just finished up with the 5:30 group. "It's darker, so it's easier to hide," she smiled. The early squad was born as a way for Graham and Mandaric to get their own tours in before leading the 6:30 workout. But that secret didn't hold, and at last count, the early group had swelled to nearly 100 racers all chasing the long-legged Graham in the dark.
"All right!" a robust voice from a few rows above suddenly cut through the chatter. "Listen up, listen up . . . Let's get going. I'm pausing now for dramatic effect . . . Okay, let's get a little bounce."
Flattes couldn't make out more than a pair of broad shoulders and a hooded face rising up against the rain. Like a swell at sea, hoods and caps began bobbing all around him, an energy lifting and crashing against itself, the metal floor of the overlook shaking.
"Okay, slow turn to the right. Look at the people around you. Give them your best murder eyes. Keep bouncing." Eyes widened, brows narrowed, a few people laughed. "Okay, for all my OCD friends, let's go ahead and make a slow turn to the left." They bounced and they bounced and--"Stop! Good morning!"
"Good morning!" a chorus barked back.
Like cannon fire, "Fuck yeah!" ricocheted across the field and back again, the syllables hammering down like massive exclamation points. Flattes felt them in his chest.
"Raise your hand if today is your first day."
Flattes, Cesca, and some 10 other tentative arms went up, all of them greeted with thunderous clapping and hooting.
"Fuck yeah, welcome," Mandaric said, pacing back and forth like a rapper stalking the stage.
Typically, the thunder-voiced Graham, with his manic enthusiasm and spontaneously absurd wit, rallies the troops for the Bounce. But on this morning, Mandaric, often seen as the serious and quiet one, despite his dancing and rapid-fire slang, was in command. The Serbian got off on dismantling perceptions. He'd been doing it his whole life. And Cesca, for one, felt his vibe, the energy from the crowd, like it had fingers and arms, lifting her off her feet. November Project "was already unlike any workout I'd ever been to."
"Okay, today is PR day," Mandaric continued, "so most of you know what to do--race your asses off. Forty minutes on the clock. If you brought a shirt to be tagged, take it up to section 36. Evan's gonna start the big kids in waves of 10. Newbies, follow me out this exit for a little pow-wow."
Flattes, Cesca, and the other first-timers gathered at the lower concourse, nervously-curiously-excitedly looking up at Mandaric as he shifted from foot to foot, long thick legs disappearing beneath a black windbreaker. He pushed back his hood, revealing the beads of rain running down his bare temples. Even to Flattes, who stands 6 feet 5, the Serbian was imposing and no-nonsense.
"Okay, bring it in. Closer. You should be touching the person next to you. Body heat is good, especially this morning. Here's the deal: November Project is a free, grassroots fitness movement, started by me and my college rowing buddy Brogan Graham, who's in sunny Southern California right now dancing with the sunbeams. You can give him shit when he gets back.
"This all started as a way for me and him to stay fit in the Boston winter. Then after 6 months, we got bored racing each other at the stadium and sent out a tweet to see if anyone would join us. And the next day, one person showed up. We were fuckin' ecstatic. Her name was Sara Wild and she still owns the fastest female time for a full tour. She took a chance on us just like you're taking a chance this morning instead of hitting your snooze bar. We believe that chance will not only pay off physically and mentally, but will help you make this world a better place."
Flattes stood wide-eyed. He'd read the Runner's World piece, but had no idea that Wild was November Project's very first member, that she'd been coming for all 18 months. She was so mild-mannered and unassuming. He was finding the whole thing captivating, even though he'd been involved with meditation and yoga centers where group encounters and personal contact were part of the experience. He'd also survived boot camp in the U.S. Navy. But here at Harvard Stadium of all places, he felt something different, something raw, open, exuberant, vital.
"One thing we never do in our daily lives is look each other in the eye," Mandaric continued. "We avoid contact with other human beings. November Project is about changing that. So turn to three people in your area, give them a hug, look them in the eye, and find out where they're from and one more thing about them. Because without them, and without you, these workouts wouldn't happen."
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
As we say at November Project "this sh*t is good" (credit to DG). Caleb Daniloff eloquently explains why #freefitness is something that exists in 30 cities around the world. Brogan Graham and Bojan Mandaric were inspired to get fit and, instead, built a movement. You can go to NP, read a blog post about NP, see a Tweet or a photo, but don't pass-up the opportunity to read about the origins of this quirky, wonderful community that exists at a local and global level. Even better - if you're in a NP city, #justshowup. November Project is inspiration and magic. It is competitive and inclusive. Bojan and Brogan are geniuses and prove that super heroes exist outside of comic books.