Nearly 100 neon-clad runners were circled around me and four other newcomers at 6:28 a.m. in Carl Schurz Park in the Upper East Side of Manhattan.
It was our first time stopping by one of the early morning November Project workouts in the city, so we were getting hazed.
One by one, we, as newbies, had to say our names and where we’re from — and then, humiliatingly off-pitch, we each belted out loud, “This is my singing voice.” But rather than admonish us for being drastically off-tune, we were rewarded with hugs. In fact, the whole group started hugging each other. Then they started jumping.
November Project is a fitness movement that started in Boston four years ago by two friends who were trying to motivate themselves to work out during the bitter New England winter. Since then, it’s grown into an exercise phenomenon, with so-called “tribes” popping up in cities across the U.S. and Canada, including New York, Calgary, San Diego and Seattle.
The volunteer-led movement provides free exercise, a social atmosphere and a sense of accountability (primarily by calling a person out online for not showing up after saying they’re going to show up) to people of any fitness level — with the goal of actually motivating them to wake up early enough to get in a good work out before their day begins.
“The tough part is getting out of bed, but another tough part is joining a new group,” John Honerkamp, who co-leads the New York tribe with Paul Leak, told me. “I feel like this is summer camp. The first day is awkward and you don’t know each other, it’s uncomfortable, but by the end of the week you’re best friends, you’re writing each other for life. This is like summer camp year-round, it just never ends.”
I met the New York tribe on a Wednesday morning at 6:28 a.m on the Upper East Side’s Carl Schurz Park.
On this particular Wednesday, the group was meeting to do “shamrock drills” — which essentially entails running around the park, briefly stopping to do mountain climber push-ups, then sprinting. Next, everyone “bear crawls” up the park’s stairs (as in, hitting the ground and using their hands and legs to crawl), runs some more and planks with a partner. They repeat these drills as often as they can for the next 35 minutes.
But before that comes the hugging. Everyone has to hug at least three people and learn their names. Luckily, a coworker had warned me ahead of time that November Project was big into hugging, so I wasn’t thrown off-guard by having to embrace strangers, which would otherwise creep me out. After a few preliminary awkward hugs, I actually got used to the idea.
“As soon as you start hugging, you’re like, ‘Ah, screw it.’ You’re all in,” Honerkamp explained.
The group next started jumping forwards and backwards in a circle, only to immediately hit the floor in a plank for a few minutes before the drills kick in. Honerkamp instructed random groups of people to begin their drills, telling those who “won a grade school science fair” or “sport a five o’clock shadow” to start, followed by people who “were a girl or boy scout.” I was a Brownie as a child, so off I went, leaving the remaining plankers behind.
I completed my first few drills with relative ease — I’ve been running a lot lately, and the drills are largely composed of running. But after a while, I was sweating and starting to get tired, so I sat on a bench to rest while the others ran past me.
As the drills came to a close, the exercisers formed what they call a huddle tunnel — and the remaining runners crawled underneath the bridge of the arms. At the end of the tunnel was a dance party, where everyone shook off the intense cardio they just completed.
“We all have real world jobs and stresses, so [November Project] allows yourself to be a kid in a way,” Honerkamp said. “We’re silly; we haze you when you get here. We jump; we bounce. We break down all these walls.”
The hour came to a close, and everyone hugged each other goodbye. I left the park feeling refreshed and in a pleasant mood, ready to seize the day.
I’m not a morning person, so waking up early to do drills with a bunch of strangers normally isn’t something I’d ever want to do. But the November Project format really seems to work, and I had a genuinely fun (albeit under-caffeinated) time. If not for the fact that I live nine miles away in Brooklyn and had to wake up at 5 a.m. to make it to this work out, I’d probably do it again.
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