Who Runs the World? November Project.
At 6 a.m. on a brisk Friday morning, on a quiet street in Brookline, I am faced with my worst nightmare. “I’m going in for a hug,” gushes a grinning stranger, arms outstretched and coming right at me. “Welcome to November Project!”
I’ve come to Summit Avenue to experience this strange grassroots fitness subculture—or “movement,” as its members like to call it—and this crack-of-dawn embrace is only the beginning of my initiation. The hugger, coleader Chris Capozzi, summons me to join the rest of the group—hundreds of early risers of all shapes, sizes, and ages, all clad in neon, spandex, and homemade T-shirts bearing the November Project logo. At 6:30 a.m. on the dot we launch into “the bounce,” a warmup ritual that’s exactly what it sounds like: We crush close together, forming one big phalanx of human flesh, and hop up and down until Capozzi whispers, “Are we good?” Abruptly, everyone stops bouncing and whispers back, “Fuck, yeah!” (The cultlike whispering, I’ll learn later, is necessitated by the Brookline morning noise ordinance; otherwise, this call-and-response volley of profanity would have been shouted at top volume.) I settle for moving my lips in a way that passably resembles mouthing words, participating without committing.
Then the real workout begins: a miserable slog up and down Summit Avenue, a half-mile slope that feels as steep as Everest. The first time up the hill isn’t bad. On the second, my lungs start burning. By the third, I’m wondering if I’ll live long enough to write this story.
And yet—people here can’t seem to get enough. With nothing more than word-of-mouth marketing and a rabid fan base, November Project has taken over Boston’s fitness scene and is spreading its gospel far beyond the Bay State, even luring people away from their personal trainers and pricey gym memberships. Offering a sense of community and kinship along with free, hardcore workouts, the group has expanded from one chapter to 29 in a mere five years. So far, its founders have managed to pull off the unthinkable: building an international fitness empire and disrupting an $84 billion-a-year industry with little more than hugs and hill sprints—all free of charge.
Finally, mercifully, it’s time for the group to stop running. A swarm of impossibly perky November Project disciples surround me, excited to congratulate the newbie. Although a cuddle party is the last thing I want right now, they’re genuinely nice people, and I’m too tired to do anything but smile and accept their sweaty hugs. But part of me is still skittish about the cult I seem to have suddenly joined, a group that’s okay with getting up at the crack of dawn to hug and run. When I stumble home from my workout at 7:30, legs like cinderblocks, I’m proud of myself for going, but dreading the idea of facing it again.
When Brogan Graham and Bojan Mandaric were rowers at Northeastern, there was a strict tradition: If anybody on the team missed practice, the whole group was punished with grueling dry-land training. When skipping meant angering the entire team, the logic went, you quickly learned to be accountable.
But collegiate sports don’t last forever. Years after graduation, Mandaric, an easygoing guy working in marketing, found himself spending winters on the couch watching TV. He called up his old “firecracker” teammate Graham, and the two made a pact: They would hold each other accountable for a month of early-morning workouts, just like in the old days. Canceling, for any reason, would not be an option. They decided to begin on November 1, 2011, tracking their workouts in a Google Doc aptly titled “November Project.”
The pact worked, and they soon began inviting friends, mostly other former rowers. Those friends started inviting their friends, and word spread—fast. By September 2012, they’d recruited 300 people. By the winter of 2013, the group was so popular in Boston that Graham’s brother, Dan, decided to start a tribe in Madison, Wisconsin. San Francisco followed, led by Mandaric and Graham’s friend Laura McCloskey, a former Northeastern track star. Former Bruin Andrew Ference started a chapter in Edmonton not long after. By January 2016, the fitness phenomenon had traveled as far as Iceland and Mandaric’s native Serbia. Amazingly, the cofounders did this without spending a penny on advertising, instead relying on the handiwork of their army of social-media-savvy, stenciled-T-shirt-clad devotees.
So how does all of this happen? The workouts are part of it, of course. But for many members of the tribe, fitness is a happy byproduct of the real allure: community. “I had always been a morning solo runner,” says Jana Ross, who joined in January 2013, “and I finally found people who clearly were game to do anything at any time. I called my dad immediately afterward and told him, ‘I found my people.’”
Take the hugging, for example. Graham—a tall, tattooed former marketing professional who oozes charisma, drops F-bombs every 60 seconds, and signed his first email to me, “Let’s get it on”—is the metaphorical hugger in chief of a tribe that thrives on physical contact. Before each workout, you’re instructed to embrace three people standing near you. After each workout, more hugs. It never stops. There’s also the goofy post-workout group photo, the pre-workout bounce, and the hammy, often costumed “yearbook” portraits they take every year.
This is the key to November Project’s mercurial allure: It gives people more than a place to sweat—it gives them a place where people know their name and care that they show up. Attendance is so important that members who skip are called out online on a blog page titled “We Missed You”—a uniquely effective way to ensure participation. The offending person is lovingly lambasted for bailing, complete with embarrassing photos mined from Facebook. Sound shame-y? Tribe members prefer to see it as bonding.
Another large part of November Project’s appeal is that it stands in stark contrast to the often elitist, exclusionary world of boutique fitness. Yet the group’s wildfire success has put it in a precarious position. How can something that grew organically in Boston travel to Indiana and Canada and Iceland without becoming a chain—without losing its soul?
These questions clearly weigh on Graham and Mandaric, who now oversee the movement and leave the Boston workouts to coleaders Chris Capozzi, Chris Payne, and Emily Saul. (Graham now lives in California with his wife, Goldie, whom he fell in love with at November Project; Mandaric can still be found at local workouts.) “If you want to confuse me or make me really uncomfortable, you call the other tribes ‘franchises,’” Graham says. “That makes me sick to my stomach.”