Just Show Up

Pushing boundaries with the local November Project tribe.

The scene: A cold, dark weekday morning at 6 a.m. A leader calls out to the crowd: “Let’s move in real tight. OK, let’s bounce.”

With that, about 50 Edmontonians – myself included – of all ages and fitness levels bounce until we’re told to stop.

“Good morning!” one of the leaders yells. “Good morning!” we yell back. “Are you good?” a leader yells, Canadianized from “Y’all good?” “F–k yeah!” we answer – except for the underage members, who remain silent. Then, the 30-minute workout begins.

How did I get here? I was feeling adventurous. Well, adventurous and fat. I needed to shake things up.

A boot-camp instructor once told me it takes three weeks of purposeful change to break a bad habit or create a good one. I combined that with a helpful tip from a colleague about a free, early-morning workout. My excuses about a lack of time and money quickly sounded weak.

My shakeup came when I committed to this early-morning workout called the November Project for three weeks. “Why not? You can do anything for three weeks, right?”

The November Project is the brainchild of Brogan Graham and Bojan Mandaric, former college rowing teammates from Northeastern University who decided that, throughout November 2011, they would exercise together each weekday morning using free outdoor spaces throughout Boston.

Yet, when November ended, the duo didn’t stop and, starting in spring 2012, their friends wanted in. “We just know that parties are more fun when more people are there,” Graham says.

Edmonton Oilers captain Andrew Ference heard of the November Project through a friend when he was playing for the Boston Bruins. “I liked the energy. It was cool and different,” he says. “I was chasing for once, trying to keep up to some really good athletes. It drove my level of fitness higher.” When Ference was traded to Edmonton in July 2013, he brought the November Project north. Edmonton was the only Canadian city out of 16 November Project sites until groups started up in Calgary and Winnipeg in early March.

A day after flying into Edmonton, Ference invited people to join him for a workout in Kinsmen Park via Twitter. (Social media and word-of-mouth are the November Project’s main marketing tools, helping keep it fun and “free forever.”) His sister, Jennifer, a teacher and consultant, joined him, along with about 25 others. He hoped to follow Boston’s example and build enough momentum during the summer months before winter made regulars question their sanity.

Winter also brought hockey season, meaning Ference needed help leading November Project YEG. His sister suggested Nadim Chin, a human-resources consultant at Servus Credit Union and loyal tribe member. (Each city’s group is called a “tribe.”)

“There are these dynamic people leading the tribes who are funny and not afraid to be crazy. They’re extroverts. That’s like Nadim,” Ference says. “And I somehow convinced Jen that it wouldn’t be as much work as it was.”

“It’s a non-paying job,” Jennifer says as she, Chin and I warm up in her car after running hills at Gallagher Park and tobogganing with the rest of the group. The two of them share leadership responsibilities, like determining workouts and locations, and write blog posts after workouts. Her brother joins in when his hockey schedule allows.

“In a weird way, the fitness thing is kind of secondary,” Chin says. “We’re not trainers.”

“No, we’re community builders,” Jennifer adds.

Graham stresses that tribe leaders must show up on time, every time, no matter the temperature or lack of sunlight. Mondays are a mishmash of activities, like burpees, hoisties and partner work. Stairs are on Wednesdays, and hills are for breakfast on Fridays.

If you’ve wandered around downtown at 6 a.m., you may have heard the happy, obscene chants. But, for most, mornings don’t start so cheerily – not even for established athletes like Jennifer and Chin, or professional ones like Ference. Nobody likes getting up that early, but it’s worth it at the end of the day when you’ve already got your workout in.

As for my three-week experiment, all of my boundaries were tested. I hugged strangers; I am not a hugger. I navigated the city for Monday locations; I am directionally challenged. I pushed myself in workouts; I am exploring how close to throwing up I want to get for a personal best.

Over the weeks, I increased from five to 6.4 flights of Royal Glenora stairs. I earned a -30C badge for braving extreme elements. And I learned how to properly do a hoisty – I think.

I skipped Monday of Week Four because, really, I completed the experiment. But something felt missing: The accomplishment and rush of working out and yelling “F–k yeah!” so early in the morning with other like-minded individuals.

Will the November Project have a Tae Bo, Thigh Master-esque ending? Who knows? But Graham says they intentionally expanded this idea via tribe leaders who embrace being inclusive, reliable, punctual and “badass.”

“We had a nice recipe going – a beautiful blend of community and fun and fierce athletes,” Graham says.

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