By Alessandra Bianchi

November Project

Even before I became a part of it, the grassroots fitness tribe known as the November Project and its kooky founders had cast their spell upon me. Sure, I like adventure. And yes, I like to stay fit. But running Harvard Stadium steps at dawn, with two statuesque thirtysomething ex-rowers and 400 of their disciples, is not something I’d ordinarily choose to do on a Wednesday morning.

But there I was, at an hour when I’d normally still be in deep REM sleep, left leg clad in my tightest calf sleeve, gingerly picking my way up up up, and then down down down, each and every concrete step in the stadium. (Well, truth be told, every step from Section 37 down through Section 4; I was too slow to fit in all of them). Like the stream of people around me, I didn’t cheat and stop short at the top or the bottom. I didn’t want to miss a step. Without it ever being stated, we all knew this was a point of honor.

Similarly unsaid, but equally well understood was that we had all entered a sort of sacred Safe Zone. No matter how sleepy or slow or sweaty we were, we were all rock stars, striving together, without judgment, just lots of hugs, high fives, and good cheer. “Jesus lift your heel!” someone playfully cheered at the point when my workout metamorphosed from sprightly, optimistic jog/steps into resigned, strained slogging. Was I imagining it, or did the five push-up “fire drills” every five minutes really feel like a welcome rest between the stair climbing interludes? And why, after nearly an hour of this, was everyone still smiling?

The answer has a little bit to do with endorphins, peer pressure, and the stateliness and majesty of Harvard Stadium architecture against an increasingly roseate sky. But it has everything to do with Brogan Graham and Bojan Mandaric, two former Northeastern University rowing teammates who translated their sport’s camaraderie, sense of accountability, penchant for masochistic workouts, and even weatherproofness into a surprisingly contagious outdoor fitness movement. Imagine rowing, without the boats and the water, and you get a sense of the November Project.

“Two Guys Walk into a Bar, and a Free Fitness Movement is Born.” The NPR headline is accurate, but rowers will appreciate the backstory. Over beers following an alumni head race in the fall of 2011, former Huskie teammates Brogan (who goes by BG) and Bojan (pronounced Boyan) decide to work out with each other to stay fit.

“In rowing, if one guy doesn’t show up, you’re not going to race with seven people on the water. It doesn’t work,” says Bojan.

As Bojan recalls, he asked BG, “Dude, do you want to help me get my ass out of bed starting November 1st?’ And BG said, ‘Yeah, let’s do it.’ They committed to 6:30-7:30 a.m. workouts, no excuses, and would pick the location the night before. Both knew what every rower does: that if you’re accountable to someone, you won’t bail.

“In rowing, if one guy doesn’t show up, you’re not going to race with seven people on the water. It doesn’t work,” says Bojan. “The reason this worked for Brogan and me is that I knew that he would be there and vice versa. Regardless of how I felt, or how much I wanted to roll over and go back to bed, I wasn’t going to let him down.”

Pushing it from Day 1, they tapped into their rowing roots to design, track, and inspire their workouts. Borrowing from the playbook of their former coach, John Pojednic (now in his 14th year as head coach of Northeastern men’s rowing), Wednesdays the pair would run a full tour of stadium steps at Harvard. Fridays were devoted to hill running, when they would run four or more trips up Summit Avenue in Brookline, a 0.4-mile hill with up to a 17-percent grade. “Long before CrossFit was a household name, [Pojednic] was mixing up workouts to create tougher, fitter athletes,” recalls BG. “He had us do a triathlon every winter consisting of a 7,500-meter row on the erg, a five-mile river run upstream to the stadium, and a full tour all for time.”

Both men were among Pojednic’s first recruits: BG, a 6’6 theater major from Wisconsin; and Bojan, a 6’4” former member of the Serbian national team. Both spent a few years coaching crew after graduating in 2006, BG at Northeastern, and Bojan at Syracuse. Both credit their former coach for their fondness for Boston and why they still live here today. “John was an influence for both of us in a huge way,” says BG.

During those first few months, they recorded everything—mileage, times, the temperature, and any fun comments—in a Google Doc spreadsheet they labeled the November Project. They fiendishly tracked their stadium PRs, week to week, month to month, and were pleased to watch them steadily improve. (For the record, for all 37 sections, BG’s is currently an insane 18:40; Bojan’s’ 23:30.)

“Long before CrossFit was a household name, [Northeastern coach John Pojednic] was mixing up workouts to create tougher, fitter athletes. John was an influence for both of us in a huge way.” – Brogan Graham

In addition to recording everything in the Google doc, they began posting tales of their workouts to Facebook, a blog, and Twitter. In testimony to their day job prowess—Bojan is a freelance technology specialist and BG a global marketing associate with New Balance—word of the two Spandex-clad giants and their free workouts began to spread like wildfire through social media and old-fashioned word of mouth. Within three months they had a dozen regulars, and soon after that 100. Former Bruin Andrew Ference and Olympic rower Esther Lofgren dropped in. Ditto Northeastern Olympic rowers Dan Walsh and Will Miller. Bojan and BG issued a “Tattoo Verbal,” promising to each get a November Project tattoo depicting an alarm clock reading 6:30 a.m. on their arms when their ranks swelled to 300. That milestone occurred in July 2012.

Today, chapters of the November Project have spread to 14 cities throughout the U.S., as well as a branch in Edmonton, Alberta. As in Boston, all operate outdoors, shaping the workouts around their cities’ natural features and landmarks, and all are free. Most meet Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays at 6:30 a.m., rain, sleet, snow, or Polar Vortex be damned. (In Boston, Bojan and BG added a 5:30 a.m. option for the hardcore, since their 6:30 group is consistently large enough these days that they spend that hour playfully coaching and herding hundreds, with feather boas, cow bells, guest photographers, DJs, birthday cheers, and body surfings.) Each session, everywhere, always ends with hugs and a group photo.

All of this is documented extensively, hysterically, and compellingly on a constantly updated website, Facebook page, and Twitter feed. November Project participants should not shun attention, at least not the digital kind. “We take photos and videos all the time and then post them online. When you share your videos online, it’s like starring in your own low-level Nike commercial,” BG and Bojan explain on their site. No-shows also get attention. In testament to how seriously the pair take accountability and commitment, anyone who “gives their verbal” and then reneges, gets their photo and a write-up posted in the “We Missed You” section of the website. A sample roast/post entitled, “Tom Taylor Sleeps During Scary 0.5 Inch Snow Storm,” is emblematic:
When you looked out the window and saw a half inch of snow on the ground, maybe you were scared. Perhaps you thought to yourself, “Holy crap!! What if this turns into a full inch of snow!? What will I do then!?”

Ten years and some 75 weeks of November Project workouts later, BG has clearly matured since that night in the stadium. He’s going to be married in May, and, in New Balance, he appears to have the ideal employer supportive of what he facetiously terms, his “subtle distraction.” Indeed, Jeff McAdams, head of the global strategic consumer group at New Balance, fairly gushes, “Brogan has been a great addition to the New Balance team. His work with the November Project demonstrates his ability to motivate and innovate within the social athletic space, which is a key part of his current responsibility.”

Last August, New Balance gave a free pair of shoes to November Project participants who showed up six or more times, in a mini promotion it called, #Runnovation. A blog entry from a Boston advertising executive involved hints at the transformative effect BG, Bojan, and their project possess. “Hey kids, did I tell you about the time Brogan and Bojan asked me for a million bucks?” Mike Howard writes. After a lengthy, flattering ramble about how the two have found their calling in life, Howard concedes, “as an ‘advertising professional,’ being involved with this thing and being entrusted, along with my team, to bring it to life genuinely and purely forced me to examine what I do and the ethic with which I do it.”

Along with New Balance, the November Project has engaged in small promotions with a granola bar manufacturer, a stone hearth pizza purveyor, and has even discussed partnerships with Nike and Reebok. Bojan likens these endeavors to dating, or summer flings, and concedes that while he and BG never want to” sell out,” they are not opposed to a full-fledged relationship with the appropriate partner. One such organic relationship came about with Concept2, who happily donated wooden oars when asked, for the group’s Positivity Awards. In each chapter, a participant is awarded an oar, emblazoned with November Project, to be carried about at all times. As described on the website, “This award will never have to do with speed or strength but will always go to the person who shows the best attitude. This can be displayed in the form of fun, encouragement to others around them, putting the tribe first, recruiting more racers, and generally being an awesome person to train near. With many of our core values of accountability, racing, team bonding, and training in all conditions, coming from the sport of rowing, we thought that the award was pretty much perfect.”

Concept2 couldn’t agree more. “These guys are social media mavens; their outreach, and grassroots fitness efforts are amazing,” notes marketing team member Meredith Breiland.. “We share that type of enthusiasm for anything remotely rowing related. November Project just confirms our belief that the rowing community is a lot bigger than the on-water community,” she adds. In fact, BG and Bojan make no secret that their aim is nothing short of world domination. “Far too many people are stuck in lame gyms on lame machines,” they say on their website.

How far can they go?

On top of the workouts, and their day jobs. BG and Bojan each spend about 20 hours a week on November Project—maintaining the website, editing and posting videos, dreaming up novel workouts and stunts. Around Boston, they have become community leaders of a sort; the day of the manhunt following the Boston Marathon bombings, many people initially learned that the city was on lockdown when they read November Project’s highly irregular tweet at 6:01 a.m. noting that that morning’s workout would be cancelled. It’s the only workout they’ve ever cancelled since November Project’s inception.

After the Wednesday morning workout I attended, as with most, a crowd of at least two dozen groupies showed up at the Swiss pastry shop, to grab food, high five, and bask in sweaty hugs amidst their leaders. To them, and to most who meet them, (including yours truly), BG and Bojan appear larger than life. Their passion and their affection are genuine. When I formally extended my hand to greet them, independently each one looked at me as though I was an alien. “Really?” Bojan replied, eyebrows raised in disbelief as he opened his arms for a bear hug. BG dispensed with all words altogether and spun me off the ground in a 360-degree twirl.

By any measure, the life cycle of the November Project has exceeded everyone’s expectations, especially those of its founders. But if these super-fit, super heroes truly want to achieve world domination, first they’ve got to solve some petty pedestrian problems. How long can anyone, let alone these two, arise three mornings a week at 3:59 a.m. and manage far-flung chapters of the November Project in 15 cities and four time zones? By their own definition, by hosting a November Project workout, you “quickly become a coach, inspirational speaker, photographer, matchmaker, social media expert, and professional stunt daydreamer for all things community.”

Until they figure out how to replicate themselves, BG and Bojan do what they know best. They hammer accountability by calling people on their verbals. They hand out Positivity Award oars to deserving individuals. They model and encourage extreme levels of fitness, silliness, and joy. And most importantly, no matter the weather, or the excuse, three very early mornings a week, they just show up.

 

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