Running is often touted as a no-barriers sport in which anyone can find a sense of belonging. We did it naturally as children, and to rediscover it as adults can feel like a homecoming. But many people who would like to get into the sport aren’t sure how to get started (or re-started), and for LGBTQ+ runners who may struggle to feel included in the wider community, the challenges are even greater. Brooks Running Company would like to change that, and in a ground-breaking partnership with International Front Runners, local LGBTQ+ running clubs can now get financial support for building their membership.
The LGBTQ+ community is an example of a sub-community that has, in the words of Brooks Running Company CEO Jim Weber, “not always felt welcome or visible within running and sport.” He says Brooks Running “sees an opportunity… to be more deliberate in our support.”
Brooks Running now invites local Front Runners clubs in Canada and the US to apply for funding for specific projects such as membership drives, community fun runs and other special events designed to attract new members.
Who is it for?
Toronto runner Chris Ritcey-Conrad, 30, who’s originally from Halifax, is a perfect example of the type of runner who could benefit. An occasional runner whose partner doesn’t share his interest in the sport, he says, “I don’t see a lot of gay men out running, to be honest. They’re more in the gym. When I was in high school I always ran with a friend. You have someone to talk to, and you lose track of time.” When asked if he’s ever considered joining a Front Runners club, he admits he hasn’t heard of it. “I see [other] running groups out there, and I think, that would be fun. But they look super intense. They’re all decked out, and I don’t have the gear. At one point I was there, and I could have fit in, but it feels different now.”
Who are International Front Runners?
Though International Front Runners organization has been at the forefront of the LGBTQ+ running since the 1970s and has grown to more than 100 clubs worldwide, its reach is not universal. The clubs are diverse–some have hundreds of members and an organized structure with bylaws and elected officers, and some have just enough runners to welcome anyone new who might show up. (The diversity even extends to how they choose to spell the name.) The International Front Runners website invites people to consider starting a club in their community if none exists, and provides downloadable tips on how to do that.
The original LGBTQ+ running club
The site recalls fondly how the first Front Runners club began back in 1974, with two members of San Francisco’s gay community (who were also runners) listing a weekly Learn to Jog class in the free newspaper Lavender U. The first run was half a mile, and the plan was to increase the distance by a half-mile every week for two months, culminating in a five-mile “graduation” run.
The first run started in Golden Gate Park, and the location changed each week. After a few months, the group became known as the Lavender U Joggers. In the first year, the club had up to 45 members, and would often wind up its runs with a potluck brunch. In 1978, the group volunteered to organize a water station at the San Francisco Marathon, which was only in its second year.
Inclusive from the beginning
From the beginning, the Lavender U Joggers were all about inclusivity. Like Brooks, they welcomed experienced runners and beginners alike, and while they provided a safe space for LGBTQ+ members, they aimed to make sure their friends and supporters felt welcome also.
At the time, the gay community was very much underground, with many who joined the Front Runners (as it was named after the Lavender U newspaper went out of business) giving only their first name. Inspired by the 1974 novel The Front Runner by Patricia Nell Warren, celebrated as the first contemporary gay novel to achieve mainstream success, the Front Runners philosophy soon inspired similar groups in other cities, and an international movement of LGBTQ+ runners was born.
Running was one of the very first sports in which gay participants organized themselves into groups that survived, thrived and grew, which they did hand-in-hand with the running boom into the 1980s and 1990s.
The scene today
There are now Front Runners clubs in 28 states across the US, and nine Canadian cities. Brooks Running’s hometown being Seattle, the two-year partnership launched on May 1 starting with the Seattle Front Runners club. Today the program extends its reach into Canada, where there are clubs in St. John’s, Halifax, Montreal, Quebec City, Ottawa, Toronto, Winnipeg, Calgary and Vancouver.
Mike Schwarz ran with the Front Runners club in Toronto for a while, starting in 1995. “They were very welcoming to new runners,” he recalls. “They start the run by saying each person’s name.” Schwarz assumed they’d be going for social jog, and though he appreciated their openness and desire to make people comfortable, he didn’t realize they were serious runners. “My first run, they left me in their dust,” he laughs. “In fact, they ran so far that I had to take a taxi home.”
Nowadays, most running clubs are a bit more sensitive to accommodating new runners’ comfort level. And while there is tons of information online about how to get started in running, people still crave connection with other runners, and it’s that combination of inclusivity and know-how that makes the Brooks-Front Runners partnership such a great match.
Brooks is promoting the program on its website with a link to Front Runners’ directory of clubs worldwide and a blog post from CEO Weber. The company has also unveiled its limited-edition Run Proud Collection, featuring apparel designed to celebrate running’s inclusiveness and the LGBTQ+ running community. In Canada the line is available at MEC (Mountain Equipment Co-op) stores and online.
Front Runners clubs across Canada
Frontrunners Newfoundland and Labrador
Galopins Québec (Frontrunners)
Les Galopins/Front Runners Montreal