Runners are generally a pretty welcoming bunch, and most clubs aim to be inclusive and friendly. But for Frontrunners Toronto, inclusivity isn’t just something it strives for, it’s the club’s whole reason for being. Founded in 1987 to create a safe space for LGBTQ runners and their supporters, the club has been welcoming diversity for 32 years, and even recent members go out of their way to make newcomers feel comfortable.
Budi Alamsyah moved to Toronto seven months ago, and having run with Front Runners clubs in Melbourne, London and Amsterdam, connecting with the local chapter was one of the first things he did. “It has been a great way to make friends in a new city,” he says. “Meeting my friends and new people at our runs makes me happy.”
For example, it’s a tradition that every run starts with those present announcing their first name–a way to break the ice, but also a nod to the club’s origins in San Francisco in the 1970s, when using first names only was a matter of personal safety. Inspired by the celebrated 1974 novel The Front Runner by Patricia Nell Warren, one of the earliest novels written from the point of view of a gay athlete, there are now Frontrunners clubs all over the world and in 10 cities across Canada, where runners of any stripe can be assured of a warm welcome.
Upon his arrival last winter, Alamsyah was keen to help the club expand its social media presence, and its members were receptive to his idea to organize a fourth weekly run along Toronto’s lakeshore. (The regular five- to 10-kilometre runs on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday start at the 519, a community hub in the city’s Gay Village, and proceed north into Rosedale and the ravine system.)
“I definitely love the community spirit of the club,” says Alamsyah, who cites its long history with the 519 community centre and its involvement with the annual Pride and Remembrance Run, which has raised over $1 million for LGBTQ charities since 1996. The club also has a longstanding relationship with the Toronto Marathon and the Toronto Women’s Runs Series.
Elizabeth Flamenco is a great example of someone who has run with other clubs, but for whom joining Frontrunners was the best thing she ever did: “I went through some personal things—my mother passed away, and injuries, and I was depressed about everything, and didn’t want to run,” she says. “But from the time I joined, I felt so welcome.” Flamenco was looking for an LGBTQ running group, saw the Frontrunners on Meetup, and got in touch immediately. “I felt the love and support… They’re great people, and happy people, and they make me feel so good.”
Flamenco is training for her fourth Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Half-Marathon on October 20, and she plans to run the full marathon (for the third time) at Scotiabank in 2020. “What I love the most about the course is the people cheering all through the streets of Toronto,” says Flamenco, “and I love the music part of it because it energizes me so much.” Flamenco adds that running along the lakeshore reminds her of her mother, who used to sit by the water, listening to the waves and the wind. “She was in her happy place, I guess. And so now that’s my happy place, and that’s how I like to remember her. So when I run through the lakeshore my mother is always running with me.”
Alamsyah, who is training for the Rock ‘n’ Roll Montreal Marathon on September 22, also trains with other clubs (“We are happily polyamorous in that sense,” he jokes), but Frontrunners clearly has his heart: “I think other clubs are great, but Frontrunners is just special,” he says. “We have members who are still new and looking for a sense of belonging. Being in this club helps them to connect and to feel proud about themselves and the community. We want to send the message that everyone will feel instantly at home in our club.”
Club president Antoine Belaieff would like to see even greater diversity in the club to better reflect the community and the city at large. He credits Alamsyah with his efforts to expand the group’s reach: “Budi said, ‘Washington DC is on Meetup–we should try it.’ I was amazed how many people we attracted. It turns out there’s a lot of millennials who are looking for places to meet people. Work is not great for meeting people, and social spaces are changing. Now everybody’s online, so that’s where we have to be too.”
Belaieff comments that for him, it was simply a matter of finding a congenial running group, but also “realized that for many old and new members, the warm and friendly social environment plays a really important role in their lives, and it’s fantastic to see… The more people, the more connections, and the more people will benefit.”
With support and inclusiveness priority #1, it’s easy to see why Frontrunners is so beloved by its members, and a crucial part of the running life of Toronto.