It's a cold, damp morning. There's little sign of life on Laurel Hill Drive, where homes are still dark and birds are just beginning to stir and sing with the rising sun.
As the sky brightens with vivid stripes of orange and gold, some 30 men round the corner from UNC's Outdoor Education Center. They are jogging briskly and calling out a military style drill, determined to start their day with muscle burning, mind clearing exercise.
"It's important to me to be here with these guys," says Alex Miller, a founder of the Chapel Hill branch of the fast-growing, men-only Fitness, Fellowship and Faith organization, better known as F3. "Hot or cold, rain or snow, we're out here. The only reason we break from our routine is lightning."
Camaraderie and Accountability
Chapel Hill's F3 group was established in September 2013 based on the guidelines developed by the original Charlotte chapter, which launched in January 2011 as a registered nonprofit. Guys gather outdoors at dawn, allowing time to work out, clean up and get to their jobs. Programs at sites in Chapel Hill and elsewhere in the Triangle are available every day but Sunday.
The challenging sessions are free and led on a rotating basis by members, none of whom are fitness professionals. After running all the way down winding Laurel Hill, stopping frequently for vigorous calisthenics, they repeat the process on the way back. Several of the sweat-drenched members boyishly sprint the final yards uphill to see who can return to the parking lot first while others gratefully slow down.
No matter how they finish, the enthusiastic fellowship is infectious.
"For a lot of us, the community of male friendship goes away when we get busy with our careers and family," say Alex, a trim 39-year-old father of four who served as a mortar squad leader with the U.S. Army Infantry. "The camaraderie and accountability remind me of my time in the military. If I missed a few days at the gym, no one would care. If I miss a few days here, I get a calls from a bunch of guys wanting to know if I'm all right."
Alex appreciates that some men have misgivings about the group's unusual structure. "The biggest lie about F3 is that you have to be in shape to participate," he says. "The point of participating is to get in shape, and to build relationships with guys who also want to achieve the same goals of fitness and fellowship."
The other lie is that F3 is exclusively Christian, and that those who are not actively observant are not welcome.
"Involving friends and neighbors from all backgrounds is the one thing we're evangelical about," says Alex, who owns a government lobbying firm. "A lot of us work in very competitive fields where it's not OK to fail. But it is OK to fail here and to grow from the experience. It think that's a powerful thing for guys to know they won't be left in the dust."
This positive approach was a strong incentive for Keith Minton of Chapel Hill, who joined the group the week before Christmas 2014. "I wanted something more than another gym experience," says the 44-year-old financial advisor, who plans to flex his muscles helping fellow F3 members in home repair projects for neighbors in need. "I wanted something where I felt like it was important for me to show up and do my best."
When school is out, Keith sometimes brings his 9-year-old son, Colin, who grins as he's greeted with high-fives by his dad's peers. "It's fun," says the 3rd grader, whose passion for multiple sports earned him the F3 nickname Triple Threat. "They treat me like one of the guys."
Each of the guys earns a nickname, though Alex says not all of them like theirs as much as Colin likes his.
"You're not supposed to like it, at first," he says, pointing to Keith's moniker as an example. He was dubbed "Soggy," a nod to the cold, rainy conditions on his first day.
Nicknames are doled out to new members at the end of each session, after everyone gathers in a Circle of Trust to introduce themselves and share news. Kris Ledford of Durham joined the group in September and was dubbed Elf after saying he works for Numotion, an Apex business that makes custom wheelchairs to improve mobility to persons with disabilities.
"I'm really glad I came today," Kris says, pausing to shake hands with members who encouraged him to return. "I'm one of those people who find it hard to get motivated about exercise, but I really feel great."
Walking the Walk
Chapel Hill F3 members consider community involvement as important as physical exercise. They've taken to wearing their collective big heart on their sleeves, literally, in tribute to a founding member who is taking time off to deal with a serious medical issue. David Baddour's nickname of Lo Pair is referenced by the initials LP on the sleeve of the logo sportswear many members wear.
"For me, it started out 100 percent as a workout only, but I've learned that it's much more than that," says the grateful David, son of retired UNC Athletic Director Dick Baddour. "Knowing that you have a group of guys that have your back when things get a little rough, which happens to all of us, is a big deal. It has given me a tangible way to fight, and these guys are right there with me, shoulder to shoulder."
This post first appeared in the January/February 2016 issue of Chapel Hill Magazine.