When American author Patricia Nell Warren had her novel The Front Runner first published in 1974, it would have been beyond her wildest expectations that it would sell more than 10 million copies. But what’s even more impressive is that the novel has also been the inspiration for an international grass-roots movement.
Warren’s novel tells the story of the relationship between an ex-Marine track coach and his Olympic athlete protege. Originally written in English, it’s been translated into ten languages and is widely acclaimed as one of the most popular queer love stories of all time.
Inspired by the novel, the first Frontrunners running club was established in San Francisco in 1974, quickly followed by the West Hollywood club in Los Angeles, and then cities across the US, Canada, and beyond. There are currently over 100 Frontrunner clubs around the world, all affiliated to the International Frontrunners organisation.
While the operation and activities of the different clubs vary from city to city, most have regular weekly runs followed by a social get-together at a local restaurant or bar.
The motivation for people to join a Frontrunners club is generally a combination of fitness and social opportunities.
Reggie Snowden has been part of the San Francisco Frontrunners for over 15 years:
“I’ve always been into running but what I love about Frontrunners is the opportunity to meet different people. I run with lawyers, real estate agents, flight attendants, actors, dog walkers, painters and teachers. It’s also a great network when I’m travelling — whether I’m in Sydney, London or Sacramento, it’s fantastic to always have a club to run with.”
Joe Bergmann has been a member of California’s Bayrunners club in Santa Clara for more than ten years:
“I was never a serious runner, but the people that I’ve met at Frontrunners have been very supportive and the social opportunities beyond the running have also been really important for me. It was a nice awakening to what’s in the ‘real world’ as opposed to what one finds at gay bars and resorts, or in TV shows and movies.”
Matt Mehring from Minneapolis, joined the club in 2010 after deciding to publicly identify as a gay man and come out to his wife of 25 years
“I wanted to join a healthy group and meet some gay guys — I was surprised by how accepting everyone was.”
A key feature of the Frontrunners clubs is the way that they welcome new members — introducing everyone before the run gets underway. For Buffalo’s Robert Winters this was an important factor:
“I was enthusiastically introduced to the other group members, made to feel welcomed and included.”
Milwaukee’s Phaedra Christou at first found the introduction ritual a bit overwhelming:
“It was my first day with the club — the leader brought the group together in a circle and in a clockwise motion everyone stated their names. I could only remember the name John. There were just so many of them. I ran with two of the Johns. Both were friendly, asked me numerous questions about my life, told me a little about themselves, and made me feel at ease. I left with a surge of happiness that I couldn’t explain. I knew I would be back the following week.”
One of the stories that Frontrunners frequently tell is about the friends, lovers and partners that they’ve met through running. The experience of Kevin Kuehlwein, who joined when the Philadelphia Frontrunners club was established in 1983, is not uncommon:
“The best thing that’s happened to me through the group is that I met my partner of almost 17 years, Jon. He’s been the love of my life ever since. I’ve also met countless other wonderful people through the group and we’ve known and supported each other through many ups and downs in our lives.”
The Wellington chapter of Frontrunners in New Zealand was formed in 2000 in preparation for the 2002 Gay Games that were held in Sydney. Nigel Jeffcoat was one of the founding members and, from Jeffcoat’s perspective, international competition has been a big focus for the club:
“As well as the 2002 Gay Games, we’ve travelled to Montreal, Melbourne and Copenhagen, and then in 2011 Wellington hosted the 2nd Asia Pacific Region OutGames and we organised the running events which was fantastic.”
Vancouver’s Kathy Scott has been a Frontrunner since 2011, and has really seen the benefits:
“I’ve become a stronger runner, and definitely give the boys a run for their money. I’ve also joined the club’s board, which has expanded my leadership skills.”
Wellington’s Nigel Jeffcoat is keen to point out that potential new members shouldn’t be put off by any concerns about fitness or pace:
“Frontrunners is very welcoming for runners of any fitness level. In our club, we all start together, but then settle into whatever pace suits, and all end up back at the start point about the same time.”
For Yannick, from the Ottawa Frontrunners in Canada, the future looks bright:
“Our local club has been growing and there’s an influx of younger members that will reinvigorate the club. We’re also getting a bit more competitive against each other and are signing up as teams on local races to see how we can fare against other local running organisations.”
But the future is not without challenges for Frontrunners International — as Reggie Snowden explains:
“Gender balance is something that we need to work on. Our club in San Francisco only has 15 active females out of a club of 300. We’ve tried many things to bring that number up, with little success.”
Dave Weir from San Diego reports a similar challenge:
“Membership in many clubs weighs heavily on the older, white male demographic. Frontrunners needs to evolve in order to meet the needs of today’s LGBTQ population, spanning all age groups, genders, and ethnicities.”
But for Santa Clara’s Joe Bergman, Frontrunners has always been about more than just running:
“Running is just the excuse to come together once a week — the true magic of Frontrunners is what happens after the running is finished.”
Vancouver’s Kathy Scott agrees:
“Frontrunners enables us all to get more fit, while having fun and being fabulous!”