BY WINNIE McCROY | If team sports just aren’t your thing, but working out alone seems just a bit too lonely, set your own pace within New York’s LGBT running and cycling clubs. From the Front Runners, founded in the late ‘70s, to the offshoot clubs that have spawned the bikers of Fast & Fab and the triathletes of the New York Tritons, gays, lesbians, and transgenders determined to go the distance no longer need to go it alone.
“With about 700 members, there is someone going at every pace,” said Megan Jenkins, president of Front Runners New York. “Some are long distance runners going 50 miles, some are short-distance sprinters, and some don’t race at all, they just walk with us to have a fit and healthy lifestyle.”
The group recently partnered with the LGBT Community Center and AIDS Service Center NYC for a membership drive, seeking new runners for their Beginners Clinic, a 12-week program with Coach Kelsey Louie, held Saturdays at Rutgers Church at 236 W. 73rd Street. The graduation exercise is the successful completion of the 30th annual Pride Run on Saturday, June 25.
Front Runners, Fast & Fab, and NY Tritons offer full gamut of athletic challenges
“The annual Pride Run is a beautiful experience,” said Jenkins. “It moves me to tears because more of our members come out for it than any other event. There are 5,000 registrants, not all gay, and 325 of our members ran the race last year.”
The Front Runners hold Fun Runs every Saturday at 10 a.m. and Wednesday nights at 7 p.m. on the lower loop of Central Park. The club hosts speed training workshops, long running workshops, coached swim workouts, and of course social events.
“We are serious athletes but we like to have fun,” said Jenkins. “We have an annual awards night, and it is great to see people usually in running shorts get dressed up to the nines. We have a variety show coming up, and we meet socially on the first Friday of the month at a different bar. This past month was at Henrietta’s.”
Jenkins said she joined Front Runners four years ago, after seeing postcards aimed at enrolling more women members.
Women’s vice-president Sandi Rowe noted the progress since then, saying, “Our Front Runners membership is about 21 percent female, a strong contrast from when I first joined many years earlier and there were literally two women who showed up at the few runs I participated in. I rejoined in October 2008 after the Pride Run, when I was shocked, amazed, and thrilled to see so many women branded with FRNY singlets.”
Rowe said she finds the level of support incredible and has heard from others that the team exudes a good energy. She also enjoys the group’s social events, from parties at members’ houses to impromptu get-togethers.
“Having a pool of women who are of varying pace, distance, age, and interests has been an attractive component,” said Rowe. “Translation for me: I can always find someone to run with or go to lunch with or share a movie with. These ladies are my family, and every time a new woman joins our club or just a Fun Run, it changes the dynamic just a bit and that keeps it fun and fresh.”
Jenkins said that the Front Runners mission is to promote running and provide a healthy alternative to the bar scene. The club encourages all to try it, even those with no experience.
“You might think running is just putting one foot in front of the other, but it can be difficult if you are alone,” said Jenkins. “We can help people with the ins and outs of building a program and learning how to do injury-free running. Running is a great sport, because it is very low cost — you just need a pair of sneakers — you can do it outside, you can even do it in the snow and rain.”
FAST & FAB
There were always members of Front Runners who enjoyed cycling as well. But it wasn’t until the Gay Games came to New York in 1994 that these runners/ bicyclers decided to band together and form an official team to compete.
Co-founder and events vice president Bob Nelson remembers the moment of inception –– he was holding a clipboard and asking cyclists how fast they wanted to go.
“Lacking any official criteria, we put ‘Fast’ on one side, and ‘Fabulous’ on the other, not wanting to offend anyone who was going slow,” he recalled. “That’s how we got the name, how the whole thing started.”
Although Fast & Fab is not geared primarily toward competition, its members have been represented at every Gay Games since. But the main goal, said Nelson, is to get people involved and active.
“It’s a great thing to get people out and participating in sports,” said Nelson. “We tell people they should come in and have a look and see if you like it. You’re not required to join the organization in order to participate in a ride; your first ride is free.”
The club imposes no requirement that participants or members use expensive racing bikes, but Nelson pointed out that road bikes with skinny tires or slightly larger hybrids are preferable to mountain bikes. Helmets are required.
Fast & Fab has a very active event calendar, with rides of different lengths each weekend. The group held its spring kickoff ride on April 10, biking 15 miles from the Central Park Boathouse to a member’s house in Yonkers for brunch. As with other events, Nelson noted, those participants who “had it after that,” had the option of taking Metro North back to Grand Central after the meal, rather than cycling back to Manhattan.
Other popular events the club reprises often includes a ride across the George Washington Bridge up to a cyclist-friendly café in Nyack and a trek to a popular pastry shop in Tarrytown.
“If it’s a ride longer than 30 miles, there is a food stop built into it, because you can’t do that kind of distance without refueling,” Nelson explained. “It’s a wonderful way to eat things you normally wouldn’t eat, because you are burning off so many calories. For anyone with a secret desire for pastries, this is the ticket.”
This week, Fast & Fab begins weekday rides on Wednesday mornings and Thursday nights, with other rides on Sundays to prevent the overlap with Front Runners events, most often held on Saturdays.
In addition to short and medium-distance rides in the immediate metro area, some members opt for longer rides, like the couple currently training for the Montauk Century, a 145-mile ride from the city to Long Island’s eastern end held on May 15. And let’s not forget the June 5 Bob Nelson Century, the 100-mile trek along the Hudson that prepares cyclists for the 127-mile Boston to Provincetown ride on June 18. That event rolls into the popular beach resort at Cap Cod’s tip just in time for the Gay Pride finale.
Though members of Fast & Fab weave a social component into each event, they are athletes first and foremost.
“Personally I’m not going out on the town after a long bike ride,” Nelson said. “After 60 miles, all I want is dinner and a rest, and I’ll call it a day.”
THE NEW YORK TRITONS
The gay and lesbian New York Tritons are a group of duathletes and triathletes, short-course specialists, and long-distance junkies who, like Fast & Fab, launched their club out of Front Runners. Director Claudia Cummings started the group in 1997 after completing a summer triathlon.
“I got so excited about it I wanted to compete in the 1998 Gay Games, so I put the word out about starting a team, and the next thing we knew we had 25 people who went to Amsterdam,” she said.
After the Gay Games, Cummings said, the team split from Front Runners to do training specific to triathlons.
“It’s easier to get people to meet their multisport goals in doing that,” she explained.
A triathlon involves swimming, biking, and running, usually in that order. A duathlon, which some members consider more difficult, involves running, biking, and more running.
In the years between the Gay Games, the Tritons got so involved in training that they began competing in Ironman and half Ironman competitions. This year marks the ten-year anniversary of their first Ironman competition.
The Tritons are very committed, training anywhere from five to seven days a week, swimming three days a week at the pool on Roosevelt Island, and running and biking two or three days a week in Central and Prospect Parks.
“We call them brick workouts,” said co-director Leslie Jones, who originally came from Team NY, the city’s gay aquatic league. “We do the bike to run workout, and because transition is so important in triathlons, we train how to get off your biking gear and into running gear fast — races are won or lost over that. It’s these things that are multisport-specific that make sense for us to be an independent organization.”
They may be intense, but the New York Tritons welcome people racing at every distance and level, including long-distance runners and people who have never ran or swam competitively.
“People ask what they have to do to qualify to be in Tritons,” said Cummings. “We just say come to practice. We don’t believe that it should be restrictive, or that you can’t be part of the team if you haven’t been in a triathlon.”
Because swimming is not the strongest event for many triathletes, members work on their technique in the off-season.
“We spend a lot of time in the water focusing on technique, form and balance,” said Jones. “We do great distance workouts, swim series, and some people actually do swim in the Hudson River.”
With spring coming, the focus will shift toward running and cycling.
“Because so many of our members are bikers, they tend to already have a good bike,” said Jones. “But if not, we discourage them from getting an expensive triathlon bike. If they become interested in the sport and want to take it to the next level, they can invest at any financial level they want. But the idea that every tri-bike needs to cost $5,000 is ridiculous. The right bike is the one that’s right for you.”
“I started out with a $200 bike, and now I have four bikes, the cheapest of which is $800,” said Cummings. “But you can absolutely start on the bike already in your garage. Our goal is participation, to go out and have fun doing something you love.”
In their pursuit of multisport perfection, the Tritons alternate their swimming, running, and biking with transition drills.
“We actually have workouts in Central Park where we do a quick bike loop, put our shoes on, run for five minutes, then do it again,” said Cummings. “It’s not a speed workout; we are practicing that transition, to get your legs used to when you stop biking and start running, because your legs can feel kind of heavy.”
Jones added, “As triathletes we try to minimize logistics between races. I wear my biking outfit under my wetsuit. And most just get off their bike and run in that outfit. For longer distances, they might put on running shorts. It’s better to be happy for the next 26 miles. But because it’s part of your overall time, you need to plan for how fast you can get out of that wetsuit and into your bike helmet. Claudia is one of the fastest on our team; she can get out of her bike shoes and into her sneakers in less than 30 seconds.”
Cummings confided, “I practice putting on my shoes standing up.”
“The details are in the toys,” said Jones. “We have different ideas on how to make the transition faster, like using quick-laces — elastic laces that you don’t have to tie. It is always a great joy to go running past someone who beat you on the bike part because they’re still tying their shoes.”
Because being a triathlete exacts a high cost both physically and financially, Tritons keeps their membership fee low, and don’t charge for events, other than a $5 pool fee. Cummings and Jones, both certified coaches, offer their services for free.
“I think it’s one of our great benefits to give people the opportunity to learn about and excel at a sport, and take it as far as they want to,” said Jones.
Although the training takes quite a bit of time and the Tritons are careful about planning events to limit overlap between members who also participate in Front Runners and Fast & Fab, the group does get together every month or so for a workshop and presentation, combined with a potluck dinner
“Everyone catches up, and then we have a talk on a specific topic –– for example, a videotaped swim practice we will watch and review our kicks,” said Cummings. “At the end of each swim season, we have a graduation celebration, and we will have ad hoc dinners, but the fun for us is in what we are doing. But just doing multisport training and living your life on top of that is a complicated prospect that most athletes struggle with.
“But the joy of this kind of movement is in the experience; that’s what we want people to start feeling, is that this incredibly wonderful journey can be a true joy. I have met most of my best friends on a bike or a running trail.”