The November Project first started out in Boston, Massachusetts, as a means of motivating its founding members to keep active during the cold, winter months. From its humble beginnings, this free fitness movement has grown into a global community, spanning 57 locations all over the world. While the leaders in each city find novel ways to design workouts around their city’s unique environment, the San Francisco, California, group in particular is finding new ways to take to the trails.
Trail runner and race photographer Tony DiPasquale started attending the Boston branch of the November Project not long after it was founded, and then went on to be a leader in the San Francisco branch for many years before recently standing down. He told iRunFar:
“The guys who started [the original November Project in Boston] were rowers from the college that I went to. I was one step removed from them, I was friends with their friends. When they started up November Project, they invited everyone out. The Harvard Stadium, which was the original workout with November Project, was something we had always done as rowers. It was something familiar to me, something I knew was fun.”
The Harvard Stadium is a 30,000-person capacity stadium in Boston. It is made up of 37 sections with large concrete tiered seating — a total of 1,147 concrete seats. The unique workout, which takes its name from the venue, involves running up all of the concrete seats, and running down on the staircases between them.
The workout is adaptable to different fitness levels, with challenges including the “full tour,” which means running up and down each of the 37 sections in the shortest period of time; the “century,” which sees runners continue to circle the stadium until they have run up and down 100 sections; or the more beginner friendly “35 minutes” — which is simply a challenge to see how many sections of the stadium you can run in 35 minutes.
About six months into training with the November Project in Boston, DiPasquale came to San Francisco for a six-week training program for work. About that time, runner Laura Green, now well-known for her comedic running content on social media, had moved from Boston to San Francisco and founded the San Francisco branch of November Project. DiPasquale said, “When I came out here for work training, I started going to workouts with them.” Upon returning to Boston, DiPasquale became more and more involved with November Project, pursuing it for many years, before eventually moving to San Francisco permanently, where he was happy to have the familiar workout community to link up with.
Here he got to know ultrarunner Paddy O’Leary, who was now a leader with November Project and said, “I did it for many years, and eventually when it was time for Paddy to step down as leader, he asked me to step up, and so I did.”
In the early days of November Project, it mostly spread to other cities via members — such as Green — relocating and taking November Project with them. The second and third locations where the movement appeared were Edmonton, Canada, and San Francisco — both as a result of original Boston members moving. But as DiPasquale said, “Once it got big enough that people were hearing about it in news stories and it started getting press, then people were saying, ‘Oh, this is a cool thing that I want to bring to my city.’ And so people who had never been to one started starting them in other cities.”
Now November Project takes place in 57 locations around the world, with an average of 4,500 people attending free workouts each week, and with 250,000 people added to its list of lifelong members.
While the activities vary from city to city, they each follow a similar framework. The original Boston group met three times per week, and as DiPasquale described, “Every Wednesday was the Harvard Stadium, Friday was this one hill we’d run hill repeats on — Boston is not very hilly, so it was always just one hill! Then on Monday we would have a different location, we would go to different parks around Boston and do a deck-of-cards workout.”
A deck-of-cards workout is a fast-paced and varied workout, which involves using a deck of cards to randomly assign an exercise and number of reps to be completed.
“The San Francisco branch took that model and applied it to San Francisco.” said DiPasquale. “So, every Wednesday was the same park — it was a park in the city, centrally located. But then every Friday, instead of doing just one hill, every Friday was a different hill, as there are so many great hills around the city. It was a great way to explore the city. Some of them were road hills, some of them were trail hills. There’s just so many options in San Francisco, we were exploring everything. And then every Monday was the same location.”
Most branches of November Project now follow this framework, with a mix of static and moving locations built into their weekly schedule, depending on what unique training grounds their city has to offer.
Although November Project was never intended to be a trail running community, due to the abundance of accessible trails in San Francisco, it formed a strong overlap there with the local trail running community, with many members taking part in trail races. Also, as DiPasquale said: “Because November Project was being sponsored by The North Face at the time, we were doing The North Face Endurance Challenge Series events. There was always an endurance challenge in the headlands, so every year we would go big for that and bring out lots of people to run that.”
The North Face Endurance Challenge Series ─ California took place in the stunning Marin Headlands outside of San Francisco, with a range of distances from five kilometers to 50 miles, with something to suit a broad range of November Project attendees.
Although its members come from a range of sporting backgrounds — including swimmers, runners, triathletes and others who use it for a means of cross training — and many for whom November Project is their sole form of exercise, its founding mission was always more to do with building community than fitness. As DiPasquale put it, “I would say November Project was really about people who were looking for community and coming to find it. I think that’s really where it excelled. Especially in a city like San Francisco, which is very transient — there’s always people moving in and out. Something like November Project was great to find people who have just moved to the city, to find a community of people who like to work out.”
DiPasquale has since moved on and passed the torch to a new wave of November Project leaders — Alejandra Monroy, Shardul Golwalkar, and Kaylee Hill.
I caught up with Golwalkar, who said: “I moved to San Francisco in 2018, about five years ago, and heard about November Project from a friend of a friend … I was looking for a morning-workout group anyway, being new to the city, and so I just showed up at the park and met the co-leaders, and I just continued going. I liked the vibe, the environment, and it got my morning workout taken care of.” In 2020, Golwalkar stepped up to the role of co-leader with November Project and has continued ever since. The San Francisco November Project now meets twice a week, still with one fixed location on a Wednesday and a moving hill workout on a Friday.
Golwalkar said, “The trails are always great in the city. We rarely run the trails outside of the city, but there are a lot of trails within the city that we use for hill workouts — Alamo Square has a little bit of trail, then there’s Mount Sutro, which is all trail.” Over the years, San Francisco residents have created smaller communities from the people they’ve met through November Project, and there is a currently a splinter group who head out for a trail run on Thursdays.
November Project is tailored to meet the needs of people with busy lives, and Golwalkar said, “The workouts for November Project are from 6:30 a.m. to 7 a.m. A 30-minute workout with coffee after, it’s before work, and then people can get on with whatever they are doing for the day.” The early starts continue right through the depths of winter, and Golwalkar said: “We have people come out in head torches, some people just use the light of their phones, but we adapt!” The group prides itself on rarely if ever having missed a workout, and Golwalkar said that the moderate climate in San Francisco lends itself well to year-round outdoor pursuits. He said, “We talk about being weatherproof. We pride ourselves on working out in any weather. In San Francisco specifically we have fog, rain, and sometimes but rarely a little bit of thunder. But no tornados or anything like that.”
The benefits of belonging to the November Project include being part of a global community, with the door always open to join up with other groups while visiting a different city. Golwalkar said, “I’ve probably gone to about 10 or 15 different cities where they have November Project and met people in those cities.” As well as being scattered throughout the US, November Project hubs also exist in cities such as Amsterdam, The Netherlands, London, England, and Reykjavík, Iceland.
Another brainchild of former leader Laura Green was what’s called Run Crew, which involves the group running to the workout together, and picking up others at various locations along the way. This idea came about partly for safety, as some might feel uncomfortable about heading out alone at that hour of the morning, but it also acts as an extra incentive to get out the door on winter mornings when motivation is low. Golwalkar said, “There’s definitely been both men and women who say it’s good to have that peer accountability to go to the workout, as well as the added safety.”
Golwalkar hinted at the possibility of a November Project branch starting where I live in Ireland, which is something I will be keeping my eyes peeled for, and you can check out the list of locations on their website to see if there is one that suits you!
Call for Comments
- Is there a November Project near you? Have you attended some of their workouts?
- Where else would you like to see this movement appear?