Dane Grams thought he'd never get to New York City. And the road from Absegami High in Galloway, New Jersey, to West 57th Street did not run true. On the way, he had addresses in Washington, DC, Spokane, Washington, and St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands.
"I always wanted to live in New York City," Dane confides. "It was always a dream of mine, and I thought it was always going to be unattainable. I don't know why, but it intimidated me."
Now that he calls Manhattan home, without a hint of diffidence, you can usually find him leaving (he loves traveling), all ears-and eyes-in a Broadway theater, bar hopping with friends, hanging out with his dog Jersey, raising money for GLSEN (the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network), or helping run Front Runners. Or running.
Athletic archives at Old Absegami don't list Dane as a track standout or a cross-country mud scudder. In fact he never ran-except to catch the bus-until he joined a running club, Front Runners New York. Why would someone who never jogged across the park join a running club?
New to New York City, and newly without his boyfriend of 4 years, Dane was looking for a good way "to meet people and do something meaningful." Heeding the counsel of Dave Lin, whom he met in DC in late 2002 when both thought a 7-minute-mile was something a cab did on Constitution Ave in rush hour, Dane enlisted with Front Runners. "Joining the club was not only a new social experience, it was a new athletic experience as well," he reflects. "So I was sort of a newbie all the way around."
Not for long. A club member for only a few months, Dane signed up for his first race, the 4-mile Run for the Park on April 22, 2007, at the age of 34. "He was so excited about both the race and his new Front Runner friends," Dave Lin says, "that we threw a big carbo-loading pasta dinner with about a dozen of us, all having a good time." The dinner was such a hit that Grams and Lin made it a tradition-"usually with a freely flowing box of Franzia wine," an oenophilic Lin divulges.
Only 2 and a half years later, Dane has piled up an impressive racing record, including four marathons, sub-7-per-mile paces across an array of middle-distance races, and a splendent 3:23 in his first New York City Marathon in 2009. ("I felt like a rock star!") Always the team player, Dane has competed in a few triathlon relays and a couple of all-running relays, including more than one relay win.
"As a runner, Dane has improved immensely since starting Front Runners," his buddy Ryan Singer reckons, predicting further gains soon: "I expect that we could see him contributing to the points standing and qualifying for Boston in the coming years." The New York Marathon time was only 8 minutes above Dane's current Boston-qualifying threshold. Next up on the marathon circuit: Phoenix in January and Cologne Gay Games in August.
"It's pretty amazing to start something and be so passionate about so far into your life," Dane observes. But he's a two-footer in most of life's pursuits, jumping in with both of them whenever he finds something worth vaulting about. Bungee jumping off the frothy lip of Victoria Falls (360 feet top to bottom) is only the most dramatic example. Once he found Front Runners, Dane quickly decided he could do more than show up at races wearing the team singlet or bending his elbow and others' ears on the social carousel.
A year after joining FRNY, Dane ran for the board and got elected secretary. In 2009 he made the move to men's vice-president, and he's running unopposed for that post in 2010. He co-managed the team's mile-24 NYC Marathon spot for 2 years, cochaired the club's Development Committee, headed up the Pride Run fundraiser twice, and played Pearl Mesta as FRNY social calendar planner for the last 2 years.
"I learned quickly that if you want to know what's going on in the club socially, just talk to Dane," Seth Richardson advises. "He's the closest thing FRNY has to Cruise Director Julie McCoy. Dane will make sure you make it to the next First Friday Social and is great about introducing you to new people."
Dane claims his overdrive commitment to the club is easy to understand. Joining FRNY helped him meet "all these great people of all different shapes and sizes, of all different running capacities, of all different ages, who had come together for running but found much more than that in the club. I found it so rewarding for me personally that I wanted to volunteer my time and energy to make the club the same positive experience for other people."
FRNY president Rob Lennon stresses that Dane's contributions to the club extend beyond choosing "a zany slate of bars" for First Fridays. Dane "has also introduced interesting charitable fundraisers like the Sea Tea and Hoedown into the mix." Lennon thinks Dane's success in this effort derives both from his acute sense of "what makes the club fun for people" and his professionally honed skills in fundraising.
Kindling the giving spirit has been Dane's professional aim since he took his first job at Greenpeace in late 1993, where he worked for David Lemos, former chief of the Names Project Foundation, which fashioned the AIDS Quilt. From there Dane moved to Human Rights Campaign, where he scared up donations from late 1997 through early 2009 to promote equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Americans.
In March 2009, Dane moved to GLSEN (pronounced "glisten"), the largest national organization working to end anti-LGBT bullying and harassment of students in grades K through 12. With less than a year under his belt at GLSEN, Dane has already run two major events that both exceeded goals, one in record-breaking fashion. This career path leads Ryan Singer to dub Dane "a professional gay."
Though he rates the 2009 job switch--and consequently heavy work load and increased responsibility--"certainly daunting," Dane felt the time was right for a change. "I don't think I was pushing myself enough" at Human Rights Campaign, Dane says. "I was also afraid if I didn't try something new soon, I would never try anything new." His immediate up-to-the-eyeballs immersion at GLSEN made it harder to find time for running, and Dane's race results plateaued. But he kept pace with club chores, and FRNY remains in tip-top financial shape.
One of the challenges for the club now, Dane thinks, is "finding a balance between making sure we have enough money put away for a rainy day, but also doing things with that money, giving back to the club in some way, and being good servants to the community as well." FRNY continues its strong support of local charitable groups, with a stated mission of helping people with HIV infection and other illnesses.
When not running, running teas and hoedowns for FRNY, or running after money for GLSEN, Dane is usually flying around the world satisfying his wanderlust or warming a seat in a Broadway theater. High points in his travel log include a gay cruise on the Mediterranean with Dave Lin, and trips to China, Israel, Portugal, Zimbabwe, Kenya, South Africa, and Zambia, where he took the bungee plunge down Victoria Falls. "They almost had to push me off," Dane confesses, "but I think that counts." Next up-Germany, maybe South America, another African adventure, and lots more giorni in Italia.
Back in New York, Dane haunts theaters on and off the Great White Way. "I like everything," he says. "But probably my favorites are musicals." He figures he's seen "hundreds and hundreds" of shows since embracing his limelit addiction, revisiting some blockbuster musicals as many as a dozen times each. He goes with family, with friends, or by himself, sometimes snaring a free ticket or two from his vast network of movers and shakers.
And in his spare time, Dane marries people. While living in St. Thomas he got ordained as a minister thanks to an online church "because I thought it might be fun to be able to marry people, and lo and behold two friends of mine in the Virgin Islands were going to get married and the judge who was going to marry them was unable to do it." So Dane stepped in to pace his pals through their vows. Since then, he's also sealed the bond between his oldest childhood friend and her man.
Be careful! If Dane doesn't show up at your wedding in ministerial drag, he'll find another way to sweep you into his high-spin vortex. Just ask Dane's Mom. Although it took her a little while to embrace her son's gay lifestyle, she now finds herself flipping flapjacks at the premarathon pancake breakfast and judging acts suave and whacky at the FRNY Variety Show.
"She just happened to be in New York" on the Variety Show weekend, Dane explains, "so I asked her and she said, 'sure, that sounds like fun.'"
Gregor Mendel would not be surprised.
Written by Mark Mascolini