After interviewing more than 30 people in connection with this column over the last two and a half years (and proudly never employing the first person), I am using the space of my last profile to write about the club itself. It’s the one character that has inhabited each and every profile, and it now deserves center stage.
Front Runners ignites passion in its members. Some people find refuge in the club and mold it into the family they never had, while others meet heartache or disappointment and walk away in disgust. There are members who have met friends, roommates, lovers, spouses, lawyers, accountants, masseuses, interior designers, one night stands, soul mates, tennis partners, cycling companions, life coaches, travel buddies, drinking buddies, rhymes-with-duck buddies, running mates and movie dates. Front Runners have discovered the bottomless generosity of their fellow man and woman and have also learned the hidden depths of their potential as they have reached new goals and, in some cases, completely reinvented themselves. Some come churchlike every Saturday, and others disappear for long spells but are instantly brought back into the fold. Some mill about on the periphery of the meeting circle on Saturdays, and others stay within arm’s reach of the cream cheese station. There are moments of unexpected grace, and there are times when minor drama erupts like lava onto the gymnasium floor at Rutgers. That’s right. We’ve got it all. Like the famous gay novel that gave us our name, Front Runners New York is-first and foremost-a love story.
When Lenore Beaky accepted FRNY’s first-ever AREA award for sustained commitment to the club, she remarked on how every year at Awards Night some runner stepped onto stage and said: “Front Runners New York has changed my life.” The men and women I have interviewed for these profiles have echoed the same sentiment-but everyone finds something a little different in their FRNY journey.
Finding life: In reflecting on his times with Front Runners in the mid-1980s, former club president Marty King credited his still being alive to FRNY. He told me that looking back he realized that the runner’s regimen of early morning training and marathon preparation with the club helped keep him from the bar scene during the height of the AIDS epidemic. The bulk of today’s members will (quite luckily) not have such a literal connection to “finding life” in Front Runners. But most dedicated Front Runners have experienced this phenomenon-the first time that you complete the 6-mile loop without wanting to keel over and die, when you suddenly feel a burst of energy in the middle of the afternoon and find yourself counting down the minutes to the Wednesday night fun run, or maybe it’s the moment you are finally confident enough to run shirtless or in a tank top during the summer.
Finding a posse: We’ll always have Viand. One of the special things about Front Runners is that a newcomer can visit the club once or twice and feel instantly at home and wonder how life without FRNY was ever possible. Today, the groups of new friends may meet for Wednesday night drinks at Therapy or on Roosevelt Island for the lesbian homecoming event of the season, with their pictures popping up on desktops across Manhattan as people get their daily facebook fix. But looking through faded photos of friends huddled in Central Park after the early Pride Runs, one can see this trend existed since the club’s inception. Lee Abbey spoke to me fondly of his memories of The Runettes and the Shangri-lezzies, the club’s gay and lesbian drag groups of yore. I know from personal experience that as you’re first finding your groove in the club, nothing can go wrong. The impromptu invitations flow like Franzia in a trailer park, the weekend runs feed your soul in a social smorgasbord, and that bitter cocktail that is New York City sweetens up just for you. Then you know you’ve found your posse.
Finding a thrill: Being a Front Runner is an exhilarating ride. The frisson can take on multiple forms, but for many lesbians and gay men the main thrill is competition. Many Front Runners have told me that they never felt accepted or validated as an athlete before joining the club. The committed and talented runners over the years – Sue Foster and Patrick Barker and Gary Apruzzese up through Loren Mooney and Kelsey Louie and Rich Velazquez and John MacConnell (with age-defying runners such as Julie Delaurier, Rick Buckheit and Patrick Guilfoyle bridging the gaps) – have inspired those of us not preternaturally gifted to dig deep and reach our personal best. In his History Channel column, Steve Gerben described a group of hearty Front Runners in the mid-80s who competed in a 24-hour relay in Staten Island on invitation from the local powerhouse team at that time. Two decades later that same competitive desire spirited our 2005 men’s Reach the Beach ultra team to battle to a first-place finish and led FRNY to win the inaugural Need for Speed Relay in 2006. But more important than these wins have been the countless men and women who have tasted the thrill of personal triumph. Stephanie Tuerk qualifying for Boston at her first-ever marathon in New York in 2005. Lucia Muntean breaking 25 minutes in a 4-miler this year. Kelsey Louie achieving a lifelong quest of breaking 2 minutes in the 800 meters at the 2004 FRNY track meet. Paul Racine snatching a Boston qualifier by more than 17 minutes this year at age 61. Rich Velazquez capturing the club NYC marathon record by breaking 2:40 in November 2006. And the list could go on for days. Front Runners New York knows how to keep the thrill alive. We just do.
Finding love: It’s bound to happen when you put a group of in-shape men and women together week after week, fun run after fun run, race after race. Somewhere along the trails polite chitchat slips into innuendo or a faster runner slows down for the object of her affection, and the seeds of love are sown. Just this past Saturday, I was talking with Lenore and Ruth, two women who met on a special fun run from Washington Heights to the Village in 1991. When Lenore suggested a post-run trip to Fairway, Ruth jumped on the opportunity. (And no, she was not in need of discount produce.) Over 17 years later, they are still together and live in Rhode Island with their seven-year-old daughter Leah. “We like to drop by when we’re in town,” they said, “just to know this place is still here.” Bill McGlinn took a shine to a trim-waisted runner in cadet blue shorts on a George Washington Bridge long run well over 20 years ago. To this day he calls Mark Mascolini his lover, the preferred term of their generation. The buds of romance bloom all about the Front Runner garden. Dave Pitches and Dan Elliot. Audra Farrell and Loren Mooney. Patrick Guilfoyle and Johnny Fraser. TJ Jones and Bernd Erpenbeck. Yes, the list could go on for days.
Finding purpose: Every time I am tempted to say that Front Runners New York is just a running club, I am reminded of the profound sense of purpose behind so many things that our members do. We really do love and take care of one another. By 1992, the club had already seen too many of its members succumb to AIDS, and the battle of Guy Zelenak, a particularly beloved member, with the disease sparked the team into action. Former presidents Greg Valerie and Gary Apruzzese helped mobilize club resources to form the Charitable Foundation, which is active to this day, to aid those in the lesbian and gay community battling severe and debilitating illnesses. But each member finds purpose, and a way to give back, in his or her own way. Joe Criscione offers up his Park Slope apartment as a rendezvous point for our annual Blue Line Run. Members like Rob Lyons and Jay Smith help make our Saturday morning breakfasts more cost efficient by going on periodic bulk shopping runs. Joe Lim brought our website into the 21st century, and Alex Kristofcak made the club’s newsletter relevant again. And that truly is only a teensy dose of what Front Runners do.
Finding yourself : It’s easy to feel lost in New York City. And-even at the bitter end of 2008-it’s still all too easy to feel lost as a gay man or woman. For those Front Runners whom I know best, and who stick with FRNY most vehemently, what the club has done is help them find-or remember-who they are. Sarah Whitcomb told me that the club allowed her to develop her identity as a lesbian runner after a difficult break-up. “For me it is incredible, nourishing, relaxing, empowering, to (now) have a place where I feel like in some fundamental way I am just like everyone,” she had told me when I profiled her this past April. The club allowed Michael Orzechowski to start over. Within months of joining the club, he had sloughed off the chains of a dysfunctional and corrosive relationship and was rediscovering his worth. Within a few years, Michael would become one of the club’s most successful presidents. When I first worked with Mikey Benjamin on the board of Front Runners, he often struggled with asserting himself and sometimes blushed when speaking publicly. Of course, Mikey now has a natural and assured presence on Saturday mornings. Leading the club has allowed him to grow as a person, to tap into his confidence and to find his voice.
When it comes down to it, we will always be a group of men and women who run together. The notion sounds simple enough, but every avid runner knows the elation and the agony, the triumph and the disappointment, the blue skies and the windy downpours that come with the sport. And Front Runners lives and dies on those same dualities. Some days you’re a washed up has-been and other days you’re swimming in a fountain of youth. It’s joyous, fulfilling and life-affirming, and it’s torturous, sad and soul-crushing. As I said, it’s a love story.