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FrontRunners mixes running and networking for healthy fun

By Damin Esper

Tom Musbach was looking for something to do socially in San Francisco. But Musbach was looking for something different than the usual bar and club scene.

Enter the FrontRunners. The San Francisco chapter of the longtime gay and lesbian (and anybody else who wants to run) running club provided the perfect social interaction. And it's good for you.

"When I joined back in the '93, I was fairly new to the city and I had just recently come out," Musbach said. "I met a lot of people who shared my interest. Instead of going out to clubs all the time, they ran and were healthy. It was a great alternative to going out to bars and clubs for me.

"Now, I have a lot of friends in San Francisco and I can trace nearly all to FrontRunners."

The San Francisco chapter is the original chapter of the now venerable running club. The FrontRunners were born of "Lavendar U," a free university from the early 1970s. Free universities were basically free newspapers that listed classes being offered by all-comers. A group of people in San Francisco were going to offer a furniture refinishing class. At the last minute, they decided to offer a jogging class. The two-month class was to progress from a half mile to five miles with a scenic run every Sunday.

Lavendar U was gone by 1978 but the running club carried on. It took the name FrontRunners at that time, named after Patricia Neil Warren's novel the Front Runner.

Other chapters began sprouting in 1980.

The appeal is obvious, according to Jim Oakley, a longtime member of the San Francisco FrontRunners.

"I always ran by myself," he said, adding that he had been a runner since he was a teenager.

"This was actually the first time I ran routinely with other people. I just find it's more entertaining to run with other people. I just enjoy the friendships and connections I find when I run with other people."

The social connections include both Oakley and Musbach – the former came to the club through the latter.

Another key to the club is that it almost forces you to get out of bed and on the road – even if you don't want to do it.

"It motivates me," Oakley said. "I make it pretty much every Saturday."

The San Francisco FrontRunners currently have two official runs. They gather every Tuesday evening for a jog from the iconic Ferry Building with three- and five-mile runs around the waterfront.

And they gather on Saturday mornings in Golden Gate Park with runs offered for all levels of runners. Beginners can take a one-mile walk or run around Stow Lake. Two-, three- and four-mile runs are also offered for intermediate runners and the serious types can take a five-mile run to the beach and back.

According to sffrontrunners.com, over 100 runners come out every Saturday. On Sundays, a sub-group of the club's higher-level runners gather to prepare for various marathons and road races.

The club also offers non-running activities. The Saturday run is followed by brunch, a very popular activity. Tuesday runs are followed by a modest dinner at a local restaurant. Movie nights are held. Parties are also thrown, both official and unofficial. There is the annual drag night as well.

"Part of what draws me to FrontRunners every week is I know a number of people there who I socialize with every week," Oakley said.

The socialization extends to other clubs as well. More than 100 chapters exist around the world. Anytime members travel to a city with another chapter, they know they can find running partners. Musbach once met a member of the D.C. club in Miami at a journalism conference and the two went off running.

San Francisco FrontRunners hosts an annual Pride Run during the city's Pride Weekend every June. Club members also enter various races including Bay to Breakers and the San Francisco Marathon. Ambitious ones have qualified for high-profile races including the Boston and New York marathons.

"We also run water stations for the big races as well," Oakley said. "Which is really a lot of fun. I've done that a few times."

All in all, the FrontRunners are much more than just a running club. It's a healthy, fun social network, too.

To find a FrontRunners’ chapter near you, visit FrontRunners.org.