Fitness through Fellowship

F3 is an early-morning, men-only fitness group where members
build muscles and connections

By Matt White  |  Photography by Briana Brough

At 41 degrees, the mid-January morning feels almost balmy. Seven days before, when the dozen or so men of the F3 fitness group arrived at Page Vernon Park at the north end of downtown Pittsboro, the thermometer was at frigid 10 degrees, a record low. Most of the group that morning hid in warm cars along Hillsboro Street until just moments before the official start time of their workout.

But with temps well above freezing this time – though still long before dawn – 14 men gather on Page Vernon’s small island of brick-top with several minutes to spare, chatting and commiserating on the string of school closings – most have young children – and congratulating one another for making it out of bed. As 5:45 nears, Allen Baddour, leader of the day’s workout, calls for the group to form a circle.

At age 46, Allen is fairly typical of the men who join F3, which is shorthand for the group’s three key values: fitness, fellowship and faith. Founded as a nonprofit in Charlotte in 2011, the organization now has more than 100 workout groups around the Triangle. This Pittsboro gathering is the newest of 10 in Chatham and mirrors typical F3 workouts, with most men hovering around their 40s and with similar stories: athletic upbringings and early-20s have given way to marriage, fatherhood and careers, pushing exercise ever lower on daily to-do lists. Burned out on decades of failing to “find time for the gym,” many discover F3’s self-organized – and free – approach fits their lives.

A women’s version, dubbed FIA for Females in Action, recently started its first chapter in Briar Chapel.

“I’ve never been a gym guy,” says Matt Ford, also 46 and one of the co-organizers of the Pittsboro workout. “I get a lot from other people pushing me. I do rock climbing with my son at [Triangle Rock Club in Morrisville], which is social for some, but I’m not really meeting people or talking to people.”

At Matt’s first F3 workout in early 2017, he recognized the “boot camp”-style exercises – rapid-fire calisthenics counted out by a leader – from his three years as an Army Ranger in the ’90s, though there were differences.

“I expected people to be yelling at us,” he says. “I was happily surprised when no one was.” Still, he says, much like the Army, the early hour, often-inhospitable weather and demanding exercises create a sense of teamwork. “You’re in it together.”

“After college, it’s harder for guys to make real connections,” Allen says. “Especially when they move away from their hometown or where they went to college.” In F3, “you start to meet guys who can become real friends, not just workout partners.”

Once in the circle, Allen asks if there are any F3 newcomers – “FNGs,” as they’ll be known until finishing their first workout, at which point the group will give them an F3 nickname. Nicknames are at the heart of F3, serving as a glue of inside jokes that connects members both during and outside workouts. Crunches are “LBCs.” The leader of each workout is the “Q.” Allen, a Superior Court judge, was dubbed “Ito” at his first workout, as in the OJ Simpson trial judge, Lance Ito. Even the workout group itself has a nickname, “The Earl,” a winking nod to Pittsboro’s slightly askew path to its own name, which is not for William Pitt, the 1st Earl of Chatham, but for his son, also William Pitt, who rose to be prime minister of England but was never an earl.

Most of the men this morning have ties to Pittsboro, but they quickly realize none are current residents. Allen lived in town for 12 years but moved to Chapel Hill a decade ago, while Matt lives farther north as well, off Hamlets Chapel Road. Allen encourages the members to work on recruiting.

And with that, they begin: after a warmup of jumping jacks, push-ups and other calisthenics, Allen leads the group at a light jog down Hillsboro Street, around the Chatham County Historic Courthouse and into the county government office building’s exterior stairwells. There, the group does 30 minutes of exercises: dips on a low wall, squats and stair runs, gymnast-like burpees and, finally, several painful laps around a sidewalk in a “bear crawl” or “crab walk.”

Soon enough, they finish. Allen draws the group into a tight circle and they finish by calling off their nicknames and ages in turn, a sort of group affirmation that they’ve survived the workout together.

“I personally have always been a morning person,” Allen says. “But even if not, the truth is getting it in early and getting your day started with a positive message, even if you go sit at a desk all day, you feel better about yourself. It improves your spirit.” CM

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