Patricia Nell Warren's 1973 book The Front Runner, about a gifted Olympic-level runner who falls in love with his coach, has been heralded as one of the best gay novels of all time. It's also one of the most popular, having sold an estimated ten million copies in ten languages. It was the first modern story about gay love to become an international bestseller, and, after 38 years, is due to be made into a feature film later this year.
Fitting, then, that The Front Runner would lend its name to a worldwide alliance of nearly 120 LGBT-focused running and walking clubs in cities from Anchorage to Amsterdam. The Bay Area hosts four, including the original, established in San Francisco in 1973 and featuring runners from throughout the region. (Back then it was called the Lavender U Joggers; they changed the name after Warren's book was released.) In 1984, a handful of East Bay members splintered off to form the East Bay Front Runners. Now in its 27th year, the group features 115 members — up from 105 in 2009 and 87 in 2008 — and hosts weekly runs at rotating locations throughout the East Bay, as well as an annual Pride Run and Walk around Lake Merritt. All events are open to the entire LGBT community, regardless of fitness level, as well as to friends, family, and supporters.
But there's much more to the club than running, said Vice President Michael Collier. "Bottom line, we're all about the brunch," he said, only half-joking. "We like to talk, we like to exercise a bit, and then we go out for brunch." Indeed: Each Saturday morning meet-up, in which attendees are divided into groups for walking, jogging, and running, is followed by a club brunch. Even before the run begins, Collier takes a show of hands for brunch, then calls the restaurant to make a reservation. Ninety or so minutes later, exercise dutifully performed, most everyone on hand descends upon the designated brunch spot, where the real fun begins. In fact, Collier said, some folks skip the run altogether.
"It's a great way to network and catch up and make more friends," he said. "It's like a second family for me. My family structure is not that strong; this is my tribe, this is my community." Collier joined the Front Runners as a walker with the Palo Alto group in 1997. He moved to the East Bay Front Runners in 2008, still as a walker, but at the encouragement of fellow members transitioned to running and soon became one of its fastest members. He's since completed two 10K races and is aiming for a half-marathon. Yet despite his success, he's quick to stress that racing is entirely beside the point: "The thing about the group is we're not competitive. We just get along. We're like brothers and sisters."
On Saturday, January 22, the East Bay Front Runners meet at 9 a.m. in the parking lot at the south end of Marina Park (Monarch Bay and Fairway drives, San Leandro), with brunch to follow at 10:30 a.m. at La Piñata (2699 Merced Ave., San Leandro). Free; annual club membership $15-$24. EastBayFrontRunners.org