Running group builds male friendships and encourages community service

Every morning, men from Oak Park, River Forest, Forest Park, and occasionally communities on Chicago’s West Side gather outside at dawn, rain or shine, to train.

The men are part of Fitness, Fellowship and Faith (F3), a network of exercise groups that strengthen physical bodies and social bonds by offering men supportive friendship groups. The faith component is for individual members to determine.

Organizers started the network in 2011 in Charlotte, North Carolina, while members launched the local group in 2019.

Oak Park’s Josh Andersson got involved with a Chicago F3 group before deciding to form an Oak Park Chapter in 2019. The chapter started with six members before dropping to three or four when the pandemic began.

“We were observing social distancing [and other precautions], but we knew we needed the band because brotherhood was so important,” Andersson said. “Just getting together and having social interaction was vital for the four of us. It was a highlight of my day, to be honest.

David Osta, also from Oak Park and a member since 2019, agreed.

“It was a way to stay connected and avoid social isolation,” he said. “Even though we were physically far apart, we were bonding.”

Andersson said the group now has about 60 members and holds about two practice sessions a day. He said there were usually between five and 15 people at each session.

They hold the workouts at four locations in Oak Park: Ridgeland Common, 415 Lake St.; Pilgrim Congregational Church parking lot, 460 Lake Street; the south side of Lindberg Park, 1150 N. Marion St.; and in the Washington Irving School parking lot, 1125 S. Cuyler Ave.

They also train at River Forest’s Priory Park, 7354 Division St.; near Forest Park’s Kribi Coffee Roastery, 7324 Madison St.; and in Austin at the Columbus Park Golf Course parking lot, 5701 W. Jackson Blvd.

Groups usually meet at 5:30 a.m. and 6:30 a.m. on weekdays and at 6 a.m. and 7 a.m. on Saturdays.

Andersson said the exercises take place in the morning because it’s a great way to start a day and because it’s easier to convince yourself not to do them after work. Oak Parker Mrunil Champaneri, member since July 2020, said he found it beneficial.

“Exercise is a great way to start several days. You get up early, work hard, and it puts you in a good frame of mind,” he said.

Champaneri also said the exercise at Columbus Park broadened his view of the world.

“I’ve been at Oak Park for 21 years and realized how isolated I was,” he said. “We live a mile from Columbus Park, which is a beautiful park, but it’s east of Austin Boulevard, and I’ve never ventured east of Austin Boulevard. It’s a bit of a barrier invisible.

The group trains virtually in all weathers, regardless of season, to encourage accountability and “broaden your mind beyond your comfort zone.”

“Even in the negative 20 chills, we bring hand warmers. We are active, always on the move, making sure no one stays around too long. Andersson said. “Lightning is the only reason we could cancel it. When it rains, the first exercise will be on the ground.

Andersson stressed that they wanted to make sure everyone felt welcome and supported.

“We want to make this group accessible to all men, and we want to make sure that no matter what your fitness level, you won’t be left behind,” he added.

Osta felt that most members were from Oak Park and River Forest, and fewer from Forest Park and Riverside. Osta said the group has been in contact with 773 Peace Runners, an East Garfield Park running group that also does outdoor workouts.

“We had, not a ton, but a few [Austin residents] join us for workouts, and I would say it’s widened my circle and my perspective on my community — it’s not just Oak Park, but the surrounding area,” Champaneri said.

The three organizers said they appreciated the friendships they had made within the group. Andersson said he formed deep friendships simply because the group met in the same place four to five times a week, saw each other wrestle and supported each other, which helped form deeper bonds.

“You do push-ups with someone and you show those vulnerabilities — it opens up friendships,” Andersson said.

Osta said when his basement flooded, he notified the group on their Slack channel and got a response within 45 minutes. He also said there have been many instances where the group has rallied around members with other needs – from meals to moving furniture.

“I was an amateur mover at times,” Osta said. “It’s nice to take a few minutes and be useful to someone else. You know the favor will be returned to you. We help each other.”

Champaneri said this spirit of caring extends to the community. F3 Oak Park has volunteered for Revolutionary Urban Ministries based in East Garfield Park, helping with food donation distribution and youth programs. The group has also volunteered at West Side Supportive Housing and with Beyond Hunger, the Oak Park nonprofit.

Osta said they didn’t want to stop there.

“There are a lot of great organizations in the area,” he says. “We want to make sure we become more visible to them, so we can make ourselves available to them.”

For more information on F3 Oak Park, visit www.facebook.com/F3OakPark

Norma P. Rex