Thirty-six years ago, the publication of Patricia Nell Warren’s “The Front runner” caused quite a stir. Although it’s regarded as a classic of LGBT literature, and the writing is fairly tame by today’s more risqué standards, the story of a 39-year-old ex-Marine running coach falling in love with his talented, handsome young front runner as he trains him for the Olympics, was definitely atypical. Known as one of the first modern gay love stories to become an international bestseller, the novel has sold an estimated 10 million copies worldwide and has been translated in to 10 languages. Warren deserves a good share of the credit for launching the popularity of Front Runners clubs throughout the country, and indeed the world, beginning in San Francisco in 1974. Her description of gay male romance, as well as the internal struggles faced by the coach as he comes to terms with his sexuality, set many young readers’ hearts aflutter, educated a lot of young gay men about life’s possibilities and served to inspire the formation of Front Runners clubs. The book’s popularity among gay men may also be part of the reason that many Front Runners clubs have had a harder time attracting lesbian runners to join the groups.
However, all of that is changing here in Austin. Annie Stennes, who serves as vice president of the Capital City Front Runners , Austin’s running club for LGBT folks, is a determined woman on a mission – namely, to recruit as many lesbians as possible in to the CCFR.
“I credit the running group for a lot of good things in my life at this moment,” said Stennes, who has been running regularly with the group since August. “When I joined the group, I had just gone through a really tough time. I had ended a long relationship and was in a slump. The people in this group have been really supportive of me with trying to find a job. It’s a really good group of people.”
The first Front Runners club in Austin consisted of only three members and they ran at 8 a.m. every Sunday. Not exactly convenient, according to founding member and current CCFR treasurer Jim Caruth. Caruth and a friend formed the Fast Track Running Club in 1998.
After growing to a decent size, they lost a number of members through attrition in the early part of the last decade. In November 2006, they rebranded themselves and became the Capital City Front Runners .
“Then Glenn [Brown] moved down here from Chicago,” said Caruth, mentioning the group’s current president and his efforts to expand membership. “He’s put in an enormous amount of energy and by the end of last year, we had over 100 paying members.
Brown, who ran with the Chicago Front Runners and served as the group’s president before moving to Austin in October 2007, said it’s a misconception that the group is all about being competitive.
“The good thing about our club is that it’s so social and fun,” he said.” “It’s very reflective of Austin in that people are just doing their thing. It’s mellow and about running and having a good time.”
Stennes studied sociology and anthropology at the University of North Dakota and said the club keeps her focused on her personal fitness goals and offers more than most running clubs.
“You’re running with a sense of community,” she said, noting that it’s not super-competitive, which can be off-putting for some. “It gives me a sense of accountability to keep myself in shape.”
Her friend Nichole Johnson, a fellow runner and the woman who recruited her in to the group, agreed: “So often the gay scene is stereotyped as only the bar scene,” said Johnson. “We’re focused on health and fitness. We go out after the runs to local restaurants that support the LGBT community.”
Stennes is currently doing some on-call work at a music studio and working as a nanny, but she’s seeking full-time work.
“My goal is to find something at a local nonprofit,” said Stennes, noting that she also worked for two years at the Austin Children’s Shelter supervising the direct care staff. “If I could be bettering the world somehow, that’s all I wanna do.”
After moving to Austin in the summer of 2005, she went to New Orleans for nine months to work with AmeriCorps as a volunteer coordinator on the rebuilding of the Big Easy, which at that point was still utterly devastated by Hurricane Katrina’s impact.
“There were still no working streetlights and limited areas with electricity,” Stennes said. “It was extremely rewarding, but at the same time, it took its toll.”
Eventually, Stennes was forced to leave a bit early because she got sick from being exposed to all of the mold. After growing up in east Grand Forks, Minn., switching to Austin’s warm, perpetually- sunny climate in October 2005 was easy for Stennes.
“I remember back in my cross-country days, I’d be running in a blizzard,” she said, smiling because she’s now far-removed from that scenario. “They’d have to use the snow blower through the trail. You’d run in a full bodysuit.”
Stennes, who was captain of her cross-country team in high school, said running on the trails, as opposed to pavement, is much easier on her joints.
“It’s just funny. I didn’t have a lot of gay and lesbian friends before I joined this group,” said Stennes, who was inducted as the club’s vice president last fall. “I’ve met a whole different group of people now.”
The organization’s membership has reached a tipping point in the last year or two, and, according to Stennes and Brown, the goal is to diversity and recruit more runners, especially the ladies.
“I know that there are ladies out there on the trail because I see them running,” Stennes said. “I just want them to be aware that there is a group in the city.”
Aside from putting pictures of women running on their Web site; getting the word out via Facebook and other sites; fully utilizing Stennes, Johnson and their other female members and throwing more recruiting events such as February’s CCFR happy hour at the lesbian bar Sister’s Edge II; Brown mentioned another upcoming initiative.
“It’s called B.Y.O.L. Bring your Own Lesbian,” he said, adding with a grin that the plan is to launch the event in March. “It’ll be a once-a-month thing and we’ll have a special brunch on Saturday for the lesbians and the guys who brought them.”
The club’s regular runs around Town Lake (they meet under the MoPac Bridge) take place Tuesday and Thursday nights, and Saturday mornings, but club members also host potlucks, and have picnics and do things outside of the runs. For Stennes, it’s given her a new perspective on life and a sense of belonging that she didn’t have before.
“When I was in my relationship, I really didn’t have that many gay and lesbian friends,” she said. “This group has opened this whole new door for me. I have all these new friends and it’s nice having them to relate to, so many of them have longer life perspectives than I do.”
That life perspective is something Brown said the group tries to provide for its members.
“We want to provide a healthy outlet for the gay and lesbian community,” he said. “Some days it’s a social running club and other times it’s a running social club.”
Brown also credits several runners in the group – including Christian Leman and Michael Arbuckle, who are very adept at social networking on sites like Facebook – and have helped spread the word about the CCFR.
The organization truly encompasses a wide range of experience levels: some members are just fun runners, some are walkers, some are just looking to lose some weight and others are serious triathletes or hardcore runners. Stennes is quick to point out that running is the one sport she’s good at.
“It’s camaraderie,” said Stennes. “It’s not, hey, let’s grab a drink. It’s, hey, let’s go do a five-mile. And grab a coffee afterwards. These are the kind of friends who support you in all areas of your life.”
The Capital City Front Runners are a strong, vital and growing link in a chain that stretches around the world. There are 65 such Front Runners groups in America and more than 100 internationally.
“Annie’s great. She embodies a lot of what the club is. She’s very social and very welcoming,” said Brown. “She is a good runner, too.”