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Early-Risers A crack-of-dawn start time hasn’t slowed the November Project’s  rapid growth. Photo by Matt Anzur. Every Wednesday, at precisely 6:26 a.m., the November Project tribe rises brighter than the sun on the Milwaukee lakefront: Dots of neon percolate toward the War Memorial’s statue of Abraham Lincoln, laughter and greetings echo across an otherwise quiet […]

Early-Risers A crack-of-dawn start time hasn’t slowed the November Project’s  rapid growth. Photo by Matt Anzur.

Every Wednesday, at precisely 6:26 a.m., the November Project tribe rises brighter than the sun on the Milwaukee lakefront: Dots of neon percolate toward the War Memorial’s statue of Abraham Lincoln, laughter and greetings echo across an otherwise quiet O’Donnell Park. Hugs counter the morning chill.

The athletes, most of them young professionals, are about to feast on a breakfast buffet of pushups, lunges and stair runs. 
The War Memorial is their playground for 45 minutes every Wednesday, the time and place the constants in an always-changing routine: burpees, planks and pushups one day, runs up and down the stairs another, dashes across the Milwaukee Art Museum pavilion and leaps atop its maze of walls the next. On Fridays, the workouts shift to different locations around the city, and exercises are invented to fit the landscape.
Adding fun to each workout station, games of rock, paper, scissors determine who gets the short route and who has a longer run to the next. The childhood game, in between the exercises, forces even the wallflowers to interact.
On a recent Wednesday, 88 of us start to sweat at the appointed hour, carrying on a movement that began three years ago in Boston and has spread to 16 other cities in the U.S. and Canada. The Milwaukee groups have topped 100, while Boston’s sessions have attracted 1,000 athletes.
The free workouts, described as a fitness flash mob, have tapped into an unfulfilled desire for exercise and a connection to a community that is encouraging, that is tied together more tightly than Facebook friends.
At the center is Dan Graham, a 33-year-old swim coach at Shorewood High School, and the brother of Brogan Graham, the co-creator of the November Project (november-project.com). Brogan, who rowed at Northeastern University, was looking for a way to kick-start his own fitness pursuits through the brutal Boston winters. The Google document he started in 2011 to track a month of exercise with his buddy became the name of the revolution.
“The amount of people who have shared with me their personal stories of physical and mental improvement since coming to the November Project,” Dan Graham says, “those are the victories.”
Graham gets the group moving in a comic fashion. He’s equal parts Tom Hanks and Robin Williams, directing the action like the school teacher he is studying to be. Well-timed punch lines punctuate every sentence.
The workouts are hard; some are epic. The first Milwaukee November Project session set the standard, a Jan. 22, 2013, outing of dashes up the near-vertical bank rising from Commerce Street to Kadish Park. Thirteen newbies started running in temperatures at more than 10-below zero.
It always starts at 6:26 a.m. (so everybody is straining by 6:30, not standing around at 6:35). And tardiness is almost never an issue. Nobody wants to miss the workout … or the sweaty hugs.
“When I get to hug my friends at 6:20, it instantly starts my day off in an amazing way,” says Marinna Marotta, who pushes out of bed at 4 a.m. to make the drive from Antioch, Ill. 
For the devoted, the workouts and hugs aren’t optional. “Three good hugs and go to work,” Graham commands at the end of the session.
And just like that, the mob vanishes as quickly as it appeared. ■

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