‘Welcome to the Gloom’ – A new kind of men’s fitness program grows in Wilmington and Leland

"You made a hard commit, you said you’d be there. But you're there together, no matter how early, or dark or cold it is. That’s what leads to the trust, that’s what leads to the deeper relationships."

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The first meeting of the Leland chapter of F3. (Photo by Benjamin Schachtman)

WILMINGTON – Two hours before dawn and just a few degrees above freezing, a dozen men gathered in Leland Municipal Park. In near-darkness, the men broke into a series of exercises, laughing, joking and cursing the cold.

“Welcome to the gloom,” said David Frederiksen. “This is what it’s all about.”

David Frederiksen and the Leland group in the gloom. 'It can be a real shock to the system, especially the first time. But if you open yourself to the experience, it will change you forever.' (Photo by Benjamin Schachtman)
David Frederiksen and the Leland group in the gloom. ‘It can be a real shock to the system, especially the first time. But if you open yourself to the experience, it will change you forever.’ (Photo by  Benjamin Schachtman)

Frederiksen is a member of F3 – which stands for Fitness, Fellowship and Faith – and, while the men’s fitness group has no leaders and no formal organization, he was clearly a leading presence at the morning’s workout. The group was founded in Charlotte in 2011, but has since spread to locations across the nation.

“Leland is our latest ‘AO,’” Frederiksen said, “that’s area of operations.”

'You'll hear guys out there talking trash, saying unprintable things about each other's moms,' said Frederiksen. 'But they're there for each other.' (Photo by Benjamin Schachtman)
‘You’ll hear guys out there talking trash, saying unprintable things about each other’s moms,’ said Frederiksen. ‘But they’re there for each other.’ (Photo by Benjamin Schachtman)

F3 members frequently use their own lexicon, like military shorthand with a sense of humor. “The gloom,” for example, is the scene of the standards early-morning F3 workout, which usually takes place before sunrise.

The rotating leader of the workouts is the “Q,” new members are “friendly new guys,” skipping a workout due to a hangover is “whiskey knee” and a quitter is a “surrender monkey.”

After their first workouts, members receive a nickname that, according to Frederiksen, replaces their “hospital name,” or legal name.

Frederiksen, who went by “Hoff” during the workout, said the Q of the first Leland meeting, Aaron Kasoulis, was a Leland EMT who wanted a workout closer to his base of operations. Kasoulis – nicknamed “Johnny Gage” after the EMT in the late 1970s television show “Emergency!” – helped spearhead the new group. Frederiksen said the process is the way the group has always spread.

“You’ll hear guys out there talking trash, saying unprintable things about each other’s moms,’ said Frederiksen. ‘But they’re there for each other.” — Dave Frederiksen

While there is a national group – F3 nation – that handles legal and website costs, it funds itself through business partnerships and sales of branded apparel. The regional chapters have no fees, leadership or organization.

“We give it away,” Frederiksen said. “There’s no top-down direction, no marketing guy saying, ‘time for a new chapter.’ It happens organically.

“Leadership is totally decentralized, and a benefit of that is individuals can lead whenever they feel called. If someone sees a place that’s not being served, or if some wants a group near them, it gets done,” he said. “We’ve got our personal chat system, and there is Facebook. It’s a combination of electronics, social media and – most importantly – old fashioned word of mouth.”

The organic “old school” approach to organizing, according to Frederiksen, “is so consistent with F3, it gets guys together, shoulder to shoulder again.”

Charles S. Baldwin IV, who took part in the founding of the Wilmington chapter in 2014, said that the founding of a large groups with several hundred members happens in a very similar way to the dozen-man group in Leland: “Basically, we didn’t have a group here, and some guys came down from the Raleigh chapter to ‘plant the flag.’”

Frederiksen said, 'everyone can work at their own level, but everyone finishes the workout. No one gets left behind.' Frederiksen completed his workout with a weighted rucksack, for a simple reason, 'it's more challenging.' (Photo by Benjamin Schachtman)
Frederiksen said, ‘everyone can work at their own level, but everyone finishes the workout. No one gets left behind.’ Frederiksen completed his workout with a weighted rucksack, for a simple reason, ‘it’s more challenging.’ (Photo by Benjamin Schachtman)

Baldwin said, “I’d worked out with them once before, before the Wilmington group, and I swore I’d never do it again. I couldn’t shave for three days. I couldn’t lift my arms to my face. I had dinosaur arms. I said,’ I know what the three Fs stand for, I say it every time I try to lift my arms.’

“But they said, ‘we came all the way down from Raleigh, you can do one work out.’ They shamed me into it. But it stuck,” he said.

Baldwin said the “flag planting” was organic and member-driven, like the group as a whole.

“There is no organization,” Baldwin said. “Literally, legally. There’s no partnerships, no incorporated entity. It’s just guys.”

Both Baldwin and Frederiksen said that of the three Fs, fellowship that was the most important.

“The fitness, it’s almost a trick to get you in,” said Baldwin. “You can find a gym anywhere, you can work out anywhere. This is a place where you can come to rely on other people. And it’s not just emotional support. We give each other a network, because we’re so diverse. There’s men of all ages, all classes, all types. If you’re applying for a job, maybe I know someone, and vice versa. But the older members do make it a point to help the new guys. I’ll sit down with younger members anytime, help them any way I can.”

Frederiksen was more enthusiastic about F3’s particular style of workout; created and led by a different member each time, the workouts focus on alternating cardio and body-weight work-outs. These intense workouts, Frederiksen said, create the conditions for fellowship.

Members 'mosey,' an all-encompassing term that covers different fitness levels. 'You run, you walk, you limp or you crawl. But you get there,' Frederiksen said. (Photo Benjamin Schachtman)
Members ‘mosey,’ an all-encompassing term that covers different fitness levels. ‘You run, you walk, you limp or you crawl. But you get there,’ Frederiksen said. (Photo by Benjamin Schachtman)

“Every week your challenging each other, you’re supporting each other. You’re not bored, you’re not separated out to this treadmill or that elliptical. And you’re accountable,” he said. “You made a hard commit, you said you’d be there. But you’re there together, no matter how early, or dark or cold it is. That’s what leads to the trust, that’s what leads to the deeper relationships, that’s what leads people out of the prickliness, that kind of stand-offishness of adult life.”

When the 45-minute workout was over, the men gathered around in a patch of grass, steam coming off their clothes. Frederiksen read from the F3 handbook as men shook off cramps and sore muscles. New members introduced themselves and received their nicknames (a common initiation question, “what was your first concert,” leads one new member to being nick-named “Salt-n-Pepa.”)

“We see people from all walks of life here,” Frederiksen said. “The CEO and construction worker, liberal, creative types like me, conservatives, it truly doesn’t matter who you are before you come to F3. While you’re here, you’re just a guy, working through whatever you’re working through. But you’re not doing it alone.”

The workout concluded with a prayer – as all F3 workouts do – but one that is self-consciously non-religious.

“Faith can be a secular prayer, it can be a meditation, it can be whatever you want it to be,” Frederiksen said. “We just want people to reflect at a deeper level.”

The 'Ball of Man,' that ends the workout. Frederiksen said 'Members pray, meditate, or sometimes just give thanks that the 'beat down' is over.' (Photo by Benjamin Schachtman)
The ‘Ball of Man,’ that ends the workout. Frederiksen said ‘Members pray, meditate, or sometimes just give thanks that the ‘beat down’ is over.’ (Photo by Benjamin Schachtman)

F3, which is only 5 years old, frequently spreads through “emotional headlock,” the kind of one-on-one ‘shaming’ that brought Baldwin into the fold. But those looking to find a workout can check out F3’s location map on their website, Frederiksen said.

Frederiksen also added that, while F3 had not to his knowledge received any criticism for F3’s men-only policy, they do they have a “sister group,” Females in Action (FiA).

“I have three daughters, and I know there’s a certain age, or an age range, where there’s a lot of divisiveness and cattiness,” Frederiksen said. “It’s not always. But there can be. So this is something that bring young women together to see each other as teammates instead of rivals.”