And then there was one.
One sweat-soaked man left climbing the parking deck stairwell, as the dawn hovered pink over Kenan Stadium.
“All right guys, Gopher’s coming up!” one man shouted to the rest gathered on the fifth-floor landing. “All right!”
F3 Chapel Hill, a free fitness group, meets weekdays at 5:45 a.m. to work out. On Thursday, members climbed a seven-story garage stairwell on the UNC-Chapel Hill campus 15 times, plus one last lap up to the fifth floor, to honor the first responders to the 110-story World Trade Centers on Sept. 11, 2001.
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They borrowed the idea from an F3 group in Raleigh. As about 20 men stretched their legs, leader Alex Miller ran an American flag behind them. He grabbed the flag’s Carolina blue pole and staked it in the ground.
It was a special day for a group that doesn’t need special reasons to get up in the dark and exercise.
F3 stands for fitness, fellowship and faith, though Miller is quick to point out, not the religious kind. The group has evangelical Christian, Jewish, Muslim and at least one Buddhist as members. The Chapel Hill group ranges from 13 to 57 years old.
“And the guy who’s 57 is a beast,” Miller says, “an absolute animal.”
Members all get F3 nicknames, like Gopher, and beasts aside, they’re not all buff.
“The purpose of the group is not about fitness,” Miller says. “By participating in the workout, the guys strengthen themselves and become stronger husbands and fathers, and members of the community they want to be.”
At the end of each workout, the men huddle to give thanks.
That’s part of what keeps David Baddour coming back. The 41-year old lawyer is in “the best shape of my life” after four months of workouts. But he says he appreciates something else more.
“I’m going to bed earlier, watching what I eat,” he says. “More important, you think about people who are sick or injured and would give anything to go out and exercise but aren’t able to. It’s important.”
At 6-foot 2 and 195 pounds, Miller looks as fit as he probably did when he carried artillery as a light infantry mortarman in the Army during the late 1990s.
But after high school and college sports or the service, it’s hard to find spaces where men support each other, he says. When the group on the fifth floor noticed Gopher was missing Thursday, several who had already finished ran back down to run back up with him.
“You can’t be with a guy sweating and huffing and puffing on the ground and not be a brother,” Miller says.
“A lot of people have said, ‘This filled a hole in my life I didn’t know was there.”
For more information about F3 Chapel Hill, email firstname.lastname@example.org or go to www.f3nation.com