Meet Newcastle Frontrunners: the North East’s only LGBTQ+ friendly running club
Running, drinking, chatting and eating cake… sounds like our kind of exercise!
By Becky Hardy
In a 12-month period where the number of members at your average running club is depleting by the day, Newcastle Frontrunners (NFR) still have a waiting list as long as your arm.
Some may call it sorcery – we know it has something to do with the secret power of having post-run cake ready and waiting at every finish line. But maybe it’s something a little more, too. Because as it turns out, Newcastle Frontrunners are actually far more than just a running club.
Part of the International Frontrunners network – a family of inclusive running clubs which welcome everyone, particularly LGBTQ+ members – NFR is a charity whose every event is centred around promoting equality and diversity within our community.
Whether you just want to lose a few pounds, improve your general fitness or run the London Marathon, they’ve got training activities and events to suit every type of athlete. And (personally, our favourite part) a social calendar that is usually jam-packed with nights out at the pub, theatre trips, wine tastings and even trips abroad. Oh, and cake. Lots and lots of cake.
We caught up with Jocasta, NFR’s Socials Lead and Welfare Officer, to find out a little more…
Newcastle Frontrunners is the North East’s only LGBTQ+ friendly running club. What was the thinking behind creating the club and making its identity so clear?
The Frontrunners movement was inspired by the book The Frontrunner by Patricia Neill Warren, (1974) about a gay athlete and his coach. The first club formed in San Francisco in 1979, and there are now Frontrunners clubs on all five continents. Our club founder, Steven Duffy, visited Glasgow in 2010 and ran at an event organised by Glasgow Frontrunners, the local LGBTQ+ club. Steven was himself already a competitive runner but realised that many other LGBTQ+ people were wary of joining mainstream running clubs. That inspired him to set up a similar club in the North East and, in 2011, Northern Frontrunners was formed – with bases in Newcastle and Sunderland. By 2016, only the Newcastle venue was operating and so the club changed its name.
You started out with the ‘Gay 5K’ back in 2012 as part of Pride weekend. What was the general response like to that first race?
There’s an interesting race report about it on Tyne Bridge Harriers’ website. It recalls how the weather meant a last-minute change of venue but that, despite the rain, because it was an event linked with Pride it was always destined to be good fun. Around 100 runners took part, and the report says: ‘Everyone I spoke to thought that it had gone well and they had enjoyed the evening, and the organisers were hoping that it will become an annual event.’ Seven years later, the LGBT5k Festival of Running involved over 1,000 participants across three events – so it certainly has grown! Our annual post-race survey shows that for many people, ours is the highlight of their race calendar.
What events and races do your members now take part in (when we’re not in the middle of a pandemic)?
Pretty much every type of running event going, although mainly focussed on road running, parkruns and cross country. But there are members that do the occasional track race, as well as fell running and triathlon.
We have a Grand Prix, where club members earn points throughout the year for taking part in a range of running events. Our focus is always on participation, not on speed or how far you run.
On your website you say that NFR is about: ‘running, drinking, chatting, supporting, eating, racing’. Would you say you’re more than a running club?
Definitely! The social side of NFR is extremely important, as we provide a safe space where members can be themselves. After a normal club session on a Wednesday evening, members always hang around to chat, catch up with friends from the different paced running groups and eat cake! Prior to the pandemic, we organised at least two socials a month – a once-a-month post-run in a local pub or restaurant and a weekend event. Weekend socials ranged from comedy and film nights to theatre trips and wine tastings. Once or twice a year we organise a social walk; often these will involve meeting up with other Frontrunner clubs, such as Glasgow, Edinburgh or Leeds Frontrunners. We have weekend trips to other cities to support other Frontrunner clubs with their Pride runs, and even overseas visits for major running festivals.
How much have you kept up that social element through the pandemic?
We’ve tried to maintain the socialising aspect as much as possible, mainly by hosting monthly socials on Zoom, usually with a specific focus – we’ve had a general knowledge quiz, hilarious Taskmaster-style challenges and a Family Fortunes evening so far!
When restrictions eased enough to allow small groups to meet up, we organised a treasure hunt in and around Jesmond Dene, ran in groups of six to support Glasgow Frontrunner’s HomeRun, and had a social walk at Newburn, (followed by a pub visit, of course!).
Bingo card challenges gave our members a focus for their running, in the absence of running together or training for races; the summer ones culminated in a virtual relay, which allowed us to showcase the North East and all the amazing places we can run to. We’re currently encouraging members to keep active with a treasure hunt challenge and our members have told us how this is helping both their mental and physical wellbeing by making them take a break and get out in all weathers.
How important do you think Newcastle Frontrunners is in terms of supporting your members in other areas of their lives?
We’ve always seen ourselves as a support network as much as a running club. If people are missing for a while, club members will check in with them to see if they’re ok. We always support events and initiatives like Mental Health Day, Time to Talk and UK Run Chat, where people are encouraged to speak about their mental health and to support each other. We also have Welfare Officers and Mental Health First Aiders. Many of our members don’t want to have to go to bars or dating sites to meet other LGBTQ+ people, and being in the club means they meet others in a healthy, safe environment. Many good friendships have been formed, and we have had several relationships develop after people have met at the club – so although we’re definitely not a dating agency, we are meeting a need!
You’re open to beginners as well as established runners. What would you say to encourage anyone thinking about giving running a go for the first time?
Don’t get too focussed on how far or how fast you’re running. Just try to get out a couple of times a week and gradually increase the amount of time you’re jogging rather than walking. There are lots of good Couch-to-5k apps out there and, once you’re confident running continuously for a mile (or around 15 minutes), come and join us! Our red group has the option for a one-mile route and it’s easier to run with the support of others.
What challenges has COVID brought to the club? And how have you (or how do you plan to) overcome these?
The biggest challenges have been in the times when we’re not able to meet in person. Now that restrictions allow people to exercise outdoors with one other person, we’ve encouraged our members to buddy up and run with someone of a similar pace. This is helped through a social media app we use called Team App, which is exclusive to club members. We’ve also offered twice-monthly strength and conditioning classes over Zoom throughout the pandemic.
We have been recognised by England Athletics both locally and nationally for the ways in which we’ve continued to support our members throughout the pandemic. We were winners of the Athletics & Running @ Home award in the North East, and runners up for the same category at their recent national award ceremony.
The 2020 Festival of Running was set to be an extra-special one, being part of Newcastle Pride’s larger celebrations as they were set to host UK Pride, but obviously COVID has other ideas. Although it was still hugely successful as a virtual event, when restrictions lift are you hoping you’ll be able to go ahead with the festival as it was originally intended?
Yes, definitely – it will also be the 10th anniversary of the first Gay 5k! Sadly, it’s looking increasingly likely that even this summer we won’t be able to celebrate in the way we would like to, although we’ll do what we can to work with any social-distancing regulations that are in place by July. But we might delay the 10th birthday celebrations until 2022!
Statistics published by England Athletics in November showed that other running clubs saw an average drop of 25% in membership towards the end of last year, but your membership numbers remained roughly the same as the previous year, and you’re still attracting new members all the time. What is it about Newcastle Frontrunners that proves so popular, do you think?
I think our popularity is down to the fact that the club has such a welcoming, friendly and inclusive atmosphere and is open to everyone, regardless of their running abilities. With no races to train for, other clubs that are perhaps more focussed on pace have lost members, while we now have a waiting list of people wanting to join.
February is LGBT+ History Month. What would you say is one of the most interesting facts you know about LGBT+ history here in the North East?
The former Senate bar was the meeting place for the Tyneside Campaign for Homosexual Equality (CHE) in the late ‘70s. And also, although the Pink Triangle of bars is now around the Centre for Life, it was originally the Bigg Market that attracted the LGBTQ+ clientele.
What are the club’s plans for the post-COVID future?
I think our plan is just to get back to what we do best: running and socialising together… and eating cake, of course!