By Collin Brooks
Before the sun had peaked its first ray through the sky in Johnson City, the men of F3 were piling back in their cars, steam floating from their heads after an early morning workout.
The local volunteer workout group — whose motto revolves around their national groups’ initials, Fitness, Fellowship and Faith — meets at least three times a week at 5:30 a.m. in order to get a little workout in before their day begins.
On Feb. 16, their workout packed the amphitheater at Founder’s Park in Downtown Johnson City. They ran through the paths and jumped onto the concrete seats, anything to get a trying workout with their bodyweight.
Toward the end of the workout, the group commandeered a hill on Boone Street, only pausing to get up for flutter kicks or crunches — or to make a path for the rare car that finds its way through the intersection around 6 a.m.
The men of the group, whose ages range from 17 to 60, are close enough that they share laughs and sounds and more importantly nicknames. Each participant is gifted a catchy name after their first workout — which is more important then their “hospital name”.
The group was brought to the area by Nathan Hale — a.k.a. Donatello — who moved to Johnson City from South Carolina a couple of years ago to become a professor at ETSU. Almost a year since they have started, 28 men found their way to the park to workout. The group continues to grow, but that doesn’t surprise Hale.
“I’m really not surprised it’s taken off,” Hale said, trying to keep warm in the frigid air. “As men, we give a lot of time to our careers and families. At the end of the day, the tank is often empty. F3 provides a healthy, productive outlet for men to find something inside themselves they may have thought was gone—or at least buried somewhere.
“Guys come out and get their tail kicked, but have a great time doing it with like-minded guys. For some reason, that tends to ignite a spark. It’s a small victory, and those small victories build each time you come out. Guys start to figure out that their best days are not behind them, they are ahead. That attitude spills over into work, family, and ultimately the community as a whole.”
It also has personal advantages too. Jamin Rathbun is a perfect example, as he has lost close to 40 pounds. His nickname, Pen-Seagal, came when he was a bit heavier and looked like Pen from Pen and Teller, but he has a trademark ponytail like Steven Seagal.
“That’s part of the fun of the group,” Rathbun said about his nickname. “We are kind of a guy group, just irreverent enough to be kind of a fun guy group and have some nicknames and kid each other and pull each other along a little bit.
“It’s been a good motivator to get up in the morning, first thing and work hard. I think it feels good physically, but that trickles into other stuff in my life too.”
Rathbun said that he was in the best shape of his life and, to him, it isn’t about losing the weight anymore. Similar to Nick Hagemeier, a.k.a Rite Aid, it isn’t necessarily about the workout — he has been a runner for some time.
“It’s been a life changer for me,” Hagemeier said. “I’ve been a runner, I’ve done a marathon before. But then I would just give it up and not exercise or run. So this has been the most consistent I have been and I can tell a difference. I am in better shape now, than I have been since probably high school — 20 years ago.”
Hagemeier said it is about the relationships that he has developed during his time with the free workout group, that mean the most to him. It was on display when the group still showed up during the snow in early January.
While some might think it’s a bit crazy to work out in the elements, especially when there are plenty of gyms around with weights and heat, Hale said it just proves how hard the guys want to get better.
“At first glance it does seem odd and borderline foolish, but there are reasons,” he said through a smile. “Working out in the elements—whatever they may be—not only build physical toughness, but mental toughness and resiliency. When you’re surrounding environment is less the ideal and circumstances are difficult, you can choose the path of least resistance and stay in bed—or—show up knowing that others are doing the same thing. That type of resilience and attitude have life application way beyond actual workout. And they make for funny stories later on.”
The group is always looking for more people to share in their stories and welcome men of any age to come and join them. They can be found at Founders Park on Tuesday and Thursday from 5:30 a.m. to 6:15 a.m. and on Saturday from 7 a.m. to 8 a.m.