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Run together

Austin gay and lesbian group forms community on the trail and off.

Pam LeBlanc
pleblanc@statesman.com
Members of the Capital City Front Runners gather along the hike-and-bike trail underneath the MoPac Boulevard bridge for their regular Saturday run. The group picks a different restaurant every time to head to after the run. 'This group is more social focused,' says member Joseph Halverson.

On a misty, cool morning, about 30 runners gather at the trailhead underneath MoPac Boulevard (Loop 1) at Lady Bird Lake. They form a circle, listen to a few announcements, introduce newcomers, then head down the trail, breaking into smaller pace groups as they go.

No different, really, than any other running group.

But for members of the Capital City Front Runners, a running and walking group made up of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered Austinites, that's a good thing. Not all cities are as accepting as Austin, which is also home to gay and lesbian tennis, bowling and softball leagues.

I've joined today's run at the invitation of group member Dale Herron, 46. We head south across the pedestrian bridge at a comfortable 9-minute per mile pace, swinging onto the trail adjacent to Zilker Park. Gravel crunches under our feet as we run alongside the lake. We pause for water at Auditorium Shores, then forge ahead.

"Many of us tell stories of how we spent our early years either picked last in gym class or at the other end of the spectrum, where we were really good in sports but had to stay in the closet or face potential harassment," Herron says.

A mile from the end of the 5-mile loop, we bump into Joseph Halverson, another member of the club who has doubled back to escort some of the others in. He encourages our little bunch toward the homestretch, explaining along the way that he used to run with a more serious training group, which helped improve his speed and confidence, but honed his competitive edge a little too much.

"This group is more social focused," says Halverson, 25, who clocked close to a 5-minute mile in a recent club time trial. "No one tells me to run faster."

It also has the added advantage of supporting the city's gay and lesbian community. "I think a healthy running group is one of the best things we can do for the community," he says. "People understand gay people are normal."

As we finish the 5-mile loop, we meet up with other Front Runners who've done shorter or longer distances.

The daily workout done, the group heads to Zocalo Cafe on West Lynn Avenue for brunch. Every week it's a different spot, with emphasis on places that serve healthy food and support the gay and lesbian community.

Over fresh fruit and granola, pancakes and chilaquiles, the runners catch up on news and share running strategies.

The Capital City Front Runners are part of the international Front Runners organization, which has more than 100 chapters around the world. The organization was named after a novel written by Patricia Nell Warren, a love story between a coach and runner. Austin is actually home to two clubs — the other group, Austin Front Runners, runs on Sunday mornings.

Jim Caruth and two others started Capital City Front Runners in 1998. The group has gained momentum in the last year, though, since Glenn Brown, 31, former president of the Chicago chapter of Front Runners, took the helm. "It's a great social outlet, a great way to meet healthy, normal people," Brown says.

Members range in age from 20s to 60s. They work in government, politics, law and communications. They're black, white, Hispanic and Asian. And they're training for a slew of area running events, from the Austin Marathon to the Texas Independence Relay.

"A lot of people look for alternatives to meeting people in our community that are outside the bars," Caruth says.

The group's primary mission is to provide a supportive environment for gay and lesbian runners, walkers and their friends. Members cite all sorts of reasons for joining, though, from stress release to networking to connecting with Austin and the trail.

"It's fun to come together in a healthy way and be encouraging of each other," says Annie Stennes, 29, the group's vice president for women.

"Even though it's an individual sport, it's the sense of community," says Rich Bailey, 50.

The group's calendar of events is packed each month. Besides group runs on Tuesday and Thursday evening and Saturday morning, members meet for monthly happy hours and social events like movies and bowling.

They also raise awareness. Despite cold and rain, about 40 runners showed up recently for the group's World AIDS Day run to City Hall. "We're all still impacted by HIV/AIDS, and we still remember," Herron says.

But running is the focus.

Club members track their progress, recording every month or two how long it takes them to run a mile. Rogue Running, a running store at 500 San Marcos St., has hosted occasional training programs for club members.

Rey Hernandez, 46, serves as Capital City Front Runner's coach. He's building training programs for races chosen by the club's members and organizes weekly track workouts. His advice to those who want to join?

"Take it easy; have fun. Set some goals and we'll work on it," he says.

pleblanc@statesman.com; 445-3994