It’s 7 a.m. The grass in Washington Park is still dripping with overnight dew. A cross country team huddles a few paces away, shaking off their sleepiness to prepare for the day’s meet. In the field at the corner of Mississippi Avenue and Franklin Street, some 15 men, all F3 members, gather for their morning workout.
Over the next hour, these men will sprint, sweat and laugh as they move through one grueling exercise after another. The only rule? Leave no man behind and leave no man where you found him. And, added Jason “Donor” Dodson, “don’t be a jerk.”
“We try to instill the idea of, ‘I’m not in competition with you as a man,’” he said. “I’m in competition with myself — that might mean, today, I’m going to run slower because that’s what I need for me.”
All F3 members receive an F3 name from the group after their second workout. Dodson, who joined in 2018 after donating a kidney to his wife, was quickly dubbed “Donor.”
Fitness, Fellowship, and Faith – or F3 – was founded in 2011 by David “Dredd” Redding in Charlotte, North Carolina. Established to “plant, grow and serve small workout groups for men for the invigoration of male community leadership,” the peer-led workout group has since expanded to include more than 3,400 individual workout groups across 46 states and several countries.
One of F3’s defining characteristics is that it is only for men. Some may be skeptical of such a “boys club,” but F3 members stressed that this was not to exclude women, but rather to build the male relationships that many men struggle with, especially later in life.
“At the surface level it sounds kind of sexist, but the fact that it’s just guys and you can talk about the ‘guy stuff’ helps a lot,” said Damon “Tackle” Vinciguerra, who joined the group in 2020.
Dr. Jarrod Call, a graduate of the University of Denver’s Graduate School of Social Work who is a current faculty member at the University of Washington, reiterated that rigid gender roles cause many men to face “social pushback” on forging close relationships with their counterparts.
“Specifically around men and masculinity, there’s a very focused message around independence, self-reliance and emotional stoicism,” Call said. “At times, that strict independence can be isolating.”
To Todd “Double D” Miekle, head of F3 in Colorado, breaking away from this individualistic mindset is one of the most important parts of F3.
“A really powerful thing that I’ve seen is watching guys connect,” he said. “Seeing guys have a couple of brief discussions and then a bro hug after, I think there’s power in that.”
All F3 workouts are free to attend, open to all men, peer-led, take place outside and end in a circle of trust during which participants can share struggles or thoughts on whatever is going on in their life. While F3 recruitment videos boast American flags and crowds of men doing push-ups on a football field, participants of the Wash Park group emphasized that vulnerability is both key to strong leadership and expected at every workout. That’s why the circle of trust is so important to Vinciguerra: it allows and encourages members to share their struggles, not just their victories.
“There’s stuff that society throws on us, just like they throw on women – being ‘like a man,’ and all the stuff you see in Hollywood,” said Vinciguerra. “Here, it’s like, ‘I got frustrated with my son yesterday and I’m not sure how to handle it and could use some help.’”
Vinciguerra added that at a circle of trust several weeks ago, one member had shared that they had recently contemplated suicide. Accounting for nearly 80% of suicides in the U.S. in 2022, men face high rates of suicide and mental health issues; they are also far more likely to commit serious acts of public and domestic violence. According to the Violence Project’s database on gun violence in the U.S., 97% of public mass shootings are committed by cisgender men; and 34% of female murder victims in 2021 were killed by an intimate partner, compared to 6% of male victims.
Call underlined that men are not the only ones impacted by issues of masculinity.
“Historically, traditional, or hegemonic, masculine traits are about power and dominance,” Call said. “Sometimes there’s a pressure for men to prove that (dominance) by oppressing voices and perspectives and identities outside of traditionally masculine people in our society.”
To Dodson, these trends show a disconnect in community, something he hopes to counter through F3.
“If I had to guess, a lot of those guys that are doing terrible things, they’re lonely,” he said.
“They don’t have any male community leaders around them that are giving them good guidance and keeping them from doing bad things.”
Call went on to point out that patriarchal norms and lack of healthy role models in American culture can also push men to strive for the wrong ideals.
“We’ve created a society that values wealth and power above all else, so when we look to the models of masculinity – the rich, business elite, or politically powerful men – there’s not great healthy models in those communities,” Call said. “There’s a mismatch between what we’ve elevated … as being an ideal representation of masculinity, and what’s going be an actually helpful and useful model for men.”
F3 seeks to approach masculinity in a healthier way. When asked what positive masculinity looked like to them, members’ answers all shared a common thread: getting in touch with their emotions.
“Manhood is the ability to express yourself clearly, the ability to show emotions when needed and handle those emotions like an adult. It is to support your family, to be a steward, to support your community and your friends,” said Bishara “Einstein” Zinaty. “The ability to put that ego aside.”
Mike “Honey Bucket” Riniker also emphasized leadership.
“I think a good example of a man who is well-balanced with his masculinity would be somebody who is not afraid to be a leader, and sometimes being a leader is, as this group has taught me, being vulnerable,” he said.
Vinciguerra summed it up with “honesty and vulnerability.”
“You can be strong,” he said, “but you gotta be open and say, ‘yeah, sometimes it’s a struggle.’”