For She’s a Jolly Runfellow

runfellowPhotos by Jess Benjamin.

Jillian D’Amato just wanted to start an activewear company. She accidentally built something much more meaningful.

On a Tuesday evening in Porter Square, dozens of runners have gathered along a stretch of Mass. Ave., where they warm up, fiddle with playlists on their iPods or adjust their laces. Some talk training or injury recovery. Others chat about new movies and restaurant openings. Many wear bright blue or lime green tanks and tees emblazoned with a positive, all-caps proclamation: “I like your pace.”

Eventually, they gather in the lot behind Tavern in the Square, where a beaming Jillian D’Amato greets the group and welcomes any newcomers. She’s the reason everyone is here. Those shirts are part of her activewear line—Runfellow—and this is Runfellow Run Club.

After an enthusiastic cheer, the runners are off, pounding pavement on a three-mile route that weaves through Cambridge and Somerville. Small groups begin returning to the lot about 20 minutes later, where they form a receiving line of sorts, high-fiving every person who finishes the loop. When every last runner has returned, the sweaty bunch heads inside to catch up over food and drinks.

Runfellow Run Club, or RFRC, meets every Tuesday at a different Somerville or Cambridge bar. In the winter, the club’s numbers hover between 30 and 50 runners each week. In warmer months, that figure regularly climbs to 70 or 80, sometimes swelling to nearly 100.

Which is funny, because D’Amato never planned to start a run club at all.

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Years ago, on a pleasant spring day, D’Amato, then a self-proclaimed “fair-weather runner,” was crossing the Longfellow Bridge after a winter off—and she was struggling. She was just about ready to give up and walk when she passed another runner heading the opposite way.

“He smiled at me like he had been in my shoes,” D’Amato recalls. She says that convivial grin conveyed so much: He understood how hard this was, knew how tired she felt and wanted her to keep pushing. It was a smile that said you’ve got this, and it was enough to give her the boost she needed to run the rest of the way home.

The moment stuck with her long after that run was over. “I really thought about that interaction of one person passing another person going the opposite direction, smiling at each other, reading each other’s shirts—this kind of silent community that was being built,” D’Amato says.

runfellow

From left: Alan Van Vlack, Jillian D’Amato, Kristin de Jong, Chase Ferree and Ben Lipiecki.

It made her wonder: Why not intentionally use clothing to reinforce that unspoken bond between urban runners? A shirt could literally say what body language or a smile only implied. She came up with that slogan, “I like your pace,” and, after a GoFundMe campaign largely supported by friends and family members, she printed her first 50 shirts.

At the outset, Runfellow (stylized RUNFELLOW) was a clothing brand first and foremost. “The run club was not even something that was ever on the radar,” remembers Josh Howell, who encouraged D’Amato to get the company off the ground. Howell helped D’Amato sell the gear, waking up early on weekend mornings to pack her car with boxes and drive to road races throughout the region.

But while people loved the shirts and dug the positive message, everyone kept asking if Runfellow had a run club. So in July 2014, D’Amato started an RFRC Facebook group and printed out dozens of bright green flyers advertising their first run. She and Howell biked through Somerville and Cambridge together, posting them on lampposts and bulletin boards. Nearly 30 people showed up for the inaugural meet-up in Union Square.

“There was a real appetite for that kind of outlet in the community,” Howell says.

“I was doing this—making shirts—because these were things I thought I needed,” D’Amato adds. “It turns out, all of these other people wanted something, too.”

One of those people was Jimmy Doan. The MIT student life professional was introduced to Runfellow when he noticed the encouraging slogan on a colleague’s shirt, and after seeing one of those bright green Runfellow flyers a few days later, he decided to check it out.

Doan missed the first two weeks of the run club—“I’m still upset about that to this day,” he laughs—but he was at the third one, and he hasn’t missed too many since.

“The cool thing about Runfellow from the beginning for me was that it was all these different people that weren’t doing the same work that I was doing,” Doan says. “They could talk about life, they could talk about their love for running, they could talk about the cool spot that just opened down the street.”

Participating in the runs is easy. The host bar changes each week, and locations are posted on Facebook. There’s no need to sign up or register—just show up at 7:30 p.m. and wear visible gear. If temps fall to the single digits or if there’s ice on the ground, they’ll cancel.

runfellowThe expectations are minimal—almost nonexistent, in fact. Runners can come as frequently or infrequently as they want, every pace is welcome and no one heads inside until all runners have finished and gotten their high fives, whether there are 15 or 100 participants, if it’s 15 degrees outside or 100. There are new faces every week, and there’s no pressure to come back if you don’t like it.

But there’s a network of supporters there for those who want or need it— especially when it comes to getting out in brutal New England winters, which is what keeps people like Doan returning week after week. “I know that other people like me are out there running,” Doan notes. “We’re on text chains with each other saying, ‘We have to get out there.’” He started working out with RFRC because he wanted to get back in shape, but as RFRC grew far bigger than just 30 runners each week, his role within the club grew, too. He’s been more than happy to help create routes, communicate with bar and restaurant owners and promote the club; he and D’Amato have become close friends. “It’s the community that kept me,” he says.

That’s become D’Amato’s focus, too. She set out to encourage solidarity through clothing, but now people know the brand because of RFRC.

“The reason Runfellow was started was to build community,” she says. “Now we have built it, so we need to make it even better.”

That means connecting with restaurateurs to get her crew in more local bars—though Daddy Jones will always be a particular favorite—and working with other kinds of like-minded businesses. Last year, she teamed up with Achieve Fitness for a strength training series that she’s bringing back in 2017, and she recently worked with the Training Room to host a fundraiser for Somerville Local First. This month, to encourage people to get out even in the freezing cold, the group is celebrating FeBREWary with Winter Hill Brewing Company. And D’Amato hopes to develop more collaborative programming, whether that’s a yoga for runners series or a “fitness pub crawl” where runners go from gym to gym for different workouts and end up at Somerville breweries like Aeronaut or Slumbrew.

runfellow

At this point, D’Amato says the run club has almost taken on a life of its own. RFRC Boston launched in April. The group meets each Thursday, but D’Amato doesn’t organize it at all. Another group broke off to take long weekend runs while training for the Cambridge Half Marathon in November, and one pair of athletes who met through the club recently ran a marathon in Iceland together.

Duan says everyone brings something different to the table. Some help plan the routes and sell gear at races, others contribute by supporting local businesses, buying food and drinks until they’re practically kicked out of the bar Wednesday morning. D’Amato and Howell no longer need to cycle through the city posting flyers—and not just because the city of Cambridge once threatened to fine them if all 150-odd posters weren’t taken down. The message of RFRC spreads almost entirely through word of mouth.

To be clear, it’s a lot of work for this small, scrappy team. “I have moments where, like anything, you feel overwhelmed or feel like what you’re doing isn’t making a difference,” D’Amato admits. “And then, you have moments where you have to step back and say, ‘Wow, look at all these people who are here. Look at all these people who continue to come back. Look at all these people who are new every week because I decided to hang up some flyers and say, ‘Hey, come run with me.’”

For people like Doan, the work is worth it. When he came to his first RFRC, he was recovering from an injury sustained when he tried to run just three miles. In October, he ran the Cape Cod Marathon.

And of course, he didn’t do it alone. While only two other Runfellow runners were competing in the marathon, a group of about 15 traveled down to the Cape with them.

“There were definitely moments during that race where I was like, ‘Why the hell am I doing this?’” Doan says. “To see them at the top of a hill as I’m climbing it and have them cheer me on—it’s much more than running a race, at that point.”

This story originally appeared in the January/February print edition of Scout, which is available for free at more than 220 drop spots throughout Somerville (and just beyond its borders) or by subscription.

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