At 5 a.m. in Columbia, the sky shines bright with a palmetto moon. The air is as crisp as the leaves that crunch underfoot — the only sound on this cool Carolina morning. Those who say it is too early will miss the way the day is poised with possibility. But some men in the Midlands say it is the perfect time to gather in parking lots around town to forge fitness, faith, and fellowship. These are the men of F3, and the next 45 minutes belong to them.
At first glance these men appear to have little in common except for the way they count reps and exercise in cadence. Their ages and shapes span the spectrum, and their employment stretches from the State House to the shoulders of I-26. But at 5 a.m., they are united by discipline and a desire to be better than they were the day before. They share common values, inside jokes, and even a vocabulary all their own. And at one time, they each looked in the mirror and decided that they were ready for more — better health, deeper friendships, or a renewed faith.
Each man also shares a story of his first F3 workout. He had to set his alarm earlier than he ever imagined and overcome the internal struggle that inevitably comes with trying something new. But when he stepped into the gloom —what they call the darkness before dawn — to join the group, he was greeted with respect because he had just made the first, best decision of his day. He stands in the circle and shares about his family, his hobbies, and his work before making an important trade: his name for another. As a rite of passage, the group decides on a nickname for the FNG or friendly new guy — a name like Sunday Driver, Fools Gold, Neck Brace, or Derail. Laughter erupts from the group because the name is never quite what the newcomer expects. But now he is one of them, and his journey has just begun.
“At some point, your name just becomes a part of you,” says Drew Forry. He strokes his beard as he remembers his first workout on the grounds of Midway Elementary in Lexington. Unsure of where to meet the group, he circled the school several times. Unbeknownst to him, they were watching him drive around, headlights beaming through the dark. “They said it was like I was on a Sunday drive,” says Drew with a laugh, “so I became Sunday Driver. I had my name before I even stepped out of my car.”
Drew was invited to his first F3 workout by one of his friends. “For a year, he invited me to come, and I just made fun of him. I thought it was too crazy to get up that early to go work out,” says Drew. But finally, the daily grind started to get the best of him. “Work, kids, and life changed. I wasn’t able to get any kind of workout in. I was getting frustrated with the way my body was putting on weight. I knew I needed to make a change. So I gave it a shot and got out there for the first time.”
When asked about the workout, Drew does not mince words. “It was probably the most brutal thing I had ever done.” For 25 minutes, the group alternated between lunges and bear crawls on the ground. Drew began to fall behind but remembered the words of the Q, the leader of the group, before the workout began: “This is you versus you. Modify your workout as needed.” So that is just what he did. “The great thing about it was that the guys were really supportive of me.” Rather than feeling alienated from the group, Drew felt respected and encouraged by the men around him.
It has been two and a half years since that brutal workout. Drew has since completed two spartan runs, a 10K, and two gauntlets. He now leads a Saturday group that he describes as “not for the faint of heart.”
Dozens of groups meet in various AOs, or areas of operations, around the Midlands each morning. “Each AO has its own heart and soul,” says Drew. “There is something for everyone.” A quick visit to F3Midlands.com
reveals a myriad of free groups around Lexington, Columbia, and Lake Murray. Men can choose to attend boot camp, soccer, ultimate frisbee, pickleball, and run groups at no cost every day of the week.
Drew hardly remembers what life was like before joining F3. “I was consumed with my routine,” he says. “I was on edge, stressed, and tired all the time. I would just end my day sitting around watching TV.” But after attending F3, his friend group grew exponentially, and his outlook on life was transformed. “Now, my wife would tell you that I’m more alert and alive.”
Lance Tully, nicknamed Fool’s Gold for his career in geology, has worked out with F3 Lake Murray for five years. Like Drew, the fitness aspect of F3 transformed his life. Lance dropped 20 pounds working out with the group. But fitness is not the only thing that motivates Lance to set his alarm for 4:30 a.m.; it is also the fellowship.
Lance worked remotely and experienced an isolated life. “It’s easy when you are in your own little shell to think that everyone else has got it figured out.” But when Lance started running with a group of F3 men, he began having conversations that expanded his world. As his self-confidence grew, he began contemplating a major career change. When it was time to decide between continuing his career and furthering his education, he had a network of men who encouraged him in his new journey.
“I never would have done that if I had not had a support system that believed in me,” says Lance. “To actually get to know folks at a fundamental level is life-changing. To realize that they have struggles just like I do helped me feel like we really weren’t that different from each other.”
He may have struggles, but Lance has plenty of successes too. He is currently pursuing a Ph.D. at the University of South Carolina with a focus on geochronology and geoscience education. His secret to success? “Finding a place where you can just be yourself,” says Lance.
Waking up and having a few laughs with the guys is Lance’s favorite way to start his day. “It is such an instant de-stressor,” he says. “I work out. I hit my day hard. And I feel so much more focused and vibrant.”
Nick Haigler, nicknamed Neck Brace for his career as a personal injury attorney, shifts his weight on his feet as he considers what F3 has meant in his life. “You get to a certain place as a man where you might appear happy on the outside,” he says, “but on the inside, you aren’t where you need to be. You are just kind of floating through life.” Nine years ago, Nick found himself in this place, just floating through life without a group to belong to. “Life takes control of you in a hurry,” says Nick. He remembers how his life became particularly challenging after he and his wife had their second child. Balancing work and family, Nick admits that it was hard to find time to do anything outside of the daily grind.
Nick doesn’t just attend workouts in the mornings. For the past few years, he has pulled up a chair in a circle of F3 men for a Bible study before working out in Chapin. “We gather up and talk about what we want to talk about. It has been transformational for my life,” shares Nick. “For some folks, it has become a place to deal with some things they’ve really been struggling with.”
F3 defines faith as a belief in something outside of oneself, and groups welcome all men regardless of religious affiliation. Nick has found a deeper faith in God through the Bible and the bonds he has made with his F3 family. That faith would be put to the test in 2021 when he lost his cousin — a regular F3 attendee nicknamed Sir Topham Hatt — to suicide. “He was a big part of this group,” says Nick. “He started coming to F3 three years before he passed. I really believe he lived as long as he did because of this group.” The morning after his cousin’s passing, 75 men showed up at Sir Topham Hatt’s F3 group to show support.
This kind of faith and support is a defining aspect of the F3 community. Although men are welcome to partake only in fitness and fellowship, they can also expand their faith by participating in mentorship programs, blood drives, father-son camps, and other community outreach opportunities. And after each morning workout, men are invited to share needs and concerns before circling up for a word of prayer.
“It’s like a buffet,” says Matt Wilson, nicknamed Derail for his work with the railroad. “If you want to just enjoy the fitness aspect, you can do that. But if you really want to feast, plenty of opportunities are available for that too.” Feasting on fitness, faith, and fellowship are a part of Matt’s daily diet. “When you fill up your life with guys who want to be better husbands, better fathers, and better leaders in general, it makes a really big difference.”
Matt describes his life before the group as isolating and anemic. “We guys tend to live on an island to ourselves,” says Matt. “It’s easy to get used to just going to work and coming home. But that can make for a really small life.”
Matt is thankful for the strong nudge he received from his wife, Lindi, who encouraged him to go to his first F3 workout. “I’m more energetic since starting F3,” he says. “I’m in better shape but also I just feel better about myself in general.”
When Matt is talking to a guy who is on the fence about visiting his first F3 group, he says, “If you do nothing, nothing is going to change. If you come and try it once, you might find it’s not as hard to get up as you think. It’s amazing what can become normal for you.” Matt smiles and ends his encouragement with one final assurance, “You won’t regret it.”
The FNG or Friendly New Guy
The FNG looks up to a sky that is glowing with the first colors of morning. It is barely 6 a.m., but he’s already winning the day. Blood pulses through his veins as his heart thumps hard in his chest. This is what F3 calls accomplishment adrenaline. F3’s lexicon describes this surge of sustainable energy as an “extended adrenaline release as a direct result of accomplishing the early morning workout.” His day will be better for it.
The FNG has labored. He has laughed. He has prayed. And now, he steps into the light of day, ready for whatever comes his way, because he is a man alive.