Long before sunrise on Thursday, Derek Wilton’s tennis shoes are pounding the pavement of Pacific’s Community Park.
When he returns to a circle of cinder blocks, Wilton drops to do a series of push-ups. Throughout the workout, words of encouragement are shared by the 19 other men going through the workout regiment that featured running, jumping jacks, burpees, squats and kettle bell-inspired swings using the cinderblock.
“Good job, Manicure,” one said, referencing Wilton’s nickname in the group. Each of the men have their own nickname – Pigeon, Tinkerbell, Zero Turn, Rumba, Nerf and more. The nicknames are bestowed from other members in the group as an ice breaker. The group also has its own lexicon for exercises as well as for its equipment such as the cinder blocks, which are called “coupons.”
Wilton, who works in financial planning, is part of F3 Nation, a men’s fitness group, that was started in 2011 in North Carolina and has now found its way to Pacific.
“I still don’t view myself as a morning person, but there is something special about this,” Wilton said of the 5:30 am workout routine.
“I know I could workout anywhere, at the gym, at my house, or in some park on my own, but what is unique here at F3 is the fellowship, the friendships,” he said. “I haven’t found that anywhere else where I have worked out. This is a really supportive group. “
F3 Nation is a network of free, peer-led workouts for men in the United States. The organization, which stands for Fitness, Fellowship and Faith, is estimated to have more than 40,000 participants across 39 states. The international organization – it recently expanded to the United Kingdom, Germany, Australia, South Korea and Kenya – hopes to have 250,000 men involved by 2025.
Within the St. Louis region, there are 60-plus F3 Nation workout groups, including two in Washington and two in Eureka, but Pacific’s group is among the newest. One group in Washington meets at the Town & Country Fairgrounds on Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 4:30 am and a second group meets at the riverfront for cycling at 5 am on Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
“We started this group (in Pacific) a month-and-a-half ago. So far we have seen everything from five to seven guys coming up to 25 guys coming to work out, ”said Dean Mandis, of Eureka, who participates in the Pacific workout group and is known as Pigeon. Mandis works in the insurance industry in Chesterfield and has been involved with F3 Nation for more than a year. Like Wilton, he said he was hooked ever since his first workout of him.
“A friend had invited me multiple times – probably six times – to come to a workout. I resisted, but then COVID-19 happened and after six months of being stuck at home, I decided to give it a try, ”Wilton said. He said he appreciates how each participant is treated with respect and encouraged, regardless of their fitness abilities or socio-economic background.
“When they say that F3 Nation is open to all men, they mean it. It is open to people regardless of your race, religion, what you do for work, or anything else. Here, it doesn’t matter if you are the CEO of a Fortune 500 company downtown or someone who lives in your parents’ basement. Here, the person you are is what matters, ”Wilton said.
The Pacific group meets Tuesday and Thursdays. The type of workouts vary each session, but each workout session starts with the planting of the “Shovel Flag,” an American flag mounted on a long-handed shovel that acts as a rallying point for that day’s workout. Each workout – known as a “beatdown” – is led by a volunteer within the group. The leader is known as the QIC. The role of QIC rotates through different people in the group.
The sessions end with a “Circle of Trust,” that can range from a Bible verse, inspirational quote or a personal development tip. F3 Nation is not affiliated with any particular denomination, but simply asks that its members believe that there is a power higher than themselves – a point that was emphasized by Brent Barringer, nicknamed Tinkerbell, who closed Thursday’s workout.
“Too many people walk around believing that they control everything, and I was definitely that way. But we don’t control everything, we actually have control over very little in the world, ”said Barringer, a father of two from Eureka who is a teacher and coach in the Rockwood Summit School District. He ended the workout by reminding the participants that, “Kids spell love as ‘TIME.'”
“Yes, the vacations are great. The trips are great. The gifts are great. But what is even greater is being home and being present in their lives, ”Barringer said. “Time spent with your children is always time well spent.”
Among those working out Thursday morning was Ken Boland, a Washington native who now lives in Fenton and is retired from the insurance industry.
Boland, 65, who is known as Milwaukee’s Best among his peers, said he started to attend the workouts in hopes they would help him better keep up with his two grandchildren, but now he stays for the camaraderie.
“We are much more than just a fitness group,” Boland said. “The fellowship you get is really unbelievable, especially since you have these young men who are absolutely out here busting it, breaking a sweat before dawn to better themselves for their themselves, their family, their faith and their community. It is awesome. “
He said one of the biggest benefits from the program is its focus on leadership and personal development.
“One of the things I really like is the leadership program, where we talk about how to be a leader within your family, your community, your work. As much as I think I can teach these guys who are younger than me, I also know that they are teaching me lots of things, ”Boland said.
According to Barringer, who also led Thursday’s workouts, the ages of a F3 participant in the St. Louis region range from 18 to 77.
“This has changed my life,” Boland said. For a self-described “very competitive person,” the workouts not only help him improve his fitness but also prove that he “can compete with these younger guys.”
Mandis and Barringer said they are optimistic that the Pacific workout group will continue to grow with the arrival of “FNGs” which translates to “Friendly New Guys,” in the F3 lexicon.
“Right now, we are really relying on word of mouth and some flyers that we have distributed throughout town,” Mandis said. At Thursday’s workout, there was one FNG. If the Pacific group grows too large, Mandis and Barringer said the organization would look to plant another group in the area or look to expand to another community.
“It would be fantastic to have that problem, because we are all about planting, growing and serving,” Mandis said. He said those interested in joining a workout group can find information about the groups closest to them by going online to f3nation.com. Barringer said men interested in forming their own F3 group should first attend several F3 workout sessions at established groups.
“This is not Wendy’s, we are not looking to franchise anything. We are simply looking to help other men get in shape, ”he said. He said he joined the workout group 18 months ago because it “was a free, outdoor workout that wasn’t in my basement.”
He said since joining the group he has realized the value of the free exercise sessions.
“As men, who have families, who are involved in their community, who have responsibilities at work, having a time to yourself to workout is so critical.” Barringer said. “It may be early, but for us that 5:30 am time is a time when our families don’t need us, our jobs don’t need us and our community is not needing us. This is a time for us to be ourselves and work on ourselves. “
Mandis agreed, “I tell people that F3 is transformative, because it really is.”
According to Mandis, an F3 Nation member from a Eureka group arrived weighing 340 pounds, but today the man weighs 280 pounds and is continuing to lose weight.
“You may say that 5:30 am is way too early to be up and working out, but there is honestly a bond that forms when you’re here and working out. From that moment on, there is something inside you that makes you want to be here. “