A hundred people were gathered in Harvard Stadium at 6:30 on a cold November morning. The massive complex that can seat 30,000 was reverberating with impassioned screaming at a time when most people would still be in bed.
The horde of people had come together to exercise. The routines vary based on ability level, but they all involve trekking up big, steep steps, moving across to the next row, and hopping down the little steps. It seems simple enough, though one finds only a few rows in that it is anything but easy.
Your legs start to give in and feel like they’re locking up. The steps begin to seem endless. Yet, you find just as you’re ready to give up, there is always someone there, enduring the very same workout, telling you, “Good job.” People constantly give each other positive feedback, and even plenty of big bear hugs. The communal experience encourages even the novices to keep pushing themselves.
This mass workout is part of November Project, or NP. Two Boston friends, Bojan Mandaric and Brogan Graham, founded the program in 2011 when they were looking to start a rigorous but fun exercise plan for New England winters. The foundation of NP is positive group support and a high sense of accountability for each other.
Six years later, NP is an international movement, with subgroups in over 40 cities all around the world. Its website explains that all kinds of people participate, “from Olympic medalists … to complete fitness rookies and recent couch potatoes.”
Cambridge resident Sheree Watson was climbing those steps tenaciously without breaking a sweat. She was born in Jamaica and moved to Brooklyn when she was 7 years old. The United States was recruiting nurses from the Caribbean, and her mother, a nurse, seized the opportunity. Sheree was an excellent student and sprinted throughout high school and college, nurturing a passion for both intellectual and physical wellbeing.
During her senior year of college, Watson was diagnosed with two autoimmune diseases. One of them was incurable, so she and her doctors had to monitor it closely. She continued to excel despite these diagnoses. After graduating from Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons, she moved to Boston in 2005 for pediatric residency training at Boston Children’s Hospital and continued on to a pediatric gastroenterology fellowship. But she started to feel tired often. Being a subspecialist trainee working 80 hours or more a week, it was hard to tell whether or not the source of the fatigue was from the rigors of the program. She decided to take some time off.
“I decided that I needed to prioritize figuring out what was going on with me health-wise and well being-wise, [rather] than trying to push … getting through this training program,” she says.
Though her symptoms remained prevalent, Watson kept up with her medical reading, did volunteer work, and joined a dance ensemble. She even started training to run the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation’s half marathon.
One day in spring 2014, Watson had to go to the hospital. Blood tests showed her liver function was very abnormal. A month later she went into septic shock and had her gallbladder removed.
Watson was diagnosed with bile duct cancer. She needed chemotherapy and a liver transplant, and stayed in Minnesota at the Gift of Life Transplant House.
At the Gift of Life, a transplant psychiatrist encouraged Sheree to make goals, both for the short-term and the long-term.
“She said to me, ‘Make plans for what you’re going to do. Make plans for what you’re going to do in an hour, make plans for what you’re going to do in a day, make plans for what you’re going to do 10 months after you get your transplant. But make plans. It’ll give you something to look forward to.’ And so, it took me a while to buy into that, but eventually I did,” Watson says. “One of the things I said to myself was, ‘I’m going to run my race once I get better.’”
Watson got her transplant and returned to Cambridge after a long stay away from home. At first, it was hard to even stand for 10 minutes at a time. But before long, she began to build up endurance.
“Basically, by the time I was walking comfortably, I was saying to my doctor, ‘When can I start dancing again? When can I start running again?’ Because I had set my mind on that … It was kind of like to prove to myself that I could be my old self again,” Watson says.
A friend told Watson about November Project back in the winter of 2013, and while the prospect of 6:30 a.m. stair steps was intimidating and off-putting, in August of 2016 she found herself at her first Harvard Stadium gathering. She went alone, and was a little late so she missed the introduction for beginners. But she hopped right in like a fish in a stream.
“I realized that I needed to run with other people, not necessarily for the competition, but for the company. Because, you know, the saying, ‘misery likes company,’ so it’s a lot easier to get through something like that,” she says with a laugh.
The workout was so intense she needed a couple weeks to recuperate. Watson then became fully engaged in November Project’s three-day schedule, which involves Wednesday stair steps, Friday hill runs at Corey Hill Outlook Park in Brookline, and Monday “Destination Decks.” These Monday workouts involve core exercises and speed work, with the location changing every week. Many of the locations are in Somerville and Cambridge, from more traditional venues like Tufts, Longfellow Park, and runs along the Charles, to some creative and unexpected locales, like an onramp for McGrath Highway that vehicles can’t access. There are varied spinoff groups as well, with exercise parties for Halloween or “Game of Thrones.”
But for Watson, NP isn’t so much about running itself as about persevering.
“[NP] has given me a connection to a lot of people that I’ve become friends with, and who may be going through similar things. It’s always good to have people you can share commonalities with or feel like they understand what you’re experiencing, who can give you advice because at some point they were in that position, or at least can empathize,” she says. “There are so many people who have stories of where they’re coming from and where they were before NP, and for some of them NP was the thing that was like the turning point in getting them past some crap in life. It is like family for them.”