“Good morning!” barks a scarf-wrapped runner in tights, peering through the darkness as she climbs the steps into cavernous Harvard Stadium. A woman nearby responds, “Oh, Hallie, how are you? Give me a hug!” and the two embrace. It is just after 5 a.m., and the weekly ritual of the November Project’s local chapter — a Wednesday run up the stadium steps — has begun.

The November Project is a nationwide fitness movement that started in Boston in November 2011. Members rise before dawn to sweat through a strenuous workout punctuated by group hugs and shouts of encouragement. It works, these people will tell you.

With the lights off, the stadium is nearly pitch-black, save for the faintest illumination of distant streetlights. Two more runners appear, both wearing headlamps, and soon after a steady stream of athletes begins to arrive at the stadium. Fun, if you want to call it that, is in the offing.

People have been running the steps ever since Harvard Stadium was built, in 1903. The country’s oldest stadium, it consists of 31 levels of concrete seats across 37 sections. Runners typically ascend along the larger seats (15 inches high), and come down the smaller steps, half that height, between each section. Teams have trained on the steps for decades, most notably the crews under legendary coach Harry Parker, and hockey players coached by Bill Cleary in the 1970s and ’80s.

In addition to Harvard athletes, the steps draw marathoners and fitness buffs, mountaineers preparing for peaks such as Rainier and Aconcagua, and baby boomers trying to slow the aging process, who walk slowly but steadily, covering however many sections they can.

Most veterans of the climb will tell you it’s not speed that matters, but the mere act of getting out and pushing your limits. Without all the strain and struggle, the satisfaction that comes from running the steps would not be nearly as great.

— Photos and text by Jon Chase

1 November Project members are a flurry of motion as they run the Harvard Stadium seats early on a Wednesday. The November Project is a nation-wide free fitness movement that began in Boston as a way for people to stay in shape during cold New England months. There are two regularly scheduled group runs, at 5:30 and 6:30 a.m. Several hundred runners show up on any given Wednesday, shouting with exuberance and urging on their fellow steppers.
2 Injured members of the Harvard track and field team, restricted from running the steps, do standing two-legged hops up the seats under the stadium lights. Lucy Alexander ’18 (from left), Spencer Lemons ’16, Raegan Nizdil ’17, and Brett Henderson ’17 exhibit various stages of hopping.
3 Hands beside their heads, injured Harvard track and field team members Richard Bradley ’17 (from left), Spencer Lemons ’16, and Raegan Nizdil ’17 do standing two-legged hops up the seats.
4 Harvard Track and Field team members do a standing two-legged hop up the seats. Their routine involved hopping up about a dozen seats, resting briefly, then doing another nine or 10 sets —and that was the restricted, “lighter” workout.
5 His headlamp glowing red, November Project member Elin Flashman waits for a fellow runner to tag the top step during a team relay at Harvard Stadium in the pre-drawn darkness.
6 Colors ablaze on a damp, overcast morning, November Project members traipse down the Harvard Stadium steps early on a Wednesday morning, accompanied by a free-running canine choosing its own particular path.
7 Christiana White, a fourth-year joint degree student doing her M.D./M.B.A. at Harvard Medical School and Harvard Business School, runs the Stadium steps with her friend Jeff Judkins, HBS ’17. “This was my first time on the steps! It was great! Exercise helps me with anxiety and is a big stress release. It’s definitely challenging, but when I do this I’m just happier!” White said. Three weeks after this photo was taken, White ran her first marathon and fulfilled her goal of qualifying for next April’s Boston race.
8 A step climber descends a row of steps between sets of walking up the steeper seats. Walking down the smaller steps is safer than running, and it provides a form of interval training that most climbers find helpful in building endurance.
9 In a photo that might conjure up the loneliness of the long distance runner, Tyler Zolud, a student at Northeastern who trains with his dad, makes his way up the stadium seats. Not surprisingly, the younger Tyler, at 19, was a row or two ahead of his father. The workout is intense, and there is not much conversation.
10 Steve Zolud, top, who works at M.I.T., previously worked at Harvard for five years as a business analyst at HUIT. He and his son Tyler both box in Woburn, but come to the stadium to run the steps weekly. Father and son do a set of push-ups between running rows of steps to mix in different kinds of conditioning. “We run the steps, we hop them, we might walk a few, and we do push-ups in between,” Steve Zolud says. The football team is practicing on the field behind.
11 Steve Zolud does a bear crawl down the steps, part of his training for recreational boxing. “Toward the end of my run I usually do a crawl down the last three or four rows. Tyler’s not as big a fan of the bear crawl as I am,” Zolud says of his son.
12 Not to be outdone by Steve Zolud’s downward bear crawl, Emily Saul, a trainer with the November Project, demonstrates a bear crawl up the steps, and backwards. Very few step climbers perform this routine, with good reason: It is extremely difficult and exhausting.
13 Jenny Frutchy, Ed.M. ’82, a spry 61 years young, appears dwarfed by a sea of steps as she makes her way up a row of seats. “I hike the seats for half an hour, then I go swim a mile at Blodgett. I do the steps as conditioning for skiing, which I do all winter,” she says.
14 Jenny Frutchy, Ed.M. ’82, flashes a satisfied smile after reaching the top. “Around here I ride my bike everywhere I go, but if it’s lousy weather, and I don’t want to ride, the stadium is always there, staring you in the face. I like to mix up my exercise; I’ve been doing the steps for about ten years,” she says.
15 November Project members, both human and canine, run the Harvard Stadium steps early on a Wednesday morning. This golden retriever seems to be enjoying its workout, possibly more than the woman beside it.
16 Sue Parker, head coach of the Harvard women’s rugby team, takes a last look back at the steps after completing a circuit of all 37 sections. “This stadium is so beautiful,” she says. “It’s almost like these steps are asking to be run. If you do them, you can just feel satisfied the whole rest of your day.”