April Gallegos has never been a runner and admits she probably never will be. “I hate running,” says the 52-year-old bartender and liquor distributor from California. Running, to Gallegos, implies self-inflicted torture—stressful workouts, intense paces, and racing unfathomably long distances. Jogging, on the other hand, is something she’ll gladly do. She sees it as an intentionally slow, easy, and entirely low-key approach to fitness.
Last year, Gallegos embraced jogging three or four times a week, and worked up to a five-plus-mile run—er, jog. She says she lost weight, felt better about herself, enjoyed the company of a new jogging partner, and even entered a local 5K road race.
Gallegos wasn’t alone. Last March, 100 bartenders were invited to join the Knob Creek Jogging Club, a corporate initiative aimed at helping bar-service workers get fitter and feel better during the pandemic. One of them was Elyse Kimmel, a college student from Denver, who kick-started her fitness and rejuvenated her outlook on life by jogging several times a week while she was unemployed for more than eight months. Another, Sean Magee, a 38-year-old from Philadelphia, overcame a long stretch of physical inactivity, got into the shape of his life, lost 20 pounds, and now regularly goes jogging with his wife, pushing their young daughter in a stroller.
As improbable as a bartender’s jogging club might sound, the program was a huge success—partially, participants say, because it wasn’t a rigid running program with pace-based workouts tied to training for an upcoming race.
In the early stages of development, the club was intended to focus on the transformative power of consistent running. But organizers soon discovered that the idea of running was a nonstarter for many, says Chris Heuisler, director of brand experience for the creative agency Brontosaurus.
Heuisler, a sub-three-hour marathoner who once developed a running-concierge program for Westin Hotels, was hired to help develop and execute the program. “Initially they asked, ‘Can you be a running coach for 100 bartenders?’” he says. He looked at what Knob Creek was proposing and told the company, “You’ve got a really cool concept here, but I don’t know if you’re selling a running program so much as you’re selling hope.”
Heuisler and Nathan Laver, the agency’s founder and creative director, knew the idea of joining a running group could be polarizing, especially for a population that typically finishes work late at night and might lack consistent eating, sleep, and lifestyle habits.
“My whole mission in life has been to get more people running and experience the joy and positive impact it can have on your life,” Heuisler says. “But if I were to ask someone who doesn’t run, ‘Do you want to go for a run?’ I am met with two reactions—either, ‘No, running sucks and I hate it’ or ‘No, I don’t want to slow you down.’”
During initial testing with focus groups, however, Heuisler discovered that the word jogging didn’t carry any prescriptive connotations about intensity, running pace, or racing goals. Instead, it implied an easy, inclusive endeavor that’s accessible to a wide range of participants with various body types and athletic abilities—perfect for the goal of getting participants from the late-night service industry moving on a semi-regular basis and in any way it could fit into their lifestyle.
Jogging was a huge fad in the 1970s during the original recreational running boom, but the word eventually became a condescending pejorative within competitive, race-centric running culture. Heuisler and Laver—who both worked as bartenders in their twenties—realized that reclaiming the idea as an irreverent, anti-running approach to fitness could help with what they were trying to achieve. “We collectively came to find out that jogging was the Trojan horse into the program,” Heuisler says.
“The only reason I was interested was because it was about jogging and not running,” Gallegos says. “Jogging isn’t aggressive. Running and runners can be aggressive. They say they want to go run ten miles… nah, not me, I’m out for that. But I’ll go jogging for a few miles.”
Reframing the activity created an inclusive and welcoming vibe for people who don’t identify as runners, says Justin Ross, a Denver-based clinical psychologist who specializes in human performance. “The idea of a jogging club provides connection to other people who have similar approaches and worldviews as it relates to movement,” he says. “Jogging is not a dirty word. It’s not a ‘lesser-than’ identity. It opens up the ability to appreciate movement without a rigid need to do things in a certain way.”
Of the initiative, Heuisler says, “There are no jogging police concerned with how fast you’re going. This was all about keeping everything in a positive frame of mind. When you’re down, it’s easy to say, I’m not doing enough, or I missed two days last week.”
For some, the program came just in the nick of time.
When the pandemic struck in 2020, the ensuing shutdown crushed the restaurant and bar industry. While some restaurants rebounded slightly with carryout meal offerings and outdoor seating, others—like Gallegos’s Mexican seafood restaurant—went out of business. And because many bars went temporarily dark, a lot of dedicated bartenders found themselves out of work during that time, too.
“For such a social profession, to put us all on the shelf like that for the better part of a year, it was tough, for sure,” says Dan Brennan, a bar manager from Texas. “This was a good way for bartenders, who aren’t always the most exercise-conscious constituency, to ease into some exercise.”
“It felt like an opportunity for a new start on the right foot, with a chance of being healthy,” says Juliette Caputo, from Miami. “Chris designed the program very well for people like me who aren’t really active and who are always up all night. There was no pressure. It was all about, ‘Just get out there and do whatever you can, and we’re here to support you.’”
In keeping with the laid-back, anti-establishment vibe, the program set 9-kilometer (5.6-mile), 12-kilometer (7.4-mile), and 15-kilometer (9.3-mile) goal distances, to coincide with the 9-, 12-, and 15-year-aged Knob Creek bourbon whiskeys—distances that also ensured no one would ask the joggers’ PRs. Participants were sent retro-style jogging shorts, socks, wristbands, sunglasses, and a track jacket. They also received a jogger’s handbook full of inspiring and supportive tips that outlined 12 weeks of activity, as well as a 1970s-themed poster on which participants could place a “Good Jog” sticker at the completion of each week.
“It sounds stupid, but it’s really kind of funny how stoked I was to put the sticker on the poster every week,” Magee says. “As a 38-year-old, I definitely felt a bit of teenage nostalgia for the accomplishment, kind of like when I was at soccer camp as a kid.”
Prior to the start of the program, Heuisler had one-on-one chats with each of the participants to answer questions and offer encouragement. The group was divided up into four regional teams—Hair of the Jog, Soft J, Joggernauts, and Jog It Like It’s Hot—for the purpose of promoting low-stakes fun, camaraderie, and connections among the bartenders.
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Along the way, the joggers were provided constant coaching from Heuisler and invited to motivational Zoom talks from Boston Marathon champion and known whiskey connoisseur Des Linden, nutritionist Erin Kenney, and seventh-generation Beam family distiller Freddie Noe, whose grandfather created Knob Creek.
Based on the enthusiastic feedback and experiences that the bartender joggers shared on Instagram and Strava, the program was a huge success, says Robin Nance, senior manager at Beam Suntory. At its conclusion last July, 75 percent of the participants reached their distance goal. In fact, the results were so positive that the Knob Creek Jogging Club will be revived this month, with 100 more bartenders.
“Jogging really helped me take time for myself that wasn’t stressful but actually stress relieving,” Kimmel says. “Joining that club was one of the best things I’ve done for myself. It was life changing.”
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