November Project Asia (Part 2) – Miri, Malaysia, PR Day by Brogan Graham

Before the gun goes off on this piece of writing, this race of imperfectly lined up words, I’d like to mention to any new readers to my stories, that I write the way I think; All over the place, fast, often using wrong words, very passionate about NP, regularly jumping around in topics, sometimes jumbling the timeline, slipping in & out of reality, and many many more curveballs that may buck you off – This piece was 7 pages on Google Docs, and I cut none of it. If you take anything away from this blog post (WISCONSIN NOTES condensed table of contents here) it is that I miss the intensity that seemed to surround PR Day and am willing to travel to the other side of the planet to see if its there. The fact is, it is there, right there in the dark in Miri, Malaysia. Also, this isn’t your travel blog about the culture, the food, the sights to see, and why you should visit Malaysia this winter. This is a PR Day experience. I hope you enjoy November Project Asia Part 2 first, with Part 1 coming soon. See, I told you it wouldn’t be easy to follow. Good luck.

5:08 AM. The funny thing about being a six and a half foot tall dude and desperately/secretly  having to poop on the side of the road in a foreign country is that, well, you’re nervous for multiple reasons. But there I was, early Wednesday morning, with a ticking time bomb in my shorts. Combine this uneasy feeling, with an audible sporadic belly rumble, and I absolutely no idea how many seconds (or steps) until the eventual, “kaboooom!”

Countless “Good mor-rrrrrn-ning!” greetings chimed through perfectly white teeth as these athletes made their way up the hill to join their local mob known as November Project, while I frantically raced down. For each I pass, I smile and wave as the unfun kind of goosebumps began to take over, my arm hair stands up straight, needing to find the perfect brush to hide in, to pop a squat, and I’m thinking in rapid half-thoughts now. “Um, ok, we’re, getting… close, oh fuck, OK, [eyes at light speed analyzing the shoulder of the road] here-here-here, um, this’ll, this should work…” I dash behind the thick roadside wing flats (theater term) hoping the sleeping snakes were not waking up for me in the dark as my unofficial welcome to Malaysia. As fast of a turnaround as a Beyonce quickchange just a meter offstage, I’m empty within seconds and back on the road running uphill like nothing happened, hands sanitized. Sidenote: Not to brag to you city runners and outdoor enthusiast, but I’m proud to say it takes me longer to double knot both running shoes than it takes be to go #2. TMI fuckers, T, M, I. Where was I…? Oh, right, November Project Miri (Malaysia).

5:10 AM. I’m easily running uphill feeling light and smiling from ear to ear. The now visible group at the top of the hill is mixing within itself and for an intense moment I’m transported in my mind to every November Project. I rub my eyes open wider to take in the dark morning of all locations, memories & reality as my engrained memory bank is flashing to the steep incline of Summit Ave in Boston now below my feet, I feel the warmth of Griffith Observatory of Los Angeles on my face, I smell the dust of Papago Park in Phoenix, I hear the groaning wooden stairs of Edmonton’s River Valley. One jogging stride passes and I’m snapped back to reality, I’m right here in Miri. Above everyone on both sides of the street are heavy shadows of the swaying trees, the trunks of which are ladders visually connecting the warm gray pavement and the cool black sky together. Sister trees, maybe cousins of those reaching up to the same sky next to the stone buildings on Bascom Hill in Madison, or even the extravagant giraffe palms of Balboa Park in San Diego.

I understand that at this point you’re thinking that I must regularly go to Burning Man, graduated from Oberlin or RISD or something, but no. I just dream and live on my travels. I’m completely living in my experience but as someone who sees the magic from these other NP places far away, always trying to find the common bonds and vastly different traits. I love the small world concept that seemed to fade when we stopped dying to go to Disney… but I’m still there, I still think this world is small and that we can shake it up. Since 2014 my co-founder and I have been tasked with keeping track of the health of NP tribes around the world the best way we know how; Going to these workouts. I feel that my job is to tell this story, but rather than go for the travel blog that has nothing but words, I want you to take in this experience the way my mind does.

5:13 AM. The world seemed to be sliding this perfect puzzle piece into place in live time and I could almost hear the click as it dropped in, as I dropped in, into the farthest reaching corner of our map, the furthest away NP tribe from where it all started, one that I never thought I’d get to see with my own eyes. I smile to myself and think of Pow saying, “We out here.”

Please try to remember this name like this is the full name of your new boyfriend’s dad, these specific titles. Fuck it, this will actually be on a test at the end of this blog (pro tip: read them outloud, because that shit will also make you smile during this part of your day, I promise): “Miri” (city), “Sarawak” (state), “Malaysia” (this country is located in Southeast Asia, but Miri actually exists on the Island of Borneo, not the better known mainland Malaysia which features Kuala Lumpur, the capital city and international crossroads).

Meanwhile, way out there in the distance, on the opposite side of planet earth, and nearly a day away from their Wednesday sunrise, was the vast majority of NP tribes living their Tuesday morning. Even though I don’t travel to as many tribes these days, it felt like I was getting off a direct flight straight from Oakland, brining news from New Orleans, representing the tribe in Atlanta, and coming right from Unforgettable Philly. I can smell my shirt, as I am wearing NP tribe tags from Hong Kong, 48 hours new, and I think, “How can this even be real?” Just like all tribes, the good people here in Miri, at least the majority of them, arrive only a few mins before start time (5:15AM).

5:14 AM. Suddenly there are enough people that scanning the crowd can only happen by stepping out of the group, and there was no chance that was going to happen, I have come way too far to step back now. “Thank you for coming,” Miri tribe members said, tilting their heads back as they stepped up and into a giant bearhug they’d physically initiated from a few steps away (I pay close attention to those things these days). I thanked them each for having me. This place is as exotic and dark and Malaysia as in my dreams.  

5:15 AM. Glancing down as it turns over from 5:14:59 exactly. Meanwhile, the three Co-Leaders have a long line of shirts that are already being painted under a street light on the only flat section of the hill. The longer tail of this bright colored T-shirt monster disappeared off into the dark, showing a very tall order of spray painting still left to do. Random humid hugs & crisp high fives are going off in the darkness, and then the powerful dry voice of the lumberjack shaped character rolls in, “Let’s bring it in.” I can’t help but think of Bojan and DG and Laura and Nacream and Jenn and the entire squad of NP Co-Leaders around the world who appreciate the on-time start. I smile. They’re all here, this workout is already fucking amazing.

If I didn’t know better, The Rock himself was guest Co-Leading this morning. His arm gestures were large enough to take out anyone on either side. But based on the happy look on his face, how fast the shirt factory was cranking, these leaders were clearly dialed in, and completely unphased by the 5:15 AM STARTing time. I can not stress this enough: No early group stuff, this is the group, this is the usual time, this is normal, 5:15 AM. “Bring it innnnnnn,” he says it again, this time louder, and with an exact rumble which I’ve heard before from Nick Rod (Baltimore), Maria Randazzo (DC), Rumon Carter (Victoria) and Jake Otto (London), “Let’s bring it innnnnn.” Think Nicole Martin of Madison, yeah, her voice… but the opposite.

We bring it in… a dream moment… this is PR day… we’re about to run some hills, no, we are about to RACE hills, on the other side of the world, now joining November Project Miri for the first time. I’ve been thinking of this experience and eventually writing this blog for all of you. “Let’s get a little bounce,” he demands, and the rolling group of individuals becomes one bursting bag of hot popcorn, charged with energy. As a tall dude I can see the entire carpet of heads shaking out the dust the sandman was trying desperately to hold over us – Sorry, this community is waking the fuck up, and this shake out is just the start. In a flash, only in my mind, I quickly see us from 25 feet above, like drone footage, and I have my second rush of goosebumbs for the morning (much different this time). Breath it in. Feel the warmth, the humidity.  

The man in the middle is named Ridley. He’s a father, a husband, a giant sports fan, fitness addict, and a proud Malaysian (even though two decades of his life was spent in Edmonton, Alberta, becoming (pretty much) a Canadian snow-charmer). Malaysian born and raised, Ridley Chen helped build November Project in Miri. Though missing an overlapped time in Edmonton with the tribe, his original connection to the movement was by following Bruins/Oilers defensemen Andrew Ference on Twitter in 2011. Never attending a workout in person, Ridley moved back to Asia in 2011, always paying attention digitally to what Andrew was doing with community, recycling, and trips to tattoo shops. ADD LINK TO TATTOO VERBAL HERE

Andrew, for those of you arriving late to the NP history books, dropped in on NP Boston in the Summer of 2012 and helped blow this whole thing up. Almost at the exact same time, his professional hockey life took him home to Edmonton to captain the Oilers. From Boston he took with him years of experience, his Stanley Cup success, and, most importantly in this tale, his painted NP shirt and plans to start NP in Edmonton just a few days after getting to town. Though Ridley missed the explosion of NP in Edmonton, through social media he was able to soak up the fact that, in his words that, “You see this guy [Andrew] with all this fame and success working out in the morning in the cold with normal people. He doesn’t have to do this, but he does it because he loves Edmonton.”

In June 2017 we used travel budget to bring Ridley to Boston for the 5th annual November Project Summit. We told him simply that we thought he should come join us in Boston to see what the other Co-Leaders are doing and learn about NP as up close and personal as possible. He had no idea that he’d be asked to stand in front of the 2,178 total athletes in attendance inside the Harvard Stadium that Friday morning, publically giving him the never before seen November Project Miri positivity award, and officially invite his pledge posse to join the movement.

Fast forwarding to 2018, Ridley and his wife, two little girls and and works in the hotel industry between conversations and daydreams about his next NP Miri stunt. Now Co-Leading with Robert and Alison, along with Co-Leaders who have come and gone in the 1.5 year history, Ing and Harry, Ridley has more support, more connections around town, even smarter minds to lead with, and can work with the tribe and leaders as a team.

In Miri, this tribe does a lot beyond the workouts. From midweek & weekend hikes, to late night socials, to the classics we do here in North America and Europe (The Crate Escape, Marathon Cheer Stations, Sunrise 6K’s, NP Bday Parties, and more). Like many of the smaller cities in movement, Miri is on the map before their capital city, and they’re proud of it. With a population of 300,000, this is a large town, or a tiny city, whatever makes you feel better. Miri, a place that proudly points out that they had the first oil well in all of Malaysia, was once a small fishing town. To this day, the winding streets and back alleyways, give each neighborhood block its own buzz, almost its own ecosystem. The shipping that rolls in and out of the wild looking canals seems to move at a pace that would be hard to wait for. But being from Madison, Wisconsin, I feel like I’m always looking close at the cities who get the “small town” branding, or a bad wrap, or maybe no wrap, the ones who get laughed at or who are not legit enough in their state or region to be at the big kids table (You know who you are out there Buff, Woo, Kelowna, Syracuse). These places have a slight chip on their shoulder, but this chip often boosts the collective personality, the collective ownership, and the sense of WE. You rarely see someone pound their chest and scream I’m from Connecticut (omitting UCONN Women’s Basketball), but you see that everywhere in Minnesota for sure. This came to life when visiting Buffalo, New York last summer, when I quickly stopped asking people, “So, where are you from?” after only 4 or 5 interactions. Buffalo isn’t the same concoction of people from all over that NYC or SF or Chicago seem to have. “You mean what part of town?” they’d ask in response, showing that this actually WAS a dumb question here. It was. It is. Don’t ask. And though we sometimes look down on folks in the small towns or those people who never left, there is pride that comes with owning one’s territory. Miri, like Buffalo, is locally homogeneous, where everyone in town actually is Sarawakian, they proudly own this place, they’re nearly ALL from here, right here, and they want to tell you about it and the many things that make it great and different. I’d gotten on a half-dozen flights to see our most rare cultural tribe… and yet we still didn’t see diversity in the way we’re constantly talking about (mixed, variation, multicultural). The irony of this perspective is funny to me. Willie Jackson, I love how you’re on my mind as often as you are (M.O.M ‘18).

5:18AM Bojan’s racing expectation ghost was standing next to me, elbowing my side from under the red inflatable arch at the Marathon Relay. Reality wafts back in with the low lying paint cloud from the nearby shirt tagging factory. We stepped to the starting line. We were given directions about how this PR Day would go (Translation: “PR Day” is done once a month as measurement of physical ability, think RACE not workout. This exact same physical test happens the same time month and ongoing, often times the last Wednesday of each month, and should clearly show you just how fit you’ve become in a few short weeks, or how off you might be from your best athletic self. PR Day is going to push everyone in the tribe to the edge physically, but it will also be a shared experience, with equal parts support & struggle – Proof of this piece lives in the cheer tunnels and group photos that wait for last finishers). Ridley points out, “the fastest time ever for PR Day in Miri is exactly 25:13,” and literally points to the giant chalked digits on the ground. I immediately think, “Well, I’ve NEVER seen that before, fucking brilliant. I love that. Will Eugene this idea in San Diego? And to that point, what’s Baltimore’s fastest PR? What about Winnipeg? Are these respective fast times highly celebrated enough for the athletes of the tribe to be inspired on PR Day? How do we make it inspiring but not intimidating? Has the NP community swung too far towards fun and togetherness but lost sight of destroying ourselves on PR Day?” My mind races on this stuff every single day.

November Project Miri’s PR Day was as simple and hard as a Friday hill workout in Boston. This is going to be a slab of work completed for time, not confusing at all, and one that could make you puke before it is even half over. Ridley continues to rumble, “At the cone placed at the bottom of each hill, go around it, and come back up. Don’t get hit by a car, or you’ll be hit by a car [pause; huge laugh from the mob]. It’s dark, so watch your step. Is everyone ready?” I was embarrassed and proud of how nervous I was. I was 5 boroughs away from the finish line of the NYC Marathon, I was waiting in Hopkinton, I was looking down into the Grand Canyon. “Fuck yeah!”  

  1. Back when all of this NP stuff began involving strangers outside of just our friends, we always thought it was important that Bojan and I were in the top 5-10 finishers no matter what the workout was, no matter how large the group became (and we usually were). Leadership comes in many forms, but an articulate & inspiring leader who is giving directions, in the trenches with you, and literally leading the group, now THAT has always seemed fitting to the leadership I’ve always gravitated towards (think William Wallace, Maximus, Leonidas, Dan Walsh). Looking around this starting line, I see that some dudes have classic split shorts on, they might be fast. A few women in ultra race shirts, could be steady and fast. I easily notice a few jacked crossfit looking frames… always a wildcard, especially for a WOD this short/long (25 min range is usually on the edge of most crossfitters endurance ability – Yeah, I said it, come at me bros!).  

5:20 AM !!!BOOM!!! As I remember the blast-off start explosion, an actual gun was fired into the air and we all sprung off the line as one wave in slow motion, legs and necks flexing, veins popping… but that isn’t actually what happened. We counted down from 10 and went off the line on a shared “GO!” Immediately down the twisting dark road and I can’t contain myself – I’m smiling from ear to ear – the group thins out nearly into a chain of ants by the first orange turnaround cone, and with a quick 180 turn the best part comes; We see the long train of runners cruising down to the bottom as we charge up past on the same side of the street. My thoughts feel dehydrated like I’ve just got off a plane and I think, “Fuck this is a fast pace, maybe it won’t last? I hope these guys settle in here.” I can’t believe how large this tribe is. No later than 5:22AM and we are deep in it. We are at every single November Project PR Day. The big important cities that everyone knows and the ones that are not on your places-to-visit list. From Miri, we are moving as one, starting this morning by being kind to one another, seeing each other in the dark, working hard for one another, reving the sunrise motor to get going. The hill somehow gets steeper, the pace holds.

Like it was my first day of group physical activity ever, I was noticing if anyone was looking at me as I strained and huffed my way up each climb. I guess I wanted them to like me, and I definitely needed any extra ounce of their support, and support I was given. “You can do it!” and “Great job!” And I was there for them when my floating downhills came, noticing that everyone was going for it, even the walkers in the far back of the group were swinging their arms, giving the air in front of them a Nordic Track uppercut with each stride. The true look of determination is always an admired authentic look at NP, but a look that on PR Day means you’re in, it means you’re actually racing, no working out this morning. The walkers were walking hard and even though I don’t know for sure, it seemed like they all knew their best previous PR time for their individual walk/jog/run/race performance. Haunted by a racing mind, now daydreaming, I could see them later today all chalking their new PR numbers in the center of their driveway when they got home, or even writing these proud results with toothpaste on their bathroom mirror. These images made me smile. “Fuck it, I’m going to do that.” I think, “Goldie won’t love it. Yeah, I’m not going to do that.”

5:24 AM (and change). Three of us are done, beating the chalked legend time on the ground next to the finished stack of grassroots gear painted shirts. This made me feel like I’d medaled at the Olympic games. Throughout the 3 massive full hills, the leader was steadily adding to his lead and I was happily able to stay in second place all the way until the end. We hunkered on a small set of side steps at the finish line soaking in sweat. It was still very dark out, we were not talking, we had shared an experience without verbal communication or fun or teamwork. Racing is bonding, in any position of the heard. We made our way to our feet and to the road to cheer on the finishing athletes, all of them.

Later that night we all went out drinking at a social in the evening after PR Day. In this time, it sounds shady to even say “We went out drinking,” but that is what we did. All ages and abilities mixed socially, they all talked about life and workouts and the details of their real day to day. The community feel was exact. It was working. The people kindly offered to buy beers or try their spicy stingray (on a play it looks like a thin pancake with marinara sauce – spoiler; It is spicy, nearly spoicey, and it is as odd of a texture as you’d think). The actual bar serving drinks was about the size of a folding hotel ironing board, and the 7-eleven style coolers that wrapped around all of the walls gave us the chance to wander in front of our selection, just like in the beer section back home, and pick out whatever we wanted. We played name games and I tried to create quality time with as many people as possible around the giant tables. There were easy to join loud pub-style toasts that sounded like soccer solutes. Many trickled in after us, some slipped out intentionally on the low, and the group was different every 30 minutes or so.

The rain came down hard that night and the next day we hiked deep into insane caves that went so far into the earth I was pretty sure we were gone from this world. In an attempt to impress the locals, I tried every food Ridley could think of. No matter how odd it was, “I love it! This is my new favorite Malaysian food ever.” This became our running joke. I got a ton of time with Robert and Alison too, a conversation pace that doesn’t exist as often at our Meeting Of the Minds, or NPSUMMIT. In 3.5 days in Miri we saw a lot.

After saying goodbye to everyone on my last day we found just enough time to experience the hand-tapped style tattoo, done in the old fashion way, with a Miri specific design worn by the men of this tribe, the Sarawak tribe. This heavy dark tattoo, which is an eggplant flower called “Bungai Terung” is a symbol of PR Day everywhere, of travel, of the good people of Miri, and of the better stories that can only be found in smaller towns, the ones you don’t hear about.

Before the quiz that I promised, I’ll try and wrap up this journey somehow. November Project will continue to change and evolve into a creature of inclusion and community. I hope to see potential November Project pledge tribes popping up all over the world with passionate, connected, very cool leaders in the center of the group. If they’re in similar giant worldly cities with people from all over (Vancouver, HK, London) that’s amazing. If they’re in small, proud, unique places that are built with locals who are all from that place (Worcester, Grand Rapids, Buffalo, Miri) that’s amazing in an entirely different way. No matter where NP is born next, I look forward to seeing this movement keep growing in new ways. Specific to this small town on PR Day in the dark, I simply hope you go there. It won’t be easy to get to, it won’t fit into another trip while you’re in _____, your friends at work won’t know what you’re talking about, and it will blow your mind. Live in real time and in your mind. Book the fucking flights. Onward.

Quiz: The name of the city in this story is ______ (say it out loud to yourself if you know it). Right, and that is inside the state of _______ (louder?), which is located in the country of _______ (nice work – If you missed any of this, head back up this post to 5:13 AM). Congrats, you learned something about the world today that isn’t fucked up politics or people dying.  

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