People Profile – Duncan Micklem – Business Consultant & F3 Advocate

I was born in Harare, Zimbabwe in the early-80s. My brother and I grew up on my parent’s family farm, where we enjoyed a great deal of outdoor freedom. We spent a lot of time fishing, riding our bicycles and exploring the indigenous savannah woodland and granite outcrops. I went to a rural junior school, Ruzawi, before completing my A-Levels in Mathematics, Biology and Geography at St. George’s College, in the capital, Harare. Outside of the classroom I could always be found playing cricket, squash, tennis and hockey. Zimbabwe in the 80s and 90s was an amazing place to grow up; I have a lot of fond memories.

After completing my A-Levels, I arrived in the UK for university in 2002. My parents always believed in an English education and I was lucky enough to be accepted into the University of Exeter in Devon, where I studied a combined honours degree course in Biology and Geography. It was there that I met, and started dating my wife, Catherine. After completing my course I stayed in the UK and started working in the asbestos removal industry. A few years after leaving university Catherine and I got married and were blessed with three children. One job led to another and in 2017 we moved to Texas in USA on a work assignment. While living there, one Friday evening my friend, Jerry, texted me asking if I fancied an outdoor workout early the following morning?’ I thought, ‘What the heck, why not?’ I loved hanging out with Jerry, so I joined him, but what I hadn’t realised was that it wasn’t just us! There were about 150 other guys gathered. I was astonished and wondered ‘What is this Jerry? What have you brought me to?’ I subsequently discovered Jerry had invited me to a new location of men’s workout movement, ‘F3’, which I knew absolutely nothing about but was about to find out.

One F3 workout led to another, and another, and another. I came to realize all of us who turned up had three things in common: we all had a desire to get fitter and stronger; an openness to make authentic new friendships; and a belief in something bigger or outside of ourselves, e.g. service, community, being better for those around us. I came to realise that F3 is a men’s workout and well-being movement, although it’s much more than that. After a few months of going to the workouts, I realized the profound change that it was having in me; not just my fitness, but also my mental health, my relationships with my wife and kids, and also my friends. I’ll go so far as to say that life started to take on new meaning. I started to be less engrossed in myself and my own needs. I started to really understand first hand why the mission of F3 is to plant, grow and serve small workout groups for men for the invigoration of male community leadership.

At St. George’s College, Zimbabwe

The workouts had a lot of motivation, encouragement and energy. They weren’t attended by people just focusing on themselves doing exercise. If you imagine being in a circle with energy cutting across the circle, from one person to another; one encouraging another. Each being encouraged to push themselves beyond their own limits.

I found myself unconditionally accepted into an amazing group of guys who just wouldn’t hesitate to help. At one point, after one of the workouts, I needed help taking down a big climbing frame that I couldn’t manage myself. I’d only been attending F3 workouts for 2 weeks but texted a few guys and they came over and we completed the job together. The F3 group was also helping me with my frame of mind in terms of bringing up my children. I have 3 children and they were all under 10 then which was a challenging time. Being in the group helped me to find perspective in life in terms of relationships and serving others, not just myself. I started to really question the long-standing priorities that I’d had, and re-prioritise.

During one of the 2020 COVID lockdowns we made a decision to return back to the UK to be closer to family; closer to my wife’s family here in the UK, and my family in Africa. I had a real dilemma as I wondered what I would do without F3 in my life? I talked it over with a few friends in Texas and they asked ‘Why don’t you take it with you?’ That prompted discussions with some of the F3 leaders in the U.S. and I got the green light to go establish F3 UK.

Home farm, my playground, growing up

We came back in the summer of 2021. I planned to set up the first F3 group in Guildford and asked one of my old uni housemates, who lived near Guildford if he would join. Like me, he really didn’t know what he was letting himself in for when he turned up for the first workout on 17th August 2021. We worked out 3 times a week, at 5.30am on Tuesday and Thursday and 6am on Saturday. The Guildford F3 group grew to about 22 men attending routinely. Then we asked 2 leaders from that group to spin off and start another F3 location in Godalming. Now that’s a group of 16/17 men, routinely meeting in Godalming. Subsequently in the same way, we set up a F3 group here in Cranleigh, which started on 5th January 2022 and we have 15 men who attend each morning session.

People ask me what exactly is F3? It is a leadership organisation that started in January 2011 in Charlotte, North Carolina. F3 has a simple constitution comprising a mission, 5 core principles and credo. The mission is to plant, serve and grow small workout groups for the invigoration of male community leadership. The credo of F3 is ‘leave no man behind, leave no man where you found him’ and that’s not just in the workout but also in the outside world as well. The 5 core principles are:

  1. It is free, always free, no man should ever
    have to pay to work out.
  2. It is open to all men aged 18 and over, any
    man is welcome.
  3. It is always outdoors.
  4. It is peer led with a rotating work out leader.
  5. It always ends in a circle of trust.

The feeling after completing a F3 workout

The F3 philosophy was established after observing that at certain points in men’s lives, typically mid-late 30s and 40s, men start to feel there’s something ‘missing’ in their lives and often that manifests itself in a mid-life crisis. If a man has a lot of money he might think he can solve that emptiness by buying a fast, smart car or he might decide he needs another woman in his life which could cause the break-up of his marriage and lead to divorce. Ultimately it’s just that he is deeply unhappy and looking for external ways to change that. There’s a saying in F3 that ‘a man might believe he’s unhappy because of his wife and job … when actually he’s just an unhappy man with a wife and a job’. F3 helps fill the hole in men’s lives caused by this mid-life crisis and loss of purpose.

F3 recognises 3 main symptoms which are visible signs of this emptiness:

  1. POGO 40 – This is the yoyo’ing of 40lbs on and 40lbs off in weight, due to inconsistent physical fitness.
  2. THE SIFTER – Imagine a sieve with sand in it and when life starts to shake, as it inevitably does and your ‘small particle friendships’ slip through. How many ‘large particle friendships’ are left behind?

This typically occurs at the age of late 30s/40s/50s. There might be a scary health diagnosis that happens or a redundancy. When we lived in Houston I would say that Covid was causing my life to shake and I realised that I had very few close friends. I had friends from university and before who I was still in touch with but they were distance relationships and they had no idea what was going on in my life on a day-to-day basis. This kind of loneliness is so common among men, particularly now with the digital life we lead where we work from home and people aren’t congregating in the work place anymore nor getting the ‘friendship fellowship’ there.

  1. THE REACHER – If you watch the ‘Jack Reacher’ film starring Tom Cruise you will discover a man who loses his desire and will to fight for his family, his community and his friends. He just goes MIA (missing in action) and that happens and is very common among men. Essentially they check out. They check out from friends, they check out in many different ways from relationships and from the people they ought to be caring for and that can result in divorce, or in friendships that just go stale.

Me and my friends at Uni having fun (many of whom have subsequently joined F3)

I’ve been astonished by the uptake and the relevance that F3 has in the UK. The culture maybe different in Texas to Surrey but men suffer the same issues. They may show it differently. In UK men may not share quite so readily but they experience the same issues which manifest themselves commonly in self-esteem, confidence and mental health challenges.

The 3 Fs of F3 are Fitness, Friendship and Faith.

We cater for all fitness levels. Some people arrive having never done a workout, they’ve never stepped inside a gym and we have some guys who are very fit and strong. In our workouts, we stick by a saying that it’s ‘you versus you and you push to your own limits and you modify as necessary’. The workout facilitator will loosely plan each session and tell the group what the next exercise will be. For each exercise there’s a modified version in case some guys find it too difficult and in that way, all fitness levels can be catered for. Essentially the main thing is that guys get out and just do what they can; there’s no pressure from anyone other than yourself to do anything.

What we find is most men come to F3 because of the workout. They identify the need to get fitter, stronger or lose some weight. Maybe their doctor’s told them they need to work on their fitness. After they’ve attended a few times they start to see the same faces, engage in fun banter and start to enjoy coming. Friendships and bonds start to form and you see the second F (fellowship) occurring. We have a gentleman who coordinates our second F events. For example we went to West Wittering for a beach walk with our wives, kids and dogs 2 weeks ago. We had a pub evening in Farncombe last Wednesday and bowling at Guildford Spectrum for the guys on Friday. There’s a number of events for the group to socialise together outside of the 5.30am workout.

The first F, the fitness, is the magnet that draws men along. The second F, the fellowship, is the glue that binds us together. It’s amazing to see that fellowship in action. For example another man in the Cranleigh F3 needed his shed moved. The job required 6 guys. He put a note out on Friday asking if anyone could come to his house at 12 o’clock the next day. “I’ll make bacon sandwiches for you if you come”. Eight guys turned up with shoulder straps and it took them 2 minutes to move his shed! Job done! That’s just a small example of the kind of support the second F generates. It starts to build those large particle friendships that don’t slip through the sieve when you need people around you.

Dad, me, my mum, my brother and his wife on Safari

F3 has had over 40,000 men involved in US since 2011, giving a lot of reference points to show that fit and friended men turn outwards because they become more resilient, they are supported and spend less energy and time focused on their own personal problems. They are stronger in every sense of the word whether it’s physically, mentally or emotionally and in some cases spiritually as well. They turn outward and start to serve people around them and focus on others rather than themselves.

One local example of the 3rd F in action was a number of guys and their children got together in Guildford to do a litter pick across Stoke Park collecting a whole load of litter. It’s amazing how much you find when are looking for it.

In January we took part in the Centurion Burpee challenge doing 100 burpees everyday throughout January raising just over £2000 for a horse sanctuary near Guildford, called Mane Chance sanctuary. This charity takes in abused and abandoned horses nurturing them to serve broken-hearted children and adults who’ve maybe lost trust in humans and prefer to bond with animals. They go to bond and care for the horses. So that’s what the 3rd F starts to look like – simply a belief in something bigger that’s outside of ourselves.

The close camaraderie in an F3 groups starts with the second principle being open to all men and there is no judging. It is an unconditional welcoming of any man who chooses to attend the work out. The act of just turning up for the workout in the ‘gloom’ entitles you to everything within the group which is the support, kindness and generosity of the other men.

The circle of trust is part of why we bring coffee afterwards. We finish the physical aspect of the workout and then whoever leads the workout brings a motivational ‘word’ to share with the group. That motivational word very often prompts a discussion and thinking aside of the workout on the drive home, or on the days when you’re not working out. It sometimes starts to create a little bit of an ‘itch’ and people realise there’s actually more to life and it often causes a disturbance to the status quo which in turn causes people to keep coming back for more. For example, at today’s work out a gentleman called Steven led. He came with Arnold Schwarzenegger’s 6 rules to life and spoke on each one of those with his own personal take. One of them was to trust yourself and he gave an example of how he decided to ditch an unfulfilling job when everyone around him was telling him he was crazy. He wanted to pursue a real passion of his which is Escape Rooms and create enjoyment for people through Escape Rooms. He did just that; he jacked in his job and went off and did it.

For some men in this phase of life there can be a lot of questions about purpose to life. Those kinds of words spoken every second day are actually very refreshing and gets you thinking about things you wouldn’t otherwise think about because life just happens. You can get swept up by whatever life’s throwing at you; being ‘bumped to the left and right’ and before you know it a year’s passed and there’s been no time for reflective moments. Schwarzenegger isn’t the fountain of truth for everybody but those 6 rules, with Steven’s personal touch, experience and what’s worked for him in his life was very relevant for a number of guys in the group.

The groups are organised and run by volunteers like myself; Dan, Marcus, Chris, Mark, Jamie, Pete and Christopher are amazing. We purposely avoid money being a barrier for attendance. For example two guys are getting married in June and so we are bringing the Guildford, Godalming and Cranleigh F3 groups together for a big ‘Super Hero’ themed marriage celebration workout. All are encouraged to dress up that morning, but if anyone is uncomfortable about it because they don’t own, can’t borrow, or can’t afford to buy one, then there are mechanisms within the group to identify that need. Usually, through the generosity of others in the group that need is covered.

I don’t see F3 as a competitor to other fitness boot camps. Of the F3 men who come, most wouldn’t pay for a workout anyway. The thing that keeps them coming back is the second and third F and so we believe we co-exist well in the community because we are not cannibalising the money that’s out there for the paid boot camps. They typically happen later in the day anyway, when it’s lighter. We believe we are filling a gap by serving a segment of the community that is unserved and will continue to be unserved by the paid boot camps and leisure centres with their paid memberships.

Some might consider there’s a forth F – Free! There’s no money to be gained, there’s no membership fees that we’re trying to maintain because we are totally free. No money changes hands, whatsoever.

On the topic of ‘membership’, some people do occasionally start coming and then stop attending. It occurs not because they fall out with friends or fall out with the work outs, but more so because something has happened in their life. Because we don’t allow the groups to get bigger than 16 or 17 people it’s noticeable when somebody suddenly stops coming and so we follow up with those people. We follow up with that person with the genuine intent of how we can support them.

Maybe one or two people out of approximately 80 have actively communicated that F3 isn’t for them. Those have been honest, genuine conversations. In the very beginning of F3 UK there was a gentleman who came for the first 3 workouts. He loved F3, the philosophy and what we stood for but life was just too busy for him. He was already coaching his son’s football team, serving in church, running youth ministry, doing Park Run and loads of other things. Getting up a bit earlier 3 days a week was just too much for him. We had a conversation and he explained “I’m really sorry, I love what you’re doing but it’s just not working for me” and that’s absolutely fine. In fact, we prefer it if people are honest and let us know it’s not for them, rather than just not turn up. We’ve got no commercial objectives to fulfil whether they come or not; it’s of no consequence to us, but obviously we want to help and support in whatever way possible. We assure them they’re absolutely welcome to come back whenever they wish.

The ‘stickiness’ of F3 comes down to the second F and maintaining strong leadership of the workouts themselves. The sessions always start on time, always finish on time. We ensure efficiency during the workouts as they happen early in the morning, and there’s only a small window of men’s time to workout before the rest of the day needs to happen. People might commute to work in London, or need to get the children ready for school etc.

My marriage to Catherine my Uni sweetheart

As we look to the future we see the popularity of Park Run. I believe there’s over 750 locations where Park Run operates. It’s for people who want to run and improve their time week by week. Our vision for F3 in UK is to be the men’s wellness movement equivalent of Park Run. What we do is free and the motivation to keep going is to see the change that F3 has in one’s self and other people’s lives. Not a week goes by when I don’t receive a message from one of the men expressing thanks for X or Y, which has been a game changer in their life. One of the men is a trained Samaritan and every Friday evening he has a conference call line for anyone in the F3 group who is struggling with anything, to dial into; an opportunity to talk through stuff. That’s just an example of ‘iron sharpening iron’. Men supporting other men, picking them up and helping them to be more impactful in their lives for those around them.

F3 has been going for over 10 years in the States with the same format. We celebrated the 10 year anniversary recently. We always try to keep workout groups to 16 or 17 people. Once it grows beyond that, so long as there’s enough stability in the group, then 2 leaders will spin off a new location and perhaps take some men with them, to start a new group. The result is 2 stronger groups. In another 10 years’ time I envisage a number of other F3 locations across the UK and the form of the workouts might evolve. There might be cycling groups or outdoor climbing. It could be outdoor anything, but the key thing is being outdoors.

“Just bring yourself and dress for the weather”

In each F3 location there’s motivation occurring to sharpen each other physically, mentally and in some cases, spiritually. The work outs are there to help men grow stronger, work on stamina and speed but also on mental and emotional toughness. In F3 there is a saying that ‘you are the average of the 5 men that you spend most of your time with’. So if you are spending most of your time with good, solid men you start to make different decisions. You start to show up in life differently and that’s another way that iron starts to sharpen iron, aside from the work out.

When someone expresses an interest in coming to a work out for the first time, they usually ask what they need to bring. “Just bring yourself and dress for the weather as we workout outside” is my answer. Because it’s outside you need warm clothing and a pair of trainers and we have outdoor work out gloves. Everyone is offered a new pair of gloves when they arrive. Afterwards we bring coffee for anyone who can hang around for 5 or 10 mins to warm ourselves up. It starts at 5.30am and people are in their cars driving home, by 6.30am.

To men reading Cranleigh Magazine, I would say – come join us. Many of the men who have joined already never envisaged they would be where they are and attend quite as many workouts. They never envisaged the kind of impact it’s had on their lives when they started. I have many threads of text messages from friends on my phone along the lines of, ‘That’s way too early, you are never going to get me out of bed at that time of the morning especially on a week day, no way!’ But they come once, give it a try, and keep coming back. One guy joined us for the 3rd workout ever of F3 UK on 22nd August 2021 with that sort of comment. He has probably missed less than a handful of sessions since then. That’s the kind of impact it has on people. Give it a try, you could be surprised!

Duncan Micklem

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