NEW YORK -- Good times, on the race course and off, are the essence of Front Runners New York, a club representing hundreds of gay and lesbian runners in the nation's biggest city.
Yet that's only part of its story.
Over three decades, the club has served as a comfort zone and support group for many of its members as they coped with personal challenges. It embraces a public-service mission forged in the 1980s when many members and their friends died from AIDS.
"No one knew what it was, how it was transmitted -- there was a lot of fear out there," recalled Steve Gerben, who began a four-year stint as club president in 1981 just before the first AIDS cases in the U.S. were reported.
Front Runners New York had about 35 members when Gerben took the helm. It held its first Pride Run in 1982, attracting about 400 entrants.
The scene in Central Park will be very different on June 25 for the 30th Pride Run. A record field of more than 5,000 is expected for the 5-mile race, with entertainment, a raffle and an after-party on tap.
Proceeds from the event will go to the It Gets Better Project, launched last year in response to some highly publicized suicides by gay teenagers. Several club members appeared in a video for the national project, which seeks to convey messages of hope to counter the despair of bullied or rejected teens.
Front Runners' current president, Megan Jenkins, said the choice of beneficiary was fitting because many club members "ran the Pride Run as their first step out of the closet."
Longtime member Patrick Guilfoyle is among that group -- the club was a pivotal catalyst for his decision to come out in the 1980s.
Now 52, Guilfoyle grew up in upstate New York, ran track in high school and college, and was still in the closet when he moved to New York City in 1980.
"The city was a little overwhelming for me," he said. "I found myself living a lie."
He had a four-year relationship with a fellow member of a Brooklyn running club, but his partner drowned in 1986 while trying to rescue a suicidal person who'd jumped off a pier. As Guilfoyle struggled afterward to explain the relationship, he decided it was time to come out -- and he did so in phases, starting with friends and family.
He'd seen Front Runners members competing at some previous races -- admiring them for their confidence but too embarrassed to join the club himself. But with his decision to come out, he went ahead and entered some of Front Runners events and formally joined the club in 1990.
"It was really great," he said. "For the first time, I had the feeling that this is a community. People were really supportive as friends, which was very important to me at that point in my life."
Guilfoyle established himself as one of the club's strongest runners, recording numerous sub-3-hour marathons, but the big bonus of membership was still to come.
In 2001, he fell in love with a fellow member, Canadian-born John Fraser. The relationship blossomed, and they married last year in Niagara Falls, Ontario.
"I'm pretty shy," said Guilfoyle, an administrator at a law firm. "My intention was not to meet my future husband at the club. But it's wonderful that it happened."
The New York club was founded in 1979, the second-oldest -- after San Francisco -- of what is now an international network of Front Runners clubs. There are about 70 clubs in the U.S., and more than 40 abroad, mostly in Western Europe, but also in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Mexico and Uruguay.
The name adopted by the San Francisco club founders came from a groundbreaking 1974 novel by Patricia Nell Warren titled "The Front Runner" -- a gay love story about a track coach's relationship with an Olympics-bound distance runner.
Several of the U.S. clubs have more than 200 members, but Front Runners New York says it is the largest, with more than 700 members listed in its latest directory. It prides itself on its diversity -- a mix of highly competitive and casual runners, young and old, from an array of ethnic backgrounds.
"It's always the club's goal that no one should have to walk away from events due to financial ability, so we have scholarships," said Jenkins, the club's president since January.
"There's a real sense of family and caring for one another," she said. "We stay abreast of each other's accomplishments in running and in life."
Almost from its inception, Front Runners New York established valuable ties with New York Road Runners, which represents some 60,000 runners and offers a year-round calendar of races highlighted by the New York City Marathon. Front Runners competes in the top division of NYRR's annual club competition and about 100 members have raced annually in the marathon in recent years. Volunteers from the club also operate a water station at Mile 24 of the marathon course.
In terms of glitz, though, the Pride Run is the highlight of the club's calendar. Over the years, the pre-race national anthem often has been sung by glittery drag queens. Rainbow flags are on display; there have even been rainbow popsicles distributed to the runners.
Rob Lennon, a former president of the club, muses on its legacy in a lyrical posting on the club's Web site. He writes about the romances that bloomed among members, and recalls some runners telling him they never felt validated as athletes until the joined the club.
"It's easy to feel lost in New York City," he writes. "For those Front Runners whom I know best, and who stick with FRNY most vehemently, what the club has done is help them find -- or remember -- who they are."
Front Runners New York: http://www.frny.org/
David Crary can be reached at http://twitter.com/CraryAP