Phil Catalli (left) and Lee Walton were recognized for founding the Palm Springs Front Runners and Walkers when they were named Community Grand Marshals of the 2011 Palm Springs Pride Parade.
PHOTOGRAPHY COURTESY PALM SPRINGS FRONT RUNNERS AND WALKERS
After meeting in 1995 at a gay bar in the Bay Area, Phil Catalli and Lee Walton moved in together within a few months. They were still at that stage of discovery in their relationship, but whatever questions lay ahead were answered with a move to Palm Springs in 1997.
Within three months of arriving to the desert city, the couple decided to start a Palm Springs chapter of the International Front Runners called the Palm Springs Front Runners and Walkers.
“We didn't even know each other that well,” Catalli recalls. “We really didn’t. It was like everything happened all at once. So the club really helped bond us together. We had a blast. I’m telling you it was the best time.”
Catalli, a dedicated runner in those days, had been a member of the BayLands Front Runners and tried to model the Palm Springs chapter from those experiences. “I missed that camaraderie from running with other people,” Catalli says. “I talked to Lee about it and while he wasn’t a runner, he liked to walk. So the intention was I could lead the runners and he could lead the walkers.”
They advertised a Saturday morning meet-up at the parking lot next to Mizell, feeling the location was centrally located to their audience.
“I was so anxious to get things started and to have some people to run with,” Catalli says. “We showed up and nobody came.”
Undeterred, they tried the following weekend and this time a few people appeared. Over the next couple of months, the number grew to 20-25. More activities were added, like potlucks and movie nights, to engage more people and drive home the social outlet the chapter offered. By the end of 1998, the chapter reached 100 members. “That was our goal to have 100 members within a year,” Catalli says. “Our motto was fitness, fun, and friends, and it’s ways been that way for many years.”
By 2003, Catalli says they were ready to step down from the organization and did for a few months before being brought back after the leadership change did not work out. They remained in charge until 2007. Among the many accolades they received included a certificate of recognition from the city for outstanding community service and a spot in the Pride Parade in 2011 after being named Community Grand Marshals.
“We met so many people, made a lot of friends,” Catalli says. “We wanted to make sure this organization would always welcome everyone with open arms.”
Walton passed away three years ago, and Catalli is now semi-retired and this summer is spending a few days in the desert each week. He no longer runs, but you can find him and his new partner Jim walking with chapter members still on Saturday mornings.
25 Years Later
Today, the Palm Springs chapter numbers more than 300 and marks its 25th anniversary this year. They are a very visible sight each morning as walkers, mostly seniors, gather at the Mizell parking lot around 7:30 a.m. in the summer, 8 a.m. during the season, and then begin their trek down Sunrise Way. Runners meet at separate gathering spots during the week, but on Saturdays everyone hits the course together. Current chapter president Michael Ambrose is one of them, a transplant with his husband Ken from San Francisco since 2007. They met through San Francisco FrontRunners, and it was a natural extension to join the Palm Springs chapter when they moved to the desert.
“I almost felt like a sense of obligation because I feel like Front Runners has enriched my life so much through friendships, and experiences, and having met my husband, it sort of changed my life in positive ways,” says Ambrose, who is a runner. “I'm a recovering alcoholic. I'm 30 years sober now. So much of the gay community and sort of the socialization and networking in the gay community is centered around bars and clubs and things like that. And for me, that was never an option. So the opportunity to meet people in a fitness-oriented, health-oriented capacity was very appealing to me because meeting people in bars and clubs was not an option for me as a sober person.”
Like Ambrose, running brought newcomer Richard Nelson from Santa Monica into the fold. A part-time resident who moved here full-time just before the pandemic fell in 2020, Nelson actually ran on his own for a year before joining the Palm Springs chapter in 2021. He had previously been a member of the LA FrontRunners, but that chapter was focused on running and participating in races. Here he can just run for pleasure, and he likes that the chapter attracts a cross-section of people.
“You get a very eclectic mix of people and it's really kind of fun and challenging, and everybody comes from different walks of life, different careers, and backgrounds. It's kind of a melting pot,” Nelson says. “And I think there's something about people that are retired and that are social, that once they find an organization that fits them, they're very loyal. I think it does so well because it's a group of people that enjoying exercising and socializing.”
That sense of belonging is especially welcome for newcomers who are trying to find a way to make a life here beyond the beauty and a strongly rooted gay community that attracted them in the first place. Curtis Channell moved from Detroit, Michigan, and could have been spooked when friends who had moved to Palm Springs prior to his arrival decided to move back. “They said Palm Springs wasn’t for them because they couldn’t meet anyone,” Channell recalls.
“So when I got there, I decided to join every group that I could and Front Runners and Walkers was one of them,” he adds. “I fell in love with it. You go there and you feel comfortable.You always have someone to walk with and it motivated me to walk every day, and you often talked with someone you had not met before. It really motivated me to walk. I’m kind of a bigger guy, so I needed something to motivate me because I don’t think I would do it on my own.”
Channell has been a member for nearly a decade and took over the chapter’s membership duties about five years ago. He often presides over the circle of members you will see each morning by the Mizell parking lot. That is a FrontRunners tradition where members gather for a few announcements and newcomers are asked to introduce themselves. “We make them come inside the circle to introduce themselves, so it might be a little uncomfortable to start but we want everyone to feel comfortable and wanted,” Channell says, “and that we are there to support them. Like not everyone is ready to walk three miles to start, so we find out how much walking they have done, offer them a two-mile course, and pair them with someone right away.”
Beyond the visible members you see walking or running, the chapter also attracts those who are not active in that way for various reasons, often medical, but relish the social activities that get them out of the house. “I think the social aspect is really, really important for some of our older members,” Ambrose says. “For some, FrontRunners might be the only club that they are a part of and social connections are important. It's an easy and comfortable way to just feel part of a community very quickly. And I think it's all positive. I just think that it becomes part of people's lives. It becomes part of a routine. And I think it just keeps going because people just keep showing up.”
The Next 25 Years
In addition to his duties as chapter president, Ambrose sits on the International Front Runners steering committee as the representative of the 16 clubs which comprise the U.S. Western region. When the conversation turns to the future of chapters, subjects like incorporating more women and minorities comes up. Palm Springs is no exception. A majority of the chapter is male, many over age 60, and white.
“I think it's probably intimidating for women to show up on a Saturday,” Ambrose says. “They may be sort of gung-ho joining this running and walking club and they show up on a Saturday and they're like one of 100. And even though everyone is very nice and welcoming, it still probably is a pretty intimidating experience. And so I've said before that we get a lot of first dates with women runners, female runners and walkers but we don't get a lot of second dates. And so that's a nut that we have not yet figured out how to crack is how to attract and keep women coming back, because we would love to see our women numbers increase and have some diversity as far as male, female.”
On the diversity front, the formation of Brothers of the Desert has potentially opened the door for the Palm Springs Front Runners and Walkers to collaborate on events and social settings, Ambrose says.
And while the FrontRunners and Walkers’ activities primarily draw members from Palm Springs and Cathedral City — the two cities with the largest number of gay residents — there has been talk about starting an East Valley chapter, Ambrose says. “We’ve considered starting a chapter in La Quinta,” he says. “We have some people who have joined the club who live down valley and wouldn’t have to make the trek to Palm Springs to participate in an activity. And that could be an outcome, possibly, of Covid, where we’ve had more people moving to the desert and not necessarily to Palm Springs proper.”
The International FrontRunners and the Palm Springs chapter are rooted in the gay community, but members stress anyone is welcome to join. “I’ll probably be there forever,” says Channell, who recently spoke to a friend who is leaving Palm Springs and moving to New York. “I asked him the other day, ‘You going to try to find the Front Runners and Walkers in New York?’ And he goes, ‘Oh yeah, that's the first thing I'm going to do.’”