Workout for Water: Iron Tribe’s Forrest Walden
More than 3.4 million people die each year from water, sanitation, and hygiene-related causes. Nearly all these deaths occur in the developing world. Birmingham’s Forrest Walden, the founder of Iron Tribe Fitness, is best known for putting a creative spin on the competitiveness of group exercise—but his clients and franchisees also have a heart for global change, gathering once a year for a public workout that pays tribute to the hardships of villages in poverty-ridden nations. Their hope is that this month’s Workout for Water event in Avondale will raise $450,000 to provide access to clean water in struggling communities worldwide.
Raised in Hoover, Walden realized as a freshman at Berry High School in 1990 that if he wanted any playing time on the football field he was going to need to get acquainted with the weight room. That’s where his passion for fitness took root. In college, he joined the cheerleading squad at Auburn University and needed to put on 30 pounds of muscle to have the strength to press his partner above his head. He set a goal, bought a journal, and wrote down every workout, meal and supplement. The confidence he gained changed his life, and he decided his future would be dedicated to helping others achieve their health goals as well
As a fitness coach and businessman, Walden eventually owned the franchise rights to a one-on-one personal training program and oversaw the development of 55 franchises in three states. However, by late 2007, he was losing his focus and passion. He was spending more time traveling than working with clients side by side. While working out with friends at home, he realized that the competitive enthusiasm among peers trying to outdo each other put an excitement and work ethic into fitness he had never seen in private personal training sessions. “I was witnessing the future of the industry in my garage. Because of peer pressure, people were pushing themselves harder than they ever would have with a personal trainer—they didn’t want to be beaten by a friend or quit in front of the group,” Walden writes in his book Iron Tribe: From Garage Hobby to Fitness Franchise. “I also realized that competition was something that appealed to everyone. If I could find a way to get others to experience it, they would be hooked in the same way my little garage band was.”
As he took steps toward opening his first Iron Tribe location in Homewood in 2010, Walden was also becoming involved in global missions. David Platt, who pastored The Church at Brook Hills from 2006 to 2014, had challenged his congregation, including Walden, to spend two percent of their time overseas, the equivalent of one week each year. “[It] kind of wrecked my world and made me question a lot of things,” Walden remembers of the poverty he witnessed. “A couple of guys started traveling with me—good friends of mine in my small group—and we went to Sudan, India, Mexico. We just really felt like God was calling us to do something tangible with what we were seeing. We didn’t know what that would look like or what that would mean, and the more we pressed into it and sought Him the more it became clear that we were to start an organization that was focused on clean water, supporting the church in some of the most marginalized and least reached and poorest places on Earth.”
Walden joined Mark Whitehead and Spencer Stutton in assembling a board of directors and naming their organization—Neverthirst. They began partnering with existing non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and for-profit organizations already drilling wells in North Africa and Southern Asia, then connecting them with the local church in the community in need. Church representatives drive the strategy for where the water source should go. Neverthirst solutions to clean water shortages include shallow rope pump wells, drilled deep wells, household rainwater collection, biosand filters, and piped water systems.
Walden has remained on the Neverthirst Board of Directors since its inception in 2008 and helps Iron Tribe locations in Birmingham, Ala.; Nashville, Tenn.; St. Louis, Mo.; Greenville, S.C.; Naples, Fla.; Raleigh, N.C.; and other franchise cities organize their own annual Workout for Water events. Participants include gym members and members of the community who enjoy a physical challenge and want to raise money for the cause. Iron Tribe clients have traveled with Walden to remote villages to see the impact their contributions for clean water solutions have made. Walden’s goal is to raise $800,000 for Neverthirst nationwide this year. Last year’s event raised $412,000 in Birmingham and another $295,000 from franchise locations for a total of $707,000 in projects implemented in Cambodia.
Walden says his most touching memory of his travels abroad is of his first trip to Witto, a village in South Sudan. The natives had been displaced by war and were returning home after living in the bush for 15 years. “The village pastor basically said for 15 years we’ve been praying that God would restore us to our land and send us help, and because you are here, we know that He has heard our prayers,” Walden remembers. “I was fighting back tears just thinking that we were tangible evidence of his prayers.” Witto became the location of Neverthirst’s first project in 2008.
Since 2010, Workout for Water has raised more than $2 million for clean water solutions in India, Cambodia, Nepal, Chad, South Sudan and Sudan. Pledges are currently being collected for this year’s event, which will be hosted outside Avondale Brewery from 8:00 a.m. to noon on May 13. The fitness challenge will include Iron Tribe-style stations for teams of four, reminding participants of the importance of Neverthirst’s cause. Station Three, for example, will include a bucket (representing a well) and 100 blue poker chips on the ground (representing drops of water). Team members can place one chip in the bucket for every burpee completed. For details on how you can participate, call Neverthirst at 205-991-7757 or visit workoutforwater.com.