By Elizabeth Kennedy
Eat food, too much, mostly doughnuts. This was my modus operandi in the weeks following my first triathlon when I felt I’d earned the indulgence. I’d cut at least 15 minutes off my finish time in four consecutive marathons since my first with the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society’s Team in Training program in Honolulu back in 2000. And I’d gone on to master two new sports to finish competitively in my first triathlon here in Folsom, Calif. I was ready for some generously sugar-coated R&R. But let the routine relax just a smidge and I soon discovered how readily the regimen of run, bike and swim gave way to one of sprinkled, powdered or plain. The day I visited Colonial Doughnuts on Lakeshore twice in a single afternoon, I knew it was time to enlist the help of professionals. So what was an all-or-nothing kind of athlete to do?
The solution came in an unexpected form: athletic boot camp. Organized into group sessions, athletic boot camps are short-term, high-intensity fitness programs designed to get fast, inspiring results. My colleague Allegra Harris, a 24-year-old lifelong dancer and powerhouse publicist at Berkeley’s North Atlantic Books, had enrolled because she wanted something a little more extreme. Despite having a gym membership for years, she said she found herself needing a jumpstart in her routine. Harris fretted it would be like a bad high school gym class—that she’d be the slowest or the last one picked—but was surprised by the results. Not only did the trainers help her refine workout techniques by educating her about the weights, the repetitions and number of sets she should be doing in each circuit to suit her body and goals, but they also saw her through the Nike Women’s Marathon in San Francisco. So like hundreds of other Bay Area women before me, I emailed the relatively new Oakland chapter of Adventure Boot Camp, one of the largest and most successful organizations of its kind, with camps in over 40 states and nearly 10 countries. I was quickly registered and scheduled to meet with 40 other participants, along with certified trainers Anna Gunn and Jennie Votel, on the northeast lawn of Lake Merritt at 5:30 in the morning.
The class, a loosely organized field of more than 30 women of all different ages, sizes and ethnicities, began with stretches and a few warm-up calisthenics before we all broke up into groups of six. Each group gathered at one of several stations spread out across the grass and set up to work specific muscles—rowing with bands for the upper back, sit-ups on stability balls for abs or squats at the wall for the development of core strength. As women rotated through the stations, we were instructed by the two lead coaches to head out for interval runs between circuits, short sunrise sprints along the perimeter of Lake Merritt and back.
Boot camps, growing explosively in popularity since their emergence in the late ’80s, have a unique appeal to a culture that prizes immediate gratification above all else. According to Steve Edwards, a sports psychology professor at Oklahoma State University quoted in The New York Times, there is a higher likelihood of sticking to it, given the format. Edwards explains: “It’s far easier for someone to buckle down for four weeks than to think about going to the gym for six months.” Catherine Wohlwend, general manager of San Francisco–based BootCampSF, which offers a camp at Lake Merritt, sees a method to this madness. Camps are almost always organized in six-week sessions because “according to kinesiology principles,” she says, “[it] is the shortest amount of time to see the most dramatic results.”
BootCampSF’s daily workout routine is typical, focusing on different fundamentals like a long-distance run, hill running, agility, cross-training and strength training. Participants, free from complicated machines, heavy equipment and a sterile gym atmosphere, get outside and use their own body weight for resistance work. The only equipment you’ll find at these camps are yoga mats and weights, as well as bands, jump ropes and maybe a medicine or stability ball or two. Campers use this equipment in different ways—lunges and reverse lunges with the bands or crunches on the mats, weight workouts added on to squats and stretches that boost exercises to the next fitness level.
Running through circuits designed by professional coaches, participants in the best camps do different things each day—cross-training, pushing themselves in calisthenics and “cardio” routines or building slowly and safely with isolated strength training, depending on the individual goals and fitness levels established at the camp orientation. Some classes like those at Oakland Adventure offer a mixed-discipline experience, incorporating things like kickboxing, mat work or obstacle courses. PacWest Athletics, based in Sausalito with camps in the East Bay, San Francisco, Marin and the Peninsula, and whose website advises visitors to “think outside the gym,” goes as far as rotating a single class through four different locales to keep participants engaged: Lake Merritt, the Berkeley Rose Garden, Lake Temescal and the Piedmont High School track.
Nearly all camps offer early-morning sessions so participants can get fit without interrupting their daily lives, and Oakland Adventure Camp is one of the earliest, clocking in at 5:30 a.m. and ending at 6:30 a.m. Catherine Kevane, an Oakland-based attorney and mother of three, has been doing the Oakland Adventure boot camp since the first session in February of 2007. “It is my sanity,” she says. “It is so amazing to have done something great for yourself each day before the rest of the world is even awake.”
I might have been as enthusiastic as Kevane had it not been for the doughnut clause. Mention the very word, Gunn and Votel advised, and I was required to drop and give ’em 20. The push-up punishment was nothing personal. In fact, it was written into the online contract of every participant in the camp. Reading this with not a little chagrin, I gulped down my coffee and doughy confections at my desk and ticked the checkbox with reluctance: “I agree not to eat or say the words Twinkie, doughnut, Ho Ho, Ding Dong or cupcake during the course of boot camp. Any violation will result in 20 push-ups per occurrence.”
But it is precisely this type of behavioral bossiness that attracts so many people to boot camps. After all, if we lack a conscience and a coach inside ourselves, boot camps provide one for us. The camps today offer a milder version of the original shock model of corrective basic training. Two distinct classes of camp have emerged in the United States over the last two decades: the athletic boot camp and the charity-based training program.
Boot camps like Sergeant’s Program, a camp run by “the Sarge,” former Navy petty officer Patrick Avon in the Washington, D.C. area, originally targeted men looking to toughen up by way of antagonistic boot-camp drills, à la the cruel Full Metal Jacket brute, Gunnery Sergeant Hartmann.
Around the same time in 1988, Bruce Cleland rallied 38 people to train for the New York City Marathon as a fund-raiser for his daughter Georgia, a leukemia patient. This was the first incarnation of Team in Training, known in fitness circles as TNT, now a national juggernaut that trains individuals in preparation for marathons, centuries, triathlons and a score of other events in exchange for fund-raising efforts. The Komen Race for the Cure, AIDS/Lifecycle, and Team Diabetes groups are among the other training programs that draw droves of participants into cause-based athleticism across the country. Mercifully, boot camps these days look less like the sadistic soldier scenario in daily practice and more like the TNT-type programs (only without the fund-raising).
What they do have in common with boot camps of old is in the Sarge’s tagline, “Be all you used to be.” These programs attempt to reconnect busy people with their athletic glory days or in some instances introduce them to fitness for the first time. Megan Kilkenny, senior director of marketing communications at the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society which runs TNT, explains, “A majority of our participants have never taken on a physical challenge like this before. The program eases newcomers into their sport of choice with education and by gradually building fitness.”
And while reality shows like Survivor have increased the appeal of tough love and disciplined routines, there’s none of the boot-in-the-back brutality or barking commands in today’s boot-camp atmosphere. The pervasive perception of boot camps as muddy, bloody adrenaline-soaked screaming matches is pure mythology. At the outset of camp, when an accident put my knee temporarily out of commission, I had concerns I’d be benched. Instead, Anna and Jennie provided an alternative exercise during the run segment and provided personal attention to my form while the rest of the group went running. Anna chided me to take it easy and work at a pace that was comfortable. And when I arrived more than 10 minutes late one dark morning after having missed several sessions, I ran through a litany of excuses for my absence. Jennie, having read my email saying as much in advance, was quick to move us along with preemptive inspiration, “Wow, you’ve had some week. Okay, we want you to stay warm, so go ahead with some reverse lunges.” Never one to be too easily corralled, I said I’d forgotten my weights. Anna handed me hers with a smile.
After the first class, I studiously avoided stairs and chairs; my thighs were that sore. But the knowledge that others were out there showing up was good motivation to get—and stay—in gear. The remarkable quality of this communal workout was repeated in each camp: all these women showed up silently, half-asleep and scowling, but left every camp looking brighter, more alive, chatting together and laughing about the difficulty of the workout. Not only are boot-camp coaches a far cry from the drill-sergeant caricature, the locations where their classes take place get you out in breathtaking surroundings at an hour when silence reigns. It’s a treat for the senses. And all this in the hours when we’d all have otherwise been sleeping the day away. BootCampSF offers outdoor classes in more rugged parks like Tilden, where campers can take advantage of the natural beauty of the Bay Area. They also recently held an ’80s-themed class that had participants showing up to class in legwarmers, Napoleon Dynamite short-shorts, and side ponytails.
BootCampSF general manager Wohlwend credits these concepts, as well as the workouts, for the development of meaningful new friendships. She says, “There is something about working out with the same people day in and day out and going through the difficult challenges we place on them that creates bonds. We also do social outings: athletic adventures like kayaking, as well as parties and regular happy hours.” In form with BootCampSF, AlaVie Fitness, which offers a class called PowerVie in Walnut Creek (both co-ed and women-only camps), also holds regular social events, including a camper appreciation event at Sports Basement, where participants get a discount on anything they buy at the store.
These boot-camp sessions comprise much of what your high school gym class should have: high-impact activity with like-minded individuals, at convenient times, with mixed stations and workouts so campers don’t get bored or injured. The hope is not only that campers will see measurable results at the end of the drill sessions, but carry over some of the good habits into their daily life.
When the camp ended, I was left to sort out my own routine. I have not had a doughnut since it started. I have had flashes of the class in my mind, Jennie and Anna milling through the throng of fellow boot-campers, modeling the exercises, chatting in an absurdly upbeat manner given the hour of day, and most importantly watching us all to look for places to tweak our form. Anna and Jennie seem to have made a life out of extinguishing bad habits and nurturing good ones.
Riding my bike past the doughnut shop in the days following the camp’s conclusion, I feel my longing. But along with the hypnotizing scent of liquid sugar in the air, my mind also processes a new ticker tape of thought: the recollection of Jennie leveling her no-excuses, skeptical gaze on me the day I arrived late and unprepared. The trainer’s Jedi power had somehow barred excuses before I was able even to utter them. We should all locate this capacity within ourselves.
And while die-hards like Catherine Devane may make camp a part of their everyday lives, for most of us the intensity of a boot camp is not one that maps neatly into an already fulfilling—and full—life. Boot camps, however instant their gratification, function at their best as a kind of gateway to a normal exercise routine. The drill workout is not so much an end in itself, but rather a crash course in good choices. And on the other side of the four weeks, I have to ask myself what’s going to last for the long term—whether I want to keep cramming for endurance events and risk burnout or grow up a bit and establish a lasting and reasonable routine. There are worse things I could do than bike, run and . . . eat my warm doughnut with milk. After all, isn’t it forgiven if I drop and give you 20?
Elizabeth Kennedy is a freelance writer living in Oakland. Keep up with her at elizabethkennedy.org
Feel the burn: With the help of a fence, early risers work their arms and legs, one of a series of exercises in a four-week boot camp program led by Adventure Boot Camp alongside Lake Temescal. Photo courtesy Adventure Boot Camp.
Everyday equipment: Adventure Boot Camp participants do push-ups on park benches, squats on stairs and sprints around Lake Merritt. Photo courtesy Adventure Boot Camp.