When I signed up for Adventure Boot Camp, I knew it was going to be a long week. The kind of week you wish was over before it started.
I'll be the first to admit it wouldn't be half so hard if I was a morning person. But I knew what lay in store — running, jumping, old-school calisthenics, gut-wrenching variations on the standard sit-up — all at 5:30 a.m., almost three full hours before I usually crawl out of bed.
What is Adventure Boot Camp?
The boot-camp fitness trend took off about a decade ago in Southern California. Adventure Boot Camp is a program created by John Spencer Ellis, chief executive officer of National Exercise & Sports Trainers Association. Boot camp instructors obtain certification in Ellis' program, which in addition to emphasizing physical fitness, promotes enjoyment of the outdoors. Adventure Boot Camp operates in 38 states, several Canadian provinces, England, New Zealand, The Netherlands, Portugal and the Cayman Islands.
Like a fair number of women in boot camp, I needed to get back into shape and wasn't motivated enough to do it solo. And like certain of those women, I'd fallen into a rut. What I'd been doing simply wasn't yielding the results it used to, and I didn't know which direction to head next.
Jackie Auchard does. And the former physical education teacher provides motivation in spades. Her motto: When you're on her watch, you never stop moving for an entire hour. She doesn't care if you can't run anymore; you walk. It's tough love, but it's an approach that many of us need and one that's worked for dozens of women.
Jackie's first success story, Jill Hamilton, loved the program so much she made it her part-time job.
"I never thought that I would be doing this or having this type of energy," Jill says.
Jill, 31, suffered from postpartum depression, wore a size 16 and composed her diet of M&M's and pizza when she signed up for boot camp in February 2007. Six months later, Jill had dropped four sizes and was so adept at Jackie's regimen that she demonstrated exercises for the entire class.
"It's attainable; you just have to work hard," Jill says.
A year after joining boot camp, Jill obtained certification as a personal trainer and now directs the boot camp's evening session in Ashland. But because she's still passionate about the early-morning workouts, Jill could be found running laps around the Medford Armory the week I decided to give mini boot camp — the "break" between regular sessions — a shot.
Getting up two hours before the sun on Day 1 isn't as hard as I anticipated. But right out of the gate, I realize I've forgotten my hand weights, one of the few required pieces of equipment campers provide themselves. Lucky for me and a couple of other campers, the unfailingly cheerful Jackie says weights aren't on the day's workout schedule.
But running is.
I know I haven't run a mile since high school, mainly because I hate to. Give me a sturdy pair of shoes, and I can walk for miles. But I refuse to let Jackie or any of the other campers — most older than me, a few heavier than me — see me walking. It doesn't matter that my heels are barely an inch above the ground with each stride. It's now a matter of pride.
At the head of the pack, Meghan Schols was worse off just seven short months ago.
"I've never been athletic," says the 30-year-old mother of two young boys.
Before joining boot camp, Meghan had never run a mile, not even in high-school gym class, she says. In school, she was always the kid lagging behind or chosen last for playground games. Now in the best shape of her life, she signed up to run the three-mile version of Medford's annual Pear Blossom Run.
Feeling like I've already run three miles in the first 30 minutes of camp, my enthusiasm starts to wane. I thought I had recovered enough from a serious wound on my left foot to last the entire hour, but somewhere between jumping jacks and wind-sprints, I sense blood is seeping through my sock and staining the soles of my new Nikes. I must look like a complete wimp explaining to Jackie why I can't seem to synchronize my feet and fists to mimic cross-country skiing in place.
"OK," she says, and gives me an alternate method of completing the exercise, just so long as I keep moving. Just four more days like this one, I think, headed for my car and home.
At first, I wondered if I would start to enjoy getting up early by week's end, but the still-dark sky seems proof enough of the ungodly hour. Once I step out of the shower, my bed looks so comfortable that I hop back in and sleep for two hours.
While the early hour may scare off some potential boot-campers, others are so driven to reclaim their bodies that sleep loss seems a worthy sacrifice. Worried about showing up on time at the gym each morning, Christine Schwartz says she hardly slept her entire first week of boot camp. Intent on getting to bed by 9 p.m., she gave her monthly book-club meeting the boot.
"They thought I was nuts," Christine recalls.
Just as intent on her exercise, Christine slyly chides me on Day 2 for laziness. Halfway through Jackie's circuit of pain, I run out of steam in the middle of triceps dips and slump onto the bench.
"I gotta keep my eye on the prize," Christine says, adding that she is going to her 40th high school reunion this year.
Embarrassed that I can't keep up with a woman twice my age, I find a second wind although, as we plod through the circuit, proper form seems beside the point.
Favoring my good foot, I skip rope instead of truly jumping over it. I collapse to my knees during plank extensions rather than holding the pose on my toes. Jackie simply demonstrates the correct technique in lieu of acknowledging my slacking.
The first three days of boot camp, Jackie says, are always the hardest. Amazingly, the body adjusts. Mine does, too, just under some protest.
My legs are so tight the morning of Day 3 that even the slowest runners are passing me on the warm-up jog around the gym. Pride now beside the point, I line up with the group who's "taking it easy," according to Jackie.
Then I hear the easy version of this exercise involves running single-file with five other women, the person in back sprinting to the head of the line. It's a drill I remember well from school days, but I have no idea how my lactic acid-inured legs can move fast enough to constitute a sprint.
Once we get outside and get moving, my fatigue takes a backseat to holding onto my last shred of self-respect. After one sprint, the woman who started at the back of the line drops into a walk. Then another. I'm not going down with them, I vow.
Back inside the gym, Jackie has assembled another circuit, but this one doesn't seem quite so demanding. I smugly note that Christine tries to skip her last set of lunges, only to return when she realizes she'd be jogging until I caught up.
Small similarities to yoga soothe me throughout the week, but Jackie's way of adapting the familiar to her program always levels the playing field. If I can hold a side plank balancing on one foot, I think, surely I could do a one-armed triceps press stabilized by both feet.
"You can do it on your elbow," says Linda Davis, as she balances on the gym floor a foot behind me. Given her full-on view of my shaking arm, Linda is no doubt trying to be helpful. Pegged for a weakling, I don't even bother trying to balance from my wrist for hip dips.
Give me another month or so and, like Linda, I may be impressed by my progress.
"I just feel really strong," Linda says.
An avid downhill skier, Linda, 52, says she wanted to take her performance on the mountain to the next level. Hearing about boot camp from a friend, she substituted the program for her normal gym routine. Two months after joining boot camp, Linda says her legs are stronger, allowing her to ski more difficult terrain. During morning workouts with Jackie, she's inspired by "women of all shapes and sizes" pushing themselves to get in shape.
"Anybody can do it, I think, no matter your limitations," she says.
It's a core focus in Jackie's philosophy.
"You're not going to take a woman who's had a couple of kids, who hasn't exercised in five years and put them in a Marine Corps-style boot camp," Jackie says.
"We're moving your body like you would in everyday life."
Nevertheless, a quasi-military obstacle course greets campers on Day 4. Bunny-hopping through the rungs of rope ladders laid end to end on the floor is the warm-up for navigating a network of ropes strung about 2 feet off the floor, forcing us into an "army crawl."
"We get a discount when you guys clean the floor," Jackie chuckles as her campers groan.
Although my hips and elbows haven't felt so bruised since I played high-school volleyball, the day's workout feels easier. Or maybe I'm actually getting in better shape after only four days.
On the morning of Day 5, however, every muscle in my body seems to scream when I get out of bed. I need no other motivation to start stretching as soon as I reach the gym. But Jackie has more pain in mind.
For the first exercise, we head outside with a partner — one person to jump rope while the other runs around the parking lot. At designated points, the runner drops to the wet, earthworm-strewn asphalt and performs 15 pushups. If anyone was overly proud of her manicure, I suspect she's cursing under her breath even more than the rest of us.
I'm in disbelief that pushups — 60 in all — are required for a second (or third?) day in a row when my triceps feel like they could barely support my weight. Of course, the slower your partner, the longer you have to jump rope. It's just another of Jackie's evil twists.
But after another circuit that involves a lot of tugging on resistance bands and, strangely enough, balancing on skateboards, Jackie shows her playful side.
Since it's the last class before Easter, Jackie has set up three camouflage-adorned Easter baskets filled with camo-painted eggs. Teams appropriate a basket and on Jackie's signal run between the other baskets, snatching an egg at a time and rushing it back to their own.
Since my team has some of the slowest runners to start, Jackie appoints Meghan, now one of the camp's fastest, to join us. The mad dash between baskets trying not to run into each other sparks some camaraderie and good-natured competition. I almost feel sorry it's my last class and I won't get the chance to know these women any better.
After class, Jackie announces that she's treating everyone to coffee at the nearby Starbucks. I consider joining them but still feel like sleeping a little more this morning.
Shimmering through the mist that's hugging the hills, the first dawn I've seen this week nearly changes my mind. It's almost a shame to go back to sleep, I think, empowered that I could be seizing the day when so many people are still in bed.
Then again, there's always boot camp at nine o'clock.