Letters from Boot Camp: I Can’t Believe I Agreed to Do This

Our intrepid executive editor embarks on his first week of a 10-week, get-fit-by-summer boot camp. He regrets it already.

Up front, you need to know this: I hate the gym.

I mean it. Those of you “addicted” to Lithe or who feel shamed and guilt-laden at missing the 6 a.m. daily run are as mysterious to me as people who follow the Kardashians. A great meal at the bar with a crisp glass of wine, the allure of this is something I can wrap my head around. Looking forward to slogging through sweat, feeling pain, and enjoying the constant stench of damp gym socks remains a puzzle.

That said, I certainly understand why people do it. We all want to live longer, sure. But really, more than that we all want to wear nice clothes and not look like a house, or worse, be naked and look like a house. At the end of the day, people work out for one reason: Vanity.

This past winter may have been far more mild than most, but it was still long and dark, and it didn’t help that at the start of it I had major issues with my house while I also got swiftly and efficiently broken-up with. All of which means to explain how I spent several months packing on weight like it was on sale. We all have stress triggers, and we all have things we do to ameliorate those triggers. Some people drink; some people smoke; some people do recreational drugs. Alas, when I am stressed, I eat. A lot. In the words of the late Luther Vandross, “Mrs. Fields and I are on a first-name basis.”

All of which is meant to explain how I ended up, at the ridiculous hour of 6:30 in the morning, at the Fusion Cross-training studio on Sansom Street, ready to start a 10-week (10-week!) boot camp. “Boot camp” is really just a fancy, Starbuck-ian name for exercise regimens that are basically meant to whip fat people back into some semblance of shape (think NBC’s The Biggest Loser) and make fit people feel superior as they glide along, acing every fitness challenge as they watch the fat people. The boot camp at Fusion is part of an overall wellness lifestyle formed by its Abercrombie-model-looking owner, Gavin McKay, whom Philly Mag readers may recall as one of a cabal of ridiculously jacked people who once posed nude for the magazine. This I completely understand: If I had that body, I would go to work nude, too.

Gavin has assured me that if I follow his boot camp, stick with it for the 10 weeks, and modify my diet, I’ll come out of all of this a different (and lighter) person. With nothing to lose but weight, I have reluctantly agreed to be your Be Well guinea pig. Because either way, I figure you, dear reader, wins: If I succeed and end up a middle-aged sexpot, I prove that anyone—even chubby, middle-aged editors—can reinvent their bodies; if I fail, you get to feel smug about the fact that I am not the Biggest Loser, but merely a big loser.

My boot camp consists of three to four workouts a week (Gavin is pushing me for four), including one mandatory one every Tuesday morning before sunrise. They basically are split into three sessions: cardio, strength and conditioning, and yoga. So the drill is, more or less, basically this: You spend 30 minutes on a stationary bike or treadmill, sweating your ass off as some ponytailed Nazi barks orders to speed it up; you spend the next 30 minutes grunting as you lift free weights and pull elastic bands and suffer through floor exercises; and then for 15 minutes you twist yourself into downward facing dog and other elastic poses until you collapse in a heap. Fin.

But first there is my “fitness assessment,” where I get to see, up close and personal, just how terrible a shape I am presently in. I wish I could be brave here and share with you all of my measurements, and how much I weigh, and how many sit-ups I managed to complete in a minute, but even I can only tolerate so much humiliation in one blog post. So let me just say this, people: In the words of the old girl group TLC, it’s so, so unpretty.

My first complete 75-minute slog was Wednesday night, and I coped pretty well, though I think that was in large measure due to the fact that Kelly, the instructor, sensed I was a tad fragile, and knew when to apply the pressure and when it was best to allow me to just sweatily lament my shortcomings. While there were a fair number of toned bodies in the class, there were also a few others, like me, who apparently know where to find a good cheesesteak. At the end of it I was a huffy, puffy mess, drenched to the bone. My favorite moment came at the very end of the class, as people were packing up. I casually passed a sinewy girl who had spent the class in the front, dazzling us all with her super-fit bod, and remarked to her, “I was really disappointed in how much you slacked off tonight. Everyone noticed.” The look of split-second horror on her face was worth the entire thing. (Don’t worry—she got the joke. Eventually. Then, no doubt, went home and did wind sprints.)

As I walked the mile and a half back to my apartment (I felt like punishing myself a bit more), I wondered if I would be able to reach my personal goal in all of this. I have a little place at the beach, but I have not actually taken my shirt off on the beach in more than 15 years. It’s silly, I know—there are plenty of guys fatter and older than me letting it all hang out at the Shore. But we all have our peccadillos, and this is mine. So we’ll see if I can do it—if I can, in 10 long weeks, sculpt my Play-Doh physique into something decent enough to rid myself of a farmer tan. Or, conversely, whether by week four I’ll bump into you in line at Pat’s Steaks.

We’re about to find out. Wish me luck.


Michael Callahan, the executive editor of Philadelphia magazine, hates working out—which is what makes this little experiment so very awesome. He’ll blog about his boot camp experience—the good, the bad, and everything in between—every Friday on Be Well Philly.