Letters from Boot Camp: This Is Starting to Feel Like Junior High

With Week 2 in the can, our intrepid boot camper can't help but think about his drill-sergeant gym teacher in junior high.

I have been thinking about Ms. Whitman.

Ms. Whitman was my gym teacher in ninth grade, at Woodrow Wilson Junior High in the Northeast. A transplant from Catholic grammar school (the nuns were livid I was going over with “the publics”), I was completely unprepared for the basic-training feel of public-school gym, with its ropes and horses and mats and parallel bars. As a pudgy 14-year-old, it became quickly apparent that I was going to be an academic star at Wilson—and I was going to flunk gym.

My first clue was when out of the gate Ms. Whitman—a brittle, shrill drill sergeant whom I strongly suspect had, in fact, once been an actual drill sergeant—sent us out for a run around the school as she stood by with her stopwatch. As the rest of the class took off for the 600-yard dash like Tyson Gay, I bravely brought up the rear, huffing like a water buffalo in a most unflattering all-white gym suit, and vainly tried to stay ahead of Marsha Goldberg, whom I believe may have had a heart condition. It didn’t matter—on the final leg even Marsha whizzed by me, leaving me to finish dead last as Ms. Whitman shook her head. I ended up having to take after-school “extra credit” gym just to pass ninth grade. Extra-credit gym.

Fast-forward 34 years later, and here I am again, at 6:30 in the morning on a chilly Tuesday, being directed by another military chief, Fusion Cross-Training warden Eric, to run around a Wash West playground. Running hasn’t gotten any easier—I had femur replacement after a nasty car accident more than a decade ago, which isn’t helping—and once again I lumber in, dead last, among the 15 “boot campers” who, like me, have agreed to undergo 10 weeks of torture.

Just about two weeks in, this experiment is shaping up to be both unexpected and completely expected, if that makes any sense. I knew I would hate it, and I do, though not quite as virulently as I feared. I knew I would be one of the most out-of-shape people here, and I am. But I also suspected that Gavin McKay, who talked me into all of this ridiculata, was right when he said if I stuck to it that it would work, and so far, it has.

Yes, on the days after the workouts I can’t move. But this I have come to see as a good thing, as proof that I am not slacking and that I am giving it my best effort. The other day, the morning after one of Fusion’s patented 30-minute cardio/30-minute weight- and floor-training/15-minute yoga stretch horror shows, I actually had to slide my body off the bed, frantically trying to find the floor with my left foot to push my body up. Four minutes later, I succeeded. That’s what one calls muscle soreness.

But the fact that I am building muscle at all is what is heartening. There is no doubt that just two weeks in I am already sleeping better, I am eating better, I have more energy during the day. My stamina on the stationary bike is improving. (My form in the floor exercises, on the other hand, remains questionable, as instructor Kelly, who on Wednesday night watched me flop around the gym like a just-caught catfish, can attest.) In effect, all of the things the gurus swear would happen are slowly happening.

Of course, my big tests are still in front of me: when my weight loss plateaus, or when I have to travel for work and weave through a series of parties and dinners, as will in May. Or my birthday, for that matter, which is so helpfully on the same day as one of the 6:30 a.m. boot camps. (If Gavin thinks I am foregoing cake that day, he’s in for a surprise. Take that!)

But back to Ms. Whitman. On Boot Camp Tuesdays, Eric takes roll (See? Junior high!), and each of us has to say, out loud, how many workouts we did the week before. And I’m thinking, Here is where I am going to finally ace gym—I packed in four workouts in week one. And then I stand and hear all of the people who did five, or six. When it comes to her turn, Carmen, a lithe woman around my age whom I have secretly nicknamed Carmen Miranda (because I can), proudly answers, “Ten.” Ten! In a week! This only proves my theory that exercise addicts are really Pod People.

So that’s where we are. My sit-ups are still pathetic, I still can only do push-ups on my knees, and I have come to view the word “burpee” as foul language. Rubbery and woozy, I skipped the last run around the playground and dared Eric to admonish me, but he didn’t, because the Fusion credo is something akin to, “Each according to his ability.” Which I appreciate. If he’d pulled out a stopwatch I think I would have kept running all the way to my car. The only thing missing at the conclusion of that workout was a chalk outline of me on the playground.

At the very end, after the planking and pull-ups (do I really have to tell you how many of those I managed?), Eric divided us each up into little groups, ostensibly to have us bond and keep each other motivated. I was paired with four lovely girls who all seem to be training for the Broad Street Run, which I would have trouble driving. Perhaps the best thing about my group, however, is that it contains a sommelier.

Because, really: Is there any doubt about how badly I am going to need a drink once this is over?


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