Letters from Boot Camp: I Gotta Have Faith

Our editor completed Week 3 of boot camp, and he's learned it takes more than sweat and tears to stick with it.

I had ice cream last week.

There, I said it. I wasn’t supposed to have it and I didn’t really want to (at least in the intellectual sense), but there I was, down in Old City for First Friday, and how can any reasonable person expect a man enduring boot camp to not stop into Franklin Fountain when there is no line? I made one of those bargains we all make as I neared it: “If there’s a line, I won’t go in.” But—voila!—no line. Far be it from me to ignore fate.

I wish I could tell you I felt horribly guilty afterward, the way you do after you’ve said something awful to your mother or left a restaurant only to realize you grossly under-calculated the tip. But the truth is the afterglow lasted far longer than it should have. Is this what my life has come to? Living for the vicarious thrill of a cup of ice cream?

I think I wasn’t helped by the fact that after my first week of hard-core boot camping I saw immediate results: a measurable weight loss, deeper sleeping, more energy. But by the middle of week two the pace of weight loss had trickled down to something far less dramatic, at least in relation to my soreness and general suffering. I’m just never going to love a 6:30 a.m. workout, or hustling to the gym three other days. In an effort to keep me motivated my friend Christy went with me on Tuesday night (please note: the same day I’d done boot camp at sunrise—cue applause!) for a Broadway jazz class that was sort of like auditioning to be a middle-aged Solid Gold dancer. (Oh, Lord, I’m dating myself. Some reference.). It was shockingly fun, and I sweated like a keg at a July picnic.

But a boot camper I remain. Perhaps predictably, as I’ve become more familiar with the exercises, instructors, and my fellow Campers, I’ve been able to glean some general observations about this odd world of aggressive fitness.

  • Yoga is really just a game of Twister with a soundtrack by Enya.
  • Speaking of which, there is no good reason why you cannot keep your socks on while doing yoga. I don’t care what anyone says, the barefoot thing is gross.
  • Mackie the Fusion instructor always smells like baby powder.
  • There are few things more humbling than being paired up with someone in resistance training, and your partner says to you, “What kind of band do you want for your pull-ups?” and you are forced to reply, “I cannot do any pull-ups.”
  • When on a stationary bike, Position 2 (standing), while more difficult, is infinitely better than Position 1 (sitting), for the sole reason that it’s easier on your heinie.
  • People who take group classes are, generally speaking, very supportive and encouraging. They say things like, “C’mon Michael, you can do it!” during heinous sit-ups and mercifully have the temerity to laugh when you bark back, “Oh, shut up!” as I did to the ever-ubiquitous Carmen Miranda on Tuesday morning. (Mea culpa, mi amor. It was my abs shrieking.)
  • Planking was invented in a prison camp. I’m sure of it.

Despite the cold snap this week, the weather is generally getting warmer, which no doubt helped at boot camp on the playground. We’ve all been separated into groups to motivate each other off site, but two of the girls were missing this week. I call my girls The Champagne Ladies, because one is named Pia and another is named Margaux, which sound like names of champagne to me, and a third, Molly, is a sommelier, which only serves to remind me of how much I would rather be somewhere sipping champagne than going to boot camp. The Champagne Ladies send me periodic emails littered with go-get-isms and exclamation points, which are nice and serve as a reminder that this is a journey, one that hopefully ends at the bar at Khyber Pass.

For several of the exercises this week, Eric, our drill sergeant with the squarest jaw I have ever seen on someone who wasn’t a cartoon character, paired us up individually, and Phil gamely agreed to grunt through with me. A lovely, affable chap with a body like a stalk of asparagus, Phil is one of those guys whom every girl adores, which has certainly proven to be no exception at boot camp. Despite the fact he is probably half my age he showed amazing maturity both guiding me, encouraging me, and humoring me through our regimen, which included a particularly gruesome task where we had to face each other in push-up position (I, to absolutely no one’s surprise, am still doing girl push-ups on my knees). After each push-up, we had to slap opposing palms in a low high-five. Fittingly this was all done on a grassy knoll, because I certainly felt like I was being assassinated.

Despite the bleary hour, I am starting to groove on the 6:30 a.m. workouts, for two reasons: They’re outside, and Gavin, the co-owner of Fusion, can’t see me. Since he got me into this mess in the first place I decided I should make an effort to take one of Gavin’s classes, so last week I dodged out of work early and endured 75 minutes with the Master. He spent half the class walking up to me with the disdainful look of a nun who’s caught the bad girl cheating on her English test, causing me to finally shout, “I know, I know! I’m doing it wrong!” My form has been the biggest challenge thus far, as I try to will my Pillsbury Doughboy physique into the stretches and squats that so many of my compatriots find effortless. Trainer Kelly in particular has been fantastically patient on this score, though I suspect she also has the paramedics on speed dial, just in case.

I’ve come to realize that what I get out of this, other than entertaining all of you with my weekly blog of woe, is up to me. I need to let go of what other people around me are doing, or how many more overhead presses the stone-faced Asian girl in the front can do than I can. I just need to give it my all, try my damndest and hardest, and stay focused.

It’s still difficult. Because when you are someone who knows what it’s like to sit and polish off an entire box of Entenmann’s cookies while watching American Idol, you quickly get impatient when you make this drastic a life change and you don’t immediately start looking like Mario Lopez. It feels that for all you’re putting yourself through—from the sweating to all of the extra shredded carrots in the lunch salad to walking home instead of driving—the payoff should be immense and immediate. Never mind that intellectually you know that’s bullshit, that it took a long time to get this out of shape and it’s going to take time and dedication and patience to undo all of the collateral damage. You just want to know it’s all going somewhere, at the end it will be worth it. It’s battling the meantime that’s tough. And now, in week three, the meantime is all I have.

Every week Gavin sends all of us email pep talks and goals to keep us going, a collection I have come to call The Book of Gavin. Most address nutrition, but he sent one recently on an unlikely topic: Faith. And not in the church or mosque or synagogue sense, but in the overarching sense, of having faith in yourself. “Faith,” Gavin wrote, “is at its core a willingness to face the fear involved in taking a risk and having calm confidence as you move through the unknown until we get to the known.”

A bit Deepak Chopra for a cynic like me, but there’s something to it. Look, I am never going to be the guy who thinks of broccoli as a snack. But—with the help of The Champagne Ladies, Phil, Carmen Miranda, and the rest of the ragtag crew that is my new boot camp family—I’m trying to generate enough faith that I can be the guy who deserves a better fate than what’s found in a box of Entenmann’s.


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.