Letters from Boot Camp: Heavy Backpacks and Hotel Gyms

Michael goes on business trip—and takes Gavin, Eric and the whole Fusion gang with him.

Whatever the goal—making more money, quitting smoking, banishing the Kardashian family to another country—the thought of the payoff is always much easier than the plodding steps to get to it. The middle is always the challenge, whether that middle is the halfway point of a Dostoevsky novel or Jan Brady.

In this regard, boot camp is no different. Now, in week six, I find myself in that awful No Man’s Land of “not at the beginning” and “nowhere near the end,” as if I have been standing on the deck of the same ship forever, wondering if I am ever going to see land again. (Or if it’s sinking.) The start of all of this, while a complete bucket of ice water tossed over my psyche, at least shocked me into action and resolve. Now, firmly ensconced in a routine of bleary-eyed 6:30 a.m. weekly workouts and three others tossed in for good torture measure, I feel like I am literally stuck on the treadmill.

This week, I knew from the start, would be among my toughest, assuming I even made it this far. (And let’s face it—aren’t you surprised I have?) This was the week with the first of two business trips this month, meaning I would no longer have the Fusion Legion of Superheroes to bark orders and watch my form during lunges. Leaving the Fusion cocoon after Tuesday’s boot camp, I was facing no less than the future: Could I work out, as hard and as well, on my own as I do when under the sweaty thumb of Gavin & Co.?

But first, a word about the backpacks.

Now that we are officially in the second half of boot camp, Lt. Eric has commanded all of us to bring backpacks with us to the outdoor workouts, each weighed down with between 10 to 20 pounds. The purpose is to push even further, to do the same sorts of eighth-grade-gym-class regimens we’ve been enduring, only now with the added surprise of an extra slab of weight slung onto our backs. So when we all dutifully suited up and Eric said, “OK, two laps around,” I was, predictably, dubious as to what my performance would be like.

Off I went, chugging like Thomas the Tank Engine around the perimeter of the playground, the backpack making each step feel like Godzilla stomping Tokyo.

Naturally, I did not make it around twice. But I did make it around once and a half without stopping, a personal best. Ditto when, later in the Hannibal Lechter hour, we each had to plank (stay in push-up position, on elbows, butt close to the ground) for 45 seconds at a clip, and I managed to complete it for two of the three rounds. I’d never done that before, either. Perhaps I had discovered the secret to charting Boot Camp progress: Take it one exercise at a time, and stay off the scale.

The next day, as I packed for my trip, however, my fledgling confidence began to wane. I had a packed schedule ahead, including some working lunches and dinners with friends who were not going to embrace a big hearty meal of salmon and green beans when a great steak and a martini were calling. I had booked a hotel with a gym, but that in no way meant I was guaranteed to step a foot in it. Especially if I had just had a steak and a martini.

Yesterday was my first big test: I spent the day criss-crossing Manhattan on various appointments, several involving meals, and also spent most of it trying to step around the land mines on every menu. For the most part, I failed miserably. I’d like to tell you I had yogurt and blueberries for breakfast yesterday, but then that would be lying, and Letters from Boot Camp is all about the truth, baby.

So yes, I had eggs benedict. I could almost hear the game show buzzer reverberating in my ear as I ordered, as a giant genie version of Gavin wafted above the table, shaking its head and admonishing, “You are the Weakest Link. Goodbye.” I did slightly better at lunch—a healthy flatbread sandwich and a side of greens rather than fries—but tripped into another ditch when I met a friend at a coffeehouse playing way too much James Taylor and succumbed to the siren’s song of a fresh-baked and not insignificantly sized chocolate chip cookie. Stricken with guilt I skipped dinner altogether (though I did have a beer with a friend, another stellar choice). Ugh. I needed to right the ship—fast.

And so I went to the hotel gym—and brought Eric and Gavin with me.

Fusion handily provides MP3s of some of its more Marine-worthy workouts, so I had dutifully downloaded two—one cardio portion, one weights and yoga portion—onto my iPod. Now, in the tiny hotel gym at 9 o’clock at night, tired from a long day and disgusted by my day’s lack of will power, I climbed onto the stationary bike and then clicked on Eric, telling me and the phantom class inside my iPod to warm up.

For the next 75 minutes I plowed through my phantom Fusion class, trying to picture the exercises, not always successfully. But I managed most of it, even actually pushing when virtual Gavin admonished, “Push through!” to my unseen classmates. I knew I was doing a decent job because of two things: First, I was drenched in sweat; second, by the end I was answering Gavin back, in colorful language fit for the locker room. Unfortunately, by this time a girl had entered the gym and hopped onto the treadmill nearby. I’m amazed she didn’t look over, hear me grunting epithets to my imaginary trainer, and call Security.

I have another round of eating appointments today. What has made this trip so deadly is not only my wilting willpower, but also that our “challenges” from The Book of Gavin these days are all about eating, from cleaning out the cupboard of processed and sugary foods to preparing all of your meals at home. When you work at a magazine that is all about restaurants, this is, suffice to say, a difficult prospect. And yet I look at Gavin & Co. and their Miami Beach bodies and think: Well, they do it. They practice what they preach. Why can’t I?

The answer came from an unlikely source, my sunny sister-in-law Jean (who, it should be noted, is in terrific shape at 51). “Looking like that is their job,” she reminded me recently. “They spend every day, all day at the gym. Of course they can stick to every rule. It’s all they do.”

A salient point. It doesn’t excuse my eggs benedict, of course, but it does provide some perspective. Like making love and playing miniature golf, exercise must be personalized in order to be effective, each person adapting to what makes it work for him or her. Because sticking with it is goal one. If you can’t do that, you’re screwed.

So I’ll try to do better eating today, and I’ll take Eric and Gavin’s virtual selves back with me to the gym tonight.

But I can’t guarantee I’ll skip the martini.

Tell us: What are your tricks and tips for staying healthy when you travel?


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.