Fitness has never been something I’ve done with any seriousness. Once, years ago, I ran a half-marathon, but it’s an experience I like to bandy when attempting to fit in with athletic types, and not one I ever hope to repeat. Aside from that 13.1 mile, I am a strong proponent of avoiding the gym, organized athletic activity, and breaking a sweat without a practical purpose.
But recently I’ve been hearing about a newish wave of exercise sweeping San Francisco called “fitness boot camp.” People actually pay to take part in six solid weeks of intense physical exercise for short spurts of time in the wee hours of the morning. The sessions sound grueling – people yelling, people throwing up – and I was determined to figure out why anyone would subject themselves to this brutal experience.
It’s 6:30 a.m. and I’m arduously pedaling my bike toward Golden Gate Park to my first day of outdoor boot camp with Koi Fitness. Started by the self-described “Original Boot Camp Guy” Stevan Krstic, Koi Fitness is a six-week outdoor program that is based on functional exercise. Over the phone, Koi’s program manager Jeanette gushes about how sometimes participants piggyback each other up hills or push Stevan’s car around the parking lot. My hands start sweating just thinking about it.
We meet in a parking lot near the Japanese Tea Garden. My expectations of men and women fit beyond my imagination are quickly dispelled. The small array of folks who gather for the 7 a.m. class are of varying ages and levels of fitness. Absent are the heavily tattooed former body-builders I thought would surely populate a boot camp. Jeanette has decided to join up for the day and she knows each and every participant by name. She’s not barking orders or yelling, she’s engaging this group of very amiable people like they were friends.
Galen our trainer – a marathon runner and extreme adventure athlete who seems made entirely of muscle – arrives and gets right into it. Before I have time to be scared, we’re jogging past the Academy of Sciences building. It’s a crisp morning and the gentle run gets the blood pleasantly flowing. As we slowly lope past the de Young, the group chatters amongst themselves; these are obviously friendly acquaintances rather than hypercompetitive workout foes.
When we circle back to the parking lot, Galen has us hitting the workout standards: crab shuffles, high-knees, feet-to-rears. Then he says, “Today we’re doing hill intervals. Follow me to Strawberry Hill.” I sigh audibly.
At the bottom of Strawberry Hill, Galen commands us with an impressive combination of softness and steel to start running the hill. Over the course of the next 20 minutes we run the hill six times at differing paces, interspersed with nausea-inducing ab workouts. It’s not easy, but eventually, my legs loosen – and though I’m breathing heavily, it’s actually enjoyable.
Even lovelier is the group itself. Though I’m barely talking, their presence is strangely inspiring. Everyone is running this hill, everyone is sweating and hustling, and honestly, if they can do it, so can I. Galen pushes us, but never too hard; he isn’t the drill sergeant of my nightmares, but someone who wants to help others get fit and learn how to stay fit.
At the end of the class, as I’m shaking hands with Galen and Jeanette, I’m tired and my body hurts, but I feel good. I’m even smiling a little bit, shocked at my fitness ability.
A week later it’s even earlier in the morning and I’m headed toward 3rd Street Boxing Gym in the Dogpatch for my 6 a.m. class. The gym is around the corner from my place of employment, and in the week before my appointment I’ve been plowed with customer’s stories about the gym's notoriously difficult boxing boot camp. They mention jumping into the oil-streaked bay and getting blown-out knees – they all have a sort of general “oh shit, you’re doing that” tone of voice. I’m literally quaking with fear and anticipation as I ride my bike to class.
I timidly approach Ed, a boulder-like trainer, and introduce myself. He looks me over and says, with a smile, “Felt like coming out for some torture this morning, huh?” Ed passes me a pair of cherry red boxing gloves and a jump rope, slaps me on the back, and tells me to “find some floor.” I stand quietly next to a taped-up boxing bag, trying not to let anyone see the panic-sweat already rolling down my face.
Ed yells “start jumping” and it becomes quickly apparent that I have no idea how to jump rope. People around me are hopping on one foot, crossing their arms across their chests, spinning the rope like it’s a part of their rippling arms. I’m barely able to get in a consecutive series of hops. Rope tangled around my feet, I slink over to a secluded corner of the room. I glance at the clock – it has been exactly 15 minutes.
We lope around the edge of the boxing gym for what seems like hours, and the same sense of group inspiration once again wraps around me. Whatever this is, no matter how brutal and taxing, everyone is in it together.
For our next exercise, we work with punching bags. My attempts at punching are soggy and slow and Ed lumbers over to set me straight.
His tough exterior fades away as he softly and kindly walks me through the jab, the hook, and the uppercut. After 20 minutes, I’m punching and dodging with a respectable amount of grace. Even more surprising, I’m liking it. Landing a solid punch is satisfying beyond belief and for a moment I forget how tired I am. When Ed hollers to hit harder, to move faster, to give it my all, I somehow dig deeper and respond with jab-jab-hook, jab-jab-uppercut.
Boxing boot camp is as hard as everyone claims. It’s an unrelenting series of exercises meant to push you and your body. At one point, as I’m jumping back and forth between uppercutting a bag and doing short, quick bursts of push-ups, I think I’m going to throw up. I teeter a bit,
and as Ed has recommended, I step outside to grab some air. It comes to mind that everyone in this class has been doing this for four weeks. I’ve jumped in past the buildup and muscle toning just to dip my toes in
the water. It seems almost sadistic. I pat myself on the back and head
The final moments of boxing boot camp nearly kill me. We pick up medicine balls and choose a partner; mine is a gentleman named Dennis. Ed starts barking orders at us to twist back and forth while thrusting the heavy ball into our partners' already beaten bodies. I’m so spent that I can barely heave the blue rubber ball. When Ed finally dings the bell signaling an end to the pain, I stagger backwards, sweat pouring down my face, my glasses fogging and near useless.
Dennis turns to me, a big toothy grin plastered across his face and says, “My grandmother is faster than you, man.”
When the hour-and-a-half class is finally over, a few of my boxing gym colleagues shoot me smiles that seem to beam with the admiration that I’ve soldiered through this class, that I’ve stepped up to their level. On my way out, I'm cold and my clothes are heavy with sweat, but I can’t help feeling a kernel of pride.
There’s a fantastic selection of boot camps, boxing or otherwise, throughout the San Francisco area. Koi Fitness offers six-week courses in Golden Gate Park (Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday at 6 and 7 a.m. at the Tea Garden; Tuesday and Thursday at 6 p.m. at the Conservatory of Flowers), with an optional Saturday workout at Baker Beach at 9 a.m. You can pay in a bevy of ways with individual classes priced at $20 and the full-on boot camp experience costs between $110 and $355.
Boxing Boot Camp at 3rd Street Boxing Gym is a four-to-six week, Monday through Friday course offered numerous times throughout the year. You will need to buy or bring 16 oz. gloves, headgear, mouthpiece, hand wraps, a jump rope, and if you’re a dude, a groin guard. If you smoke or drink you’ll have to stop during the duration of boot camp. You’ll also be given dieting recommendations from the gym’s nutritionist. Boxing Boot Camp costs $600.
Images courtesy of The Library of Congress.