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Burn, Baby, Burn!

JoAnne Tobias

A Women’s-Only Boot Camp Kicks Butt at Lake Merritt

     On the morning that I couldn’t zip up my favorite jeans, I realized  it was time to stop blaming the dryer and get back into shape. Like all working moms, my week is a whirlwind of meeting deadlines and making dinners. My life feels like a frenzy of activity, but since little of it involves cardio, the pounds have crept on. It dawned on me that I needed more than a workout; I needed a drill sergeant. Googling “boot camp” and “Oakland” delivered the perfect result: Oakland Adventure Boot Camp for Women. Run by Anna Gunn and Jennie Votel, two athletes and certified professional trainers, this boot camp promises hard-core workouts and dramatic physical improvements. The hour-long morning sessions are early — 5:30 and 6:30 — wiping out the “I can’t exercise — I have to work” excuse.  Before I can change my mind, I click submit. An online fitness assessment and $299 later, I’m an official boot camper. I’ve just signed up for a month of adventure.
     At 6:30 the first morning, I approach the lake in the pre-dawn darkness, weights, yoga mat and water bottle clutched awkwardly to my chest. Lake Merritt is a dark ink stain behind the white pergola at the end of the lake where Grand and Lakeshore come together. I see what looks like reeds or seaweed curling in the air, but that doesn’t make sense; reeds belong in the water. Are the cranky geese quiet for once, undulating their long necks and pacing in a circle? I stare, trying to make sense of what I’m seeing. Then I realize that there are at least 30 women on their backs with their legs cycling through the air. It’s weirdly aquatic, this 5:30 a.m. class whose members work their abs in the dark.
     At precisely 6:30, the 5:30 class disperses, and we, the new class, take their place on the damp lawn in front of the pergola. Following Gunn’s brisk instructions, we do lunges, jumping jacks and run mini-laps along the lake. After only a few minutes into the warm-up, I get a sinking feeling. My back is starting to ache and I’m slipping behind. I console myself that the back row provides a good cover for slacking. I’m startled when Votel calls on me to correct my form: “It’s easier on your back if you don’t arch it as much.” She’s right. That simple adjustment is enough to make the tension subside.
     “I don’t know how they keep track of everybody’s aches and pains,” says Moe Beatie, 48, a registered nurse from Oakland. For the last four years, she’s been coming back to boot camp, pushing herself to meet her daily limits. Formerly a competitive skier, her athletic career was interrupted by a knee operation. “I never dreamed that I’d get back to a place where I felt fit,” says Beatie.
     But it appears that this dreamy place of fitness takes more than a week to reach. In fact, the first week of boot camp is hell. After these first sessions of constant push-ups, squats and dips, I can barely lift my arms. At one point, my work-at-home husband asks me to please stop moaning; it’s interrupting his concentration. I hadn’t even realized I was making noise: Groaning had replaced breathing.
      Even though I’m sure my muscles will shatter like a bottle tossed from a car, I force myself to return yet another day. But instead of more pain, I find relief. “Movement is the best thing for sore muscles,” says Gunn. “After the warm-up, the soreness just moves to a different section.” And since each session torments — I mean, targets — a whole new set of muscles, those aching hamstrings can rest while we strengthen our triceps. “Every week is so different,” says Esther Pearl, 36, of Oakland. “You don’t do anything twice in
one month.”
     In fact, we barely stay in the same spot every day. On “band workout” days, for example, the entire neighborhood becomes our gym. We split into beginning and advanced groups and run to different areas of Lake Merritt for a series of mini-workouts. We jog over to a basketball court on Boden Way and loop the resistance bands through the chain-link fence to do a workout that targets our shoulders and upper arms. Later, as we do tricep lunges on benches by the shoreline, I’m distracted by the beauty of
the surroundings. The arrival of dawn turns the light from dark purple to pastel blue. The moon hovers over the pale city’s skyline; nearby pelicans dive for their breakfast. In this exercise-fueled euphoria, Oakland has never seemed more perfect. “One hour outside is incredible for mental health,” agrees Pearl, who has been signing up for sessions throughout the last year. “The endorphins carry me through the day.”
     However, not every day summons paradise. One morning, Gunn announces what seems to be a particularly devious plan: “We’ll begin with a series of lunges and squats with your weights. And we won’t start the clock until everyone’s working it. So if you’re not busy, you’re making someone else suffer. Ladies: At the end of today’s session, you’ll have done 120 squats! Go!” Before this can fully sink in, Votel erupts with a rebel yell. I’m jarred out of my burgeoning inner complaints and watch as Votel starts her lunges with a toothy grin, shouting, “Yah, isn’t this fun!”
     I’ve heard of good cop/bad cop routines, but this is way more intense. It’s like an over-zealous drill sergeant paired up with an over-caffeinated Tickle-Me Elmo doll. And it’s incredibly effective. Soon we’re all struggling to meet Gunn’s outrageous demands and mirroring Votel’s crazy good mood as we power through the workout. The constant laps along the shores used to be a chore; now they’re my friend. This serene jogging comes as a relief compared to the physical burn and mental focus of
the drills.
     Throughout this month of workouts I feel oddly excited and terrified. Judging by the groans and smiles on the other sweaty faces, I’m not alone. “When Jennie says ‘fun,’ you know you’re in for it,” says Beatie. “But I love it. There’s no way I could motivate myself like that.”
     After the second week, something wonderful happens. The stiffness and pain evaporate, replaced by a more productive sort of ache and a huge surge in energy. This feeling appears to be why boot campers keep coming back for more. “I’m sore all the time, but it’s a good sore,” says Beatie, who has been starting each week with a boot camp session since 2006. “I go home feeling better about the day ahead of me.”
     On the fourth week, I weigh myself. After countless lunges and curls, I’ve only lost two pounds. But, I’m still thrilled — there are other, more important numbers that have gone both down and up. I took a minute off my mile and two inches off my hips. And those impossible, timed push-ups and crunches? In one minute, I’m able to do eight more than when I started a month ago.
     “You can’t rely on the scale,” says Beatie. “It’s how you feel.”
    Muscle weighs more than fat, but it also takes up less space. That’s why, weight loss aside, Oakland Adventure Boot Camp did deliver dramatic transformation. I feel stronger and leaner. Best of all: My jeans fit again. 

On Jan. 8, Oakland Adventure Boot Camp for Women will offer a free session to jumpstart the New Year’s fitness plans. Visit for more information.