No, 'don't ask, don't tell' hasn't been repealed, but if you're like me, you'll spend the rest of your civilian life wondering if you'd be tough enough to make it through boot camp. Turns out, several intense military-inspired fitness courses have opened across the country to test one's mettle in non-lethal ways. I joined Ruben Belliard and Alex Fell, two former marines sergeants, at the Warrior Fitness Boot Camp in New York City for 10 days of hard training. Below, a humble account.
I show up bleary-eyed to Warrior Fitness's third-floor HQ in Midtown Manhattan. There's a marine-style obstacle course, which looks like a dangerous playground, and a small track around it. At 7:30 A.M.10 of us begin doing laps around the track. Belliard barks, 'Let's go! Up to 12!' Later, this phrase will haunt me. We flee to the stairwell and begin climbing the nine floors. We return, huffing and puffing, and are immediately forced to bear crawl (a sort of moving downward dog) around the track. Then we run. Then jumping jacks. Then three sets of 25 squat thrusts, with three laps in between. The oldies but goodies from the P.E. repertoire. I'm feeling good, until I realize it's only 7:45. By the end of the class, 45 minutes later, I can't recall ever being so exhausted. 'Sixty minutes of balls to the wall' is how Fell describes it. Each class ends with us in two lines, facing each other. Working down the line, the instructor calls roll. 'Joshua, are you a real warrior?' Funny question because no, not really, but everyone else says 'Warrior!' So I do too.
There's more to our camaraderie than the matching T-shirts we all wear. The entire hour is set up to build a team mentality. This might be the biggest difference from a regular workout, a solitary pursuit free of emotion. Today I'm forced to hold a plank position, until my partner -- a nice chunky woman -- runs five laps. I don't know her name but desperately egg her on. 'Come on!' I say. 'You can do it!' Later, I'm paired with a young swinging dick type. For one exercise, he's selected the highest plyometric platform. It's 36 inches tall and he lugs it to where I'm standing over a pair of stacked tires with a 12-pound bar on my shoulders. He's supposed to jump 30 times onto the platform while I squat with the bar on my shoulders deep enough that my butt touches the tire. I can't stop until he's finished. I squat forever while the Icarus height of his platform gasses my partner. We switch. We do this three times. His machismo is my curse, but it also pushes me harder.
'Each day we do something different,' says Belliard, who, when he's not yelling at you, is a nice guy. Today, it seems, is the insanely hard day. Other days include upper body work, cardio, and an obstacle course, but every day is heavy on circuit training. Today I'm paired with a tall guy named Brian, some sort of Super Athlete. Belliard bellows, 'Hit the obstacle course!' so the two of us hurdle, monkey bar, scale walls, run across the balance beam, crawl through a tunnel, shimmy across parallel bars, and then climb a rope. 'Warrior!' we shout as we touch the ceiling. 'You have one minute to do it again!' shouts Belliard. We take another pass. I collapse onto the floor, covered in rubber woodchips. 'What the fuck?' screams Belliard. 'That's bullshit! Up to 12! And take your friends with you!' Friends? Brian and'my water bottle? He means a pair of 20-kg kettlebells. This, I think as I pause on the eighth floor landing, is the closest I'll come to a breakdown. 'What the fuck, Joshua!?' screams Belliard from below. 'You have two minutes.' I would quit, but Brian hasn't yet.
Though it hasn't been easy, I realize there is something valuable about blind obedience and surrendering to universal absurdity. This occurs to me as two lines of us are counting 25 push-ups. 'One!' yells Fell. 'One!' we reply. Fell thinks we haven't counted loudly enough. 'Back to one!' he screams. Later he gets stuck on the number 12, which he shouts three times like a skipping record. It seems cruel, but there's nothing to do but do it. It's almost a Zen moment. Almost.
Real marine boot camp lasts 13 weeks, but I'm graduating myself at day 10. Already I feel stronger, though whether it's a mental or physical strength is unclear, and actually unimportant. At the end of this last class'a hellish vertical romp up and down stairs holding various weights'we assume plank position. This time I don't hesitate when my name is called. 'Joshua,' Belliard yells, 'are you a real warrior?' 'Warrior!' I yell back. This time I mean it.
Real marines are limited in their options for boot camp: Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, S.C., or Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego. Neither is nice. But if you're just looking to get in shape, try one of these.
Warrior Fitness Boot Camp, New York City
Ruben Belliard and Alex Fell are both former marines who've recreated an obstacle course that brings boot camp favorites (e.g., clapping push-ups, bear crawls) to fitness-obsessed masochists.
Gay Mens Boot Camp, New York City
The West Village's Christopher Street Pier has seen a lot of action, but seldom is it as strenuous as what Laura Miranda puts her recruits through. Held outside (even during cold months), her hour-long course begins at 6 A.M. (though she offers later classes for the weak-willed).
Boot Camp L.A.
In Los Angeles, where it's always 76 degrees and sunny, one has to work extra hard to be miserable. But Major Jay Kerwin (not really a major) fits the Hollywood stereotype, all square-jawed and big-biceped. Each boot camp lasts four weeks and involves no small amount of stair running and weight training.
South Beach Boot Camp, Miami
Beach jogs become a seriously transformative experience under the command of triathlete-coach Venus Vega and Wesley Smith, who has a Ph.D. in exercise physiology and nutrition. Their program's not quite military (neither served in the armed forces), but it's tough. And since the programs are divided into fitness levels, you won't have to wait for others to catch up.