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Red Wine & Butter

Want to lose weight? Eat less and exercise more. Yeah, sure. If it were that easy, everyone would do it. One woman's misadventures at boot camp

By Gretchen Giles


B ully looks so great that I demand to see her ass. A tall slender woman some 15 years my senior, she dutifully turns around. Damn.

Bully has found a new religion, and it's called Adventure Boot Camp, a women-only outdoor hour of daily exercise that she's done five days a week for four straight weeks. Bully loves it, her skin loves it, her flat-flat tummy loves it and anyone can see that her ass loves it.

Like all recent converts, Bully loves it so much that she wants me to love it, too. To convince me, she tells outright lies: "It'll be fun." To convince me, she utilizes numbers: "It's only three weeks this session, and you only have to go three times a week. " To convince me, she peers into the future: "It'll really help you with those last 10 pounds."

I consider those last 10 pounds. Over the past year and a half, I have bored myself to tears by whittling away at 30 other pounds of former me. I walk or ride my bike five days a week and, during the day, eat meals that include such wretched algebra as seven almonds, one apple and two ounces of hard cheese. But at night, glorious wonderful night, I slip through the veil that no dieter should enter. I have red wine and butter.

I have no intention of ever giving up red wine or butter, but 24-mile round-trip bike rides to work and swift six-mile marches up hills haven't budged me past that last nagging 10.

There are other considerations. I've never worked out at a gym, don't know how to use weights and quit yoga when the instructor made us team up with sweaty strangers. But most of all, there's the phobia issue.

"Do you have to run?" I ask Bully.

I can't run. Physically, it's within my realm of motion, but psychologically, I'm paralyzed. Something about big boobs and high school track ovals and an adulthood of smoking. I can bike with happiness, hike with ease. Running, I'm all short stocky legs and awkward heavy body, an early ancestor just coming upright who's been inexplicably forced into Nikes.

"Only if you want to," she assures.

"Is it really at 5:30 in the morning? Outside?"

"Yeah, it's kind of nice. You get used to it. I like doing crunches while I watch meteors."

I study Bully's face. She's lying again.

"I guess I could pretend that I'm a TV anchorwoman on a morning show," I reason, warming to fantasy. The last time I watched morning TV, Jane Pauley co-anchored The Today Show. I've always liked Jane Pauley. Such thick hair and such a smart husband. "They have to go to bed at 8 to get up at 4:30."

Bully nods encouragingly. "They sure do!" she says enthusiastically.

She can smell the kill.

Later that week, Bully has a message for me. "Either you sign up or your ass is grass. And I," she pauses dramatically, "am the lawn-mower."

I look at the Adventure Boot Camp materials. I see that it's run by a woman named Rae (no one's name but my own is accurate). It's held outside in my son's high school quad. "Campers" bring flashlights, mats and five-pound hand weights to lug about. There is a form that lists the many things we must swear not to do. Like swearing. Furthermore, we are neither to say nor consume doughnuts, Ho-Ho's, Ding-Dongs or Twinkies.

That's easy. Bully had to sign a form promising she wouldn't drink alcohol during her first four-week course. My luck is high: my package doesn't have that form. Boot camp amortizes out to $15 a day. Isn't that worth 10 pounds? She promised I wouldn't have to run. I'm actually kind of scared of Bully. I sign up.


Sunday, Nov. 25 Rae calls in the afternoon just as I'm finishing the Thanksgiving weekend with gusto. During the past four days, I have grown used to eating anything tempting and have said good-bye to the holiday with a large egg salad sandwich heaped with pickles unabashedly spread on white bread, replete with a huge handful of Kettle chips and a Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale. I'm contemplatively rolling a lovely organic ciggie when the phone rings. Can I come down right now to be weighed for boot camp and have my body mass index taken? I light the ciggie discreetly. Exhale. Um, no.

The punishment is swift: I agree instead to go at 5:15am on Tuesday to have Rae pinch me with her calipers to detect exactly how much ugly extra fat I'm carrying. I hate Bully.

Nov. 26 Woke up at 2am, panting that I have only two-and-a-half more hours to sleep. I'm worried about running. Really worried.

I get up at 4:30am, have a cup of weak tea with an ice cube in it and stare listlessly at three column inches of the Sunday New York Times. It's too early for the local dailies to arrive. This single issue will keep me dully fascinated in the early hours for the rest of the week.

We're supposed to eat something "light" before boot camp, but I have no idea what that might be or how I'd begin to ingest it. I brush my teeth, struggle into several layers of clothing and leave the house. Once at the school, I warm up by fruitlessly trying to find a way around the locked gates instead of just going in the way Bully told me to. I finally find my way into the quad, where insurance lights dimly illuminate the fetid pavement. It's 20 degrees outside. I am wearing three T-shirts, two sweatshirts, a vest, a new $2.99 hat and some unearthed children's mittens. I will never be warm again.

Some 30 women assemble in the half-dark. Among us are an orthodontist, a real estate agent, a personal trainer, a manicurist, a retired airline executive, a hair-dresser and several business owners. A handful are Bully's age, perhaps five are in their early 20s and the majority are forty-something like me.

Rae is preternaturally chirpy, as she should be, and starts us out doing—clusters? chompers? swingees? I think it's choppers. Something with our weights. Then we go down to the track and start off with a walker's relay, lining up in small groups and taking turns rushing to the front of the line. I dutifully get behind the betraying Bully, who sets off at a quick pace that's really a jog with less footwork. We have to repeat our names as we puff up for the baton, but mine's got too many syllables. Then it's around the track, those who want to run running, those like me walking.

We return to the quad and lie on our mats, doing various painful abdominal gyrations. My section of pavement smells distinctly of puke and dog shit. My son says he never even steps foot in this quad. He is incredulous that I would voluntarily lie down in it. There is a small murmur. Veteran campers know the light; it's 6:30am. Fuck Ding-Dong shit. Twinkie goddamn Ho-Ho. I have survived.

Tonight, I dream that my husband and I are running—running!—so fast inside a wood-floored empty Victorian that we both get the idea at the same time to drop and slide. We slide so quickly that we are just about to slam into a huge antique wooden staircase when I wake up with a start, shouting. I have mixed my anxiety about boot camp up with that dreadful arty Fur movie we just rented with Nicole Kidman as Diane Arbus, all old NYC apartment buildings and Robert Downey Jr. in 20 pounds of facial hair.

Nov. 27 My butt hurts. So does the front of my neck. (So, honestly, do my knees and inner thighs and hips, but all I'm admitting to are butt and neck.) I meet Rae in the high school girl's bathroom at 5:15am as agreed. "It's nice in here!" she enthuses, messing around on the floor getting the calipers out and setting up her evil, lying scale. It's nice in here because it's probably 35 degrees instead of the 25 it is outside. She pinches my right arm, my right thigh, my stomach. Gets out her tape and takes measurements—no wonder my bras never fit! Mutters about quadratic formulas and accidentally gives me a body mass index number that, according to the government standard, would only be accurate if I weighed 70 pounds more.

I step on her evil, lying scale. It reads five pounds more than I weighed the last time I stepped on a scale. I couldn't have gained five pounds over the five days of the Thanksgiving holiday, could I? I review the week's menu. Sausage rolled in puff pastry, pumpkin spice cake with cream cheese frosting, sour cream mashed potatoes, that egg salad feast. Naw. Must be my six shirts.

Huddling in this high school girl's bathroom is the only time I will see Rae's face during the entire predawn darkness of boot camp.

Outside, we use rubberized bands around our ankles to "monster walk" the track. I could tackle the "advanced" stairs but am afraid to offer to do anything advanced. We do push-ups. Wussies like me do ours against a wall. I really like push-ups against a wall. I'm delighted that I can push anything up at all.

Later, I ache so much that every step in my oversized second-hand men's cowboy boots is just a deathlike shuffle. I think longingly of 8:30pm, when it's safe to go to bed again.

Nov. 29 Every single part of my body has hurt for most of the week. Instead of feeling energized, I feel invalid, like I have fibromyalgia. Today, my inner thighs and, curiously, right elbow are really bad.

It is again 20 degrees, and clear. Our bodies steam like football players do as we exercise. It truly is like some kind of a dream doing this in the dark in the freeze. We go to the track and Rae exhorts us to run. By not focusing my eyes on anything in particular, avoiding all notice that this is a high school track, I make it almost halfway around before walking. I remember the feeling from learning to walk fast, being weighted down to the ground and unable to make my dread and energy and muscles lift up. Remembering it assures me that this might get better.

Dec. 3 Because of a rain, the smells of puke and dog shit have thinned and spread. Bully hosted us to dinner last night but slept right through camp this morning, having had only little bird sips of wine and plenty of water and soup without cream. Ha. We do mat work standing in a circle and then hit the track. I make it an eighth of the way and have that shin-splint feeling that means I'm not doing it right. I wonder if I'll ever learn how to bring the energy up my body or if I'll always just plain hate running forever. We meander on a jog around the high school, poor Rae probably never having been there in the daylight and so constantly surprised at little hills that stop at doorways and staircases that tumble down to nowhere.

I'm not in any better shape than I was last week, but I'm in less pain and am surprised that I can do some stomach things—generally those muscles are solely devoted to dispatching dinner.

Trying to get a "bounce" from the boot camp, I biked 13 miles Friday morning before work and walked six miles Saturday morning. I am always hungry and sleepy now.

Dec. 4 As part of my bump-it-up strategy, I ride my bike into work so I can ride home with my son after his early-evening guitar lesson. It's pouring rain in the morning, but I think it will be "fun" to ride in the rain. I am "wrong." The rain clears by afternoon, and I meet him for a giddy ride the 12 miles back, so dark on the trail that we go two miles an hour, the illumination of both our headlamps nothing against the deep black. We reach the highway, which is where I go into Dumb Mom mode.

(When my sons were younger, Dumb Mom would make such errors as coaxing them to fling themselves down short waterfalls, for example. They'd wisely protest that the waterfall was too steep or the water too fast or that they were too small. Bosh, I'd say, and go down the waterfall myself to show them how safe and easy it was, emerging a few moments later sputtering water, bleeding and bruised.)

I suggest to my son that it's safe to ride an eighth of a mile up Highway 116 against traffic. He warns me that once we have headlights pointed at us, I, at least, won't be able to see. Bosh. The road's empty! It'll be fine. We set out up the narrow dirt shoulder. The first set of headlights blinds me so totally that I try to come to a complete stop. But I can't tell where the shoulder ends. I put my left foot out and touch nothing before making a soft, slow-mo' tumble directly into highway ditch entirely gorged with trash and rainwater. Once he stops laughing, my son and I walk our bikes up the road home, where I tell my husband that I need to change my clothes because they're soaked in sweat. I know he'll raise a fuss if he discovers why they're soaked in filthy highway ditch water.

Dec. 5 I stayed up too late after the ditch-water incident and get up after just five hours of sleep to go to boot camp. I walk all around the campus trying to find Rae or the group. Today is "hike" day, when we're supposed to run routes through the darkened town. I find the group out in front, and Rae's sister-in-law seems to be in charge. She says, "OK, well then, let's go," and we slowly, with no directive or reason or exhortation to do anything, head up the street in the dark. Three people run, the rest of us walk. Rae doesn't show. Bully and I enjoy a fast 45-minute jaunt that we could have done without paying $15 or getting up at 4:30am. I e-mail Rae later to see if she's OK. She sure is. She slept in. Tonight I miss my son's holiday band concert; I'm just too tired to go. This boot-camp commitment seems incredibly wrongheaded.

Dec. 6 Knowing that the group is somewhat irritated by yesterday's abdication, Rae gives us a rousing good workout. We move the entire time, alternating between the track and weights. I can run almost halfway around now. My hair is entirely soaked in sweat by the time I'm done. Another woman smugly tells me that she never eats after 5pm if she's got boot camp the next morning. I rarely ever get home before 7pm. I have an unkind thought but suppress it.

Dec. 10 It's back in the low 20s, but today's workout is seamless. We do circuit course stuff like hop-scotching that is strangely challenging. Left foot, right foot, both feet—my brain barely remembers how to do it. I have to try again and again and really concentrate on the hopscotch pattern on the asphalt to correctly nail left foot, right foot, both feet. I look up, proud, but there's no smiling mother there to congratulate me.

I can run against a rubber band tied to the chain link fence. I can pass a weighted medicine ball to a neighbor and get it back again. I can run in tight short circles around tiny orange pylons. Actually, I can kind of run, period—just not on the track: it brings back all the terrible memories of exactly how long a quarter of a mile is. On that dreaded oval, it's long enough to learn at least the first horrible details of how Michelle lost her virginity to that senior on the water polo team or to plan an ill-advised party at someone's house when their parents go away next weekend.

Dec. 11 It's not that I dislike groups. It's not that I'm so wildly out of shape or overweight that I can't keep up. It's not even that I detest getting up at 4:30 in the morning and reading three column inches of last Sunday's New York Times. I am simply not a boot-camp person. I am now faster than some people. I am still slower than most others. My pushups are better. I can maintain the plank pose. Throw bands around my ankles, and I'll do a mean Monster Walk. But I don't like it.

And I am in the distinct minority.

During cool down today, we do yoga poses, we arch and stretch and hold for strength and look up at the pitch-black sky and pant. My brain clears briefly and I remember the pleasures of yoga with a sharp longing. Rather than moving from one form of physical exertion to the next, I prefer the mind-emptying continuum of an hour's bike ride, a wearying hike, a long yoga session.


I ditch the next day. It's a "hike" day, but I'm over that. I get a cold Thursday, see no point Friday. The session ends. I take my morning walk on Saturday at a reasonable hour, when owls are home abed. Leaving the main highway to go up my favorite road, a mile-plus tilt that goes gently straight up, I push off more sharply with my feet. I run. Just a little. My calves are heavily in love with gravity, I can barely lift my legs. I stop and walk fast. My breathing regulates. I run again. Short puffs, little spurts. I walk. I run. I wrunk. I like it.

The next weekend, I bike over to Rae's house for my post-boot camp assessment. She pulls out that evil, lying scale. I step on. I've gained a pound. Of course. I've been working out five days a week for some 19 months while remaining deeply engaged with red wine and butter. Do I really think that nine days of boot camp are going to cause me to suddenly be mistaken for Mary-Kate Olsen?

Christmas comes and with it the self-laden hardship of the avid mother. I awaken at 8:30am, and it is too early for me. I go to bed at 9pm, and it is too late for me. I trace the letters "h-i-b-e-r-n-a-t-e" on the steam inside the kitchen window before I clean it. I don't even think about going outside into all of that and exercising.

But then, in the first full week in January, some internal fog lifts. I get up easily at 5:30am, just like I do in the summer. I look mildly out into the cold pitch black. I put on six shirts. I take my weights out to the driveway. I do choppers and then push-ups against the house. I walk out to the road, and I run.

Sidebar: Hut, Two, Three

John Spencer Ellis, the Southern California–based fitness guru who created the Adventure Boot Camp model some seven years ago, calls 5:30am "The No Excuse Hour." He explains: "Six a.m. or 6:30am encroaches on the ladies getting back to their houses and getting their kids off to school or their husbands off to work. It seems to be the most opportune time to exercise."

There may be some science behind it, too. "When you exercise in the morning," Ellis explains, "it stimulates your body for a longer period of time during the day. Exercising in the evening, even though your body can be warm, can be disruptive to your sleep because it changes your metabolic cycle. Exercising early on is the best way to stimulate your metabolism."

Ellis may be best known to a wide market for his televised boot camp training of the Real Housewives of Orange County. In that episode of this reality show, his faux-breasted boot campers receive the terrible surprise of him arriving at their homes to assess their cupboards. ("You wanna know why your butt is so big?" he shouts, holding aloft a box of Honey Nut Cheerios. "This is why!") To those in the fitness field, he's well known for helping to set the certification standards for personal trainers, among other achievements. Ellis started Adventure Boot Camp in 2000. There are currently 250 locations in nine countries, and he expects that figure to double by next year. Ellis trains the instructors and mentors them for a year, but the operations are not franchises.

Why the boot-camp model? "I've been working out since I was 12 years old, and I get bored at the gym," he says. "I expect that other people would, too. And being outdoors is so wonderful. Eighty percent of Americans who exercise do not use a gym or a health club."

Asked who goes to boot camp, he doesn't hesitate. "They're the same ladies who do personal training. It wasn't a big stretch of my imagination to see who would be a good fit for boot camp. And it's a lot more cost-effective. It's $15 an hour for the camp, as much as $150 an hour for a trainer."

Moreover, Ellis stresses the camaraderie of the boot-camp experience and the programming that allows everyone to succeed a little bit every day. "We want people to have a safe workout," he says. "Boot camp should not be how much you can endure."

Adventure Boot Camps thrive in Napa, Petaluma, St. Helena, San Rafael, Sebastopol and Sonoma. To learn more, go to

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