The sun was just coming up as Rob Thomas went down.
He dropped to his hands and knees and started retching like a frat boy with a bellyful of beer. But Thomas wasn't drunk. He'd simply hit a speed bump on the road to better health, having completed his first 45-minute session at a fitness "boot camp."
This particular bypass on the boulevard of broken diets is paved by the Maryland Sergeant's Program, a company that favors whipping squishy, sedentary civilians into shape the old-fashioned way: with calisthenics and without mollycoddling.
Classes are held outdoors, not in sissified, temperature-controlled, high-tech gyms with fancy machines and juice bars. "No Music, No Spandex, No Mirrors, No Crybabies, No Refunds," as the Sergeant's Program promotional literature proclaims.
Thomas, a 42-year-old, 300-pound computer software executive with four kids and a desk job, reported to King Farm Park in Rockville at 6 a.m. on a Monday, dressed for business in his sweats and sneakers. It was still dark enough to steal cars. It was cold enough to frost windows and nasal passages. Yet Thomas and four fellow boot campers gathered on the tennis court and willingly obeyed every command issued by drill instructor Coleman Peterkin, a recently retired Marine with a naturally sunny disposition but who wouldn't think twice about making you do 20 push-ups for fraternizing with a bag of Fritos.
Peterkin proceeded to guide the group through set upon set of pull-ups, push-ups, sit-ups, shoulder dips and leg stretches. They jogged pre-dawn laps around the peri- meter of the park, Peterkin leading call-and-response chants whenever the campers had the breath to spare, which wasn't often.
"You had a good home and you left ..."
"YOU HAD A GOOD HOME AND YOU LEFT..."
"Left, right, left, right..."
"LEFT, RIGHT, LEFT, RIGHT..."
We are a Wide-Load Nation. According to the National Institutes of Health, more than half of all American adults are overweight; more than 280,000 die each year as a result of obesity. There are a whole lotta love handles out there and we spend $33 billion annually trying to get rid of them -- with assorted diet products, weight-loss remedies and exercise regimes.
Military-inspired boot camps have emerged as a major weapon in the war on fat. In December the International Health, Racquet, and Sportsclub Association conducted a survey of the fitness activities available at more than 1,200 of its member clubs.
"Exactly half indicated they offer boot-camp training," says Bill Howland, the association's director of research. "That's up from a handful a few years ago."
Nowadays you can get hounded into condition from coast to coast. For example, there is Women's Fitness and Wellness Boot Camp in San Diego, Bulldog Boot Camp in Chicago and Corporate Fitness Boot Camp in Hollywood, Fla. Does your Inner Masochist yearn for something more extreme? Check out Team Delta Authentic Military Experiences in Philadelphia.
Team Delta's Web site says that the staff utilizes "fitness-building exercises like the Clapper, the Iron Mike, and the Cobra," but beyond that, they offer a Prisoner of War Interrogation Resistance Program in which "physical techniques (pain) are employed as required."
Patrick Avon, the 39-year-old "Sarge" behind the Sergeant's Program, was one of the first entrepreneurs to take the boot-camp concept public. A one-time Navy fitness instructor -- and, truth be told, a Navy dental technician -- Avon began in 1989 by tutoring two chubby friends at his Bethesda apartment. The Sergeant's Program has since muscled up to include more than 24 locations in Virginia, Maryland and Washington. Avon cleverly capitalizes on the stereotypical image of the rock-hard, no-nonsense drill sergeant while simultaneously lampooning it.
"There's less yelling than I thought there was going to be and less intimidation, which is a good thing," says Janet Allen, a 38-year-old sales executive from Olney. Allen did weight training and aerobics until she started a family and ran short of energy and free time about five years ago.
The Sarge has been known to hold an occasional class near the drive-in window of a McDonald's restaurant, where he'll shout out the fat content of a Big Mac, french fries and Egg McMuffin sandwich while his boot campers knock off a few rounds of pushups and stomach crunches. If a camper plays hooky for several days, he or she runs the risk of having the next class held in front of his or her house.
"I don't want to beat the ... out of people," explains Avon. Rather, he strives to create a band of exercise brothers (and sisters: 50 percent of his boot camp registrants are women) who will bond with a drill instructor determined to push whatever buttons need pushing day in, day out, until results are visible.
"It's basically sports without a ball," says Avon. "You've got the team, the camaraderie and the coach, only instead of scoring points, you get a thinner waistline."
All you used to be
When the stretching and straining part of Rob Thomas' first class had concluded, Peterkin turned things over to co-instructor Chuck Dyson, a former Army paratrooper, who gave a brief pep talk.
Dyson's been there, ate that. After he left the military, he got married, got lazy and ballooned from 210 to 245 pounds. Several years ago he enrolled as a client in the Sergeant's Program, perhaps attracted by its motto: Be All You Used to Be. Now, Dyson is not only lean and mean again, he's kickin' booty as a boot camp D.I.
"The program WORKS," he told the huffing campers. "You've spent quite a bit of money to be in this program. It would BEHOOVE you to get your tired cookies, your BUTTS, out here each and every day and exercise REAL HARD!"
It was right about then that Rob Thomas' breakfast went AWOL.
Dyson walked over, placed a hand on Thomas' back, and offered him the kind of sympathy and moral support that only a seasoned drill instructor can provide.
"As I'm looking at the stuff that's on the ground," Dyson murmured, sounding as dispassionate as a medical examiner performing an autopsy, "it seems like you had pie last night." He lowered his face a few inches to get a better view. "Yup, apple!"
Winter is the season for pie eating and overindulgence. But Thomas will have four full weeks of entry-level boot camp classes -- Monday through Friday mornings, 6 o'clock sharp -- to lose those extra calories and many, many more. Instructor Peterkin has no doubt he'll be successful. Thomas stood out from the other boot campers, even when he was down on all fours.
"That guy exhibited the most dedication and motivation," Peterkin said as class broke and everyone drifted off to work.
They need a push
The boot camp approach boils physical fitness down to its key, primal ingredient: consistency. Woody Allen once said that 90 percent of life is showing up. Well, the same goes for staying in shape.
Avon's bread-and-butter client is the person whose first trip to the health club was also his or her last trip to the health club.
Jouhayna Saliba, a 34-year-old pharmacist from Olney and mother of two toddlers, didn't exercise regularly for two years before enrolling in the Sergeant's Program. The early-morning hours fit her schedule, and she likes the fact that "there's somebody there who's going to be pushing me."
Thomas needed that same helping hand. He was in the Army seven years (OK, a trombonist in the band at West Point, but a military man is a military man) and hadn't run a step since he left the service in 1988. "It's easier for me to do something like this," he says, "when I've got somebody basically telling me what to do. I don't have to think."
The Sergeant's Program is geared toward getting wannabe hard bodies firm enough to pass the standard military fitness test, which means running a mile in less than 10 minutes and doing 15 modified pull-ups, 35 dips, 50 pushups and 100 stomach crunches. About half of Avon's clients pass the test, although some must repeat boot camp two or three or more times before graduating to his more demanding, five-day-a-week Maintenance Program.
None of the people attending the King Farm boot camp that kicked off earlier this winter wound up acing the final exam fitness test. But progress was made.
Jouhayna Saliba managed to cut her mile-run time from 13 minutes to 11 minutes, 30 seconds, and increased her shoulder dips from 15 to 30. Janet Allen passed everything but the mile run, which took her 12 minutes. Rob Thomas turned some flab into muscle and worked his way up to jogging 20 minutes without dropping to his knees.
"Everyone tells me I look thinner," he says. "I don't think I've lost a lot of weight. I think I've just redistributed it.
Thomas, Allen and Saliba began another monthlong boot camp right after Christmas -- and another in early February. While friends and neighbors are busy snoring or loading up on pancakes for breakfast, the three gather with other penitent slugs in the early-morning gloom. They burn calories in a communal offering to the fitness gods. They've been chasing after their elusive, slimmer selves all through the nose-numbing months of winter and will continue the hunt into spring and summer, if necessary.
"The only good thing I can say about it," Thomas remarks of cold-weather conditioning, "is that I don't like to sweat. And you tend not to do a lot of that in 17-degree weather."
To boot or not to boot?
Johanna Hoffman, exercise physiologist at Johns Hopkins Weight Management Center in Lutherville, thinks fitness boot camps are "great," providing you're experienced enough to take full advantage of the program.
"If you're going there because you've never exercised before, it's really not going to help too much," cautions Hoffman. "Because you need behavior modification. Everybody's looking for a quick fix." If, however, you're ready to have a Fitness Guy get in your face, here's where to look:
The Sergeant's Program, 15728 Crabbs Branch Way, Rockville, MD 20855
* Cost is $345 for the basic one-month boot camp, plus six months ($570) or 12 months ($960) of "maintenance" classes. Group rates and personal trainer ($840 for 12 one-hour sessions) available, and a "Privates" program is designed for youngsters. For the budget-minded, Patrick Avon's book, Boot Camp: Be All You Used to Be: The Sergeant's Fitness and Nutrition Program, is for sale on www.amazon.com.
Fitness and Image Results, 933 N. Kenmore St., Suite 317, Arlington, VA 22201
* Offers outdoor, sex-segregated fitness boot camps Monday-Friday mornings. Ten locations for women in Maryland, Northern Virginia and Washington; three locations for men in Northern VA. Also has corporate boot camps and personal trainers.
Quest Fitness, 10045 Baltimore National Pike, Ellicott City, MD 21042
* Offers early-morning, indoor boot camp classes. Co-ed. Member and nonmember rates. Call fitness instructor Dale Bennett for details.
Brick Bodies Fitness Services, 201 Old Padonia Road, Cockeysville, MD 21030
* Offers a four-day-a-week, early-morning fitness boot camp (indoors in winter only). Five Maryland locations. Co-ed. Corporate rates available. For information, call Neil Westford, personal training director.