This story was first published in The Bee on Aug. 6, 2006.
I hate gyms. Absolutely despise them. I hate pushy trainers, the moldy aroma of the locker room, the blandly upbeat music and the testosterone-charged flex parade in front of wall mirrors.
Give me fresh air, or give me flab.
Unfortunately in the past couple of years, the flab side has been winning. Call it a mixture of aging, laziness and too many chimichangas.
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My hiking habits also changed. During my first few summers in Fresno, I would spend almost every nonworking moment in the mountains, driving to Tuolumne Meadows as soon as I got off work and hitting the trail in the middle of the night. Many times, I'd awaken at an alpine lake miles from any road knowing that afternoon I'd be covering a Bulldogs football practice.
These days, the itinerary included far too many day trips and (shudder) car camping. I even stayed a few times in the tent cabins at Curry Village, for goodness sake.
So a couple of months ago, when this John Muir Trail project started gaining momentum around the newsroom, I was equal parts excited and apprehensive. Excited, because I hadn't been on an extended backpacking trip in four years -- the longest drought since I was 14. Apprehensive, because I knew I was in for a world of hurt.
That's when I found myself at Bally's Total Fitness on West Shaw Avenue talking with Russell Spafford, the gym's fitness director. He listened to my sob story and promised he'd assign me the toughest, meanest personal trainer on his staff.
"My drill sergeant, " Russell called him.
I swallowed hard and paid for 16 hourlong sessions.
The following morning, I met with a young trainer in his mid-20s named Duke Castro, who seemed miscast in the motivational role I needed him to play. A friendly guy with a calm voice and relaxed demeanor, Duke didn't comport himself like the "drill sergeant" who would whip this doughboy into shape.
"Don't worry, " Russell said. "His workouts are incredibly creative."
From our first session together, Duke found creative ways to inflict pain. He had me doing everything from "bear claws" (crawling across the gym floor on my hands and feet) to "lunges" (walking while alternatively dipping each knee toward the ground, sometimes while carrying dumbbells) to "self-destructions" (dropping from standing to prone position with knees bent, extending legs out and back in before standing up and leaping in place). On days when I didn't work out in the gym, I went for brisk evening walks through the neighborhood, sometimes carrying a backpack with 40 pounds of rocks.
And you know what? The punishment paid off. In six weeks, I dropped 15 pounds (there are about 15 more to go) and added muscle. I cut out all junk food and soda pop. I slept better and woke up earlier with more energy. In a road test of sorts, I made it to the top of Kaiser Peak in 2 hours, 10 minutes without stopping.
Yes, I still hate gyms -- even though I'm going four or five times a week. I just hate the idea of heading out for a week on the John Muir Trail fat and out of shape even more.