How Bootcamp SE16 Changed my life
My bootcamp journey begins with a boy. Actually, if this was a novel it would become evident that most of my major life journeys begin with a boy. 6 months before I knew the names ‘Stephanie Henderson’ or ‘Bootcamp SE16’ or that these names would change my life trajectory, I was dumped. In my lunch break. After spending the better part of 6 months trying to woo me, ending an unhappy relationship to pursue one with me, the dude decides after a month of officially dating that he needed time and space for himself and to tell me this over a prawn sandwich. The space issue came as no surprise to me. I had a fortnight before flagged this issue with him and told him my concerns that this relationship happened too fast and perhaps he had not got his head together. I mean we had talked about weddings, children, moving to Australia and had expressed a deep love for one another which in hindsight should have sent alarm bells ringing earlier but what can I say? I will always take a chance on love even if it is ill begotten. I was surprised that it took him until Monday lunch time, two weeks later to agree with me. What I did not expect was that he would then run and hide away, scarcely acknowledging me and pretending that the last half year didn’t happen. This was quite an amazing feat as we work on the same floor, in the same building.
The relationship was not long but for some reason the emotional connection for me at least was strong and disengaging from it was a struggle as I had seen a future and a happy one at that. I felt lost and confused. The space I could handle but the outright rejection was a blow. My family and friends all rallied (as they do) with the usual platitudes of ‘he’s not good enough’ ‘you deserve better’ and whilst my rational mind knew that this was probably the right outcome (if you love someone, set them free and all that), the radio silence and avoidance left me feeling like I was the village leper. My confidence took a dive. At first this manifested in almost overnight weight loss. I barely ate or slept and just wandered through the days in complete misery. Somewhere in that haze I forgot how to smile. As the inevitable march of time continued and the initial shock and pain of everything wore off, I found myself turning to my old friend red wine for comfort and a glass of wine seemed never to be enough. I could demolish a bottle and not even think about it. I also relaxed my rules about carbohydrates and convinced myself that it was acceptable to eat crisps and pesto pasta almost regularly. You have to understand that this was February in London. It is cold, dark and miserable here at that time. It was also the last quarter before financial year end at work. At that point there existed a culture of working late, eating rubbish and going to the pub two to three nights per week after work. Before I knew it I had accumulated a fair amount of blubber.
I could tell that all was not going well when I flew home to Australia in May, just after year end. I did not have the energy. My clothes did not fit as well. I was pasty and bloated. When I returned I had an 8 week run up until I was bridesmaid at my best mate’s wedding. I found, however, that despite best efforts, I was still wallowing. Knowing me as she does and having had just about enough of my curmudgeonly behaviour, my best mate told me that I was to accompany her to bootcamp. It was not a request. She is Swedish-Hungarian and distantly related to Attila the Hun and one does not argue with that. I did not know what to expect from this ‘bootcamp’. My mind was awash with marine drills and people shouting at me. What if I had to climb a rope? I most certainly could not do that. My mate told me that she had come across the instructor from her insanity classes at the gym and was keen to try it out . I could see the results. My soon to be bride was rapidly vanishing before my eyes and I was privately suspecting that I was finding all the weight that she lost. So, because saying no was not an option, I attended my first Saturday session of bootcamp at Stave Hill, Canada Water – yes for the first time in a long time I was heading south of the river.
I want to say that Bootcamp SE16 was an overnight sensation. It wasn’t. I want to say that I glided up and down the hill with ease and grace. I didn’t. I want to say that I relished wearing a yellow high viz vest branding me as ‘newbie’ over my ill-fitting lycra sports kit whilst doing 5 burpees , performing them effortlessly and looking like something out of Vogue. I couldn’t. Every run, lunge, push up, sit up, squat, burpee and anything that involved lifting a tyre was pain. If I am honest, I did not think I was going to make it past the warm up which was 3 laps up and down the stairs of this enormous hill (fine, I say enormous but you lot all know it as Stave Hill). One lap and I sounded like an emphysemic smoker; 3 laps and I am sure people were starting to look around for the nearest defibrillator. Stephanie Henderson, our bootcamp Captain was merciless. Small in stature but mighty in physique and personality, she was the drill Sergeant I feared she would be and yet looking around through the red haze of burning pain and torture, I could see that people were…happy. They were laughing with her. Good lord they were actually laughing whilst squatting then jumping and high fiving each other. They loved it! What was this place? Whilst I was red faced, wheezing, crawling through the ground in what was meant to be something called a bear crawl but what was in reality more like the last thrashings of a dying hippopotamus, everyone else was curiously buzzed. I had to ponder this while I warred with my now traitorous emphysemic lungs, struggled to hold down my breakfast and simultaneously observed the bootcamp elite (those with the ‘blue’ bibs) perform these drills with all the grace and poise of the Royal Ballet Academy. There was obviously something in this. Perhaps through this journey of burpees on repeat and tyre slams I could find what I had lost or at the very least find something even if it was a calf muscle or at the optimistic end of the scale, a six pack. I nodded at my mate (the only part of my body which didn’t hurt). I would do this even if it killed me and at that point, I felt like it probably would.
My bootcamp start was not an auspicious one. In fact my blisters, cuts and bruises had barely started to heal when my family arrived from Australia. It was tyres down at that point while we caroused our way around Europe spending much needed time together and indulging in our favourite past time of drinking red wine, eating rich foods and putting the world to rights. Whilst it was chicken soup for my soul, it did nothing for my waistline and after they returned to Australia I studied our holiday photos carefully and realised something had to be done. Immediately. So I took a deep breath and I decided to reach out. I would reach out to our terrifying warrior princess bootcamp leader and I would ask her to help me; help me change my life. Unfortunately, there was no time for drastic action before my mate’s wedding. I would have to wear the body I made for myself whilst cavorting with the Clarks around Europe but that was not disastrous. My bridesmaid’s dress was gorgeous and my early bootcamp sessions gave some return in that I walked taller, a little straighter and really, everybody loves the tipsy, buxom bridesmaid. My mate, however, looked stunning as she should on her special day of days. Her bootcamp and insanity classes had paid off. She was a beautiful bride and it was a wonderfully happy day. I will say though that after the wedding as my hair had tumbled recklessly out of its high chignon, my mascara made tyre tracks around my eyes and I was trudging up to my hotel room in my flip flops carrying my sparkly stilettos, I caught sight of myself in the mirror and in the last of my red wine induced delirium, I cried and with my tears I said goodbye to that girl who carried her pain in her bingo wings and red wine stained teeth and prepared to face a new day.
‘So what do you want to achieve?’ At least she didn’t start with ‘so how much do you weigh?’ that would have been a downer. Stephanie is punctual, organised and efficient. There is no messing around with her and she does not try to immediately be my best friend. I like that. She starts our consultation as though we are business partners. I am a lawyer. I understand this approach. I would have been immediately on side, except I was terrified. ‘Ummm’ I say unhelpfully and fidgeting. How could I articulate what I wanted without going into the all the drama of what led me to this point? Also, I needed to be realistic. At 5’4 (maybe on a good day) I was never going to be a supermodel so those lofty aspirations were out of the question. With a raging penchant for fine wine and an aversion to early mornings I was also unlikely to become an Olympic champion unless they made binge drinking a sport. ‘Well I’m rather short’ I say and she looks at me with that direct, challenging gaze she has ‘and I would like to fit in my body better’. She just nods. It was true I did not fit well in my body. I have in the past been described as small but dense (in body mass not intelligence) but at that point I was out of control. Everything just stuck out; my flanks, butt, chest, muffin top even my chins. Gaining weight is like ageing; in my mind I am a 25 year old ninja but in reality I am a 32 year old desk sloth. Both age and weight do seem to creep up when one is not looking. It was not unrealistic to want to get back to actually fitting into my body and Stephanie’s nod endorses my objective. We then run through the things that I like to do – well those that burn calories at least – what I already do and what I should be doing and we cobble together a plan. It turns out that Stephanie had been paying attention to the few bootcamp sessions I attended before the Clark whirlwind tour and she had noticed that there was more I could do and that I should push myself harder. I told her the exercises I was struggling with at bootcamp and we agreed that I would have private sessions to work on those things. She would also put together a food plan for me as she tells me diet is a massive part of this whole process. I start to relax. I have had personal trainers in the past but no one has actually taken the time to sit down with me, assess my life and work with me to put a plan together that I can immediately input into my diary and make it part of my daily routine . That is Stephanie’s way though and did I mention that she is terribly organised? I also (stupidly) mentioned that I need a goal to push me otherwise I will drift off the path. I am an Aquarius – drifting is part of life. Stephanie tells me that some of the bootcampers are enrolled do to do Mudderella and that I should do it with them. Mudderella is a baby version of the Tough Mudder assault course she tells me. “It is not a competition but something to do together as a team. It is on the 30th of August which is 6 weeks from the date of our consultation.” ‘Will I be ready?’ I ask Stephanie and she smiles that wicked smile of hers that I now both love and fear ‘I will make you ready’ she says. And so my bootcamp journey truly begins.
On the eve before Mudderella, 6 weeks into the future I am a pit of nerves. I think I am ready. I had been attending bootcamp Monday-Thursday evenings and Saturday mornings in addition to my personal training sessions. I was sticking to my diet plan and I had given up wine – although I was allowed gin and a slimline tonic for special occasions. I was getting smaller; not by a lot as I had been putting on muscle at the same time but I was starting to fit back into my clothes, people could see a leaner look in my face and a fire come back into my eyes. I was starting to get better at the drills, moving from pressing 6kg kettle bells to 10kg and we were only half way through the plan. However, I wondered whether I would be able to keep up, be good enough, not let my blue bib team mates down but my phone is twitching with whatsapp messages and tweets. The bootcamp team are rallying. I am being told not to worry because everyone will be there and we will help each other. Now I am not afraid. In fact, I am smiling at the crazy tweets that are flying around and laughing wondering how I missed this from my life for so long and offering thanks to my mate who led me to this before it was too late (which it is never too late by the way). It doesn’t get better than that. I have friends. I will beat Mudderella. And I did and with very unflattering photographic evidence! That day and the ensuing after party where non Mudderella bootcampers came to celebrate with us will forever have a special place in my heart. I remember one bootcamper telling me that she could see a big change in me. I told her that I didn’t think so as I hadn’t lost that much weight or anything dramatic like that but she said ‘It’s not how you look but your attitude and the way you train’ and I believe from that moment that I could see that there was some respect there and it meant the world to me.
My commitment to bootcamp and changing my life opened my eyes to the wonderful people who attend bootcamp with me and share in the adventure and the pain. I was quiet and shy around them at first not quite knowing what to do, being in awe of their confidence, physical prowess and stamina and acutely and painfully aware of my own physical limitations and constant very audible wheezing up and down the stairs. It started, however, with one blue bibbed boy offering to take the larger tyre from me (the “beast” as I now know it to be) and swapping it for a lighter tyre and a blue bibbed girl pushing me through a set of squat jumps smiling and laughing through it. It was my first bootcamp drill partner who encouraged me through my first ever 1000 rep slam and still asks to be my partner now and my second partner for the next 1000 rep slam who challenged me to do it faster and better. It is bootcamp’s biggest loser, named that for having shed the most amount of weight but to me he is the heart of bootcamp, shows me what can be done with hard work and determination. He challenges me to go further and yet still checks in with me every day to see how I am feeling , discuss my progress and to have a joke and laugh with me (whilst simultaneously teaching me to talk and more importantly, swear in a South London accent) which in itself gives me strength and confidence. It is my bootcamp buddy who holds my ankles while I fight myself over the wheelbarrow and throw tantrums but who still gently helps me and guides me to get stronger. It is bootcamp’s heroine who shows us that exercise can be fun and it is ok to laugh (if one can breathe) and my Australian contingent who remind me of home, unashamedly rib me for using the words flip flops and seem to be the social centre for bootcamp. Quite surprisingly I am now a south of the river regular and I never thought I would see that happen. It is my mate who saw what I needed and gave me bootcamp which has forever changed not only my eating and drinking habits but my life in general and for which I will always be grateful. Above all, it is omnipresent Steph; the life, soul and epicentre of Bootcamp SE16. She has been with me every step of the way whether it be by email, text or tweet and every day to see how the diet is going and to talk about how I found the drills and exercises. We have changed my plan over time to adjust it to my life and needs. The woman is tireless as I know that she checks in with almost everyone not just me from sun up to sun down and then some. Throughout my PT sessions she has supported me and put up with my tantrums and swearing as I have taken on the pain barrier and forced my body to get stronger, quicker, harder although now that I am advanced enough to progress from high viz yellow vest to my jumpsuit orange prison vest and have to do 4 laps of the hill I am still wheezing. She is the force that makes bootcamp what it is and us want to be a part of it.
What Steph and my bootcamp buds do not realise is that while I have been with them throwing my sometimes recalcitrant body up and down that hill, slamming tyres, sprinting and smashing out burpees until I want to vomit and slowly, gradually and peacefully starting to fit back into my body again, they have been helping me. Their unspoken community (because let’s be honest no one really has time to talk much), generosity of spirit, sense of fun, tenacity and commitment has leached all of the anger and resentment that I had gathered from the start of this year out of me and replaced it with happiness and a special sort of love. Somewhere in between the smash and grabs and plank walks, I lost my hurt and found my smile. Now I walk tall (probably hitting that 5’4), back straight, head up and I dish out a cheeky smile or a casual wink. I am nowhere near the end of the journey yet . I have a lot more to learn and a lot further to push my mind and my body to move past my current limitations. I know I will have many challenges to come and in fact I am tackling a major career crisis at the moment but I am not worried. In fact, I am so blessed that I am not afraid of today, tomorrow, the future. For however long I get to have them, I have a crew of hard-core, solid people who will help me along the way, a teacher to guide me and a hill that will take whatever pain life throws at me and make me stronger.
Thank you Steph and Bootcamp SE16.