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One Woman's Strange, Sweaty Race to Fitness

An outdoor workout odyssey.

 Urbanathalon competitors treat city cabs like track hurdles. (1 of 5)

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 The author celebrates completing her first adventure race. (5 of 5)

FURTHER READING: Urbanized Exercise: Thirty ways to turn the city into your own personal gym.
 

Three obstacles remain between me and the finish line: a row of taxi cabs, a bright yellow school bus, and an 8-foot retaining wall. I leap onto the nearest taxi’s hood, feeling it crunch beneath my weight. To my right, a burly dude in a pink muscle tank hurdles himself over another taxi, while to my left a Marina girl in Lululemon attire tumbles off the side of a third, just missing a puddle of vomit splattered on the parking lot pavement behind AT&T Park. Hundreds of spectators cheer wildly, like extras in the climactic “Kill her!” scene in a gladiator flick. Glancing back to see a few hundred more people, nearly all wearing neon spandex, gaining on me, I scuttle up the cargo net draped over the bus. Moments later I finish the course and am handed a frosty Michelob tall boy for my efforts. As my heart rate slows, I wonder how I, someone who has assiduously avoided competing in anything remotely racelike my entire life, finished in the top 30 percent of an insane 11.3- mile endurance competition called the Urbanathlon. Who was that woman?

To be honest, the outdoor-fitness world has always made me queasy. There’s something about the SoMa CrossFit crusaders and the Pac Heights boot camp sergeants that brings to mind paranoid survivalists preparing for the end times. Then there’s the righteous Lyon Street steps contingent: those type A overachievers who run the most brutal stairs in the city every day before I’ve even had coffee. And now an obstacle race fixation has spawned a new breed of fitness freaks—last year 1.5 million people indulged in what’s considered the fastest-growing sport in the United States, up from 41,000 in 2010. It’s a bit surreal— this hysteria to overcome a manufactured physical gauntlet just to forge camaraderie with 2,400 strangers and earn some water cooler bragging rights.

Yet as the ranks of outdoor-fitness fanatics have grown—there are now over 20 boot camps (aka group outdoor-exercise classes) in San Francisco, compared with a handful five years ago—so has my curiosity about them. With races like the Urbanathlon being hosted nearly every month and coaches torturing their recruits in every grassy lot, San Francisco is deep in an alfresco fitness love affair. Maybe, I thought, I’ve been missing out by sticking to my low-lit, patchouli-scented yoga studio all these years. I decided that the best way to survey the new landscape would be to spend 10 weeks in training for my first race without ever setting foot inside a gym. I mean, how hard could it be?

Fourteen minutes. That was the mortifying time of the first mile I ran with my trainer, Jenn Pattee. As the owner of Basic Training, a popular boot camp in the Marina, Pattee is used to coaching boot camp virgins like myself, but this was not an auspicious start.

Over the first three weeks of training, I slowly acclimated as we explored nooks of the city in the crisp dawn hours, moving my body in ways that I never had before: crawling like a crocodile through hidden corporate parks in the FiDi, dashing down alleys in Hayes Valley, scrambling over a retaining wall at Fort Mason. Along the way, another coach, Ernie Baton, gave me a convincing rationale for working out this way: “If you want to look good, you go to the gym, but if you want to be fit all around, you work out outdoors.”

As an added benefit, these new urban workouts sync nicely with many San Franciscans’ existing attitudes about exercise: Here, we don’t talk about getting into bikini shape; we talk about getting into Pacific Crest Trail shape (even if we don’t actually intend to hike its 2,650 miles). Being attractive isn’t so much about looking like Gisele Bündchen as it is about being outdoorsy, capable, nimble, unwinded by a march up Telegraph Hill.

That’s not to say that this outdoors-first mindset doesn’t have its drawbacks. There is something comforting about working out in a gym, quarantined in a room with other sweaty people doing mindless reps on expensive machinery, shielded from the brutal judgments of the outside world. Exercising outdoors, by contrast, leaves you feeling naked, exposed, vulnerable to the chance that a coworker or an ex might walk by and Instagram you at your worst. What’s more, exercising in out-of-context places like the financial district can make you feel like you look—insane. That’s why fitness junkies often stay inside buildings with safe, predetermined functions: Gyms are for exercising, just as offices are for working, bars are for drinking, and seedy motels are for sex. But early one Monday, as I’m painstakingly attempting pullups on an Embarcadero streetlight and a passing commuter yells out a window, “Five more!,” I’m reminded: This is San Francisco—we don’t do safe and predetermined.

“What you need, you already have. Everything else is around you,” Pattee says, preparing to bear-crawl backward up the Filbert Street steps. Sure enough, the only equipment that I’ve bought is a good pair of cross-training shoes. I learn quickly that primal movements—crawling, climbing, gripping, jumping—are the essential building blocks. And instead of an intense 60-minute workout, training in the open means finding ways to exercise constantly throughout the day. The gurus call this “functional fitness,” and, true to form, I spend the next three weeks exercising in analog: hurdling orange construction barriers in SoMa, dipping under railings, and scampering along narrow ledges. Like their hacker-programmer brethren, trainers like Pattee are constantly manipulating our city’s infrastructure to use it in ways that weren’t intended: A streetlight becomes a pull-up bar; a bike rack is used for triceps dips and rowers; a ledge transforms into a balance beam.

The point of all this is to make fitness feel innovative, simple, and accessible. Next month Pattee will open a $70,000 fitness hub in Hayes Valley that will be free and open-access. The hub was mostly crowdfunded, proving that it’s not just exercise evangelists who are into the idea of more interactive environments. “New urban fitness design should be camouflaged with the city, almost invisible,” says Douglas Burnham, founder of Envelope A+D, the architecture firm designing Basic Training’s hub. “Now I look at everything in S.F. differently: I see a bus stop and think, ‘If it were designed slightly differently, I could do pull-ups on it.’”

After 70 days, during which I log 152 miles running all over San Francisco and climbing everything in my path, race day arrives on November 24. I take off with purpose, but between the Marina Green tire jumps and bear-crawling across a smelly warehouse fl oor in Fisherman’s Wharf, my goal of crossing the finish line fades from my mind. Now it’s just me against the obstacles, and it dawns on me that this race isn’t a self-congratulatory talent show, as marathons can seem to be—it’s an ad hoc adventure. Each obstacle requires a diff erent skill set, and you can count on sucking at many of them. No matter how many times you visualize yourself climbing over a school bus, the first time you do it is going to be a disaster. And it’s not just about overcoming the physical obstacles—it’s also about getting over the worry of looking like an idiot in front of thousands of others. Despite the teeth-gritting Facebook profile pics and warrior-wannabe marketing, obstacle races—even Tough Mudder—really aren’t about the survival of the fittest. They’re about getting over yourself—your ego, your physical limitations, your complacent willingness to just go with the routine.

I pick up the pace and sprint down the Embarcadero, burning through the rest of the course at an average speed of 7 minutes and 30 seconds per mile (about half of what I first clocked with Pattee). Shouting “On your left!” I run up and down the steps in AT&T Park stadium, swing across the monkey bars, and leap over taxi hoods. Then, as I’m failing miserably at scrambling over my most feared obstacle, the retaining wall that’s the crescendo of the race, a fellow racer whom I’ve never met stops to boost me up by fi rmly grabbing my glutes and hoisting me over her head—and suddenly this doesn’t feel like a race at all. It’s a celebration of our primitive past, when the only way to master our environment was by climbing, crawling, and running our way through it.

 

Originally published in the January 2014 issue of San Francisco

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