Richmond SEAL Team breaks morning sweat before sun comes up
Tuesday, April 18, 2006
John McGuire founded SEAL Team PT in 1998 as an alternative to the gym.
They are teachers, doctors, law school students and cubicle dwellers of the business world. On this Thursday morning in early April, they all climb out of their cars and congregate in a parking lot 30 feet from the James River. It is a little after 5:30, brisk enough to see your breath and still pitch black. With Belle Isle, the site of a Civil War prison camp, directly across the river, I remind myself that they are not captives. These people, ranging from twenty-somethings to retirees, are here by choice, members of a fitness program led by a former Navy SEAL.
I introduce myself to the group's Robert E. Lee, a fit-figured Matt Damon resemblance named John McGuire, a Henrico High graduate who served for 10 years as a Navy SEAL. McGuire does not look like the merciless drill sergeant I had pictured in my mind. He asks me my level of fitness and, although I do jog regularly, guilt from late night hunger calls to Papa John's and pints of Guinness during karaoke night at Sinè makes me mutter with little confidence: "I'm in pretty good shape."
My heavy eyes plod over the jumble of letters on the waiver form that McGuire hands me, and I autograph the bottom without reading how much my life will be in danger.
SEAL team members have formed circles in the lot and are laughing and chatting away as if they had sat down at the dinner table. One woman brags that she has just finished lacing up her happy shoes, but nothing seems to be happy about the 5:30 feeling for this first-timer.
McGuire calls everyone to huddle around him and all 50 or so fitness fanatics drop to the pavement in push-up formation, rear ends high to the sky and arms locked. I fall into form, but when McGuire turns to an instructor and fails to address the crowd, I drop to my knees.
"You better get up and stay like this or he'll make you do push-ups," a younger woman whispered into my right ear. I immediately shot back up in position, wondering if I will survive the hour.
The Basic Training class to which I was assigned, nine strong, was in the second-to-last day of its two-week beginners program. After hauling our raft 150 yards from the lot to the James, we navigated around huge river rocks as we paddled in unison to Belle Isle. McGuire stood in the center of the raft and bellowed out comments, both encouraging us and poking fun, as we propelled ourselves forward.
"Are y'all tired?" he asked. "Sleep is for the weak. You can rest when you're dead."
Teasingly, he pointed out the "beautiful" sunrise and the ducks swimming by, hoping to distract us as we labored. The raft got stuck on a rock 20 yards from the Belle Isle shore, but the former Navy SEAL remained calm and said: "I'm not calling for help."
We dislodged ourselves moments later and, once we reached shore, started jogging on a wooded trail. As we ran in a single-file line, those in front would yell out a warning if there was a rock or tree root that someone could stumble on. I joined in, starting to feel like part of a team.
After less than a mile, we stopped at a log that was horizontal to the ground and hovered 10 feet in the air. Our mission was to hoist each other up and over the log in less than five minutes. Using cupped hands as stepping stools and cheers of encouragement as motivation, every group member scaled the log. I had only a rough idea of what the group looked like from the shadowy meet-and-greet in the parking lot, but I trusted them already after getting lifted 10 feet. When McGuire barked the orders, I was skeptical about getting everyone over. After the last team member touched dirt, that upbeat, "I've accomplished something" feeling surged through me. So this is why these people wake up at an ungodly hour to workout, I thought to myself.
Paddling back to the lot in dawn's early light, I snuck a peek at the Richmond skyline that loomed in front of us. I thought of the employees at those corporations who would soon plop down at their cubicles for a day's work, some feeling just as weary as I did when I staggered out of my car.
Sweaty, muddy and energized before 7 a.m. without the aid of coffee, McGuire debriefed me, saying I got off easy with a light workout.
"I'd hate to see what a hard workout is like," I tell him.
Founded in 1998 by McGuire with the hope of providing a fun alternative to the monotony of the gym, the SEAL Team PT has grown to cult status among fitness fanatics in Richmond.
With the recent obesity epidemic threatening the health of many Americans – TIME magazine recently reported that more than 60 percent of us are obese – McGuire hopes programs like his can make exercise, not food, addictive. He pointed to the corporate buildings that sprouted up in the distance and said he leads fitness classes for firms such as Merrill Lynch, First Union and Capitol One. Employees cooped up in those cubicles endure the same re-energizing workout that I did, thanks to McGuire. Aware of the fact that the obesity rate among children has tripled in the past 25 years, according to TIME, he is also working with local schools to plan programs that can keep children active and aware of what they eat.
Whether a former college athlete or someone used to running only to get to the nearest tree during a downpour, the program binds its members and pushes their limits. Team encouragement and camaraderie is something you cannot get on a treadmill or stair master, McGuire said, and that feeling of team accomplishment will always leave people coming back for more. The 'team' mentality carries over beyond the one-hour daily workout. He organizes ski trips and sky diving outings with interested SEAL teammates and hosts a Christmas party every year.
Recent Basic Training graduate Nicole Archambault, who saved me from the wrath of McGuire pushups with her 5:45 a.m. advice, said the draw for her was the teamwork aspect. A few members of her team have visited Starbucks after a workout and have gone out to schmooze at happy hours.
Archambault trained for the city marathon in the fall and the recent Monument Avenue 10k and saw packs of SEAL teammates helping each other along. She was curious about the group and was invited to bring-a-friend day at SEAL Team PT. Now, she's hooked.
"I was driving home from work one day and I looked down at my stomach and saw a fat roll sticking out over my jeans," she said, "and three weeks later, I decided to join."
A kindergarten teacher in inner-city Richmond by day and a Virginia Commonwealth University teacher by night, Archambault said friends think she lives a crazy lifestyle already, so when she added 5:45 a.m. SEAL workouts to her schedule, it wasn't a shocker. She feels the workouts have helped her stress level during her hectic day.
"I found that it's easier to get up and the whole day goes by so much slower," Archambault said. "I enjoy my children so much more now."
She likes how SEAL Team PT brings locals from all walks of life together with the purpose of pushing each other to new fitness heights. Tired of having a 45-minute cardio workout at the gym feel like a root canal without Novocain, she has never felt bored at SEAL Team PT.
As I drove back to my apartment after the workout, the streets were still in their early-morning, tumbleweed-worthy emptiness. I felt ready to conquer anything. Until the next morning, when soreness invaded my body.
For more information on the SEAL Team PT, visit www.sealteampt.com or call (804)-262-1894.