Bootcamp: the mother of all challenges
Military bootcamps have long offered the chance of the body beautiful - for those who are prepared to push themselves to the limit. But can the endurance test bond mothers and daughters?
"Women," remarks a male friend, tucking into a slab of pie, "have got a funny idea of what constitutes a good time".
Others nod. I have just disclosed that the latest idea for a mother and daugther treat is a place on a women-only military bootcamp.
To test the concept, I am showing my own mother just how much I care by putting us on dawn parade for the best part of a week, in order to be goaded by off-duty soliders to endure a long day’s exercise, in spattering rain, fuelled only by low-calorie rations.
Once the preserve of Hollywood actresses desperate to buff up their bodies between films, the bootcamp concept has become an established part of the mainstream exercise industry in this country. Trimmer You is among dozens of small companies promising quick weightloss and improved fitness via an authentic military experience. Less commonly, it has suggested that this makes an ideal gift for Mother’s Day.
All we have to do is to push ourselves to our limits, says the brochure.
In some ways my mother and I seemed like ideal candidates. Both of us were feeling sluggish, with waistbands still tight from Christmas. And we’ve previously enjoyed bursts of endurance fitness – though I’ve largely retired to the sofa since I ran last year’s London marathon, and it’s a decade since my mother trekked across the Sahara for charity.
But can being bawled at by men in uniform really make for a bonding experience?
“Why not?” says mum, who is about to turn 71, and is feeling game.
It is dark and cold when we arrive in Nottinghamshire, as latecomers to a week-long camp which has just finished its second day.
A group of women of different ages and body shapes are sprawled on sofas, with several nursing injuries. Some smile faintly, but look too exhausted to move, while others stare into space.
We are warned, in whispers, that there have been quite a lot of tears so far. That is normal apparently. As are tantrums.
My mother and I exchange glances. This sounds more like a recreation of teenage life than a chance for mother-and daughter bonding.
At 5.55 the next morning we stand tired and cold, wearing most of our clothes and “on parade” in front of a cheerful army instructor. We pad around a field in the dark, as a warm-up, before embarking on almost an hour of relay races.
By 8am we are boxing and I quickly learn that my mother, while daintily petite, and almost twice my age, packs a mean punch. I get better at using my protective pads.
After that, everything begins to blur. Breaks are short and involve small but delicious snacks. Caffeine is banned, along with most sugar and fat. Soon we are doing circuit training in the gym. My co-ordination is no better than it was at school. Lunch; a talk by a nutritionist , then back outdoors for several hours of running and weight-lifting circuits before dinner, and an hour’s hike in the countryside before it is 8pm and we are finally allowed to lounge on a sofa with a cup of herbal tea. Our eyelids close. Soon we retire to a comfortable room, where sleep comes quickly.
By day two, the routine is already familiar. By 6am we are padding around the muddy field in the dark, keeping our knees up in response to shouts from the military instructors.
After an hour, I’m feeling pretty out of breath. Mum is pink-cheeked, bright-eyed, and somewhat jubilant. The sun is rising on her 71st birthday.
“Can you believe this? I can’t remember when I last felt this good. I feel about twenty years younger already,” she says, between slurps of water.
She is certainly sounding perkier than many of the twenty-somethings now hobbling towards breakfast, while comparing blisters and bruises.
The morning continues well, with circuits and running, but by the afternoon, and netball, aggression is mounting.
Tempers flare; a young woman sobs over a sore tendon. By the time another group member has plunged her teeth into the arms of one of the military instructors, it’s time for a break.
Not for long; next it’s the assault course, which involves hulking dozens of tyres and barrels around a muddy field in the rain for several hours. Tiredness sets in; everything hurts. It is beginning to seem like a rather extreme way to try and lose a few pounds. As I wriggle out from underneath miles of camouflage nets, I hear a plaintive voice make the point more clearly: "I think I am just going to give up cake.”
As the complaints from the group grow louder, the instructors – cheerful off-duty and former soldiers, with a knack for knowing when to cajole and when to issue orders– become more strict.
The days merge into one another, with more circuits and boxing as well as aquaerobics, and rounders. Barrels and tyres are carried for miles, and we don’t get too lost orienteering. Meanwhile the sleep continues to be fantastic, and there isn’t a second to think about daily concerns.
From the marketing of bootcamps, one might assume they are packed with plump brides-to-be and those on a deadline to wear a bikini. Most of the women in our group have less specific goals; many are feeling a bit lumpy after Christmas, but mainly they are fed up a lifetime of failed diets, and hoping to not only shed a few pounds, but to kickstart an improved health and fitness regime.
Alison Mcintyre, 40, a solicitor from Kent, who is preparing for the London marathon, hopes to boost her training. She has come with daughter Chloe, 18, who has inherited her mother’s love of sport, but says her student lifestyle sometimes gets in the way.
Despite the frayed tempers, and frenetic activity levels, they describe their week of bootcamp as “a real treat”.
Both describe themselves as having a competitive streak, which has helped them to push each other on, when energy levels have flagged.
Mrs Mcintyre says: “It has been incredibly bonding; the whole experience is surprisingly intense, it’s a bit like being bound by adversity. We share the same frustrations; we miss the caffeine, we complain about the aches and pains, but we spur each other on.”
On the last day, everyone is weighed and measured. My mother and I are pleased to have lost five pounds each, almost exactly average for the group, where loss has ranged from two pounds to more than half a stone. After five days swathed in tracksuits, jeans slip on with ease.
So: was it a suitable treat for Mother’s Day?
In five days, there has barely been time for a conversation; the bonding between us has consisted of hysterical giggles, muttered asides and small moments of accidental violence. It’s a funny idea of a good time, but it kind of works.
On the train home, mum sighs contentedly, and mulls over the question, as we slurp cappuccinos, and savour our first caffeine for almost a week.
“For me, it was a total treat. Losing a few pounds is nice but for me that is nothing compared to the feeling of being totally exhilarated, and feeling fit and glad to be alive,” she says. “My energy levels are through the roof. What’s next?”