My cousin Chris invited me to join him in the Long Beach Urban Fitness Challenge. For several months he’d been doing plyometrics workouts on the beach with a coach who is very good at destroying people. Chris had recently been upgraded to push-ups with a handclap behind the back, working towards pushups with a backwards, then forwards handclap on reach rep as part of his routine. Stomach crunches until puking, wind sprints, “muscle confusion”, that sort of thing. It really worked for him and he was part of my motivation to include weights and resistance training into my weekly plan. When Chris signed me up as his “Ironman friend”, I felt the implied challenge and immediately fretted about what I had just signed up for.
One of the reasons I like triathlon is that I can prepare for the event. I know I have to swim, bike, and run a specified distance. I can see the course in person or online and study the conditions. I can train for those conditions, include hill work or climbing if it’s a hilly course or change my bike gearing if it’s flat and windy. I can prep my clothing. The only information the website offered from the inaugural Fitness Challenge was that people had fun and it was hard.
Hard? Define hard! Running? Jumping? Lifting? TELL ME! That was not part of the game plan. The web site and subsequent email said that we needed a 4 person team, preferably co-ed, a bike, a backpack, a cellphone in a plastic bag, and proper hydration and fuel for a long day. That’s it. I started quietly going insane pondering just what the hell we were going to do.
I woke early and treated my morning as a race day. I ate a good breakfast and dropped the kids off at the pool. I left the house around 6:45am and got to Chris’s house in Long Beach by 7:15. I wore triathlon race shorts, good running shoes, an athletic material top, and a bandana over my head. I also wore sunglasses. The info packet informed us to bring a Camelbak for hydration, so I brought mine but realized it would be one more thing to carry and at Chris’s house I decided to leave it behind. Instead I had two bottles, one with electrolyte fluid and the other with 275 calories of Infinit. I also had two Gu’s just in case.
We got to the race site, which was just a street corner in Long Beach with a diverse group of people milling around nervously. We looked like junkies: shuffling feet, flop sweat, clingy athletic gear. In a sense we were junkies – who else but an addict shows up for a product of which all they know is it will hurt them?
Chris’s friends from plyo bootcamp arrived, Marcy and Heather. Marcy brought her beach cruiser bike and a backpack for food. Heather brought an extra backpack for the challenge. The coaches arrived and had us fill out waivers for the kayak portion of the race. I’ve never kayaked before. The rest of the day would be a lot of stuff I’d never done before, which was kind of the point.
Once the waivers were signed we were corralled. About 15 teams were participating – all ages, all ethnicities. One of the things I like about Long Beach is that there is a lot of diversity, especially for a beach community. I’m sure as one gets closer to the water it becomes much more classist, but the people who were on the beach that day were a panoply of colors and backgrounds. Some were crazy fit, some appeared a little soft, some I recognized from south Bay marathons and half marathons in the past. I’ve been doing this long enough in Southern California I’m seeing familiar faces even further away from home.
The coaches gave us laminated cards with a list of 10 destinations. We would go to the destination and complete the challenge given. Some were multi-part, all had to be done or we could not finish.
Site 1, Challenge 1: paint team faces using one of two designs – judges will allow team to move on to next challenge only if paint matches.
Site 1, Challenge, 2: two members of the team kayak in a two-person boat 1 mile under three bridges, turn around and come back. While they were doing that, the other two members would complete:
Site 1, Challenge 3: two members of the team enter Long Beach harbor and run waist deep in water ¼ mile, jog back on the beach, and do it again.
Upon regrouping on shore, team would proceed to
Site 1, Challenge 4: three team members pick up the fourth and lift overhead 50 times. Then switch to a middle hold and squat a team member 50 times.
The face painting was quick and easy. Marcy and I hit the beach run while Chris and Heather took out the kayak. The beach run went quickly, even with a sludgy bottom. One of the other teams wasn’t so fortunate; a woman cut a small toe very badly on a mystery object in the water. I recognized her from other races and knew she was a hardcore runner. The other people knew she was a bit more than that – known for doing two hour spin classes prior to tough plyometrics beach workouts, while parenting two kids and running constantly. Clearly a cut toe was not going to stop her, and it didn’t. Whatever demon from hell she was chasing wouldn’t quit.
We waited on the beach for a bit and Chris and Heather returned in third place. We exchanged quick strategy, I would anchor the rear and Marcy would navigate. Chris told us to stay to the right and it’s a straight shot, the rest of the people were zig zagging all over the place. We jumped in and went out. We maintained our strong lead all the way to the turnaround – where no one was waiting. Worried we made a wrong turn we paddled out the way we came, lost. The rest of the pack joined us, at which point the kid who was supposed to be marking our arrival appeared at the proper point and started taking team numbers – the fucker blew our lead. We paddled back to yell at him, and by then we were in 8th or 9th place.
We channeled our energy into steady paddling and took a straight shot back to the beach. My shoulders were definitely burning and when we hit the shore we went directly to the next challenge.
This would have been a good time to have more shoulder strength.
Marcy was the lighter of the two girls, but try lifting any human being fifty times overhead. Heather took her feet, Chris took Marcy’s torso, and I took her shoulders. We hit 25 and paused. We banged out 10 more and paused. We made it through the rest and went into the squats. Those felt easier, but again, fifty of anything is tough and on a shifting surface like sand it made traction even more fun. Marcy stayed stiff as a board and we made it through the set.
We grabbed out gear and started running to the next challenge, about a mile and change away. Marcy rode with our gear on her back, she switched with Heather halfway. The next location was on the ocean beach.
Site 2, Challenge 1: fill a sandbag ¾ full, put it in the backpack. This weighed about 60 or 70lbs. Pick up a car tire, about 15lbs. These were now ours for the rest of the day.
Challenge 2: entire team must run uphill (about 400 meters on an 8% grade) with bicycle, tire and sandbag ten times. Yes, ten times.
Chris took the sandbag and the bike and shot up the hill. The rest of us ran up the hill. The second trip, Chris took the tire, too, while the rest of us ran up the hill. I took the next two trips up with the sandbag and tire, then Chris took over again. I have forgotten who did what how many times, but Chris probably did most of the trips.
They forgot to do the math – it was eleven trips, as we had to go back up the hill to get to the next site.
At the park across the street we found the coaches at the pullup bars.
Site 3, Challenge 1 & 2: the team had to perform 50 pull-ups and 100 dips. The dips had to be done with feet on a teammate’s back, who would be in a push-up plank. Any combination of team was fine as long as the totals were hit. I asked about spotting and was relieved when they said we could assist each other on the pull-ups. Chris grabbed bar and I grabbed his waist and started hoisting him up. The coaches were strict – arms had to go to full extensions and our chin had to clear the bar. Chris did a ton, I pulled out a few, and then he finished. We went to the girls who had hit forty or so dips, and I dropped to my palms so Chris could put up his feet. We collectively turned out the rest of the set. We were sent to the next site.
Site 4: Find the damn site. We got turned around and were sent to a Shell station. Wound up running a few miles in confusion. Found the gas station, told to report to the north end of downtown Long Beach. Ran a few more miles.
Site 5: North end of Long Beach. Sent back down to beach to Lifeguard Tower 3.
Site 6: Tower 3 – no one there. Annoyed, we were joined by two more teams, also annoyed at the bad communication. We took photos of ourselves at the tower and moved on. By then Heather’s choice of Vibram Five Finger non-shoes had been killing her feet so we put her on the bike with the sandbag and tire. Until then we had been trading turns on the bike – whomever was on the bike also had to wear the heavy sandbag and carry the car tire. This was equitable as the people on foot had to run to keep up with the bike. At Tower 3 we called the coaches and were told to report to Tower 19, further south.
Site 7: Challenge 1: turn a 50 gallon chemical barrel filled with sand and water end over end (the hard way) about 50 meters. Roll it back to the start the easy way. Chris and I did this one together.
Challenge 2: go to the beach near the water. Dig a vertical trench enough to bury a wooden loading pallet on its side – perform 100 box jumps over the pallet. Feet must leave the ground simultaneously and land simultaneously. We dug the trench with our hands until we hit water and sludge. We were able to insert the pallet almost halfway in, but this still left about two feet of pallet to clear. We built a mound of sand on one side and I realized, with horror, that I could not clear that height without tripping. Chris, unbelievably, started jumping. He hit fifty before resting, at which point we dug out as much sand as we could and he got back up and nailed twenty more. We yanked out the pallet and dug again, he banged out another 20. One more dig and he finished out the 10. Chris did all 100 box jumps. I felt like less of a man and vowed I would add box jumps to my workouts.
Challenge 3: we were handed a card with 10 American presidents out of order. Memorize the list and repeat it back to the coach down the beach. Chris grabbed 5 (show off), Heather grabbed two, Marcy two more, and I finished the list. We were told to report to the Belmont Pier, further down south.
Site 8, Challenge 1: carry all our gear over our heads (bike and sandbag included) from pier to just past first lifeguard tower – waist deep in the surf. We pulled off our shoes and put them inside the car tire. Chris and I grabbed the bike and hoisted it overhead, Marcy and Heather lifted the tire, sandbag, and gear bag.
Oh, I should note – the gear bag weighed about 30 pounds. All of our food, water, and supplies were in there. One of us wore this bag while the one on the bike handled the sandbag and tire. So at any point, one of us was hauling a heavy backpack while running.
We emerged from the surf spent. Chris ran back to help with the tire. On the beach we hit the next event.
Site 9, Challenge 1: two of the plyometrics coaches had foam body cushions and they protected a beach trash can. We were handed a medicine ball which we’d have to sink into the can twice. A two-on-two game. Chris and I went first, me blocking. He scored the first point. We regrouped, tried again, but we taken down. The girls wanted a go and the cocky coaches started talking smack. Marcy and Heather schooled their asses with a perfect block and a spin shot that had the coaches beating each other up.
I asked what place we were in and one of the coaches told us about fifth or sixth. We just had to run back to the start line and we were done. We grabbed out gear, mounted up, and ran back.
Chris’s legs were starting cramp badly – no surprise. I started to cramp in my side, having not drank nearly enough fluids. Thankfully, no headache. Just dehydration. The four of us pounded our way back to the start, discovering we had placed fifth overall.
Site 10: finish.
No balloons, no chip timer, nothing fancy. Just a group of people having their asses kicked and kicking ass back. I was hurting, sore all over, filthy beyond belief, but proud. I’m blown away by how strong Chris is, and humbled by his taking on the box jumps and some of the other beastly challenges. Marcy and Heather were tough as nails, shouldering their share and never quitting.
Afterwards we went to a local bar to celebrate, but only a few teams were there. The rest were still on the course, struggling their way to finish. It took us more than five hours to complete the course and we were wiped. I have no clue how long it took the rest of the people to finish. Under other circumstances I would have waited at the finish line to cheer the finishers. Not this day. We were done. Wiped. Destroyed?