SEATTLE - John Colver starts the first class of his outdoor cross-training program at Discovery Park in Seattle by asking participants why they came.
"I'm planning to climb Mount Rainier in July" ... "I'm managing the American Lung Association Climb for Clear Air" ... "I'm a cyclist, but I hate running," and on the replies go.
Some goals are concrete. Some sound lofty. Some people just want to get stronger, or slimmer, or better connect to the world around them.
Colver, an experienced climber, competitor, coach and emergency medical technician, implores participants to start slowly. "The only reasons you wouldn't meet your goals is to quit or get hurt," he says.
But he also knows the power of goals, like how prepping for Mount Rainier will prompt you to work hard. If you simply want to lose weight, working toward a tangible accomplishment is often the best route. In other words, take your eyes off the scale and affix them to a horizon.
In fact, this and other outdoor fitness programs, including "boot camps," are about exceeding the limits we place on ourselves.
They are also about the simple yet powerful idea of training outdoors for the outdoors. More people are turning to the functional benefits of exercising in the environment. They seek not just fresh air and natural light, but challenging, uneven ground rather than solely the targeting benefits of exercise machines.
We've evolved from hard work to desk jobs, and we pay a price for that, experts say. We are, by and large, out of balance because we don't get those full-body, range-of-motion movements.
Navigating uneven surfaces improves balance, coordination and strength. It helps build a mind-body memory for trekking or climbing.
Colver was a full-time mountain guide who also trained climbers when he founded his company, AdventX (www.adventx.com) in 2002. He eventually expanded into coaching other endurance sports, from marathons to cycling races and backwoods adventures. The name of his company fuses adventure and exercise, and that's what he preaches.
After warming up on a high meadow, the class breaks up into groups - from the fit to the beginners - and scatters. They balance on logs. They do coordination and leg-strength exercises in sand. They work the core at the top of the stairs that lead to the beach. When they make it to the surf, they circuit train, compete in team relays and run along the waterfront trail. They do more calisthenics and cool down and stretch once they climb back up the stairs. Class can often end with a meeting for coffee so participants can plan hikes or training together during the week.
Participants range from their late 20s to mid-50s. About two-thirds are aiming toward challenges. Some are fitness enthusiasts, firefighters or fitness trainers. Cyclists use it as offseason cross-training. Some come referred by mountain-guide companies, charity climbs or other fitness trainers. The classes occur each spring, fall and winter.
"One of my goals is to have a program where people of different abilities can work out together," Colver says. "I think it's great that we can have an Everest Summiteer in class along with someone whose goal is to run three miles. I think sometimes that people begin to look at some of our more accomplished people and realize that everyone is 'ordinary' - that it's not the person that is extraordinary but the accomplishment."
Ilga Solveiga, a co-instructor, seems living proof of that. She joined the program four years ago because she couldn't keep up with her partner when they went on outings. She would look at Mount Rainier from her car and say, "I'd like to do that ..." First, she had to handle Colver's Discovery Park course. Throughout the first 10-week course, she could only walk, not run.
Solveiga has since climbed four mountains and, next month, is going to Ecuador to make her second high-altitude climb. Along the way, she lost 60 pounds, the equivalent of the pack she carries when climbing, and has become a certified track-and-field coach.
"By making exercise fun, accessible and by providing the support of a group, we can at least go some way to setting an example of how a combination of adventure, fitness and community can be powerful in our lives. The community is here, the fitness is easy and anyone can have an adventure; it doesn't need to be a mountain climb or a marathon - it could be walk around the lake."