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Drill Sergeant with a Difference: Kathy Craft gets clients out of the gym and back to nature.

Care for a Side of History With Your Boot Camp?

In which a taste for early morning drill sergeants gets traced back to a strawberry and cream-filled childhood

By Sarah Phelan

On a brisk December morning, six women, including this reporter, are doing crunches on a frost-coated footbridge in the Pogonip's grass-filled lower meadow.

"Six, seven, eight! Good jo-ob!" encourages Kathy Craft, our perkily ponytailed instructor. A buff mother of two, Craft has been running her outdoor circuit training program, which takes place at different locations each week, for almost two years. But unlike other boot camps in the area, Craft's includes historical tips about each site--factoids Craft keeps written on a stack of index cards that she periodically whips from her tracksuit pocket and reads with the help of the headlamp that's strapped to her red baseball cap.

"Pogonip," reads Craft, "is a Native American word believed to mean icy fog."

"Figures," I mumble, as we flop on our backs, our body heat burning snow angels into the frost, our breath escaping in billowy puffs across the pearly sky. Yes, this 640-acre--according to Craft's index card--expanse of open meadows, woodlands and creeks is feeling mighty chilly this morning, and there's no sign of the jack rabbits, nor the ground squirrels, pocket gophers, deer, raptors, coyotes, foxes, bobcats, garter snakes and mountain lions, that reportedly live here.

"Just my luck to get mistaken for breakfast," I think, my early morning grumpiness countered by a wave of mild panic, as I fall behind the rest of the class, who, index-card-reading session over, have taken off deerlike behind Craft. I follow as fast as I can down a narrow path that dives deeper into the frosty savannah, but an icy breeze makes my eyes water and I almost trip over a fallen branch. My momentum slacking as the path winds uphill, my breath shortening into an unhealthy rasp, I slow to a walk at the crest of the hill, only to see Craft waiting on a bridge midway across a tinkling stream that's flanked by giant redwoods. Her Amazons are doing lunge sets, using rubber resistance bands that they've looped between the bridge's wooden slats. Not wishing to look like a total slacker, I trot downhill and soon I'm extending and releasing the muscle-resisting bands with the best of them. Then my endorphin rush hits. Suddenly life is sweet, the sky is blue--and Craft's class is bloody brilliant.

On the Beach: Esther Williams, eat your heart out.

Tales of the Amazon

It didn't always feel this way. An hour earlier, I was scraping ice off my windshield, cursing the triple insanity of having volunteered to go to a fitness class that takes place outdoors--at 6 in the morning.

"Call and say the car won't start. Or you've got food poisoning. Or the cat is having kittens," I thought.

Twenty minutes later, as I struggled to jog after Craft up a lung-crushing uphill fire trail, I thoroughly regretted not having told one of those lies.

"I. Hate. Ex--ercise," I spat silently, as I puffed my way up that vitriol-inducing first climb, and I was relieved to see that Craft had stopped at the top of the hill.

Maybe the running is over, I thought, as we did some gluteus maximus-burning lunges and Craft educated us about a derelict building that was standing nearby, which turned out to be the Pogonip Clubhouse.

Are people's minds more receptive to retaining data when their brains are being flooded by oxygen? Or does that only happen following exercise-induced pain?

All I know is that as I sank into ever deepening sets of lunges, I heard Craft telling us that this clubhouse, which was where the "Grandpa's House" scenes were filmed for The Lost Boys, was actually built in the 1930s by a Mr. and Mrs. Deming Wheeler. Apparently, it was part of a club that included a hunter course, stables, a pool--oh, and coed polo fields, thanks to the insistence of Mrs. Dorothy Deming Wheeler.

But my lunge-induced glow faded when Craft took off uphill again, followed by her Amazons, reminding me of all those good old, bad old days of my youth, when I was left in the dust by my sprint-happy older sister.

The Hills Have Abs: Trailblazing exercists go searching for that natural high.

The Junior Wimbledon Years

In fact, earlier that morning, while dragging myself out of bed, I was reminded of my youth, which was filled with thousands of unwelcome morning exercise bouts, thanks to my parents, who were determined their children keep fit.

A blobby child, I was a disappointment to my parents, who met on a squash court and could not understand why I would rather watch Wimbledon on TV while eating strawberries with cream than run after a stupid fuzzy white ball, or prefer munching on toast to running cross-country and lifting weights. But then my sister converted a try while playing rugby in the park with my dad, and my mother, who unlike Mrs. Dorothy Deming Wheeler did not wanting us playing "boys' sports." marched us down to the Woolworth's and bought us each a cheap wooden tennis racket.

I, of course, hated the sport, but my sister was a natural, and I got dragged through the training, lessons and tournaments, like it or not. As my sister's career grew more serious, my father, who had served on a minesweeper in World War II, instigated a training regime for us that included skipping for 20 minutes before breakfast, an activity he'd time with a stopwatch from the warmth of the kitchen, a steaming mug of tea in his other hand. And then he'd make us do push-ups--only counting them if we managed to depress the layer of foam with which he'd temporarily cover the freezing paving stones of our outdoor patio.

My father's other favorite assignment was making us run for a couple of miles before school. One time, when I was feeling particularly slothful, I dragged myself around the corner, hid behind a bush and read a paperback that I'd sneaked out under my sweatshirt. When I showed up at our front door half an hour later, I was sadly unaware that my face, which lacked its usual post-workout flush, immediately gave away my duplicitous little scheme to my dad--who then forced me to run twice as far as punishment. At first, I hated anything involving motion, not least because it turned my already pinkish face a beetroot shade of red. But it was the '70s and I was a teenager who wanted to squeeze into the skinny fashions that Twiggy had made so popular in Britain. So, I worked out more, and as the weight came off, my game improved. Sure I would never be another Chris Evert, but the experience taught me that perseverance and training go a long way to make up for the lack of innate talent. In the end, both my sister and I played at Junior Wimbledon, where we took to heart the lines from Rudyard Kipling's "If," which are engraved above the entrance to Center Court and taunt the players as they head out to make sports history, thus: "If you can meet with triumph and disaster and treat those two imposters both the same."

Not a bad leitmotif, really, and one I've found myself invoking on more than once occasion since emigrating to California in the '90s and doing what every new immigrant to America does: get three jobs. In my case, that meant writing, teaching--and giving pre-dawn fitness classes at a club in Aptos, where I met Adeliz Alvarez, the toughest drill sergeant I've ever known. (Alvarez was so tough that she once got me to adopt a cat, simply by threatening to keep the whole class doing one-armed push-ups, until she found a taker.)

But then I got writing work full-time and I was happy to leave fitness teaching to others, and trade my morning work-ups for evening wind-me-downs via kickboe classes over at Toadal Fitness. This more than satisfied all my drill sergeant demands--at least until I took Craft's class and was reminded how an early morning session, however painful at the outset, sets you up for a daylong endorphin rush.

Natural High

"Keep in mind that the early morning class taker is a rare breed," Craft advised me, when we first spoke by phone about her program. "These are individuals that are dedicated and want to be pushed, who thrive on the challenge," she added, noting that the clients who attend her evening classes "want to unwind."

With her classes designed to encompass all levels of fitness and abilities, Craft says that a client that can't do a high impact activity due to past injuries would be referred to a low impact class, like power walking, vs. a high impact class which involves lots of running.

"If there was a brand-new person joining an established group, I'd add exercises onto the people arriving first to a station--for example, stationary squats until everyone gets there--then start the band work together," she explains. "That way the individual doesn't feel like they are holding anyone up, plus they'll be relieved to skip some exercises as well. And then they can measure where they fall within the group's fitness level as a whole and see how they progress throughout the session."

As for the outdoors slant, Craft says that ever since growing up in Oregon, exercising outdoors has been a priority for her. She knew she wanted to teach outdoors but wasn't sure how to design such a program.

"Then I discovered a woman in Marin named Tina Vindum, whose company trains fitness professionals to become certified Outdoor Action Fitness instructors," says Craft, who started her own business in April 2004, and regularly holds classes at Wilder Ranch, DeLaveaga Park, Seacliff Beach, the Pogonip and Natural Bridges.

Stretch Armstrong: Redwoods, bridges, streams ... the only thing missing is a group of early morning power lungers attached to rubber bands. Oh, there they are.

A Bridge Too Far

In fact, it was Natural Bridges where I first subjected myself to Craft's regimen. It was several months prior to the aforementioned excursion, before winter's onset, when the monarch butterflies were still arriving and the days were still warm. We met at the back entrance to Natural Bridges State Park at 6:15am. Dressed in black body-hugging pants, Craft was already distributing rubber bands and headlamps, which she stores in a laundry basket in the back of her van. Bubbly and well organized--she even serves hot tea at the end of each session--Craft is a lifelong athlete, who has competed in and coached track and field events, specializing in the pole vault. She still competes in select mountain bike, running and triathlon events.

Tanned and trim, with shiny dark brown hair and eyes that signal maximum health, Craft noted how that many of her clients who grew up in Santa Cruz have never been to local beauty spots like this park.

"Or at the very least, they don't know the history," said Craft, as we pass the entrance to the Natural Bridges eucalyptus grove, where thousands of brilliantly patterned monarch butterflies hang out each winter.

As we jogged past their winter getaway, Craft rattled off some stats about these fragile-looking creatures--like the fact that they migrate 2,000 miles to get here each year. Or that they don't move when the temperature's below 60 degrees.

"Which means they won't be fluttering around at this time in the morning," said Craft of the bright orange butterflies, who apparently wait until the sun hits their sheltered grove before bursting from the clusters where they hang (wings folded back to resemble dead brown leaves) on the underside of eucalyptus branches.

We entered Natural Bridges beach, and Craft had us drop on all fours on the hand-chilling dunes so we could do upward-sloping pushups. It was the kind of activity that had me secretly swearing, coming as it did on the heels of what for me was a brain-jarring jog to the beach.

But, as they say, things have to get worse before they better, and Craft soon had us sprinting up and down a hill--a punishment that was repeated three times in between doing pushups, crunches and, of course, the inevitable sets of lunges.

Yet just when I was about to throw in the towel, she gently jogged us to the parking lot by the Pacific Ocean, where the sun was gradually rising over Monterey Bay.

"We get sandy, we get dirty, but at least it's not raining," joked Craft, ponytail bobbing, as she pulled out an index card and talked about how there were originally three natural stone arches here, hence the park's name of Natural Bridges.

My father, no doubt, would have approved, except for the part about it not raining. To this day, my sister and I avoid any semblance of playing tennis competitively, although I do enjoy going through the motions by hitting a tennis ball against a wall every now and then.

And then as we assume an East-West pose, a yoga position that involves balancing on one foot, Craft shared one of her tidbits that made getting up so early for her class almost worth it:

"Did you know," she asked, "that there are 72,000 nerve endings in your feet?"

And suddenly I felt all 72,000 endings singing like a chorus of angels as my endorphin rush finally hit. And yes, life was sweet, the sky a bright bright blue and Craft's class--when all was said and done--bloody brilliant.

For more information about Craft's classes, contact 831.588.4098 or check out www.energetixfitness.com.

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From the March 22-28, 2006 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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