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Predawn workouts by light of a street lamp draw several dozen to daily boot camp
Participants complete sets of jumping jacks at 5 a.m. Monday morning during the Average Joe Boot Camp at City Park. The voluntary daily workout takes place in near dark with a street lamp lighting the parking lot. - photo by Michelle Boaen Jameson

A new pair of cross trainer shoes will probably set you back $60 or more, but a new lease on life, via the Average Joe Boot Camp, is free.

Well, more or less; it will cost you a few hours of sleep.

A group of around 70 dedicated people meet at 5 a.m. Monday through Friday at City Park in Gainesville for an intense workout led by Ron Combs and his team of volunteer instructors.

"Every day I walk out here and see all of these people, I say ‘Dang, this is crazy,’" Combs said Monday.

"I started this in September or October. Seven or eight friends came out to work out with me. A guy that goes to church with us talked me into doing a Facebook page.

"We went from maybe 12 folks in December to around 35 in January. When I showed up at the first of this month, there were 93 people in the parking lot waiting to work out."

There’s sweat and maybe even a few tears, but no sunlight to illuminate any of it -- just a few twinkling stars and a couple of nearby streetlights.

"Push it!" one instructor shouted during Monday’s early morning workout.

"You got this," another yelled on the heels of the first.

In a continuous cycle of movement, each participant — at their own pace — executed a series of stretches, pushups, situps and "burpees," a four-count movement that incorporates squats and planks.

Then there was the run up the hill on Memorial Drive.

"Come on!" one instructor shouted. "Let’s get it done."

After completing the run up the hill, with their feet apart, backs straight, knees bent and arms reaching for the sky, a group of participants settled into the chair pose commonly seen in yoga classes.

Unlike the controlled breathing associated with yoga, theirs had a different feel to it. Instead of slow and smooth breaths, the version heard above the early morning din of shouted instructions was more of an exhausted pant.

"This is the hardest thing you’ll do all day," Combs yelled out, "and you’ve already got it done by 6 a.m."

Average Joe isn’t just for folks in marathon-ready shape, although they are welcome, too. Instead, Combs says the experience is about meeting folks where they are and bringing them up to their personal best.

The boot campers seem to be motivated by equal parts self-determination and prodding from their instructors.

During Monday’s workout, one woman paused once or twice long enough to vomit in a nearby storm drain. She almost immediately jumped right back into her burpee reps.

"Show yourself what you are made of," Combs encouraged everyone.

At the end of the session, he announced that everyone should be proud of themselves. In an hour, they had completed 150 each of pushups, squats and situps. They’d also finished 75 burpees and ran -- or walked or crawled -- the equivalent of one mile.

Everyone in the group was there because they wanted to be. Not because they paid or were getting paid.

"This thing works because it is all about accountability," Combs said.

"I personally have joined every gym in Hall County, tried every fad diet in the world and none of it worked. I wouldn’t stick to it. I’d find every reason not to.

"What else are you gonna do at 5 in the morning? Other than not being able to find child care, there no excuses for not being here."

The "no excuses" mantra is paying off for the folks who can stick with the challenging regimen.

Gainesville resident Carl Dylan went from running a 14-minute mile during his initial assessment to finishing in less than 10 minutes a month later. He also lost 35 pounds.

"I was in Austin last week playing the South by Southwest (music festival). I woke up the morning after playing and thought, ‘I have to go for a run,’" Dylan said.

"Who does that? If you’d told me that would’ve happened six weeks ago, I would’ve laughed in your face, but it’s just one of those things that gets in your blood.

"There’s a real sense of community here. It’s much more of a motivation than money ever would be."

An equally important aspect of the Average Joe experience is nutrition.

"We feel like (nutrition) is at least 80 percent of the total deal," Combs said. "We teach them how to replace unhealthy things in life with healthier options."

The experience is just what elementary school teacher LaMonika Hill has been looking for.

"I like that it’s a holistic program. They teach you how to eat healthier and they do grocery store tours to show you how," said Hill, who learned about the camp from co-workers.

"It’s been great. This is my fourth week and I have a lot more energy (overall) now."

Newbies are welcome to join in for the last few days of this session, but a new four-week session begins April 9.

Even though he could be turning a profit from the camp’s popularity, Combs says he’s content to be paid in sweat equity.

"I’ve been doing boot camp for two years. When I started, I was 247 pounds. My cholesterol and triglycerides were through the roof," Combs said.

"I was a walking stroke victim waiting to happen. Boot camp literally saved my life.

"This is just paying it forward."


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