Katie Trotter finds herself turning into an endorphin junkie during a results-oriented fitness programme in California.
Boot-camp makeover in Malibu
Let me start at the end. I am trekking the last part of a six-hour ascent of Sandstone Peak, at 948 metres the highest summit in the Santa Monica Mountains. I am surrounded in every direction by spectacular views, including the Pacific Ocean, the Conejo Valley and four of the Channel Islands. However, I see none of this because all I can visualise is my journey to the top. My head is clear, my shoulders square and my jawline is set with sheer determination as my hiking boots dig into the soft rock with such purpose I almost fail to recognise myself.
California is at its best at this very moment: its rocky peaks, grassy valleys and steep meandering trails make for perfect hiking territory. It is an exercise junkie's dream when the few of us that finally make it reach the summit on the final day. The winds are blowing and lactic acid is ripping through our limbs, but we barely notice as I get the feeling - although nobody says as much - it has been a while since any of us felt like such heroes.
Two months ago to the day before this, I had volunteered to spend a week at The Ranch at Live Oak, a results-oriented health, fitness and wellness programme that includes 10 hours a day of exercise - including a 20km daily hike, core and ab classes, body toning and sculpting, circuits, weights, yoga sessions and a strictly vegetarian diet - set on a working ranch in Malibu, southern California. I'd love to say I was seduced by the promise of invigoration or simply by the opportunity to reconnect with myself but that would only be bending the truth somewhat - I want killer abs and all-over muscle definition, and a skinnier bottom would also do.
We had been well briefed by a weekly newsletter prior to our visit, advising and reminding us to wean off any dairy products, alcohol, sugar, artificial sweeteners, gluten and meat and to prepare for the exercise by doing daily hikes and yoga classes. Quite how I found myself taking part in a six-course steak dinner at LA's new hotspot STK the night before is another story - and one I would pay for dearly.
We meet at the Fairmont in Santa Monica then head through the mountains toward the ranch. There is a bit of first-day-at-school sizing up of each other: we are smart enough to realise the dynamics of a group can make or break this kind of experience. We also make for a strange-looking bunch - a few miscellaneous finance types who aren't giving too much away, a well-known doctor from television, a few stay-at-home super mums, a famous musician from the 1990s and the granddaughter of one of the most famous retailers in American history. The only apparent thread linking everyone else seems to be money, and plenty of it.
Each of us is led to our own suite, something I appreciate greatly over the course of the week. Although perhaps rather spartan compared to the normal five-star treatment, it is extremely comfortable and beautifully done. The bed is dressed with quality linen and plump pillows, while the news of a complimentary laundry service is gratefully received.
By our bedside sits a leather-bound journal, entitled Ranch Values, that suggests removing "can't" and "won't" from our vocabulary, and to follow their unplugged-and-off-the-grid philosophy by remaining completely in the present. Phones, computers and watches are handed over, prompting a few of us to have minor tantrums.
After unpacking we dress in our gym gear and gather at the Ranch House with programme director Marc Alabanza to discuss our goals for the week ahead followed, of course, by the dreaded weigh-in. As I step on the scale and watch the needle hemming and hawing, a few recent meals flash before my eyes. There was the succulent soft shell crab with lashings of garlic butter in San Francisco, an In-N-Out burger (or two) in New York, and the blackened cod dripping in a sickly sweet sauce a few nights ago in Hollywood. Needless to say, I don't look at the number on which the needle finally settles.
Then we have our measurements taken. It's not the easiest thing, especially when it's done by a strapping trainer who is devastatingly good-looking. There is definitely a bit of sucking in going on all across the board. Neck, biceps, chest, waist ... So far, so good. Then come thighs. Yikes. Hips. Eeeeek. Then bottom. Sigh.
Marc, a former kickboxer who designed the programme we are about to undertake, warns us of the common side effects of detoxing. Vomiting and diarrhea are expected, he explains, due to hypoglycaemia caused by the elimination of sugars. He also advises against the use of painkillers because most of them are sugar-coated. I am so not OK with this, and the fact that nobody else seems in any way alarmed makes me feel way out of my depth.
Following our physical assessment we move up the hill toward what they unfairly refer to as the Romper Room (trust me: this place is about as much fun as quantum physics) for a few physical tests of our flexibility, ability to do push-ups (I am terrible) and sit-ups, all of which are duly recorded.
It's been a lot to take in and we all head to bed early, which is just as well because at around 5.30am, I am woken by a set of chimes outside the door, followed by a less-gentle reminder on the walkie-talkie that I have been instructed to carry at all times: "Attention Ranch guests. Morning yoga will begin in 10 minutes. I repeat: 10 minutes."
Breakfast is acceptable, comprising homemade granola served with almond milk, although a little on the small side. I miss my morning coffee with a passion.
Next up is hiking. The thing about this activity is that it always starts off rather nicely and, having recently been in the Himalayas, I harbour a false sense of security about the rolling hills ahead of us. The front four pull away with gusto and the following 20km of gruelling hills come as a shock to any system. As we were warned, some of the stragglers are indeed sick. To keep ourselves going, we play the would-you-rather game and discover there is pretty much nothing we wouldn't rather do - including forfeiting up to three months' wages - than this. I, for one, stumble through the last few kilometres.
Back at the ranch we lunch, albeit a little grumpily, on a salad of kale dotted with chickpeas and cherry tomatoes, prepared by the ranch's chef Kurt Steeber. Then we crawl into bed for a nap, only to be awakened 40 minutes later: it is, of course, time for an abs class.
The vegetarian cuisine, prepared by Steeber, a veteran of San Francisco's Zuni Café, is beginning to be all we talk about. My favourite dishes are the burrito, the fennel and celery root soup, and the roasted cauliflower on a bed of apple and quinoa, one of the many superfoods that are served to us throughout the week.
By the second day we have surrendered completely, our only rest being a hugely necessary deep-tissue massage for which we wait patiently for a tap on the shoulder during the afternoon classes. Waiting for that tap is like waiting for the hand of God.
But it isn't until midweek that I start to get it. Something has changed and things that had seemed cruel and unnecessary before start to make sense. We all begin to appreciate the small rewards that life brings: a juicy apple or three almonds dug out from a little bag on reaching a certain distance. On one occasion we are given both at once, giving much more pleasure than it seems it should.
Weirdly, I start to love these hikes. We howl through the rusty hills, laughing and joking and feeling pretty good about life and the prospects ahead. Then at night I lie awake, my muscles almost twitching in anticipation. There is something to be said about using your body to its full capacity. I have become an endorphin junkie, demonstrated most clearly on our final ascent of Sandstone Peak.
As I think back on the week, I decide this is territory for Type A personalities rather than sissies. It's effective perhaps in the way Maoism was. In short, it hurts.
I have clocked just over 80 kilometres, exercised for 10 hours a day, eaten a strictly vegetarian diet, practised meditation and yoga, and - most importantly - have lost 30cm from the body measurements taken at the start, just over 4kg in weight and improved the number of push-ups achieved in two minutes by almost 70 per cent.
Even the most pessimistic among us has softened somewhat. "Isn't it great?" I say. "What an achievement, what a wonderful feeling."
"Yes, I suppose it is," my favourite grump responds. "In the same way if you stick a set of needles in my eye and then remove them."
If you go????
The flight Return flights on Etihad Airways (www.ethihadairways.com) from Abu Dhabi to Los Angeles cost from Dh4,740, including taxes.
The course Seven days at The Ranch (www.theranchmalibu.com; 00 1 888 777 217) costs Dh20,570 per person, full board, and includes all tuition, daily massage, accommodation and airport transfers. Optional extras include appointments with a chiropractor and an acupuncturist. Specialist diet and fitness programmes can be arranged to make an easy transition to your normal schedule.