Katie Trotter emerges battle-scarred but triumphant after a week-long military-style bootcamp in the hills of Marbella tempered only by luxurious accommodation.
Bootcamp break: the pain in Spain
Marbella is not the obvious destination for those seeking enlightenment. Situated on the Spanish Mediterranean, the Costa del Sol's ever-so-slightly sleazy but upmarket resort town is more often associated with porticoed mansions and power yachts than with self-fulfillment. Once a reliable port of call for the jet set, there is something a little bit deflated about today's Marbella, as if it has a slow puncture. Still, its faded reputation does not faze me; I am not here to sip drinks by the marina or go on scenic drives in the surrounding hills. I am here for a boot camp - out of necessity, I am here to work.
Not immune to the effects of an often unhealthy UAE lifestyle, boot camps keep me in check. My last was in California and one of the highlights of my travels in 2011, the difference being that I was pretty fit back then. This time around, the only preparation I can call upon is past experience, and when it comes to fitness training , military style, nothing is as agonising as foreknowledge.
After a long and rather complicated journey from Dubai to Malaga via Barcelona, I arrive rather late in the night to discover I've missed one of the two complimentary airport transfers. My ordeal ends with an hour-long, expensive (€100; Dh490) taxi ride into the Marbella Hills. It's a drag to have to lug my bursting suitcase up a steep flight of stairs while trying not to wake a sleeping house, but I'm not sleepwalking through denial - I know exactly what is coming and remind myself that whiners have no place here.
Each guest is assigned to one of three privately owned multimillion-dirham, five-star villas in a prestigious, scenic development surrounding the fashionable Puerto Banús. Decked out in dark wood and plush furnishings, Casa San Bernardo, where I am staying, is designed for those who don't like to compromise on aesthetics. There is the option to share an en-suite room with up to three people and, as the week progresses, I grow increasingly grateful that I am not one of them.
I wake up the next morning feeling a little sick, thanks to the combination of just over 20 hours of travel, barely any sleep - I can only liken lying on a memory-foam mattress to sleeping in a hot ravine - and acute anxiety. I've never been so relieved as when Kate, the only non ex-army staff member who hasn't had pity beaten out of her, tells me I can bunk off the first morning and catch up on some sleep.
I try to remind myself why I am here: to increase my fitness with the aid of eight to 10 hours of carefully orchestrated high- and low-intensity workouts, to lose between the promised three to five kilogrammes by following a 1,200-calorie daily diet, tone up and get ready to start 2013 on the right note.
I explore the rest of the complex with the sheepish trepidation of someone who has skipped an important exam. The villas are adjacent to one another, allowing access to all the facilities: three outdoor swimming pools, an indoor pool, a jet-wave exercise system, hot tubs and jacuzzis, a sauna, gym and spa, all set in manicured gardens that double as circuit space. Why I am here to "train" escapes me, again.
After a one-on-one introductory talk with Staff R (who I will introduce later) to lay out our personal goals for the week, we sit down to lunch, a sweet potato and salad that is much better and bigger than expected. Looking around the opulent dining room in the largest villa, I can see people from every walk of life - 20 women and a few brave men - some, I guess, are here to polish up on an already rigid training programme, while others are hoping to kick-start a new lifestyle.
After a few nervous introductions and sizing up each other, we progress toward our first fitness test that will separate the fitties from the fatties - three loops covering six kilometres around the development's private roads. It's like being chosen/not chosen for team sports at school and I'm so far out of my comfort zone that I'm practically in another country, yet an underlying fear of mediocracy (thanks, Mum) gets me around in a semi-decent time.
I hear our leader Staff R (following the army theme, we never learn names) before I see him. A shortish, square man with a kind face who is built like a scrum half, he gives each of us a number by which we are to be known for the week. I suspect that Staff R is former British military, the type who does Ironman contests to break the monotony of triathlons; later, he tells me he's spent the last seven years rehabilitating wounded servicemen and women from Iraq and Afghanistan.
He misses nothing, including my panic at the finish line.
"You can achieve whatever you want to in the week," he says encouragingly. "The more reps you do the more tone you will achieve. The faster you work the more energy you use. It's all about personal bests here; the only competition is with yourself."
By the end of the day, just when I have started to relax, disaster strikes about halfway through a treacherous three-hour hike in the surrounding hills and I fall full-force onto a large, jagged rock. There is a lot of blood and a nasty-looking flap of skin on my knee. I bite my bottom lip to stop the inevitable wobble, pretty sure that my body is looking for a way out in protest. Five stitches later, I retire to my room feeling rather sorry for myself. These chaps have been in Afghanistan so my "big cut" doesn't go down as well as expected.
Waking up the following morning is like a bad dream - every movement is a trial, partly because of my poor knee and in part because of muscle ache from a lack of fitness. Walking down the stairs to breakfast feels like combat crawling through Velcro, and I milk my limp in the hope of some sympathy.
We start the day in the "sweat room" (a heated studio on the bottom floor of the main villa) with a "progressive warm up" - a high-intensity, interval-training programme carried out in short spurts, which we are told depletes the muscles of glycogen faster, making the body turn to stored energy sources.
After a breakfast of homemade muesli and rice milk, we head to the beach in a minibus for a combination of circuits and boxing. The 27km of coastline, although semi-urban, is empty because it is low season. We split into pairs to work our way through a series of boxing exercises that focus on toning the biceps and triceps. After a short break and a granola bar, we dive into circuits that involve carrying sandbags, hitting a tyre with a pickaxe handle, throwing weighted bags, core stability and strength work, and an assault course with encouragement (read scary shouting) from enthusiastic staff.
By day three, despite the gammy knee, it's becoming astonishingly obvious how pathologically suited I am to being yelled at. I stand in the morning line-up with a dirty face and a bandaged knee, patiently waiting to hear about my fate and slowly coming to the realisation that I am actually having fun.
After a breakfast of smoked salmon and scrambled eggs, we make our way toward La Concha, one of three peaks located 1,215 metres above sea level for a big climb. Two hours in and my legs start to rebel. The switchbacks seemed to go on for miles and every five steps feels like corporal punishment. It's only my comrades who spur me on, howling with nervous laughter.
Days four and five become something of a blur, but I am well and truly immersed by now: get up, eat, progressive warm-up (it sounds humane but isn't), healthy snack, a five to 10km run, core exercises, eat, circuits, hill sprints, team sports, eat, stretch ... and so it goes on, until that second of peace you gain just before falling asleep, physically and mentally exhausted.
The thing is, you start to thrive on it all, you start to love the madness. The key is to keep moving. All the time. Every second of every day. Once you stop, the momentum goes. Fear, they say, is a civilian's Number One Enemy, and with it even the toughest old boots will suffer. Boot camp, I realise, is a place for the fighter in us to stop fighting and surrender to the bigger power.
Is that a good thing? Who knows? But it's the only option I see for survival. Yes, there are points when you think you can't go on - the furtive tears, ambushes, uprisings, a few haunted faces and a scattering of humiliated people - but the prevailing experience is not all exasperation, shouty men and crossfire. There are also moments of sheer pleasure and utter elation that come from removing "can't" and "won't" from your vocabulary, from gaining physical and psychological strength, from holding each other together and achieving things you never thought possible. And the numbers don't lie: I'm the best part of four kilos lighter and eight inches slimmer.
Looking back, the glow is mainly retrospective, which is often the way when we have been truly enriched. Boot camps, I realise, are all the same: you have leave them to love them.
The flight: Emirates (www.emirates.com) flies direct from Dubai to Barcelona in about six and a half hours from Dh3,590 return. Connecting flights to Malaga with Iberia (www.iberia.com) cost from €120 (Dh590) return. Prices include taxes. The stay: A seven-night boot camp, full board, including airport transfers, costs from £995 (Dh5,775) per person, based on two sharing a double room, or per person in a triple room (www.prestigebootcamp.com); 00 44 117 973 1213)