Sunday, May 20, 2018

The Greatest Gym You’ll Never Lift At

            This was a few years after I got really into lifting, around late 2010 to early 2011. At this point I was one enlistment in the US Marines and had reenlisted with a lateral move into a new job field. By request, for what you’ll soon understand as obvious reasons. I no longer wanted to hold the primary Military Occupational Specialty 0311 Infantry Rifleman. It was a great time being a grunt, don’t get me wrong, but they ran all too often for my tastes. I’d rather lift. 

The new job of mine was surreal. When I read up on it I was amazed that it was in fact, a real thing. Is the Green Weenie up to something again? Truth be told it wasn’t my first choice. Initially I had gone through the process of trying to become an 0241, or topographic intelligence, but that wasn’t approved. Perhaps because of lacking intelligence? Probably. Anyhow, I was undeterred. I loved the grunts around me but was loving gains more. Researching for possible jobs I found the MOS 4133, Marine Corps Community Services, then at the time experiencing a shortage and thus suffering a very high individual deployment rate. I did an interview with a Master Sergeant in the field, who being a prior Drill Instructor was… lively, but it went well. Before going on ship my lateral move request was submitted. While at sea it was approved. 
Aboard USS Wasp, SPMAGTF 2009.
Behind me the Marines of Fox Company, 2nd Battalion 9th Marines.

It was perfect. A gift from Chesty. Thank you. Wherever you are.
MCCS Marines are literally in charge of gains. Not kidding. Here’s what I was looking at:
-          Many deployments. OK sweet, that’s what I’m in for anyways.
-          Run the Post Exchange, state side and in country. Even better, now I control the supplement supply chain (and all important tasty treats) wherever the Corps sends me. Pre-workout and protein always. Chips, candy, cookies, precious sips – you name it, I slang it.
-          Order and disperse gym gear in country. You gotta be kidding me… 
-          Other things related to morale, aka, “having a good time”.
My entire career was shifting towards my love for lifting. The process of going from grunt to PX Marine wasn’t much, six months on the job training, at the end of which I was augmented for my first deployment to Afghanistan; my first as a newly appointed PX Marine. That lively Master Sergeant told me it was a hard but rewarding hustle in the sandbox. I was genuinely excited to be going for this was a new adventure. 
Once in country we did the usual environmental awareness and operational security training. Some range time to dial in our weapons and walk example improvised explosive device lanes, so as to familiarize ourselves with what invisible wires in the sand look like. Following that I spent some time on a small Forward Operating Base (FOB), Delaram II (said D2), where I helped manage a ‘tactical field exchange’. Meaning a 7-11 inside a tent. It was a good gig to have. A consistent schedule where I could train every morning, get consistent meals, supps, and sleep – everything a gainer like me needed. The gym at DII was nice, but it is not the gym this story is inspired by.
DII Supplement Wall.

After a few months at DII I was rotated to work at Camp Leatherneck, the main USMC hub. There I would run Warrior Express Service Teams (WES-Teams as they were called) to combat outposts and forward operating bases in the northern part of Helmand Province. From Marjah north to Sangin and up to Kajaki Dam. Where this gym, a fucking great gym, once lived. WES-Team missions were the best. Myself and another sergeant would stock up as much as possible on candy, drinks, chips, tobacco, and of course workout supplements. Marines, of all branches having the greatest ratio of gym rats. Explains me quite well, honestly. Once fully stocked we would head out for weeks, typically on a convoy, sell out, then return home. Press repeat for six months.

Gains and deliciousness in a 20 foot shipping container.
The selections on a convoy WES-Team.
Similar to that taken to Kajaki.

We sergeants ran our own show outside the wire and it was fun. The Kajaki Dam mission was slightly different though. The terrain was rugged and hostile. To bring those Leathernecks their well-deserved taste of home we had to fly in. No problem. Rather than shipping containers and convoy for two or three weeks we would pack large boxes, 4-foot square each and full of product. Then fill two helicopters with those big boxes and be off to Kajaki. There we were left and stayed until the Marines had no more money to spend or we ran out of sellable product. This was the workflow of the WES-Team sergeants on Camp Leatherneck at the time. Either convoys or Kajaki Dam. Kajaki was our “vacation” mission. 
It wasn’t that the dam was easy going, no, far from it. FOB Zeebrugge was hopping full of artillery Marines who were happy to be blowing up baddies across the water. Have no doubt, my life at Kajaki Dam, the location of FOB Zeebrugge, was easy – I just sold snacks and lifted. The arty Marines around me were dirty, foul mouthed, smelled like Hell itself and from heaven they rained hell at will. There is a vibration in strong people and it is stronger in each when in groups; growing stronger as the group becomes larger. This was a large group of strong men from whose great gym rang the familiar chime of weight plates. The ground shook from deadlifts and the boom of howitzers alike. The cannons themselves singing to me that sweet familiar sound. The vibration started in the marrow of the artilleryman and extended to all around. From the dirt to the dumbbells. This open-air gym had a life, it was that resonant vibration, and I could feel it when I lifted there.
Tasty treats atop FOB Zebrugge.
Hauled to service the Marines on duty at OP Shrine.

The M795 155mm projectile weighs 47 KG (103 lb.) and is the standard high explosive round for Marine howitzers. The range for E1 variants is 37 kilometers. It is 30% more lethal than its predecessor the M107; then a featherweight 43.2 KG (95 lb.) Newer, highly capable artillery rounds named Excalibur weigh about the same as the M795, still over 100 pounds per round. It pushes the range to approximately 57 km (35 miles), is GPS guided, and packed full of octogen high explosive. In 2012 a US Marine Corps howitzer team at FOB Zeebrugge killed a group of insurgents 36 kilometers (22 miles) away using a single Excalibur round. This set a combat distance record. The lethality and precision of the artillery Marine increases with technology, but with it comes weight. Which is why so many of these guys were jacked, strong, or just damn sinewy and capable out of spite of their build or revenge against it. I’ll never know where such strength wells up from in men like that.

Marines from India Battery, 3rd Battalion, 12 Marine Regiment
newly aboard FOB Zeebrugge, October, 2010.
Source: Scott Olsen/Getty Images Europe

On FOB Zeebrugge lived this great gym of the Marine artilleryman. Whose job it is to load 100-pound rounds into 9,000-pound cannons at a maximum rate of five (hundred pounds) rounds per minute. To some, fitness is a hobby, others may call it a way of life, in these ranks fitness is life. Let me rephrase for clarity. A weekend warrior who loves biking may enjoy greatly their hobby, but it will not deter their profession or impact their family in a negative way; it is a hobby. Even if taken seriously, not so seriously as a promotion at work. Those who call it a way of life see things differently. A clear example would be someone who abandons everything to go train under a coach, we’ll say none other than Louie Simmons, whose gym and presence alone beckon those who wish to live a life of lifting. People have, and will continue to, change their lives so they can study and lift under Louie’s tutelage. That is their way of life, a means about it, put another way. Their method to bring satisfaction to this thing we all have.
But without strength, without fitness, the artilleryman has no life. They become useless to their crew mates and are less a threat to the enemy. In each case the weakling dies easily. Emotionally at the hands of tormenting brothers and leaders or physically by the stronger will of the enemy. This truth etched on the faces of Marines as they pushed one another toward greater ability at the Kajaki gym. If not to save their own lives, to be better at taking the enemy’s. 500-pounds per minute. The maximum rate of fire. A good artillery Marine would never let themselves or their mates be the limiter of that fire rate. And so, they trained, and trained hard, in one of the most austere and spartan gyms I’ve ever seen or lifted.
Lifters say training environment is everything. I agree that it is important, and to some much more important, sure. There are gyms of legendary training environments. That of Super Training or like mentioned previously, Louie Simmons’ Westside Barbell, and more recently Barbell Brigade. These environments ring with the vibration I describe for they are populated by strong individuals. It is more than equipment selection. More about who lifted on that equipment before you and those around you. The smell of sweat and blood pungent with individual reward for fluids lost and time spent. A difference exists in this vibration, however. It is not of survival, but reward. These people are a different kind of strong; strong none the less. They live to be strong and so the environment around them feels different.
Me, not the Kajaki gym. Just 300 pounds or so in bumper plates.

In fact, it is different. It is perfectly built to make the process of becoming strong easier. I’ve seen incredibly strong lifters become weak, defeated, because their “warmups didn’t feel right.” Worse yet those who cannot, somehow, lift without a special apparatus or specific bar. An inarguable weakness of their strength’s nature, or character. Not to say it is a lesser strength, or weaker, but it could be considered picky. Certainly specific, analogous to specialized; which is like saying prone to failure when subject to undesirable circumstances outside of their controlled environment. As legendary as it may be. This imparts something to the vibration I speak of, which is why these sorts of places feel different than Kajaki’s gym. The leadership and comradery of Westside ringing its bell, creating its powerful vibration. The gym at Kajaki rang with each of those too, just more violently. Amplifying it drastically. Coupled with this the environment itself commanded respect and required strength. This is something ‘hard core’ gyms strive after, but never fully achieve. Not quite like Kajaki. A gym in a warehouse in a commercial district in suburban America does not capture in its location the same feeling or emotion. No matter how hard the members try to make it so.
Such strength and their inspired gyms are unlike those who must be strong because their job requires them to lift 100 pounds all day and night upon commander’s orders. Maybe that day will come tomorrow and so they trained today. Trained yesterday and the day before that, and countless days leading up to what may eventually be the moment where they must load 100 pounds into the cannons for hours, with no end in sight. Should their weakness inhibit that somewhere a grunt may die. A grunt like I once was. To prevent this, the gym was built, and wouldn’t you know it, the artillerymen put it in the center of FOB Zeebrugge.
Kajaki Dam, to the far right the location of FOB Zeebrugge.

Witnessing their purpose for strength gave an understanding of what made this gym so special. So different. It was not outfitted well compared to anything you would see stateside. Just barbells, weight plates, a squat rack, two benches, a rack of matching dumbbells, and a Hammer Strength “deadlift” machine. The matching dumbbells being by far the fanciest thing on the whole FOB. With only two walls and a thin tin roof everything was lightly rusted. It gave the equipment a character reflective of the men who used it. Hard, worn, enduring. Should they break a dumbbell I could get them a new one; a shame it wouldn’t match. With use the new dumbbell vibrates with the same frequency of the artilleryman, matching eventually, in a way. 
Being a PX Marine allowed me the opportunity to lift almost anywhere there was a gym in our area of operations. It was my section who ordered and dispersed the gym equipment after all. I lifted at all kinds of Marine gyms. Some well outfitted with a litany of free weights and machines, like those on Camps Dwyer and Leatherneck. Others nothing more than a pulley rigged somewhere overhead, a sandbag bench, numerous filled and partially filled sandbags about, and other various heavy things: truck batteries, tires, large broken wrenches, fouled heavy machine gun barrels, etc. Marines will get their lift on, wherever, I learned. 
The amazing part was the imperceptible difference in these places. At Leatherneck, the main USMC base in country, you could see senior staff noncommissioned officers running the fat off desperately on a treadmill. Tired, weak, and frail from their lack of appreciation of strength. While a Marine, still, maybe intel, like I once wanted to be. Their comfortable office job ruined their sense of duty to physicality. The SNCO on the treadmill did not have to load 100-pound bombs as a private to kill the enemy, and so now he is fat and killing himself on a treadmill instead. This gym, with his presence in it rings differently. Less like Kajaki’s gym and more like an LA Fitness with its fatness and civilians. I saw no fat bodies at Kajaki. Perhaps the higher percentage of upper body adipose tissue dulls the vibration otherwise felt so sharply at places as violent and unforgiving as Kajaki. Populated by fit, strong, combat hardened Marines.
Stunning vistas. Lots of Taliban unfortunately.

I had the luck to visit Kajaki two or three times during my first deployment to Afghanistan. Each time I brought with me dozens of tubs of protein and pre-workout powders. Each time they sold out. Soon thereafter the gym would be packed full of Marines high on untold amounts of caffeine, hatred of the enemy, and love for their brothers. Personal records had by all, no doubt. Good thing the gym was open air because their body odor alone had the effect of tear gas. No telling the effects lingering protein farts could have had. This gym was unlike other Marine gyms, even many infantry gyms, which honestly were not ‘infantry gyms’ so much as battalion headquarters’ gyms (meaning all the non-grunts who support the grunts within the infantry unit). The guys doing the fighting, often a platoon or squad in size, stay at small, incredibly spartan patrol bases. In these cases, a TRX system was a blessing. These too I brought and issued out. Everywhere there is a Marine fitness is impressed upon them, much more so to those on the killing edge; the artillery, infantry, recon and raiders.
Kajaki’s gym was special. I’ll never forget it. There I deadlifted 455 pounds for the first time, in just boots and utes’, and I never surpassed that weight for a year. Not until I picked up powerlifting training specifically, back in the states, on a good schedule; fragile. I remember only being able to deadlift 405 to 415 pounds – not at Kajaki. I’ll joke that the rust wore some weight off, but the real reason was the vibration of the men around me and the resonance that carried beyond them; into everything, into me. I could sell out of all my product in two days and be stuck there for five more. Each of those I’d lift and joke, enjoying my vacation. “Bring an extra box of blue razz NO Explode next time POG,” they’d say, and I would, because maybe they’d be weaker without it, and I couldn’t handle that, truly. Though it was my own narcissistic judgement. 
That strength, a life itself, existed before me and will continue without me. I merely eased the means of execution and progression by bringing Marines equipment if needed, and snacks and supplements as often as my duties as required me. It was I who benefitted most, not those Marines from my services. Who temporarily became nasty and somewhat undisciplined whenever the WES-Team vacationed at FOB Zeebrugge, Kajaki, Afghanistan. There I learned what a different need for lifting felt and looked like, from that need what a gym could exist as, and where such a thing might be born again. In a place austere and inspiring. Unforgiving and respected. Inaccessible. Wild. This calls the strong. It is their vibration. 
I also learned there was no better pre-workout than howitzer fire. A lot of vibration. 

The reservoir from atop the south west hill looking east.