Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Swanky outdoor fun in the Blue Ridge Mtns

I am so jealous of my Observer co-worker John Bordsen. He recently tried out Primland, a swanky outdoor resort lodge in the Blue Ridge Mountains. It’s a 14,000-acre resort in the Meadows of Dan, Va. north of Charlotte.

This place is phat. In an Observer article, Bordsen described how he went hunting, horseback riding and dashing through the woods on an ATV. I like all of those activities except hunting. I haven’t ridden an ATV since I went looking for marijuana fields with the York County Sheriff’s Department, but that was another lifetime.

In this lifetime, I’m drooling about riding a four-wheeler at Primland. And I emphasize dreaming because the place isn’t cheap. Lodging starts at $199 a night and goes up to $1,200. And horseback riding is $100 per person.

If Primland is too rich for your budget try these local alternatives:
Rides at the equestrian center at Latta Plantation Nature Preserve start at $20.

For your ATV needs, try Carolina Adventure World in Fairfield County, South Carolina, about an hour from Charlotte. One of my fellow motorcycle instructors raved about this place and I can see why. A day pass to use the ATVs and dirtbikes is only $25. Ziplining is only $5.

With these kind of prices, it sounds like Beer Makes You Fat needs to do a round trip. Stay tuned.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Thread trail provides a change of scenery

Ever tire of running the same route or biking the same greenways? Well, the Carolina Thread Trail could solve the cardio doldrums. The trail is planned as a 15-county Carolinas network of paths linking cities, towns and attractions spread over 7,300 square miles.

Many of us probably already use parts of the trail now without realizing, but that's getting easier. Earlier this month, Thread Trail logo signs were added in 11 communities over five counties to designate 22 miles as branches of the Thread Trail, according to a story in the Charlotte Observer.

So follow the signs and pedal through our neighboring counties.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Hiking, biking and ziplining

Whether you like hiking, biking or zipping through the air praying you won't die, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg area has an outdoor facility to fit your needs and often your budget.

This area caters to outdoor enthusiasts because of amenities at places such as the Mecklenburg County Park and Recreation's extensive facilities and the U.S. National Whitewater Center. Then there are natural attractions such as the surrounding mountains and lakes that provide ample reasons to go outside and play.

Andy Phin, co-founder of Charlotte Outdoor Association, helps outdoor enthusiasts and newbies take advantage of the outdoor opportunities. The group sponsors dozens of outdoor events each week from hiking to canoeing. He said the region's mild weather makes it easy to stay active outdoors all year.

"We have so many greenways and parks," said Andy Phin, co-founder of the Charlotte Outdoor Adventures (CHOA). "I love to do all of the kayaking."

CHOA sponsors kayaking trips, but the Mecklenburg County Park and Recreation also offers kayaking excursions.

The best resource for information about Park and Rec programs is on the comprehensive Web site With about 210 facilities and 30 area recreation centers, the county's park system offers the widest variety of outdoor activities for the region. Along with its diverse selection of activities and facilities, the best thing about Park and Rec programs is most are affordable or free.

One of the most popular park system attractions is the greenway system. A greenway is a 10-foot-wide paved trail that winds through vegetation and sometimes past creeks. The trails are popular among bikers, joggers and walkers. There are 33 miles of developed and 147 miles of undeveloped greenways in Mecklenburg County.

For the competitive outdoor person, Park and Rec's athletic facilities and recreation centers offer a variety of organized sports from basketball to flag football. The system also has five golf courses, and more than 100 tennis courts. Another system attraction is disc golf, which involves throwing discs at a target. The county has about a dozen courses in various parks. Most offer 18 playing holes.

Ginny Guedes, 29, and her friend Chris Lewis, 28, both of Cornelius, play nearly every day. Guedes likes playing at Hornets Nest Park because it's convenient and challenges her.

"Charlotte is really a mecca for disc golf," Guedes said. "People just don't realize how lucky we are."

If land isn't your thing, there are a variety of water sports available in the region. Water activities range from kid-filled water parks to neighborhood pools. Fresh water enthusiasts will enjoy kayaking or canoeing on area lakes such as Lake Wylie or Mountain Island Lake.

Those who enjoy the thrill of navigating rapids can test their skills at the U.S. National Whitewater Center. It's a non-profit outdoor recreation facility that has whitewater rafting, canoeing and kayaking. The man-made pond boasts Class II to IV rapids. Paddlers can bring their canoes and kayaks or rent equipment. The three-year-old center sits on 307 acres near the Catawba River off Interstate 85 South.

To challenge experienced paddlers, the center increases the water volume coming down the channels on Wednesday evenings, said executive director Jeff Wise. This makes the rapids even more powerful.

"We're always looking for new things that are exciting," he said.
Another adrenaline rush is the center's new ziplines. They're 32 feet above land. Riders zoom from the back of the top competition channel, over the bottom pond, up the wilderness channel and ends at the island.

Wise said the ziplines have been extremely popular.

"People are not as intimidated by the zipline," Wise said. "Zipline is more like a ride, get clipped in and you just go."

The center also features hiking and mountain biking trails, and extensive climbing walls. The walls cover about 5,500 square feet of varied surfaces. There are more than 40 roped climbs for climbers of all skill levels.

"The facility is really a lifestyle center," Wise said.

And, Charlotte is a lifestyle city where residents can work, live and play – indoors or outdoors. Mecklenburg County Park and Rec has about 210 facilities and 30 area recreation centers with everything from kayaking to tennis. In September, Park and Rec publishes its bi-annual activity guide Get Going, which is also available online. Park and Rec has a comprehensive Web site that allows users to search and register for events.

The U.S. National Whitewater Center provides a full day of fun for everyone from paddling rapids to biking the trails. The center offers lessons for various activities and hosts scheduled events and competitions. 704-391-3900. 5000 Whitewater Center Parkway Inner Peaks Climbing Center boasts 8,000 square feet of climbing wall that reach 25 feet high. Advanced climbers use it as a training facility, but the facility also offers options for novices and kids. 704-844-6677. 9535 Monroe Road, Ste 170.

Crowders Mountain State Park is just across the border in Gaston County. It has more than 15 miles of trails for the casual and advanced hiker. The park also has primitive – extremely primitive – camping. For climbers, the park has 150 routes. Located off Interstate 85 South Exit 13, in Kings Mountain.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Friday, September 25, 2009

Bootcamps provide extra motivation

At Crown Point Elementary School, the three women looked at the steep hill warily. Jennah Hardy grinned malevolently. Participants in her Rock Hard Bootcamp had just finished running through ladder rungs and around cones for 30 minutes. After running they curled PVC tube filled with sand or pushed sand-filled tubes above their heads to work their shoulders.

Their muscles screamed.

And now, Hardy wanted them to climb the kind of hill you sled down, not run up. Actually, running up the hill would’ve been too easy. No, Hardy wanted them to lunge up the hill instead. Slowly, the women stepped one foot forward and dropped their opposite knee toward the ground.

Lunging up a hill. Who does that?

Jennah Hardy.

And it’s Hardy’s creativity – or insanity – that keeps Marti Stegall, 44, coming back to Hardy’s bootcamp each week. This is Stegall’s second time doing the three-week camp and she loves Hardy’s creativity.

"I don’t know if we’ve ever done the same exercise twice," Stegall says. She’s always got something new and different in the hopper."

Stegall, like many people, turned to bootcamps to get and stay in shape. Television shows such as "The Biggest Loser" and "Celebrity Fit" club have made getting in shape for the average person chic. Unlike fitness infomercials which show ripped bodies, reality shows depict everyday people and B-list celebrities struggling with their weight. The shows often use a bootcamp format of outdoor activities and group exercises to train contestants.

Tim Lenchzowski, director of marketing for Atlanta-based Operation Bootcamp, said reality shows motivate viewers. People see these contestants who are sometimes extremely overweight, but they’re spending hours in the gym. The contestants’ determination inspires other people to spend an hour a day working out, he said.

"They’re not as fearful, not as resistant to start their own program," he says.

In Charlotte, about a dozen bootcamps have sprouted up in the last few years as more people seek alternatives to personal trainers and gym memberships. The camps can be found in parks, schools and gyms from NoDa to Uptown to southern Mecklenburg County. Most are in the early mornings, but there are a few in the afternoons.

Participants range in age from their 20s to people over 50s and are typically women. Some are moms who want to get back in shape after having a baby. Others are professionals whose work schedules leave little time or energy for the gym. Bootcampers range from participants who work out at a gym to people who don’t know when was the last time they saw their gym card to some who loathe gyms.

"I hate the gym," says Angela Sparacino, 30. "I always felt like I didn’t know what I was doing. I was wandering around, staring at the machines and just feeling like I wasn’t getting the most out of the time I was spending there."

Sparacino is participating in Operation Bootcamp, which meets at Latta Park in Dilworth. The Charlotte camp, owned by Christen Lewis, is one of 56 franchises for the Atlanta-based company. While many people use bootcamps to kickoff a plan to get back in shape, Sparacino and other others use it as their main form of exercise. As a result, local bootcamp operators say they have numerous repeat customers. Retention is good, but it makes it tough to challenge participants.

During a July workout, the Operation Bootcamp instructor made the dozen or so participants crab walk down a basketball court at Latta Park. Then they had to lunge-walk along the sidewalks. Then do pushups with a pause on the way up and down. And that was only on the second day.

At Operation Bootcamp, instructors use a mix of strength training with resistance bands and bodyweight exercises as well as cardio blasts, such as sprints. The worst is sprinting while someone holds a resistance band around your waist. Talk about hard.

Christen Lewis, 30, started the Charlotte franchise of Operation Bootcamp in March. She and her husband Chris moved to Cornelius from Orange County, Calif. late last year. On the West Coast, Lewis worked as a personal trainer and also participated in bootcamps. When she and her husband Chris moved to Charlotte, she decided to open a bootcamp because she enjoyed the workouts and camaraderie.

Bootcamp is for the person who wants to get in shape, but doesn’t know what to do on their own and doesn’t want to pay an average of $50 a day for a personal trainer, Lewis said. With a personal trainer, a customer typically sees their trainer once a week and then workout on their own. Bootcamps meet several days a week. Operation Bootcamp is four days a week for four weeks. Lewis also holds occasional free weekend camps. Lewis says bootcamps aren't the best exercise option for all people, but it’s perfect people who need motivation.

"It’s for the person who has that gym membership and can’t motivate themselves to go and needs that someone checking in with them everyday and will miss them if they’re not there," Lewis says.

Jessica Crowell, 24, is one oft those people. She worked out a "million" times a day in college, but her job as a bank analyst drained her. Her crazy work schedule makes it difficult to workout in the evenings, she said. Trying to make herself wake up at 5 a.m. to go to the gym wasn’t happening, so Crowell signed up for Operation Bootcamp with friends.

"It’s just really hard to motivate yourself when you have so many other things you have to do," she says.

Sgt. Roy Lewis uses a mix of exercise and inspiration to motivate his participants. He’s an Army drill sergeant and he uses military principles of honor and integrity to push his campers.

"Being a drill sergeant is more than getting in people’s face and screaming at them," he says. "You’ve got to be able to motivate them to find out what makes them click and get them to do what they never thought they would do."

He applies that philosophy to his bootcamp, which he started at the Dowd YMCA 10 years ago. Now, he operates the bootcamp independently and by contract for the YMCA. His camp is one week, it’s offered nearly once a month. His workouts typically include sprints, short-distance running, calisthenics, strength training and team-building exercises. One year, participants carried a log down Morehead Street.

Brenda Murray, 58, remembers the time Sgt. Roy made them climb 40 flights of stairs. She didn’t think she could make it, but he ran along side her. He encourage her to visualize her personal goal and see herself reaching it as she climbed each step.

"It really forces me to push my limits, to kind of break through my limits to try and reach a higher level of fitness," said Murray, who has attended the camps since he started 10 years ago. “It’s just a phenomenal experience."

In Mint Hill at her Rock Hard camp, Jennah Hardy uses everything from the hills that make participants cringe to PVC tubes to keep her workouts fresh.

"I use obscene things, like tires," she says. "We do crazy playground workouts. That kind of thing you’re not going to see in the gym."

Hardy started the bootcamp after teaching an athletic conditioning class at the Morrison YMCA for a couple of years. Many of her clients are members of the YMCA. Hardy has been a personal trainer for eight years and she started her monthly bootcamp three years ago. It grew out of her personal training work with seven women. Hardy watched the women form a friendship around the workouts.

"They were encouraging each other," she says. "They were motivating. It’s almost like it was more fun."

The workouts are fun, Marti Stegall says, especially when friends participate. Stegall started doing the bootcamps earlier this summer after she lost her job at the YMCA. Although, she worked at the Y, she rarely worked out. Her job and her family kept her from using the gym, she said.

"It does make you feel guilty when there’s 10,000 square feet of fitness space in a building and you don’t take advantage of it," she says.

Stegall says over the years, she’s worked out inconsistently. For example, she ran a half-marathon in February 2007, but then changes at work took her out of her groove.

"I’ve always been on that roller coaster ride," she says. "Sometimes I’m in a great place. Other times I’m not giving it much."

Hardy’s bootcamp has inspired her to stick with it, she says. She took her exercise ball and dumbbells on her recent vacation to Ocean Isles Beach. She walked, biked or ran nearly everyday.

"I just feel too good right now," she said.

Operation Bootcamp –
Owner: Christen Lewis owns the Charlotte franchise.
Where: Latta Park in Dilworth. Plans to open a south Charlotte location this fall.
Length: Four weeks. Four to five days a week.
Hours: 5:45 a.m. – 6:30 a.m.
Cost: $275 - $350.
Info: 888-7-FITNOW,

Rock Hard Fitness
Owner: Jennah Hardy
Where: Crown Point Elementary School in Mint Hill and her nearby home studio.
Length: Three weeks. Three days a week.
Hours: 6 a.m. – 7 a.m.
Cost: $145.
Info: 704-839-6331.

Sgt. Roy’s Bootcamp
Owner: Roy Lewis
Where: Different locations uptown
Length: One week
Hours: 5:45 a.m. – 7 a.m.
Cost: $45.
Info: 980-225-4053.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Ramblin' Rosers lose pounds, gain friends

(This is an article I wrote for Lake Norman magazine)

When Julie Smith of Huntersville talks about the Ramblin’ Rose triathlon, she doesn’t talk about how she’s lost 83 pounds. She doesn’t talk about how she can now run three miles, after once being barely able to walk a block.

When Smith, 49, talks about the triathlon, she talks about the friends she’s met in the last few months while training for the event.

“I’m enjoying this,” she says. “I want to see what I can do next.”

Laurie Hardin, 44 and also a Huntersville resident, is also preparing for her first Ramblin’ Rose. She, too, focuses on the women who’ve inspired her rather than the weight she’s lost.

Training for the women-only Ramblin’ Rose has helped hundreds of women form friendships that continue long after the women cross the finish line. In its third year here, the Ramblin’ Rose has become one of the area’s most popular triathlons.

It’s a two-mile run, nine-mile bike ride and 250-yard (10-lap) swim in a pool. The event, a great triathlon for beginners, will be Sept. 27 at the Huntersville Family Fitness Aquatic Center.

Chapel Hill-based Endurance Magazine started the Ramblin’ Rose in Chapel Hill in 2006, and launched one in Charlotte a year later. In its first year, the Charlotte event drew 400 women and sold out two months beforehand. This year’s cap was 800, and it sold out seven months in advance.

Endurance Magazine founder Steve Lackey says Charlotte-based Girls on the Run, a running and healthy living program for grade school girls, inspired the Rose. While working with Girls on the Run, Lackey says he realized adult women needed a program. The idea was to create a community to encourage women to live healthier lives.

Along with Roses in Charlotte and Chapel Hill, there’s also one inWinston-Salem. Lackey plans to add a second Rose in south Charlotte in spring 2010. The magazine will also add a Rose in Raleigh next year. There’s also talk of creating a national model in the coming years, he says.

Although elite athletes participate, Ramblin’ Rose isn’t overly competitive. During the race, volunteers cheer the swimmers, pedal with the bikers and encourage the runners. Many of the women bring friends and family as well. The event feels more like a pep rally than a triathlon.

“The event is all about celebrating the empowerment of women,” Lackey says. “You do it the way you need to do it and get across the finish line.”

‘All in this together’
“There’s something about that dynamic that is very encouraging,” says Alyse Kelly-Jones, who has been competing in triathlons for nine years. “It’s like a spirit of ‘We’re all in this together’ as opposed to ‘You are my competition.’ I think that’s what makes this so unique.”

The participants become a family. Many an athlete begins feeling terrified she will drown, fall off her bike because she hasn’t ridden since she was a child or feels self-conscious about jogging slowly. Once she’s experienced all of those emotions, and still steps across the finish line, she’s a changed person. Every person who inspired her to do the Ramblin’ Rose becomes part of her transformation.

Kelly-Jones, a south Charlotte physician, helped train hundreds of women for Ramblin’ Rose. She’s seen women like Smith and Hardin progress from being health-warning statistics to healthy women.

Kelly-Jones started a program called the Ramblin’ 100 in 2007 to train women for the first Ramblin’ Rose Charlotte. Her goal was to encourage 100 first-timers to sign up. More than 120 women registered. Each Ramblin’ 100 participant was paired with a mentor. Kelly-Jones organized volunteers to host clinics to teach the women how to swim, run and bike. After completing the 2007 race, several members of Kelly-Jones’ Ramblin’ 100 created the non-profit Tri It For Life. This year, 225 women are signed up for Tri It For Life. Next year, Kelly-Jones expects to draw 300 women.

“Women really need something like this,” Kelly-Jones says. “They connect with other women who have a common goal.”

‘They have been incredible’

Hardin and Smith are members of Tri It For Life and they credit the group and its volunteers for inspiring them to get in shape.

“They have been incredible and are great motivators,” says Hardin, whose job is servicing and maintaining aquariums and ornamental pools. “I have seen them take people on a swim who are afraid to put their face in the water. It is incredible.”

Hardin started as someone who didn’t work out at all. Now, she runs at least three days a week for about three miles. She also swims twice a week and rides her bike with the group. Since January 5, she went from 262 pounds to 187 pounds.

Smith has a similar story. She’s a single mom who works at a bank. Before she started training for the Ramblin’ Rose, her daily routine was to work and go home. Back issues made walking so painful, she mostly sat in a chair at home and did nothing.

“I was a mess,” she says. “I couldn’t walk more than a block. I looked like a fat old lady.”

Smith’s initial reaction to training for the Ramblin’ Rose: “There’s no way on God’s green Earth would I ever consider a triathlon.”

In 2005, she weighed 252 pounds and was considered morbidly obese. Two years later she had surgery to help her back, but she still didn’t actively exercise. Last September, her brother-in-law suffered a fatal heart attack. He was 47.

His death scared her. She worried about who would take care of her 14-year-old son if she died. Her scrapbooking consultant told her about the Ramblin’ Rose, and Smith decided to do it. Smith hasn’t looked back since.

She’s up at 5 a.m. several mornings a week for a run. She drags her son out of bed as well. He takes great pleasure in beating her home during their morning jogs, she says. On Sundays, she often does 20-plus-mile bike rides with people from Cool Breeze Cyclery in Mooresville. On weekdays, she participates in swim clinics in Charlotte through Tri It For Life.

Smith now weighs 165 pounds. She hopes to lose an additional 15 pounds. Her blood pressure has dropped, she’s no longer borderline diabetic and she doesn’t take painkillers anymore. She plans to participate in at least three triathlons a year.

She loves how she feels, and credits people such as a 64-year-old Tri It For Life member who is chipper and happy. Smith wants to be like her. Then there was the tattooed guy at Cool Breeze Cyclery — he was just so nice. She also can’t forget the elite triathlete who held a free bike clinic for Ramblin’ Rose participants, taking care to speak in layman’s terms.

“If it hadn’t been for all of the people out there, I wouldn’t be doing this,” she says.

Next year, another Ramblin’ Rose first-timer may say those same words about the woman who once couldn’t walk a block and now runs three miles.

More information
Ramblin’ Rose: 8 a.m. Sept. 27, Huntersville Family Fitness Aquatic Center. The women’s only race is closed, but $150 charity slots may still be available. All proceeds from these slots go to Girls on the Run. At least 800 women are registered for the event.

Tri It For Life: The training program prepares women for the Ramblin’ Rose, and also promotes healthy lifestyles. It has mentors and sport-specific clinics.

Endurance Magazine: The Chapel Hill-based magazine, which features athletes from around the state, sponsors the Ramblin’ Rose and several other sports events.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Sign up for kayaking, fishing and segway tours

It's not too late to enjoy some outdoor activities with the Mecklenburg County Park and Recreation.

Most of Park and Rec's outdoor sports last year round, except the kayaking tour of Mountain Island Lake. Sign up before it's too late.

September 26 – 9 a.m.-12 p.m. ( Program #3164) and 1 p.m. - 4 p.m. (Program # 3228)

September 27
– 1 p.m. – 4 p.m. (Program # 3229)


October 3 – FAMILY CANOE DAY – 9 a.m.- 12 p.m. (Program #3260) and 1 p.m.-4 p.m. (Program #3261)

October 10 – 1 p.m.-4 p.m. (Program # 3230)
October 17 – Kayaking and Fishing 9 a.m.-12 p.m. (Program #3161)
October 17 - Kayaking – 1 p.m.-4 p.m. (Program #3231)
October 31 – Kayaking and Segway Adventure Day 9 a.m.-4 p.m. (Program #3327)

Register at or call my buddy Kevin Pimentel. 704-875-1392