Salty Air

The Cruelest Exercise: Burpees–Cape Cod Style

Written by Laura M. Reckford

FALMOUTH – A funny thing happened on an unseasonably warm winter’s day on the Shining Sea Bikeway in Falmouth. Six seemingly normal young people travelled a mile by burpee.

For those unfamiliar burpees, they are neither convenience store drinks nor a condition associated with eating spicy food. No, this is instead the most excruciating of all exercise fads. The burpee is a squat/pushup/hop move that some say is the ultimate full body workout.

The move was invented by one Royal H. Burpee—true story—who included the movement in his 1939 thesis in Applied Physiology at Columbia Teacher’s College as a good way to test fitness. But even Dr. Burpee cautioned about over-doing the movement. Nonetheless, we vital 21st century pioneers are nothing if not over-doers. We—well some of us—like to push the limits. And so we have burpee miles.

These days, the burpee is popular with the crossfit crowd, who look for variety in exercise for challenge and fitness by using high-intensity interval training.

Christin Marshall, who is starting a “camp” for fitness-minded adults, conceived of a one-mile burpee challenge on the Shining Sea Bikeway in Falmouth.

On this day in Falmouth, among these physically fit specimens, all crossfit enthusiasts doing burpees, there seemed to be universal agreement that the least liked exercise are burpees. And yet, there they were, doing burpees for one mile, skirting Vineyard Sound along one of the most beautiful bike trails on Cape Cod. The agony and the ecstasy, as it were.

The recent burpee challenge was the brainchild of Christin Marshall, 31, a crossfit enthusiast and the former leader of the local Americorps Cape Cod group, who is now looking to start weekend camp experience for adults that targets the crossfit customer. She is designing the curriculum for the camp and was wondering whether a one-mile burpee challenge was something that people would like to do or was it, as she put it, “just cruel and unusual punishment.”

Her camp, called Camp Wild Child, has sessions June 9 to 11 and October 13 to 15, both in the Berkshires. The idea, Marshall said, is to cater to overworked, over-stressed adults who just want to go back to that fun feeling of childhood summer camp.

The burpee starts with a jump.

Marshall explained her passion for exercise. “Crossfit gets a bit of a bad rap. People think of really intense methods. I’m targeting the 95 percent of people interested in challenging themselves and being in a community. That’s where summer camp comes in. It’s another opportunity to be in a community and challenge yourself,” she said.

Marshall’s interest in community also extends to her nighttime gig: she hosts trivia nights on Wednesdays at the Captain Kidd Restaurant and Bar in Woods Hole.

But on this sunny winter day on Cape Cod, she convinced her husband David Quinn, 34, and a bunch of friends into trying out the one mile burpee challenge to see if it should be incorporated into her fitness camp idea.

“Honestly, this is a bit of an experiment,” Marshall said.

Quinn added, “We’re the test subjects.”

Part Two of the burpee is a pushup. And a final jump to standing position finishes up the sequence.

Marshall said she did not want to subject her friends to something she did not do herself, so she did the one-mile burpee challenge the previous day. It took her two-and-a-half hours. “I’m pretty sore today,” she said.

As the challenge began, the group quickly decided to do the burpee mile as a kind of relay race with one team made up of Quinn and Marshall’s friend Erin McGee, and the other made up of four other friends: Hillary Sullivan, 25, from Woods Hole, Jared Schwartz, 31, of Falmouth, Brad Dickinson, 23, of Boston and Molly Curren, 24, of Falmouth.

All agreed they were glad for the relay style burpee mile. Quinn said, “They are pretty exhausting. I’m glad we’re trading off. I wouldn’t be able to do a whole mile of these.”

Participants completed the last bit of the one mile course all together.

He spoke perhaps for all of them when he said of burpees, “They are one of the worst for sure. Nobody likes burpees. They keep you in shape and keep you in check for how out of shape you are.”

McGee, 35, of Marstons Mills works out with Marshall at Crossfit Cape Cod. “I wanted to support her endeavor,” said McGee, whose day job is as a hospice nurse.

Quinn pointed out that he and McGee were significantly ahead of the other relay group, made up of four younger people. But despite being proud of that achievement, he admitted to feeling like he comes up short when it comes to burpees. “I feel like I can’t jump that far so I’m doing more of them,” he said, comparing himself to McGee.

About halfway through the challenge, Schwartz, part of the four-person relay team, said, “I’m exhausted. I’m glad we started to do a four-person team. The hardest part is looking down the path at how far we have to go. I just keep thinking of the nice cold brewsky when we’re done.”

David Quinn and Erin McGee jump for joy near the end of the one mile burpee challenge.

Watching the challenge were a couple of other friends. There was Chris Sutton, 31, of Sandwich, a crossfit friend who was, as he put it, “on the disabled list,” so he could not participate in the event, but he was there “for moral support.” He brought his French bulldog puppy, Phife.

There was also Devon Clark, 26, of Woods Hole, who was having fun cheering on the teams.

With almost super-human good spirits, all six of the one-mile burpee test subjects completed the challenge, even performing the last few burpees together. When it was all done, they high-fived and, unbelievably, appeared none the worse for the experience.

Despite the light-hearted bellyaching of the participants, Marshall seemed pleased with the event. She said that while burpees are universally despised, she does feel they has value. “It’s kind of an all-around workout, endurance, with a push up in the middle for strength. Kind of a full-body thing.”

But, she added, the sentiment about burpees can best be summed up in a popular T-shirt. The message: “Burpees don’t like you either.”

About the author

Laura M. Reckford

Laura M. Reckford is co-founder of Cape Cod Wave. She has been a reporter and editor on Cape Cod for more than 20 years in magazines, newspapers and radio. She has also authored numerous Frommer's Travel Guide editions on Cape Cod, Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket.

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