The Exploits Gym

by Rhaea Stinn

by Vicky Taylor-Hood

Powerlifter Lifting Outdoors

“Are you training today?”
“Yeah, just waiting for the tide to go out so I can deadlift. Platform is still submerged.”
We have a cabin on an island in a large bay in Newfoundland. My ancestors come from Exploits Islands, but no one lives there year-round anymore. It’s a summer community now, of cottages and homes; the community of Exploits Islands was officially resettled beginning in 1965. This means that families were paid on average of $1000 to move to a mainland town because the government didn’t want to continue to pay for services to so many isolated locations. After that a few people stayed on, but the usage began to shift and change to that of a summer community and that change has continued as the generations who go there roll in.

Before I was born, my grandmother bought a house from people who were leaving. It’s an old house, a saltbox-style, and every summer for all of my life we have gone down there for vacations, family time, and a chance to recharge and reconnect. There are no cars, only old cart tracks that we walk to go from one end of the island to the other. There is no running water. We have no electricity (besides a solar panel). We walk to the well repeatedly throughout the day for water and come back with buckets weighing 40lbs in each hand. You have to get to the island by boat. There are no stores there so whatever you want to eat, you bring down (and whatever you don’t want to eat, you leave on the mainland!). We have a small propane fridge to preserve foods. Laundry is done by hand with a scrub board.

There is (as far as I know) only one small weightlifting gym (mine) and it’s a very recent addition, a transformation of a space from years gone by, really.

When I was a small child my grandfather built a boathouse on the beach. It was to hold the family’s old wooden boat and assorted tools. I remember helping him pound nails into the floor as he built it (without power tools). Poppy was a strong man, with square shoulders and a love of strength and my memories of him are of a man who heaved wharf timber effortlessly across the beach, dragged the boat in and lifted it with one hand, while sliding logs under it to roll it along, or dropped ballast stone after ballast stone into the cribwork of the wharves. I remember him moving heavy things with joy.

That boathouse became my gym a few years ago. At first I had a 15kg bar and a few bumpers, but last year I built a squat rack with 2x4s, 2x6s, and lag bolts. I brought some additional weights down as well as an ab wheel, pull-up bar, and some other bits and pieces of gym gear. This year I brought more weights and a 20kg bar, replaced the rack pins with heavier re-bar, and we built an IPF-spec wooden bench.

“Why?” is the question I think I get asked most. “Why are you training on vacation? Why not just relax?”

It took me a while to figure that one out. A first I think I thought I was doing it because I should. I had started on a path of fitness and getting in shape and somehow I thought that it was a sign of greater willpower (or whatever word you want to choose) to train even when on vacay. This summer, though, I realized that wasn't actually it. I was under that bar not out of guilt or obligation or an attempt to impress anyone. I was there because it was fun.

There are definitely times when you need to step away from the gym or the bar or the mental demands of being focussed and staying sharp day-in and day-out. It gets exhausting. Vacations from the gym or at least from the usual grind are important. But there are also times when you know you don’t need one of those. You might need a vacation from the stresses of ordinary life, but not necessarily from training. Sometimes you want to train just because it’s a pleasure, because your training is one of the things that makes you feel alive, and because on vacation, it takes on a richer and fuller flavour. Honestly this is, for me, the purest form of training.

That’s what I found this year. I trained at Exploits not because I had to, but because I love lifting and because I love Exploits and because I was lucky enough to be able to put those things together. On vacation I tend to get more sleep. I have far lower stress levels. My food intake is less measured and precise and more instinctual. Basically I’m more relaxed. And when I train on vacation, I approach it with the attitude that the spirit of vacation must be preserved, which means that I stay happy first and lift pretty much for fun, taking what’s there on a given day.

The program I’m working from becomes, to quote Captain Jack Sparrow, “more like guidelines, really” and I adjust based on the equipment available and other things that we do on that day. For instance, four hours of kayaking affects benching immediate thereafter. A day of hauling rocks or wood is bound to have some effect on one’s deadlift.

But the relaxation while on vacation also means that PRs come flying out of nowhere sometimes. The other neat thing was that only having 140kg and a thicker bar down there, I was able to play with “What can I do with 140kg?” as a theme and, while I was getting pretty bored with that upper limit by the end, it proved to be a fair way of preserving the concept of not overdoing it.

Powerlifting by Lake

The “how” was honestly the biggest challenge. The weights had to be brought down by boat, the squat rack and bench built without power tools, and any food I would need to recover also needed to be planned for in advance. I had also not foreseen that deadlifting in the boathouse would be an issue, but after a couple of warmup sets I realized that a floor built for holding a 600-800lb wooden boat laid carefully down was not truly structured for the same or even half that weight dropped on it repeatedly and possibly haphazardly. So I ventured out onto the shore in search of flat rocks.

There’s not a whole lot of Flat in Newfoundland.

I found two spots, both slightly tilted but workable. The flatter of the locations was the one on the nearby rocks of nearby Ball Point (where my ancestors lived) and only available at low tide. I rowed the plates and bar over after supper one evening and set up the camera on shore with the platform surrounded by water. Between sets I waded back and forth to work the camera and dumped periwinkles (small sea snails) out of my Keen sandals (waterproof deadlift shoes, in a pinch). While I lifted I was standing in a puddle, the wind sweeping around me, the gulls diving and shrieking, and a storm rolling up the bay behind me. My spontaneous solution to an inadequate floor proved to be joyous beyond my wildest expectations; I don’t think I’ve ever felt quite that completely alive.

When people ask me about whether they should train on vacation (and I’m assuming here that this is a person who trains regularly and consistently, with effort and who takes vacations infrequently), the response I give the most often is, “Do you honestly want to?” The thing about vacation is that “should” really needs to be pushed aside. Vacation is to recharge, so if for you that means training (be it relaxed or intensely), then do that. If it means a break from training, do that. If it means changing up training, playing with new things, or training in a different way, do it. A huge part of my “training” this year was paddling a kayak and I don’t think my rogue shoulder has ever felt better. Be honest with yourself about what you genuinely need, as a person and (if applicable) as a family. I know that there have been vacations in which I thought I should train but my heart really wanted to be exploring the world, doing cultural or touristy things, hiking, cycling, or snorkelling, so I didn’t train as much as I had planned and felt guilty. In retrospect, my only error on those vacations was in putting pressure on myself to train out of some sense that I would lose something by taking five days off. Know what? I didn’t necessarily, because what I needed was a break from training. I might even have gained something by coming back to the gym eager to get back at it.

The community of Exploits in summer also proved to be incredibly supportive. One friend asked me, quite seriously, if I had enough protein to lift heavy and did I need some more fish (he had already given us several bags). Another swung by on a jet-ski as I was deadlifting and shouted out words of encouragement and gave me a thumbs up. Still others talked about the physical nature of life on Exploits and the “Exploits Gym” of daily life and how strength is a part of the culture of the islands. My lifting fit in, was accepted and supported and that somehow made me love Exploits even more. It also made training there even more important to me because my boathouse training had become yet another part of life on the island.

I suppose what I’m trying to say is that no matter how competitive a lifter you are, you are also a human being and your lifting needs to be one part of the things that make you a better human, but the other things matter an awful lot too. We each have unique backgrounds, interests, abilities and strengths that we don’t always think of as being directly related to lifting, but it is these very traits which allow us to be our strongest selves uniquely in the face of challenges and on the platform. We each bring something to lifting that others do not. Exploits is a part of that for me and this summer I was reminded once again not only that it makes me stronger as an athlete to use what my connection to the island has given me, but also that my lifting has given me another way to enjoy my vacations at Exploits.