At 5:15 A.M. on a recent spring day, Jack Walston, a 33-year-old former Navy Seal, emerged from the darkness into the beam of a street lamp like an actor on a dimly lighted stage. His charges, a dozen of us, stood at attention in two horizontal lines. Cold rain streaked through the street lights at an angle, forming large puddles at our feet. Peeling off his jacket, he stood in a T-shirt in the 36-degree morning and eyed us carefully.

Mr. Walston’s opening salvo was straight from a World War II movie: ”I’m not ‘dude,’ ‘man,’ ‘sir’ or your buddy. I’m Instructor Walston!” His gruff voice shattered the heavy silence that had settled on the slumbering urban wilderness of Central Park. He told us what he expected of us — consistency, commitment and teamwork — and that we could expect ”to step outside your comfort zone.” The bottom line, he said, is giving ”110 percent” effort at all times.

Next, Mr. Walston took care of a few administrative details. ”If you want to quit, quit now! Let me explain my New York City refund policy. ZERO!” The word exploded from his thick chest like a rifle shot, nearly loud enough to stir the nearby bronze statue of Christopher Columbus. Certainly a few of us in the assembled group recoiled.

We were eight men and four women, civilians aged 19 to 50-something who had conscripted ourselves into Seal P.T. Boot Camp, a two-week course held in Central Park, Monday through Friday from 5 A.M. to 6:45 A.M. That’s Seal as in Navy Seal (by SEa, Air and Land), the elite fighting force commissioned by a former naval officer named John F. Kennedy to engage in ”unconventional” operations during the Vietnam War. Based on actual Seal P.T. (physical training), our course, which would feature the kind of calisthenics most kids dread in gym class, was billed as a way to escape the boredom of the gym and ”to exceed your own expectations.”

”Ready?” asked Mr. Walston.

”Ready!” we replied, nearly in unison.

By 5:28 A.M. I’d done as many push-ups (45) and sit-ups (51) as I could in two minutes, mopping up most of a frigid puddle in the process. At 5:40 the street lamps clicked off. By 6 A.M. we’d completed perhaps 25 revolving sets of jumping jacks, squat thrusts and a lung-searing exercise called ”chase the rabbit,” which entailed sprinting in place with our hands on the ground and imaginary tails in the air. Mr. Walston performed each exercise — every repetition — with the ease of a man shuffling cards.

I normally exercise two hours a day and think of myself as pretty fit, but in the P.T. realm he was an oak and I was a seedling. I’d have said he was one of the best-conditioned men on the planet, but his assistant, Ben Platt, 30, another former Seal, was just as proficient. In fact, Mr. Platt, the friendlier sidekick, managed to smile even while doing leg lifts.

Mr. Walston then had us sprint, correcting our form as we gasped like out-of-shape executives. We moved on to squat jumps, which involved hopping across a field like a baseball catcher impersonating a frog, a particularly grueling exercise. ”Mind over matter,” Mr. Walston barked. ”If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.” With my thighs like two flat tires, I had to smile. Just moving forward required an act of heroism. I hail from a long line of draft dodgers and deserters. My ancestors left Russia to avoid being sent to the front; my father and his brothers had been variously too young, old, educated or nearsighted to be of use to Uncle Sam in World War II or Korea. But despite my parents’ total rejection of the Vietnam War, or perhaps because of it, I devoured novels and movies after the war with morbid fascination. I suppose I’ve always wondered if I could have endured the experience and remained whole.

Four years ago, I spent a weekend in Mexico with a recent Seal graduate who graphically described the rigors of the eight-month training program. Trainees are pushed to their breaking points and past them virtually every day. In his class of 145, 19 finished. He was able to do 120 push-ups and as many sit-ups in two minutes, run a mile in five minutes and a full marathon in under three hours, swim up to seven miles in frigid open water and train for 22 hours a day for a full month. My diluted two-week version of Seal P.T. — roughly 20 percent of the real thing, Mr. Walston later told me — was as close to military training as I had come in my 39 years.

Day Two dawned cold but clear. Instructor Walston had stressed the importance of getting to know each other, so as we groggily jogged two abreast from 64th Street and Central Park West to the nearby volleyball court, we tried to learn each other’s names. Nancy the Dermatologist meet Eric the Currency Trader; Arnold the Student meet Bill the Investment Banker. Big Mike the Project Manager, whom Mr. Walston had appointed team leader, perfectly described how hard the first day had been. ”After showering for 30 minutes, I still couldn’t lift my arms, so I poured the shampoo against the wall and rubbed my head against the tile.”


So why put yourself through the grinder — especially if you’re in marginal physical condition, as several of my teammates were — other than that it feels so good when you stop? Peter the Fixed Income Analyst said he was looking for a total body workout that he could do without joining a gym. Bill the Investment Banker, who gamely hung in despite a bad knee and a belly, said it was a way to start a fitness program in a big way. Eric the Currency Trader, a former college baseball player, had always admired the Seal discipline and attitude. Anu the Student, a rugby player from Columbia University, has always been drawn to extreme sports and wanted to try something intense.

As we jogged through the shadowy park, bordered by the brilliant New York skyline, I was exhilarated by its surreal beauty, especially as we passed the incandescent trees at Tavern on the Green. In the course of the half-mile trip, the slower runners lagged behind. Mr. Walston, who had been lurking in the darkness, had observed the group splinter and greeted us like an agitated hornet. ”Drop! Chase the rabbit!” As soon as we reached what he deemed the proper level of discomfort, he had us hold in the push-up position while he delivered a lecture on the importance of teamwork. ”You always move as fast as your slowest man,” he stated. ”No Seal, living or dead, has ever been left on the battlefield.” Listening to Mr. Walston discuss eternal truths in the push-up position was something we did frequently during the ensuing two weeks.

He broke us into two teams of six to do combat crawls in the sand pit beside the volleyball court. As we slithered like Type A 2-year-olds, Mr. Walston alternatively encouraged and admonished while hammering home another point: be aware! ”If your teammates had gotten mugged or killed back there, there would be no second chance.” I began to see why Seal training is so effective. When you’re lying on the ground coated in sand like a piece of fried chicken and a modern-day warrior with a centurion armband tattooed around his biceps tells you your survival depends on being aware, the message sinks in fast.

Halfway through the session, Mr. Walston assaulted us with an endless sequence of upper- and lower-body calisthenics. During a gut-busting exercise called flutter kicks I stopped trying to stick to his sing-song count (”1, 2, I’m So Happy, 3, 4, You’re So Sad!”) — I could barely keep my legs off the ground. When he reached the count of 50, the group collectively stopped with a sigh even though he kept fluttering. This set him off. ”Stop feeling sorry for yourself! You can’t buy mental toughness. No one can give it to you. You must develop it on your own!”

He was right. I had been focusing on the pain and not on completing the exercise. ”Let’s do it all over again!” he barked. ”Don’t cheat yourself.” Once I dispensed with my self-pity and made the decision to continue, I hung in and finished another set of 50.

Three people dropped out in the first few days. But as the mornings grew warmer and the moon fuller, those of us who remained grew tighter. Thursday, we ran into the park singing cadence count to the lyrics of a song that Little Mike the Financial Analyst had concocted. ”Instructor Platt seems kind of nice . . . deep down he’s cold as ice. Sound off, 1, 2.” When the energy of the group flagged, Big Mike, a 6-foot-3 250-pounder who played rugby in college, shouted the traditional Seal cheer of ”Hooyah!” at the top of his lungs, often adding a seal bark that generally provoked more push-ups.