By LAURIE M. FISHER
Our Challenge: 90 minutes of yoga, a 10-mile bicycle ride, Class III and IV white-water rafting, boot camp, ropes course, a 5K run and a 40-foot climbing wall. All completed within 30 hours.
The Women's Adventure Challenge, one of Nemacolin Woodlands Resort and Spa's new integrated experiences, is not every woman's ideal vacation. However, I discovered that pushing physical limits and adjusting my attitude proved more invigorating than I imagined.
4 p.m.: My adventuresome friend Deb Safier and I drive into the five-star property in the heart of western Pennsylvania's Laurel Highlands. & quot;How tough could it be? & quot; we ask as we tried to calm apprehensions. We prepared for the physical challenge by augmenting our exercise training schedule. But we are the first to admit we are not marathoners, just 40-something-year-old civilians who secretly long for spa service pampering.
After we check into our luxurious rooms in the Chateau, we head to the spa for a muscle-soothing, mind-numbing whirlpool bath.
Challenges to come: 5 p.m.: Our coaches, spa director Patricia Schneider, fitness manager Susan Claar and recreation director Tom Smith evaluate our expectations. As each explains the specific physical challenges, the four female participants exchange looks of terror. Signing liability release forms for the rafting and climbing walls hardly eases my fears.
Schneider, who seamlessly assumes roles of yoga guru, mother hen and breathing coach, stresses that the purpose of the challenge is personal development, not physical endurance. She promises growth of mind, body and spirit. Her mantra: & quot;Be mindful of the moment. & quot;
Our first spa treatment, an 80-minute aromatherapy massage, relieves tension. We end orientation with a healthy gourmet dinner in Seasons, Nemacolin's organic spa restaurant.
6:30 a.m.: The wake-up call is an unwelcome jolt. We sneak a few sips of coffee before the 7 to 8:30 a.m. strengthening yoga session. Schneider demonstrates deep-breathing techniques that will prove useful. We're confident as we sustain beginning yoga positions, so she increases the speed and intensity. Sweat pours as I attempt to hold a back-bending bridge position.
9:30 a.m.: A poached egg white, granola, yogurt and fruit breakfast fortifies us for the 10-mile bike ride at neighboring Ohiopyle State Park. Light filters through the tunnel of trees shading the relatively flat path of the former rail bed. My legs feel strong with each stroke of the pedal.
Wet and wild: 11 a.m. It's time to switch gears for our wettest, and my most dreaded, challenge: running the rapids down the lower Yough River. We squiggle into our wet suits, recommended since the water temperature is 50 degrees. Signs everywhere warn of the hypothermia dangers. We strap on yellow plastic safety helmets and bright red life preservers. The professional guides from Wilderness Voyagers Inc. lecture on rafting techniques and safety. They calmly advise to & quot;float with your legs raised and your arms crossed & quot; if we are catapulted from the raft. The biggest danger is getting a limb caught between rocks, they explain. Great.
To my relief, the rapids are less terrifying than I imagined. Our guide and Smith at the helm calm my jitters. As we pass through Cucumber Rapids, my shoulders and jaw relax. Even the splash of cold water as we ride through riffles and hydraulics doesn't dampen my respect for the wet thrill ride.
We beach the rafts to hike through the woods to a nearby waterfall. The warm-blooded souls walk beneath the icy cascade. As we amble back to the river, my green thumb friend spots a rare Jack-in-the-pulpit blossoming near a rock wall. The five remaining rapids rush by too quickly, just as Schneider predicted.
Boot camp: 2:15 p.m.: Back on Nemacolin's property, Claar relishes the role of boot camp drill sergeant. We run over logs and under tables, cross a mud pit on a rope swing, scale a 12-foot wall and perform pushups. We jog down a ski slope, through a wooded cross-country path in search of a piece of clothing. If our pace slows, Claar blows an annoying whistle. We stop at a sand volleyball court and use our hands to dig for a small sewing kit. Safier finds the kit as well as the piece of clothing. The group cooperatively sews a button to a shirt. Grateful for a rest in the sand, I puzzle over the significance of sewing.
Our last aerobic blast of boot camp, again we run down the hill and through the woods. Exhausted, we reconvene on the path only to discover the session ends at the top of an 50-degree hill. The view of the rolling farmland almost makes the climb worth the effort.
3:30 p.m.: A tight pull of the harness and a brief orientation assures our safety in the 40-foot tower of wires, swings, ropes and tires. Safier climbs the cleated telephone pole to reach the top plank. Inspired by her guts, I tremble as I join her on the platform. Again Schneider encourages deep calming breaths. Slowly I cross the swing bridge, a series of 3-foot-by-6-inch wooden planks suspended from a wire by rope. With the first element behind me, I hug the round wooden pole.
I transverse several combinations of wires, ropes and bridges before the final plunge, dubbed the quantum leap. Staff members attach my harness to the zip line. Another cleansing breath, I close my eyes and let gravity hurl me to earth and back toward the opposite supporting pole. Another participant screams on the initial descent but ends her ride like Peter Pan.
5:30 p.m. There's no doubt we all earned the scheduled hot stone massage. A therapist places hot basalt stones under my back, on my forehead, chest, abdomen, between my fingers and toes. The warmth and pressure feel like I am blissfully melting onto the treatment table.
7:30 p.m. A nap is more appealing than dinner and American Indian drumming that was on the agenda. I find the energy to eat but crash before the drumming session ends.
Aching muscles: 6:30 a.m.: I'd like to smash the alarm clock. I moan and grip my hamstrings as we sip our fruit drinks set out before the yoga class. Thankfully, I find the positions and stretching actually ease those sore muscles. Maybe these folks really know what they are doing.
8:30 a.m.: The 5K excursion begins with a brisk walk that breaks into intervals of running. We tour only part of the resort's thousands of acres as we run past tennis courts, a miniature and regulation golf course, condominiums, children's activities and even an auto museum.
9:30 a.m.: A late breakfast provides the last burst of energy needed for the climbing wall. But first, we walk through the country's only indoor therapeutic water path, which has connected canals of 50- and 100-degree water. The extreme hot and cold enhances circulation.
11:30 a.m.: Smith delivers the final challenge pep talk before we scale a 40-foot climbing wall. The climb zaps our last remaining reservoir of muscle strength and concentration. Still we all manage to swat that bell at the top of the tower. A few sighs of relief and my energy returns as I repel down the wall.
1:30 p.m.: Our closing lunch is a mixture of laughter of our previously perceived limits and pride in our accomplishments, despite a few trophy bruises. Our final challenge, according to our leaders, was to apply what we learned to our daily life.
Friends ask if would I do it again.
Absolutely, I tell them, just not tomorrow.