“It’s pretty clear this is no Fitness First or Virgin gym.” Lieutenant Colonel Lorna Ward reveals the Spartan nature of the ISAF headquarters gym in Kabul.
At first glance, you could be forgiven for thinking this was just another local gym – smaller, lacking the glossy finish and with a whiff of boiled clothes and sweat rather than expensive soaps and washing powder – but with TV screens and the latest equipment laid out in regimented rows whirring away at all times of day and night.
A closer look and it’s pretty clear this is no Fitness First or Virgin gym. Back home the treadmills, steppers and bikes are placed a comfortable distance apart to allow for kindle-readers and social bikers not to be offended or sprayed by Tour de France/ marathon wannabes on an adjacent apparatus.
No such attention to feng shui on operations. There is barely space to pop your towel down (and into this sauna, access is denied without one) on the floor without coming into contact with your next-door neighbour’s flailing trainer.
Water is provided – a large pile of plastic bottles inside the door – and the view out of the windows tends to be limited to different shades of concrete blast walls.
There is as you would expect a larger proportion of men here – particularly if you are brave enough to venture into the free weights corner where hulking men are quite literally lifting the gym. Where fitness centres back home offer a catwalk of the best designer gear; here there is a distinct lack of lycra and any deviation from grey/black shorts and t-shirts attracts considerable attention.
Unsurprisingly, you’d be pushed to find anyone overweight and most are a study in good nutrition and peak physical fitness. And it’s a multi-national camp all the way to its exercise regimes. The Macedonian Force Protection unit are more likely to be seen bulking up on the heavy weights; the Americans lift as a team and can be heard shouting encouragement at each other as one poor soul grunts his way through dead-lifts.
The UK contingent tend to be built more for speed – monopolising the running machines, while the French have their own reserved area on the spinning bikes. Whatever your nationality, the rules are rigid. You are expected to religiously clean off your machine, carry your ID card at all times, and most exercisers have one eye on their mobile phone should they be called back to work to respond to an incident.
Compared to the improvised gyms created by soldiers in patrol bases – dumbbells made of battery packs and chin-up bars hammered into compound walls – this is sheer luxury.
But in a headquarters where the pace of life requires personnel to endure the long hours and long months under huge pressure, the gym remains a functional area, a crucial and integral part of the workplace, where the speediest of stress-busting workouts is squeezed into the long working day. We are all expected to be ‘fit to fight’ and that applies whether you’re a General commanding the campaign, a clerk in an admin office or an infantryman on the front line. A glance beyond the iPods and the treadmills reminds you just how far removed you are from your Fitness First back home; within arms’ reach of every runner, cyclist, rower and weight-lifter is a loaded weapon that never leaves their side.
Lieutenant Colonel Lorna Ward is media advisor to General Nick Carter, the Deputy Commander of ISAF who is also the Commander of UK forces in Afghanistan – the National Contingent Commander.