My Absurd Quest for a Coachella-Ready Body

After my final class, I looked at myself in the mirror. All I could determine for sure was that I looked very sweaty. I’d have to let the experts at Coachella be the judges. Illustration: Kelsey Dake

What does it mean to have a body that's ready for a music festival? Nate Dern heads to the gym—and then Coachella—to find out.

I twisted two E-A-Rsoft Yellow Neons earplugs into place, bracing myself against the music, which was louder than could possibly be enjoyable or medically recommended. The thumping bass assaulted me as I waited in a line of people who were all younger and better-looking than me. Once I was inside, the intensity of the sound increased, causing my sinuses to vibrate like I was humming. The air was thick with the moisture of perspiration. All eyes were directed to the stage, where a perfectly sculpted human stood illuminated, her voice amplified via headset microphone.

This was not Coachella. This was class one of twenty in the Coachella Challenge package at Rise Nation, a boutique climbing-machine gym in Los Angeles. The idea was that taking this series of vertical-climber classes would prepare me for the long-running California music and arts festival by “getting your bod Coachella-ready.” I’d never had a Coachella-ready bod, and while I was dubious that such a thing could be achieved in a month, I accepted the challenge. Proof of success: a Coachella attendee must compliment me on the transformation of my 32-year-old, slightly overweight, asymmetrically hairy figure at the April 2017 festival.
 
Rise Nation is a group exercise class that uses a giant climbing treadmill called the VersaClimber, which it describes as “the most effective, complete, total body workout available of any cardio equipment.” In other words, it’s hard. Picture a spin class, except instead of pretending to ride a bike, you’re pretending to climb an endless chain-link fence, using a coat-rack-like contraption with handles and pedals stuck to its sides that you move up and down in tandem. New students can expect to “climb” 700 to 1,500 feet in their first class. The most I ever logged was 4,200; the most I ever saw anyone else log was just over 6,500. That’s a tall fence.

I’m not someone who goes to workout classes. I’m a distance runner and an occasional cyclist. However, after the mostly downhill second half of the Death Valley Trail Marathon this past December left me with an aggravated IT band, I started looking for a way to do some strength building and cardio work with minimal impact. I recalled my college track coach’s suggestion that a StairMaster is a good training tool, and a short Google investigation led me to the Rise Nation website. My initial reaction was that this was not meant for me. The homepage featured the shadowed silhouette of a naked woman on a VersaClimber machine. For some reason, her hair appeared to be slicked with grease. 

Scrolling down, I saw the ad for the Coachella Challenge, which made the entire enterprise seem even less suitable, since I am also someone who does not go to Coachella. But then I remembered that this year I was going to Coachella. I signed up on the spot. 


I fall on the agoraphobic side of ambiversion, so music festivals (The crowds! The noise! The difficulty of leaving and getting back to your couch to pet your cat!) do not immediately strike me as a fun time. However, I’m engaged to an introvert who has the decidedly extroverted tendency of loving music festivals. Coachella is her favorite. She’d been three times before we met and had been wanting to go back for years. The triple threat of (1) our recent move to Los Angeles from New York City; (2) Beyoncé (alas, initially) being on the bill this year; and (3) the fact that I would be less and less interested in doing this as I entered my mid-thirties all convinced us that this was our year.

When we arrive at our campsite on Friday afternoon of the three-day festival, my worst fear is immediately realized: the group next to us is encroaching on our space. As our three neighbors unpackage their newly purchased Elite Weathermaster Six-Person Lighted Tent with Screen Room, I can’t help but eavesdrop while they grasp that they will not be able to fit their gargantuan setup within their spray-paint-delineated allotment of space. I start to get annoyed, then realize: This could be a good trial run for some strangers to notice my Coachella bod. Perhaps I’ll sweeten the pot with some neighborly kindness.…

“You guys can spread out into our space if you need to,” I say, gesturing to our area with one of my arms—an arm unencumbered by any sleeve, I might add, thanks to the tank top I’d worn for the occasion.

“Really? Are you sure?” replies one of their crew, a twentysomething gal with gold flash tattoos and retro circular sunglasses.

“Of course!” I say, putting a leg—a leg that was half responsible for the simulated climb of approximately 60,000 vertical feet—up on the bumper of our car.

“Cool. Thank you so much. And feel free to use our shade, too,” retro sunglasses says as she hauls out an even larger canopy from the trunk of her group’s SUV. We help them set it up. It covers half our site.


There was a learning curve with the VersaClimber’s mechanics, as I discovered at my first Rise Nation class. While I nervously waited for the class before mine to end, the music literally shook the wall I was leaning against. I turned to one of my Lululemon-clad classmates.

“It’s my first class. Anything I should know?” I asked.
            
“Oh, welcome! You’re going to love it. They’re super nice here. Just tell the instructor it’s your first time,” she said.

“Cool.”

“Also, don’t be worried if your hands and feet go numb—that’s super common the first few times.”

“Numb? Really? Wow.”

“Just stick with it—it gets easier. Do you ever hike Runyon?” she asked, referring to the highly-Instagrammed spot in the Hollywood Hills. “After I did Rise a bunch, I could, like, fly up hills no problem.”

As directed, I told the instructor that it was my first time. She, however, did not explain to me what to do. Instead, she gestured to some sort of workout doula standing near the door. The WD walked over and explained how to use the machine.

“Put your feet in the straps and grab the handlebars. When you move your right foot up, the right handle goes up and the left side goes down. When you move your left foot up, the left handle goes up and the right side goes down. Got it?”

“I think so,” I said, tentatively inserting my feet into the pedal straps.

“Great! Now just try to move your hands up and down!” she said.

I gave my best approximation of the movement.

“No, not like—um, faster?” she said kindly.

I tried to speed up. By the expression on her face, I could tell that I was still not doing it right.

“Try to go as fast as she’s going?” she said, gesturing to someone warming up on a nearby VersaClimber. I tried and immediately realized the problem: my legs do not move that fast. 

“OK, Rise Nation, are you ready?” the instructor’s voice bellowed over the speakers, accompanied by an onslaught of music. The WD gave me a thumbs up and retreated out the door. Electronically operated blackout shades lowered over the windows. The ceiling—which looked like a giant Dentyne Ice wrapper—came to life with manically blinking neon lights. My classmates all rhythmically pumped their arms and legs in unison to the beat. I tried to keep up.

“One, two, three, four, five!” the instructor called out. People changed the rhythm of their climbing accordingly. After three minutes, my hands went numb.

“Now… rip!” Everyone in the class but me complied with the command. “Ripping” looks a lot like climbing, but with a more herky-jerky attitude, as though the instructor had said, “OK, now move like you’re trying to strain the joints in your elbows and knees at the same time.”

After 11 minutes, my feet went numb.

“Now… sprint! Show me what you got, Rise Nation!” To my amazement, my classmates moved even faster.

“Come on, Rise Nation! I want you to feel it! Do you feel it?”

Several members of the class whooped in affirmation. I did not whoop. I did not feel it. Nor did I know what “it” was. I was just trying to keep up. I could not. Whether on account of my numb extremities or my seemingly inadequate lung capacity, feeling it was just not in the cards for me.

Thirty minutes passed. The music softened slightly and the shades went up, revealing a sweaty condensation we’d collectively exacted onto the windows. I staggered out of class. Without first asking how it went, the WD took one look at me and said, “Stick with it! It gets easier.”


She was right, of course. I went back the next morning to one of the dozen classes offered daily. By the end of the first week, my hands and feet didn’t go numb. By the end of the second week, I had calluses from gripping the handles and was genuinely looking forward to going to class each morning. Aspects I initially found cheesy started to seem like an integral part of the experience. The loud music helped me focus on the workout instead of how tired I was. By week three, I started to see my numbers go up, and instead of feeling wrecked after class, I felt only very, very tired. By week four, although it might have just been in my head, I thought I could actually feel myself getting stronger.

For one of my last classes, I took a Level 3 Extreme with Rise Nation founder Jason Walsh. The Extreme class was 45 minutes long instead of 30 and was rumored to be even more intense.

“OK, Rise Nation, are we feeling it?” Walsh shouted at the start of class.

We whooped our affirmation back. And when I whooped I meant my whoop wholeheartedly, because I was feeling it. I was wrong before when I thought I wasn’t someone who went to workout classes. I am someone who goes to workout classes and loves them. Which is good, because now it was time for Coachella, which meant that it was time for me to show off my Coachella bod. After my final class, I looked at myself in the mirror. All I could determine for sure was that I looked very sweaty. I’d have to let the experts be the judges.  


What does it mean to have a body ready for a music festival? It seems unlikely that fans of Jimi Hendrix were doing crunches in the weeks leading up to Woodstock. How did music festivals become places where corporeal aesthetics are a salient factor?

In a word: Instagram. 

The first Coachella festival was in 1999. It was a one-weekend event with $50 single-day tickets. Thirty-seven thousand tickets were sold—falling short of the 70,000-ticket goal—and Goldenvoice, a concert promoter in Los Angeles, lost $850,000. Fast forward to 2017: general admission wristbands cost $399, and VIP entry is $899. Tack onto that the cost of getting there, the hiked-up hotel and Airbnb prices in the area, and your standard inflated food and drink prices ($10 quesadilla, $13 beer, $17 lobster roll), coupled with the standard no-outside-food-and-drink rules. The festival is now spread over two weekends, and this year it drew an estimated 250,000, which will likely lead to a sizable increase over last year’s $94 million in revenue.

There’s a business explanation for this growth: in 2001, AEG Live—the world’s second-largest presenter of live-music events after Live Nation—purchased Coachella. But there’s also a broader explanation: Facebook was founded in 2004, and Instagram was founded in 2010. Instagram now has 150 million daily users, and 1.2 million of them follow the official Coachella account.

Without a doubt, people go to Coachella to see and be seen. On the final night of the event, as headliner Kendrick Lamar sang “DNA,” a song about black heritage and culture, I watched as two white twentysomethings recorded a dancing selfie video. They appeared emotionally engaged by the song, but then, moment captured, they immediately stopped to scrutinize the recording they’d made as Lamar continued to perform in the background. After posting it, they turned from the stage and walked away.

But the influence of Instagram can’t be the entire explanation. For starters, there are easier, far less expensive ways to amass digital likes. Coachella is difficult to get to, and once you’re there it’s hot (over 100 degrees) and dusty. A bandana to cover your face and nose is on the list of recommended items to bring. Even with this precaution, I blew a brown string of snot every night that now, as I write these words, seems to be developing into a nice little bronchial infection. On top of that, simply walking from stage to stage across the expansive grounds can be exhausting. My pedometer told me that I clocked more than 56,400 steps over three days, or about 28 miles.

So there must be more to it than that. Maybe it’s this: the inorganic attempts to craft the experience one is supposed to have at Coachella—a magical euphoria of music and art, that just so happens to have an H&M Loves Coachella collection available for purchase from iPads on the premises—might succeed, in spite of themselves. 

That’s because, amid all the corporate shilling, there are also 125,000 humans doing something out of their normal routine. This routine breaking, of course, lends itself to the kind of social-media navel-gazing that makes events like Coachella targets of mockery online. Walking around the festival, I felt the pull to ironically distance myself, to leave the moment and start composing astringent tweets in my mind. But every time that happened, I witnessed something that jostled my jadedness. On the first night, my fiancée lost her voice after belting out two full hours of Radiohead. On the second night, the crowd laughed along with Justin Vernon, the stout, bearded Wisconsinite who performs as the unexpectedly falsettoed Bon Iver, as he attempted a choreographed dance with special guest Francis Starlite. On the third night, three teenagers shimmied and twirled while holding lit sparklers, and get this, none of them took out their phone the entire time. My goal, of course, had been to get a Coachella ready bod—but it hadn’t occurred to me that I would also start developing a Coachella-ready mind. The experience was beginning to grow on me.


By day three, I still haven’t completed my own personal Coachella Challenge. Now is not the time to get distracted. My attempt at a Coachella-ready bod remains woefully unacknowledged. The closest I came is when a security guard commented on my neon pink compression socks on day two. “My man, those socks!” were his exact words. So, with both time and options running out, as we slowly march away from the festival grounds on the final night, I shamelessly fish for a compliment from my fiancée.

“Do you think that taking all  those Rise Nation classes improved my body at all?” I ask. She looks me up and down, then carefully considers her answer before replying.

“When we were sitting on the blanket waiting for Lady Gaga to start, I noticed that your thighs felt, like, harder,” she says, a notch below convincing. 

I consider her words. Harder quadriceps. Does that count? Not quite the ovation to my rockin’ six-pack that I’d hoped for, but an affirmation from a multiple-Coachella attendee nonetheless. Or maybe she just observed that my IT-band issues had returned. Either way, I think I might keep going to those Rise Nation classes. Only 50 weeks left to get my bod Coachella-ready for 2018. I hear Beyoncé is headlining.

Make 2017 Your Fittest Year Ever

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