The Proudly Backwoods Fitness Trainer
Kale Poland, founder of Cleetus Fit, takes pride in a brand of fitness where dumpster towing and beer yoga are equally at home. Now he's out to conquer the Deca Ironman—ten Ironmans in a row.
For me, the biggest mystery swirling around fitness guru Kale Poland is why the retail giant Walmart has thus far failed to offer him corporate sponsorship. A few years ago, when Kale was competing in the excruciating Peak 500 footrace in Vermont, running a muddy mountain loop over and over amid torrid rainstorms, his mildewed, blistered feet swelled up like balloons. His running shoes became skin-shearing straitjackets, so Kale made a strategic move that would now be legend, if only Walmart had been paying attention: he sent his wife to the nearest Supercenter to buy him a pair of $13, size-13 Walmart-brand boats.
After the missus came back with the shoes, Kale proceeded to wear them through the race’s remaining 320 miles. He wore them as he ran through the midnight chill. He wore them as he stumbled through the race’s final loop, hallucinating, somehow seeing mannequins in the woods and letters printed on boulders. He wore them as he crossed the finish line, victorious.
And in the aftermath of his Peak 500 triumph, Kale Poland, who’s 36, has only proven himself more qualified to be a Walmart spokesmodel. An amiable, can-do country boy who grew up in a tiny Maine farm town, he is the mastermind behind Cleetus Fit, a one-man school of exercise science meant to evoke a mythical, slack-jawed hillbilly.
Cleetus Fit flourishes on Facebook, where some 3,000 friends lap up Kale’s wry three-a-day posts about, say, his dog Sage’s stick-fetching habits, his swim workouts, and his he-man runs through raging blizzards. It also lives and breathes in the green hills of New Hampshire’s Lakes Region, where 25 or so of his personal-training clients join Kale in eschewing the gymnasium to build muscle by towing dumpsters across parking lots and doing push-ups atop the underside of a wheelbarrow. The Cleetus juggernaut at times strays into relatively more esoteric corners of the fitness universe—with a partner, Kale recently opened Yoga Jaya, a studio in Meredith, New Hampshire—but a chummy, hat-backwards dudeness permeates all things Cleetus. See, for example, Kale’s eloquent Facebook diss of highfalutin cross-country skiers (“I don't drive a Subaru or a Volvo and I don't lie awake at night dreaming about how I am going to win the waxing debate tomorrow”). Or consider a recent selfie that captured Kale out on a 185-mile training ride dressed in a cotton hoodie and stuffing pizza into his maw.
“BEAST!!” wrote one friend, adding a comment to the robust dialogue that accompanies all Kale posts.
“I thought that was raw bacon,” wrote another.
“You,” rejoiced a third, “are a marvelous hack.”
On November 6, the world’s largest retailer will once again miss a chance to embrace this populist hero. That morning, Kale will leap into a University of New Orleans swimming pool to commence Decaman USA, the first-ever Deca Ironman—that’s ten Ironmans in a row—to be held in the continental U.S. The race will see 16 brave athletes attempting to swim 24 miles (in other words, 792 laps) before they shuttle to nearby Fontainbleau State Park to bike 1,120 miles (160 mind-numbing repeats of a flat seven-mile loop). The sufferfest concludes on foot, with no less than 262 out-and-back repeats of the same half-mile-long patch of dirt. The clock will be running constantly, meaning that front-runners will likely retreat to their course-side sleeping tents for maybe three hours a night before finishing in roughly nine days.
The deca, born in Mexico in 1992, is still only held two or three times a year worldwide. It’s gaining popularity, and there are now even occasional double and triple decas for the most depraved sadists. None of these races draw the fun-run multitudes, however. When Kale came in second in his first deca—the World Cup Ultratriathlon Challenge in Monterrey, Mexico, in 2012, crossing the line in 12 days, 10 hours, and 20 minutes—he was also the last-place finisher.
In Louisiana, race director Wayne Kurtz says Kale is most likely to distinguish himself by spending very little money on the race. “If you give Kale a T-shirt,” Kurtz says, “he’ll wear it for ten years.” As Kurtz sees it, Kale is a possible dark horse at Decaman. (It’s almost impossible to handicap a race that so brazenly courts human decay, but a wise bettor would do well to back Ferenc Szonyi, a 54-year-old Hungarian who was the lone finisher in June’s Hell Ultra, a 300-mile running race that traversed the Indian Himalayas, summiting five peaks.) “Kale’s weak in the swim,” says Kurtz, “but the guy can ride, and he’s great on sleep deprivation. We know he can grind through the night, but his biggest asset, really, is his calmness—and his dad’s calmness.”
Kale’s father, Wes Poland, who run the parts department at a tractor dealership in Auburn, Maine, is his son’s pit-crew chief. It’s a challenging job with its own adventures in sleep deprivation and stormy emotion. “The deca is a soap opera,” explains Kurtz. “At one race last year in Mexico, three or four people on this one crew started screaming at each other in Portuguese. Soon enough they were leaving, midrace, and flying back home to Brazil. Kale and Wes, they’re steady. I can see Kale going top five.”
As it happens, I live near Kale’s current home in the Lakes Region. We’re in the same cycling group, and in early September, I decided that America needed to hear his story. A few days later, at dusk, he and I were road-tripping to his parents’ cabin in western Maine, so that he could do an all-night-long trail run followed by a punishing, sleep-deprived morning bike ride over a mountain pass.
“The thing about the deca,” Kale says, driving along, “is you’re miserable most of the time. It’s not like there’s joy in the misery. It’s just misery, so the training is all about building mental toughness.”
In the lead-up to that first deca in Mexico, back before Kale was a sought-after, $50-an-hour personal trainer, his daily life had such hardships built in. He was living in Laconia, New Hampshire, pulling a graveyard shift as a supermarket shelf stocker then and also working full-time at Eastern Mountain Sports down in Concord, and even though EMS was 26 miles from home, he commuted on a bike—on a single speed, in the winter. “Sometimes,” he tells me, waxing nostalgic, “I’d look at my schedule and realize, ‘Oh, God, I can’t sleep for the next two days.’”
In the years since the Monterrey deca, Kale has sought out new ways to sabotage his sinew. In 2015, he established an ultramarathon cycling record, traversing a 255-mile-wide swath of Maine in 15:01. More recently, he’s taken to running the trails of New Hampshire’s White Mountains in pursuit of fastest known times.
We keep driving. The lawns around us are still bearing Trump signs two years after he was elected. We get passed by a pickup truck fluttering two American flags from the tailgate. We’re on Kale’s home turf. He grew up in Turner, Maine, which the Portland Press Herald has called “one of Maine’s most conservative towns,” a “farming community that prizes self-sufficiency and low taxes.”
Turner, it so happens, is home to one of New England’s largest chicken farms, a sprawling environmental nightmare whose scent permeated the town. “In the spring, when it got warm,” remembers Kale’s old friend Nick Harrington, “the manure started to thaw out at the chicken coops, and you’d need to put up fly strips. You’d need a few dozen fly swatters in your house.”
“You could never get anyone to come to Turner for barbecues,” remembers Linda Poland, Kale’s aunt.
In Kale’s childhood, motor sports were holy. “We might have had a shutoff notice from the light company,” says his uncle and neighbor, Dan Poland, a mechanic, “but we still had boats, four-wheelers, snowmobiles, campers, go-karts, and minibikes.”
Kale was five when he was given his first snowmobile, a 295cc 1972 Polaris Colt. By the time he was ten, he and his buddies were ranging miles from home and changing out their own spark plugs and belts. Their favorite pastime involved climbing into plastic sleds, so they could be snowmobile-towed at blistering speed to the crest of a hill.
When Kale began dabbling, at age 12, in cross-country ski racing, his cronies regarded him as a defector. They called him a “forest fairy,” Kale says, and at first he steered clear of his new sport’s most effete practices. He refused to wear Lycra and instead raced in wind pants and a hoodie. He brought the same raw ethic of his adolescent forays into triathlon. In his first tri, he swam over a mile with his head up, out of the water (he’d never learned the crawl). His borrowed department-store road bike had a ruined bottom bracket, and even though he was a formidable runner, he finished deep within the bottom third of the field in a lowly all-comers race.
The seed was planted, though, and in his undergraduate days at University of Maine–Machias, Kale bought his first real bike. Glory was only a few thousand workouts away.
When Kale and I reach the cabin, Wes Poland is already there, seated at the kitchen table, drinking a Coors wrapped in a beer cozy. A merry and slightly jowly raconteur with a bushy salt-and-pepper mustache, he launches right away into comic stories. He tells me how at one quintuple Ironman, when the balls of Kale’s feet became two giant blisters, he duct-taped sandals to his son’s ravaged dogs, giving them a chance to air out as he hobbled along. “We fixed the problem,” he says, before gesturing across the table at his wife, Belinda, who is a nurse. “Your mother wouldn’t be too impressed by how we fixed it, but we fixed it.”
“I just can't watch Kale’s races,” says Belinda, who has aided Wes in crewing, along with numerous relatives. “My job is to make people better.”
Wes shrugs, snickering. Then he lays out his philosophy, which he honed partly by crewing at rural Maine stock-car races back in the seventies and eighties. “You just gotta suck it up if you want to finish what you started,” he says. “You can’t have any sympathy for the athlete. You can’t let him wallow in self-pity. You’ve just got to keep him moving and fed. And you’ve gotta stay focused. I don’t pay attention to what anyone else is doing—that’s their business. And I try to keep things consistent. Kale is excellent at consistency. On the bike, you could set your watch by his laps.”
By now Kale is stuffing three headlamps into his backpack. It’s 10 p.m., time for his run up the two peaks of nearby Baldpate Mountain, elevation 3,812 feet. I’ve already elected to forego the outing in favor of a little shut-eye, but when Kale gets back to the cabin at 3 a.m, dripping with sweat, we touch base, whispering in deference to his dad who needs to wake at four for a busy day at the dealership. “Right now,” he says, “I do not feel like getting on my bike, and I think that’s exactly how I need to feel. I need to be exhausted.”
“Noted,” I think, and then drift back into sleep.
At dawn, with Kale still gone, I head out for a walk on a winding back road. After maybe an hour, I hear something behind me, a bike, and then Kale and I are ensconced in a pivotal moment. He has full license to just zip past me, head down. It’d be kind of a dickish move, sure, but he’s training, and it’s cold outside. Does he really want his muscles to stiffen up in the damp?
Kale slows down until he’s right beside me, moving at a piddling three miles an hour as he and I shoot the breeze. “Did you go up to that quarry?” he asks. There’s a sweetness in his tone, a caring. The original plan had been for us to ride together, but I tweaked my back. The injury’s put me in a slightly maudlin mood, and Kale, it seems, has picked up on this. He rides all the way in beside me, chatting. It’s no big deal—just an easy gesture of kindness—but it makes me realize that there’s so much more than sweat and snideness to the Cleetus program. There’s a humility and an unrehearsed warmth.
Everything Kale does in fitness has a welcoming vibe. His mission in life is to make outdoor sports fun for all, even if they’re not ectomorphic gear geeks. A decade ago, while living in Maine’s northernmost county, he dreamed up a footrace, the Aroostook Dirty 30, to rebut the Tough Mudder, which he regards as a “fake tough race for fake tough people.” He obliged competitors to linger at “torture stations” as they slogged 30 miles through boggy river bottoms and over old railroad beds. The fitter the runner, the more often they were asked to chain themselves to a truck tire or lug cinder blocks up a hill or push helmeted volunteers through the woods on a refrigerator dolly. There was no entry fee and no trophies, but Kale rewarded all finishers with a rusty railroad spike. One competitor so loved the Dirty 30 that he got a spike tattooed on his calf.
The Dirty 30 is no more (for liability reasons), but in recent years, Kale has continued to accrue fans—from personal training and also from the Gunstock Mountain Resort, where he’s taught cross-country skiing to grade-schoolers and also led mountaintop yoga, often luring 30 or 40 pilgrims who climb to the summit to partake of Kale’s guidance through downward dog.
The man is not unaware of his cult status, and at times his Facebook posts seek out a sonorous, sermon-like depth. “Everything I have seen,” he wrote one morning last July, after the early death of a beloved Gunstock employee, “validates a theory I have had all along: Life is short. DO IT NOW. SPEND THE MONEY. TAKE THE TRIP. LIVE WILD.”
One hundred and thirty likes ensued, along with 55 loves and 27 comments:
“Amen to that!”
The next time I see Kale, on a warm September afternoon, he’s heading to a small, crunchy New Hampshire preschool—Saplings, it’s called—to do a 90-minute session in his new role as the school’s mindfulness/yoga instructor. We ride there together in his pickup, and in a way it seems odd that a self-described redneck—a man who voted for Donald Trump in 2016—would take such an assignment.
But Kale’s interest in yoga is sincere, even if he first took to the mat for branding reasons. (“People were afraid of doing personal training with me because they figured that I was too hardcore,” he explains. “I wanted to soften my image.”) Over the last couple of years, he’s gone all-in. He’s partaken of a heart-chakra-opening yoga workshop on a blood moon, and recently on Facebook he drifted into the namaste mists when he proclaimed, “I am still in my infancy as a yogi.”
Kale’s woo-woo credentials are seriously undercut by his taste for beer yoga, which involves swilling large quantities of Pabst Blue Ribbon, but whatever. This fall on Facebook, he wrote with thrilled lyricism about Saplings: “You guys. I went to a special place today. Kids were muddy and jumping off rocks and playing with frogs.”
When we reach the 22-acre wooded campus, the children are inside a yurt, their teacher hushing them upon the sound of our footfalls. “Owl eyes and mouse mouths, everyone,” she says. “Kale is here.”
He stoops low and enters the yurt wearing a long-sleeved plaid shirt, tattered shorts, and a ski hat, and soon the day’s mindfulness regime begins. It consists, basically, of running around in the woods, with Kale leading the pack. “Let's go to the stump circle!” he shouts. We all scramble out there, snaking through the trees and the brush. When we sit down to pass the sharing stick, one little boy says that his favorite thing about Saplings is “going on adventures and running.”
“Yeah,” Kale says, nodding solemnly as he clutches the stick. “I second that. Definitely.”
We quack like ducks as we weave along toward the Big Rock, then climb atop it before clambering on toward the muddy shores of the brook. Then a moment later, it happens: some kid steps on a yellow-jacket nest, and suddenly we’re all sprinting down a hill, the children screaming in terror, the adults scooping them into their arms. The yellow jackets move with us, a black menacing cloud, and each time a child gets stung, an anguished cry pierces the forest.
We keep running. The wasps go into hiding now, lodging under everyone’s shirts. Kale and the teacher begin stripping clothing off kids. One little boy looks up at me, the interloper, and in tears he asks, “Are the bees going to keep chasing us forever?”
We reach safety on the leafy playground, finally, and a week later, after I’ve spent many hours icing my welts, I learn that every single sapling has fully recovered. “They didn’t even say the word bee,” Kale tells me after his next visit. I start imagining these kids as future deca stars. I mean, they’ve got the whole pain-tolerance thing down….
Kale is in focused-training mode now. As autumn comes on—as the leaves flame orange and then drift down onto the roads, becoming cold slime under our tires—his Facebook feed attains a quiet and sober timbre. Anyone who has ever entered a race knows the goose-pimply chills that precede the call to the starting line. Now that feeling seeps into Kale’s words, so that one morning in late October, he dials in on the specific agonies his trial will entail. “Contact and extended exposure,” he writes. “The sun on the skin. The chlorine from the pool where the goggles press your eyes. The weight of your body on the bike seat pressing up against your ass. The wind in your eyes.”
Sage the dog is momentarily left unmentioned. In these last, critical days, the PBRs retreat into the dark recesses at the back of the fridge. Homeboy’s got a race to run—a long one. He needs to be ready.