When’s the last time you walked away from a workout feeling a whole lot smarter about your city’s past? Or aware of the subtle architectural details of the building that houses your neighborhood coffee shop?
Workouts don’t generally come with a history lesson. And we’ve historically been just fine with that. Most of us are perfectly content to knock out our morning run along our usual route, our brains kept busy by a personalized playlist or podcast. Or hitting up after-work boot camp where our thoughts are focused on the the present. Like how our quads are presently burning.
But it is possible – and I daresay downright enjoyable – to combine a bit of fitness with a hearty dose of historical wisdom. The result: Old Port Historic Workouts.
Local Leigh Rush Olson leads Old Port Historic Workouts on Saturdays throughout the summer, sharing her knowledge of Portland’s past and her eye for unique architecture and public art.
It’s an ideal way for an active out-of-towner to spend a morning, but it’s also an interesting way for locals to learn tons of stuff about Portland that they probably didn’t know before. And see cannon balls stuck to buildings that you somehow never noticed.
It won’t surprise you to know that, in addition to being a Portland History Docent with a B.A. in history and a volunteer for the Daughters of the American Revolution, she’s also a certified professional fitness instructor.
Historic Workouts is a combination of her own making – one she first debuted in 1997 while at Brooklyn College in New York City. Back then she speed walked/jogged people around lower Manhattan’s Financial District and pointed out various landmarks and monuments while discussing historical facts and anecdotes.
The workouts came to the Old Port in 2017, after Leigh returned to her home state. Now they’re flush with facts about Portland’s past and its people – particularly those whose names we know, although we’re not always sure why.
Like Commodore Edward Preble. Fort Preble is named after him. So is Preble Street. I didn’t know a darn thing about Edward Preble, and I live on Preble Street (the one in South Portland, not to be confused with the one in Portland. Or the one in Bremerton, Washington).
Leigh leads workouts on most Saturdays starting at 9 a.m. Participants meet in Monument Square, where the 90-minute workout begins with a warm-up in full view of Our Lady of Victories (and any one passing through Monument Square and/or dining outside at Shay’s).
Then it’s off to visit 50 historical spots. Some you’ll zip by fairly quickly, others you’ll linger over so Leigh can get into detail. And while you’ll listen, she’ll have you do some lunges and step-ups and squats and tricep dips and crunches.
In between stops you’ll jog or power walk (“This is not a walking tour!” Leigh will remind you if you get to dallying), meaning your body will be moving for all 90 minutes.
You won’t pay much mind to how long it’s been, either. Leigh has a perfect knack for keeping you engaged and pointing out things you maybe passed by 100 times but never really noticed, like the cannonball stuck to the front of a building; the Japanese mailboxes in Post Office Park – a gift from Portland’s sister city, Shinagawa, Japan; the multitude of phoenixes around the city (rising from the ashes! Because Portland’s burned down a lot); the way new buildings imitate old ones and lots of really old ones are pubs. (Take that, Prohibition, which started in Maine well before the nationwide constitutional ban.)
Leigh’s energy and enthusiasm for understanding history are contagious, too. She knows her stuff and she’s fun to spend a morning with.
It’s interesting stuff, even if you’re visiting from elsewhere and want to know a little bit about this little city. But it’s particularly neat to see a city you know through new eyes. Eyes that can spot cannonballs and Italian architecture and the one wooden building in a block of brick ones. Oh, and you’ll also learn that those cobblestones on Fore and Wharf Streets aren’t really cobblestones. They’re granite setts. (This story is about another city, but the explanation works for Portland, too).
By the time you return to Monument Square, your body is adequately exercised and your noggin is chock full of new info – details of yesterday that make your affinity for this city grow just a little bit more. It’s better than reading the same stuff in history books because you get to see the history – or the remains of it anyway – in real life.
The winner medals at the end were also a nice touch. ????
Old Port Historic Workouts cost $35 per person. Pre-registration is required!
There are also Old Port Historic Walking Tours, if you’d like the history without all the planks and calf raises. Walking tours 11 a.m. on Saturdays, as well as the occasional Tuesday or Friday. They run 2 hours and cost $20 per person. FMI: historicworkouts.com/old-port-historic-walking-tours
Old Port Historic Workouts
9 a.m. Saturdays
Starts in Monument Square, Portland
90-minute outdoor workout/history tour around the Old Port.