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Portland History meets outdoor exercise with Old Port Historic Workouts

Portland History meets outdoor exercise with Old Port Historic Workouts

group on church steps doing tricep dips

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.

The Historic Workouts warmup begins in Monument Square in full view of Our Lady of Victories, a monument dedicated to “those brave men of Portland, soldiers of the United States army and sailors of the navy of the United States, who died in defense of the country in the late civil war.” Shannon Bryan photo

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.

Leigh Rush Olson, far right, leads the group in squats in the grass at Tommy’s Park. Shannon Bryan photo
Jogging (or fast walking, if you prefer) through the streets of the old port during an Old Port Historic Workout. Shannon Bryan photo

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.

Step-ups on the curb whilst chatting about this public art piece, “Michael.” Shannon Bryan photo

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).

Jogging in place and learning about the Maine Lobsterman, created by sculptor Victor Kahill of Portland with Maine’s participation in the 1939 New York World’s Fair, as a commemoration of Mainers who have dedicated their lives to fishing. Shannon Bryan photo
Lunging on by the U.S. Custom House, which was built in Built 1868-72 and underwent a serious restoration several years ago. It was built to “accommodate the city’s growing customs business, which, by 1866, was collecting $900,000 annually in customs duties—making Portland one of the most significant seaports in the country.” (per mainepreservation.org) Shannon Bryan photo
Working those abs on the lawn next to the Portland fire station. Related: The Portland fire department celebrated 25o years last year. “Fire protection started in Portland on March 29th,1768 with the appointment of five ‘Fire Wards.’ These men had Police powers and had the authority to order citizens to help at Fire scenes.” Per www.portlandmaine.gov

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.

Planks in Lincoln Park. Shannon Bryan photo
Tricep dips on the First Parish of Portland steps. It’s the is the “oldest place of worship in the city, rich with history dating back to the founding of Portland and the earliest settlers of the area in the early 1600s…During demolition of Old Jerusalem, cannonballs from the British bombardment were found in the walls. One of the cannonballs is embedded in the chain of the exquisite 600-pound glass chandelier in the center of today’s Meeting House.” Per firstparishportland.org

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.

That’s a CANNONBALL. Someone stuck this cannonball to the facade – it didn’t arrive there through the typical shot-through-a-cannon means, but still, I’ve never noticed it before. Have you? The shop Aristelle is below. Shannon Bryan photo
Phoenix spotting on buildings all over Portland (rising from the ashes, on account of Portland caught on fire a lot). At right: Talking about cobblestones, which aren’t really cobblestones at all. They’re granite setts! Shannon Bryan photo

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. ????

Final stretches back in Monument Square. Shannon Bryan photo
Winner! Everyone gets a post-workout medal. Shannon Bryan photo

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
$35
90-minute outdoor workout/history tour around the Old Port.
FMI: historicworkouts.com/old-port-historic-workouts

Shannon Bryan

Shannon Bryan

I don't like "exercise" any more than you do. But you know what I do like? Paddleboarding with a friend all afternoon (and then sitting in the grass to drink chardonnay). Bike rides and nachos, hikes, yoga classes held in breweries, group paddles to Fort Gorges, you get the idea. Because Maine is my gym.