The Dungeon

Sept 1, 1995


The fall of 1995 I trekked to trail British Columbia to train with Willie Krause and the Trail track and field team, but what I was not expecting was that I had taken the first steps towards a life that would change mine forever…

The entire system constructed in Trail developed on the premise of hard work. Willie Krause already into his late eighties had been coaching track and field at the Olympic level since the end of 1930 before the War in Germany and then again after following his immigration to Canada. The same hardened demeanor needed during one of the most difficult times in world history also carried through in his ability to draw success out of a tiny pool of talent.

When I began training with the Trail track and field club, I got accustomed to the idea of working in a group, being surrounded by other like-minded men and women that had one goal and only one, cold hard work. Twice weekly we would meet at Willi’s home and head down to the basement.

The weight room that existed beneath the home of our Coach had been hand-dug during the 1970’s by previous generations of track and field athletes. They hand dug the basement with a desire to have a gym so badly that they were willing to use buckets, shovels and pick axes to remove tons of dirt leaving only the hollow ground which would become the dungeon.

The dungeon was a seller like space beneath his house with a cement floor barely broad enough to move about, and on a good night, more than eight athletes could quickly cycle through a circuit created decades before my arrival. The circuit was a series of exercises that would work you from head to toe, always dynamic, always moving, always compelling. The weight room itself had one bench that was made entirely of wood, and on the resting platform, there was a permanent sweat silhouette outlined from all of the athletes previous bleeding their desire into the welcoming wood. It always looked like the chalk outline of souls lost to the grueling dungeon of a weight room. The roof was too low to do overhead presses, so they had dug the corner out and dropped it 2 feet creating a pit in an already ominous space.

My first workout in the dungeon did not go as planned. I had come from a very basic weightlifting background, a lot of which had been read in magazines and watched on television. However, now I was amongst elite level athletes coached by an Olympic level master who wanted to see human movement at its maximum efficiency. The majority of the weights standardized for the men and women with the only increases occurring on the bench press, a position where Coach Krause would find himself stationed for the duration of the workout. In the Dungeon, there was one simple rule Keep moving,  Keep working, and Coach Krause always needed to hear the metal clang of every repetition. Willi believed that weight which did not chirp with the intent of intensity, making that metal echo all-too-familiar in training halls worldwide, was not being done to its utmost efficiency.

The workout was broken down into seven exercises; split cleans, one arm snatch with a barbell, alternating legs split jerks, dynamic barbell step ups, weighted situps, kettlebell swings, and bench press. We then moved in the progression from weakest to strongest often getting three rounds completed in 45 minutes with twice as many athletes as space could comfortably allow. As the cool fall weather would roll through Trail, British Columbia it would push the fever pace in the room, all the athletes hoping it would heat up enough that it would keep the cold steel of the bars from sticking to our hands.

All of the barbells were homemade, none of the equipment less than 30 years old and all of the attitudes from the ages of 15 to 25 were complete focus. Coach Krause would take his finger and draw a single “S” on the window that opened to the civilization above us, almost as a reminder that the only way of getting out was through the gauntlet of hard work. Halfway through the session, he would turn and look at the window above his left shoulder. If the humidity in the room had risen enough from our effort so that his finger art was visible, he would tap the glass with his hand and in his distinct German accent only say; “Good, good now we are working…” No scientific metrics, no lab analysis, mere perspiration against the plane of glass was the only determiner of effort. If we were not breathing, we were not working

Around and around we would move like machines, animals trained in the art of steel from pole-vaulters to 400m runners. We all poured sweat onto the floor of that dungeon each of us taking our turn on the bench press, each of us taking our turns in the pit moving steel for the sound, not for the feel. Never in my life before nor after have I ever trained in such a raw, uninhibited fashion, utilizing equipment that was so simple in nature but so punishing in effect.

In the dungeon, training on that seven exercise three round system I watched high school athletes single arm snatch 70kg for repetitions and decathletes press well into the 300lbs range time after time. The workout never changed, and it never varied, it was all written on a simple yellow piece of paper that sat pinned to the wall next to a single photograph of Steve Reeves with the Latin inscription “bigger, faster, stronger.”