While most alarm clocks are still several hours from ringing, four men are in the gym of the Los Angeles Athletic Club pumping away on cardio machines, sweat streaming down their faces. They've been meeting like this for 27 years, workout partners dedicated to their daily dose of exercise and companionship.
"Sometimes," says 75-year-old Ely Keenberg, "Mel will call and say he's not going to work out, and I drive over to his house and honk my horn until he comes out. And sometimes I'll get in here and not feel like doing cardio, and Mel will say, 'Get on the machine.' "
Such is the way of longtime workout partners, men and women who have made a commitment over the years to training together. It's a rare relationship, given the transient nature of life in Los Angeles, crammed schedules and many people's penchant for changing gyms.
These partnerships help people reach fitness goals, carve out sensible diet plans, recover from injuries and get through those dreaded burnout periods -- things they might not be able to accomplish alone. Those who have maintained these bonds say they motivate them to keep coming back to the workouts.
Buddying up has long been touted as a way to start and stay on track with a fitness program, but it takes a common motivation and dedication, two things the L.A. Athletic Club group has shared for more than a quarter of a century.
It all started when a group of men -- strangers then -- regularly ran the inside track at the club. One day someone suggested running outside, then that they run marathons. The weekly runs morphed into a more serious training routine that led to a number of races in London, New York and San Francisco.
Over the years, age and injury have put an end to the marathons but not to the workouts and not to the camaraderie. A core group of about six still meets at the Athletic Club five days a week for an hour, most of that spent doing cardio.
On a recent morning Keenberg, who owns a scrap metal business, 67-year-old stockbroker Mel Behrle, 72-year-old retiree Maurice Alhadeff, 76-year-old tax attorney Bob Bannon and 67-year-old obstetrician Arnold Kalan met up as usual before starting their day, traveling from various locations, including Pacific Palisades and Long Beach.
Keenberg explains one of the reasons behind their allegiance to sweat: "All of us do sedentary work and we sit all day. If you don't do something, you'll die. We've seen it happen to guys here."
"I doubt any of us would have done a marathon except with the group," says Bannon.
Running marathons fostered competition, which kept them striving for more races and better times. "Nobody wanted to be last," Behrle says.
Keenberg shows now-faded snapshots of their triumphs, medals proudly worn around necks, huge, beaming grins signaling victory.
None of this devotion to one another or to exercise surprises Cedric Bryant, chief exercise physiologist for the San Diego-based American Council on Exercise. "Having a workout partner can really serve as a great motivation on days when you may not be able to get yourself out there," says Bryant. "There can be a little bit of positive competition that occurs. If one person goes for one more rep, then the other tries to do the same. Also, a workout buddy can help ensure you use better form and technique, which gives you more optimal results."
Manny Saenzpardo and John Stompanoto met at Gold's Venice seven years ago when both were working out with the same trainer. When the trainer moved, the two, who work in private security and law enforcement, decided to work out together.
"We had to change routines to [accommodate] both our programs," says Saenzpardo, 41, perspiring on the StairMaster next to Stompanoto.
"I was set with my schedule and he had his own thing going," explains Stompanoto, 47, "so we had to talk it over. We both do a lot of reading, magazines and things, and we try innovative things."
They're at the gym five days a week, usually starting at 8 a.m. with a half-hour stretch, then weights, then cardio. Stompanoto lives a block away, Saenzpardo in Culver City. Besides trading workout ideas, they also compare notes on food and supplements.
"We've made very positive gains," says Stompanoto. "I've put on about 25 pounds of muscle in the last five or six years."
"Sometimes we'll be doing a routine," adds Saenzpardo, "and we'll just look at each other and know it's going to be an off day and we just start laughing."
When choosing a workout partner, Bryant recommends looking for someone "who roughly has the same fitness level as you." Trying to keep up with someone much more fit can result in injury.
William Jones and Adamm Gritlefeld knew nothing about each other when they decided to do weight workouts together five years ago. They met in a kickboxing class at Easton Gym in Santa Monica and saw potential in each other: "He was the last one standing," says Gritlefeld, 57, who owns a Santa Monica glass shop and gallery.