HAVEN BEACH, N.J. — Some summer days, the women on cruiser bicycles swarm the beach block at 8 a.m. like a scene out of E.T.
Other days, it seems everyone decided to sleep in except for one determined mom from New York.
For 2½ weeks every summer, Laura McDonald, 56, waits by the bench at the top of the dune on 113th Street beach on Long Beach Island. She's on vacation from her home on the Upper West Side (by way of Louisiana). But at 8 a.m. Tuesdays, Fridays, and Sundays, she's there to work.
Work her customers, that is, with an intense hybrid of beach yoga and boot camp. And, hey, who wouldn't want that for #vacationgoals? McDonald designed the class for the vacation lifestyle, the yin and yang of spirit and body, the calming of the tides, the gasping from high-intensity interval workouts, all your vacation bases covered. (Typical Facebook RSVP: 1 going, 15 interested. Vacationers tend to be noncommittal.)
"In the sand, anything is harder," McDonald says, her Southern drawl tinged with a New York cadence, all big voice, sunglasses and straw visor. "It makes it an intense workout. So everyone who leaves here feels really good for the day. They feel like, 'OK, I burned some calories, I burned the booze off from last night.' We have a lot of people who come to do that."
On this Tuesday in August, only McDonald and three other New Yorkers show up — and two of them are her adult children. Granted, it's take-your-kid-to-college week, and the whole island is a bit slow. (But come on, Philly vacationers, what's up? Not you, evidently. Maybe just for that groggy toe-dip selfie with the Dunkin' Donuts cup. But not for 8 a.m. boot camp.)
Devotee Michelle Friedel, 50, of Ossining, N.Y., showed up, $15 in hand, having fought the urge to skip it after a fitful night's sleep. But don't mistake her for one of those fitness-obsessed types who don't miss a workout even when they're on vacation. She falls into the other camp.
A teacher who's winding up another summer on Long Beach Island, Friedel is headed back to another fall, winter and spring in New York that will be yoga- and boot-camp-free.
"I don't do it at all" during the year, she concedes.
Unlike other beach boot camps, where props are dragged to the beach, tied to boardwalk railings, or lugged across the sand, McDonald takes a "no equipment" approach. Sometimes she'll use the bench or the dunes for sprints, but mostly she requires only an old beach towel as a yoga mat, her voice, and an iPhone timer.
In perfect yoga fashion, the sand itself presents both a challenge and a life lesson.
"Sand can be very helpful, but it can also be very difficult," McDonald says. "You have to find the balance."
Victoria Gross, McDonald's 20-year-old daughter and a philosophy major at Columbia University, says her mother has also found a nice balance in her approach to the class.
"You want to be accessible to people on vacation," says Gross. "They're trying to feel healthy but not feel inadequate."
In her 15 years as a fitness, health and life coach in New York City, McDonald has always been drawn to outdoor workouts in places like Central Park or Riverside Park.
When the family first began coming to LBI about a decade ago, friends advised her not to bother trying to gin up boot camp business.
"'Oh, people don't want to do that, that's the last thing anyone wants to do,'" friends told her. "Then people came to me. They saw me working out on the beach. And they were like, 'Can we?'"
McDonald even got a sponsor: Jersey Girl coffee shop and grill, nearby on 111th Street.
Gross says the family has embraced its mom carrying her passion over to their vacation. Harrison, 23, a rock musician, typically sleeps in, but this time he joined his mother and sister on the sand. (The oldest sibling, Max, was away at a wedding.)
"My mom has been teaching this all my life," Victoria Gross said. "I've been down this whole week, managed to make it to all of the classes. Sometimes I'm really groggy."
Midway through, McDonald advises shaking out the sand from the towel and spreading it out so it doesn't need futzing when they get into several rounds of Tanata, the high-intensity intervals she uses in the Boot Camp portion.
"Tap your feet off," she calls out.
Legs will soon be raised over faces. Sand in the eyes is a continual hazard, as are those west wind flies that mock your efforts to hold a pose.
The transition from yoga — "Engage the core. Inhale, exhale. Everything is alive. Everything is connected" — to boot camp — "Shuffle, shuffle, shuffle, keep going, keep going, pulse, pulse, double double double double" — is a bit jarring, but it matches the beach's energy shift as pickup trucks arrive to empty the trash cans and beach-rakers make their rounds.
The reps go quickly, and soon participants have collapsed into Savasana, which means "dead corpse" in Sanskrit and describes what most people will be doing on that beach for the rest of the day.
After cradling the backs, providing helpful divots, landing in eyes, embedding in toes, and boosting the level of difficulty, the sand now plays its final role as, basically, a bed. "This is everyone's favorite part," McDonald says. "You just tune in to the waves, feel the breeze. You just go. …"
And then it's over. The kids head back to the rental house at the end of the block. Friedel hops on her cruiser. On Beach Avenue, the neighborhood's de facto boardwalk begins to crowd with runners, cyclists, strollers and walkers.
McDonald, switching from instructor mode to mama mode, hurries to catch up with her kids for another tried-and-true ritual of the family's Long Beach Island vacations: breakfast.
Nothing extreme at work there. "I'm going to make those bacon and eggs this morning," she calls after them.