Experience Life’s fitness editor discovers that PrimalCon — an immersion into primal living in the modern world — involves more than just eating like a caveman.
“Oh, you’re strong.”
These words, spoken by the tall, sinewy man before me, are emboldening. Our arms are locked, hand to forearm. Bracing myself for a game of full-contact tug of war, I dig my bare feet deep into the grass, smile, and take a breath.
On his mark, I begin to pull. My opponent doesn’t budge.
On any other Friday morning, you’d be more likely to find me tapping away on my laptop in a Minneapolis coffee shop than embroiled in a strength match with Darryl Edwards, the creator of the Primal Play fitness system and a man who can deadlift 500 pounds.
But this, the first day of PrimalCon New York — a 60-person, three-day immersion into primal living that focuses on adapting ancestral food, movement, and stress relief to the modern world — quickly revealed itself to be a day unlike any other.
It kicked off with outdoor yoga and a session of VitaMoves (a slow-paced but thigh-trembling practice that combines elements of martial arts and tai chi). This was followed by a primal breakfast, where an omelet station was flanked by heaps of fresh fruit and crispy bacon. Coffee — blended with grassfed butter and coconut oil — was the beverage of choice.
And now, as morning approaches high noon, we are playing outside. Though, in my case, “play” feels less like a youthful pastime and more like a full-body strugglefest.
“The first lesson of Primal Play, ladies and gentlemen, is this,” says Edwards, watching me intently as he addresses the crowd: “Make it simple.”
Reflecting off Lake Mohonk, the backdrop of our castlelike hotel in the Catskill Mountains, the sun glints in my eyes. I can just make out the morning’s other primal-fitness workshop participants: One group sprints through high-intensity interval training (HIIT) drills, while another practices barefoot running.
“Second lesson: Your environment is your gym,” says Edwards, effortlessly continuing his lecture as I fight to unseat him. “A branch is my pull-up bar. My barbell is a log in the woods. Use a chair, a bench, the stairs, another person.”
I blink away a rogue droplet of sweat as it rolls past my brow. My breathing has become ragged, and I lower my hips in an effort to find a stronger position from which to pull.
“Easy,” Edwards tells me, with a look that shows encouragement and bemusement, but no sign of exertion.
I sense I will not be the victor of this match, and wonder how long we’ll be stuck in a stalemate before calling it quits.
Then, suddenly, Edwards gently tugs on my arm. I lose my footing and find myself being dragged across the field. So much for a stalemate.
“Lesson No. 3: Don’t hurt your play partner,” Edwards says as I roll on the ground, succumbing to a fit of giggles. “They won’t want to play with you anymore if you do.”
PrimalCon is the brainchild of Mark Sisson, a former elite endurance athlete and the man behind the primal-lifestyle blog MarksDailyApple.com.
When he created the site in 2006, Sisson had only a handful of followers. Today the primal lifestyle has gone mainstream, and Sisson’s blog has grown into a multimillion-dollar business known as the Primal Blueprint, spawning a book by the same name.
On the blog and in his book, a manifesto on ancestrally inspired living in the modern world, Sisson proposes that if it was good enough for Grok — Sisson’s caricature of the Paleolithic Everyman, a cave-dwelling, meat-eating, sprint-running John Doe — it’s good enough for us.
Sisson has written at length about the primal diet, which focuses on animal protein, vegetables, fruits, and treats such as high-quality dark chocolate and red wine. (It differs from the paleo diet in its acceptance of dairy.)
He also writes about strength training, sprinting, and HIIT — which in a primal lifestyle are balanced by times of rest, recovery, and play. Sisson says that all these aspects of training were missing from his previous life as a triathlete.
Sisson’s site, now boasting some 300,000 daily visitors and 400,000 newsletter subscribers, serves as the backbone of his company, which holds multiple PrimalCon events each year at locales including Oxnard, Calif.; Tulum, Mexico; and New Paltz, N.Y.
The event was initially conceived as a primal-themed trade show but quickly evolved. “As we got further along the process, we wanted to make it more about the experience,” explains Sisson, who attends the retreats as a fellow vacationer. “We wanted it to be an opportunity for people to come together and learn things in a hands-on way.”
The next day, as I plant my hand on a slab of cool rock above me, I register a moist sensation spreading across my palm. It is just a few minutes after 6 a.m. on day 2 of my primal adventure, and I can hear my climbing party getting farther ahead of me as I dangled off the side of Mohonk Mountain.
I run through the possibilities of what I might be feeling: No pain meant (probably) no blood, so I’ve either squashed a caterpillar, or my hands — due to a combination of exertion and my fear of heights — are sweating more than usual.
Sweat, definitely sweat, I think as I hoist myself up the rock face. I wipe my hand on my pants without looking down and slip behind the dark cliffs, darting ahead to catch up with my new friends.
The six of us had met just a day earlier, but we quickly bonded over a shared love of food and movement. There is Laura Santagata, an Ohio-based personal trainer, Life Time Fitness run coach, and mother of two. Accompanying her are fellow run coach Tina Mohn-Santagata and Sara Verlinde-Nicol, a client and friend; and Matt Whitmore and Keris Marsden, London-based fitness trainers, nutrition coaches, and coauthors of The Paleo Primer.
Then there’s me. I “went paleo” three years ago, and I’m now using the template to fuel my training as a novice strong(wo)man and powerlifter.
We’re six different people — with myriad goals, including strength gain, fat loss, and general life betterment. And we are just the tip of the iceberg.
Other PrimalCon attendees range from college students in their late teens to retirees in their 70s. They include ultramarathoners and barefoot lifestylers, as well as novices. Some have been primal for years, while others are still learning the basics. Many have come alone. Others have come in pairs or as a family.
One couple is celebrating their 25th anniversary here at Mohonk Mountain House, a trip to strengthen their bond — and their dedication to health.
The PrimalCon experience is designed so everyone can learn or try something new. For some, that means an introduction to epigenetics, the study of how lifestyle choices affect gene expression. For others, it involves first attempts at stand-up paddleboarding, walking the slackline, or playing ultimate Frisbee.
Additionally, PrimalCon attendees receive top-tier lodging, fully catered primal meals (including a wine-and-chocolate happy hour each evening), and one-on-one time with presenters, including Sisson himself.
Yet, the overwhelming majority of people remark that simply being surrounded by like-minded people — if only for a weekend — was their primary motivation to attend.
“No one wants to feel like they’re an outcast,” says Mike DiLandro, who is attending for the second time. “It helps when you hear other people’s stories. We get to know each other and geek out together. Where else can I talk with friends about resistant starch?”
Numerous guests share stories of coworkers making fun of them for bringing meat-and-vegetable lunches from home, or for opting for a bottle of kombucha instead of a skinny vanilla latte. Family members, they agree, often look at them with pity, lamenting that they “can’t” eat something because of their “diet.”
“It’s a safe place,” agrees Sisson. “Meeting people adds a layer of experience, a shared commitment.”
The evolutionary argument to “eat like a caveman” continues to provoke debates in online forums. But the ancestral health movement has succeeded in tapping into one undeniably primal aspect of human nature — community.
We are a social species, driven to gather together and share everything from food to stories.
It’s not hard to envision Grok, our imaginary caveman, and his brethren gathered around a fire sharing struggles, successes, and personal histories.
At PrimalCon, modern-day Groks and Grokettes can do the same — they just happen to have a glass of red wine and a square of dark chocolate in hand.
Paleo vs. Primal Diets
“Paleo” is a general term that refers to the Paleolithic diet, a way of eating based on what it is believed our human ancestors ate and thrived on. The diet consists of vegetables and animal protein primarily, along with fruits, nuts, and fats, including olive and coconut oils, as well as animal fats such as lard and tallow.
“Primal” is a similar diet, but is generally understood to also include full-fat dairy (for those who can digest it) as well as treats such as red wine and dark chocolate.
The diets are fluid and the terms largely interchangeable as many adherents use the guidelines as a template for personalized diets.
How-To: Primal Play
1. Full-Contact Tug-O-War
Stand facing your opponent; a willing friend, workout partner, or stable inanimate object — such as a flagpole or pillar — will do.
Assume a high lunge position and lock arms, hand to forearm. (Alternatively, grasp the pole.)
Brace yourself — tight belly, tight butt — and gently begin to pull one another’s arms. Allow yourself to pull and be pulled in a dynamic game of tug-o-war.
2. Close-Contact Tag
Stand facing your opponent; a willing friend, workout partner, or inanimate object — such as a pole, tree, or chair — will do.
Assume a high lunge position and brace yourself.
Attempt to “tag” your opponent, all the while evading being tagged. You’re not chasing one another — you’re aiming for the ankles, shoulders, and other body parts while staying close to each other.
Exercises courtesy of Darryl Edwards.