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San Francisco Examiner

Pumping iron at 3 a.m.
Sunday, June 18, 2000

During the day, the 24 Hour Fitness center in Mountain View seems li ke any other large gym in the Bay Area, bustling with women and men waiting their turn for Stairmaster machines, stretching in yoga classes or power-lifting weights.

But at night - especially in the wee hours of the morning - the club attracts the ultimate workout devotee.

Here's what was happening during a recent nocturnal visit.

1:45 a.m.: The San Antonio Shopping Center is dark and deserted, save for a few pigeons huddled atop a lamppost. Behind a supermarket and a Sears Auto Center, red and blue neon lights cast a glow over the 12 cars clustered outside 24 Hour Fitness.

Inside, an inflatable palm tree and a bunch of faux bananas made of Mylar streamers dangle over the 30,000-square-foot facility's empty training floor. Five people churn away on cross-training equipment. Another eight are in the free weights area, while three work out on Cybex machines. One lone soul sits in the sauna, head in his hands. The pool is glassy and still.

2 a.m.: Software engineer Maurice Fitzgerald, 29, stops by on his way home from work. It is earlier than his usual workout time of 4 or 5 a.m. Fitzgerald says he joined 24 Hour Fitness because other gyms in the area close at midnight.

"I've come in at 10 or 11 p.m., but it's too busy, so now I come after 1 a.m.," says Fitzgerald, returning a 20-pound dumbbell to the rack. "Even though I don't like the music they play and sometimes the gym gets pretty dirty, their schedule is great."

A few feet away, UC-Berkeley junior Bryan Odom, 20, is finishing a set of bicep curls. Home from school until the fall semester, he has a busy summer schedule of classes at De Anza College plus an internship at the Santa Clara County Superior Court. That leaves him little time for exercising during the day.

"I like this time of day anyway," says Odom. "If I come in between 3 and 8 p.m., I have to wait to use the equipment."

2:30 a.m.: Down the hall, Bill Mannel, 37, a product manager for a hardware company, breaks a sweat on a Stairmaster in the front room. Even though he starts work at 6 a.m., that's not why he's here so early.

"There's a 5-month-old baby at home," he says. "I'm up anyway, and it's not crowded now, though I usually come later, between 3 and 4." Mannel lives in Mountain View, right behind the gym.

2:45 a.m.:Odom and Fitzgerald, freshly showered, leave. Across the room, a janitor methodically polishes each piece of equipment, while a co-worker reaches down to turn off a vacuum cleaner.

Over the speakers, Sarah McLachlan croons, "You come out at night. That's when the energy comes and the dark side's light and the vampires roam . . ." A Mountain View police car drives past the plate-glass windows.

2:55 a.m.: Van Vu, 46, the only woman in the gym at the time, is just getting off a Lifecycle machine after a 45-minute workout. A communications company manager, she usually works out at 6 a.m., but every couple of weeks, insomnia sends her to the gym earlier.

Vu glances at the empty parking lot.

"I try to be careful and very aware when I come in at this hour," she says.

3:15 a.m.: Rita Marks arrives, as she does four to six times a week. The 47-year-old Sun Microsystems Web designer logs 45 minutes on a treadmill, finishing with weight training and abdominal work. She plans to go grocery shopping at 4:30 a.m., then head home to Palo Alto for an hour or two of sleep before returning to work.

"I just pretend it's my own personal gym," says Marks, gesturing around the empty room. "During the day, there are people sitting on the machines, reading newspapers. I like to really work out."

3:30 a.m.: Just as the number of people in the gym dwindles to three, some early risers start to come in. Ned Hernandez, 56, strides across the training floor, carrying his freshly pressed clothes on a hanger.

A word processor at a local law firm, Hernandez always shows up no later than 4 a.m. before arriving at work around 6:30. He'd gone to bed at 10 p.m. and was up at 2:30 a.m..

"I like it that I can come any time," says Hernandez. "Working out in the early morning wakes me up altogether."

4:30 a.m.: About two dozen people are in various stages of working out. Steve "Purple" Hayes, 34, emerges from the steam room for a soak in the hot tub. Hayes, a singer and composer with Hip Hop Hippies, a Peninsula-based band, says he decided long ago to be a night owl.

His day job as a manager at Palo Alto's Printers Inc. Bookstore had officially ended six hours before, at 10:30 p.m. Since then, he'd tidied up the shop and delved into several books that had caught his attention before driving to the gym.

But Hayes isn't here to work out. He uses the spa to relax, think and tap his creative energy.

There's another reason he's here tonight. "I live in a house where there's a rule you can't shower after 10:30 at night," he says.

The lone night-desk employee at the Mountain View 24 Hour Fitness, identifying herself as Cat, checks on the spa area. After working the 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. shift for a year and a half, she knows all the regulars and loves the atmosphere.

"I wouldn't have taken the job if it was during the day," says Cat, 36. "I know all of them."

5 a.m.: A man wearing a parka smiles and hands Cat a paper bag with a surprise breakfast muffin inside.

"Thanks, Charles," Cat says, smiling.

Cat says she'll be home in San Leandro by 7 a.m., eat dinner, sleep through the day and do it all over again.

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URL: http://sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/examiner/archive/2000/06/18/BUSINESS5886.dtl