Animals in the Urban Wilderness

This post was originally seen on our old site and was contributed by guest blogger Margaret Coldwater. Animal Athletics is a unique athletics and fitness training company owned by Yassine Diboun, whom Run Oregon first met in 2011, and Willie McBride. Since then, we seem to see them everywhere – and we love that they started this company. If there’s one thing you should know, Animal Athletics is not just for the top-level runners. It’s for all – including the Kelly-Barten-level runners! Here’s a great article about what they do and why they do it:

Nine people are standing in a room with big windows and new bamboo floors on 23rd St in NW Portland on a rainy Monday evening. No one is talking, or moving much at all really; everyone has their arms held out to their sides at ninety degrees, pulled back slightly, shoulder blades drawn together and chest open. Miles Davis–Kind of Blue–is playing from the speakers. The challenge is this: simply hold your arms out for 8 minutes without letting them drop or rest down at your sides. No weights needed, no accessories. Just focus and breath, like a meditation.

Sound easy? It’s not, just try it. Onlookers might scoff, even a few new comers to the class–who have never done or even seen an exercise like this–might ask Why?! What is this working?

The mind; that’s primarily what it’s working, and therefore strengthening, the trainers there would tell you.

“Everything in life is mental and depends on your mental game and outlook,” says Willie McBride, co-founder and owner of Animal Athletics with Yassine Diboun. “From your career to relationships to goals and challenges big and small, anything at all. You have to be confident and develop mental toughness, the will to power through and keep pushing when our brain says ‘stop’ or our insecurities kick in. From a 5k to a 100 mile race, a job interview to a first date, no matter what you’re facing, you must have a strong mind to make your dreams into reality.”

“It’s so cool to have someone do the arm hold during bootcamp and then see very clearly, in just 3 or 4 weeks time, how much longer they can hold the pose for and how much harder they are able to push themselves in general during any of the exercises. It’s amazing, you can clearly see it,” McBride said. “That’s why we do what we do, why we have people do these crazy exercises. We get results.”

If you’re still skeptical, answer this: If your shoulder muscles start burning, your arms start shaking, and your internal (and self-deprecating) “mind chatter” kicks in at minute 2 then how on earth do people make it to minute 8 without letting their arms drop? How can you stick it out those extra 6 minutes? What makes the difference?

Mental toughness. What else could it be? The trainers at Animal Athletics want their clients to ask these questions because they believe whole-heartedly in the vast potential of everyone they work with, no matter age, gender, or body type.

“We’re all about being tough and hardcore, doing gnarly races and going on far-flung adventures, but, it’s funny, that’s something we’ve actually struggled with since starting the business 2 years ago,” says Yassine. “Willie and I have done a lot of crazy stuff and are both ultra marathoners who compete in mountainous 100 mile races (or longer) so sometimes people can get a little intimidated and scared off. The truth is though we love working with all levels of folks, from people who don’t run at all to slightly more crazy people like ourselves. We’ve been working with a handful of large offices here in Portland and developing corporate wellness programs and ‘bootcamp’ classes for the employees. That has really expanded our range of clientele and we’ve loved it.”

“We want people to be healthy and happy, that’s all,” McBride chimes in,”if that means knitting to someone, that’s fine, if it means competitive badminton to someone else that’s fine too, bird-watching, basket-weaving, whatever. Find what excites you, find reasons to keep moving and active and you’re all good. We’ll work with you and support you whoever you are, wherever you’re at, and whatever you want to do.”

On Monday and Wednesdays at lunch Yassine teaches the “Beginner” bootcamp class at Coaxis, Inc. on the Willamette riverfront in downtown Portland. A few of the small group of 7 people are recovering from previous injuries or health problems, others are just getting their fitness back (or for the first time) and aren’t yet ready to join the “Intermediate/Advanced” class. The main goal for the office fitness classes is getting people moving and out of their chairs/away from their desks; second goal: correcting imbalance and getting the desk out of the body.

“Sitting at a desk and working at a computer all day is not good for your health,” says McBride. “That’s a fact, but it’s also unavoidable for a majority of people, so the question is: what to do about it?”

“No matter who we work with, from a die-hard gardener to a weekend warrior biker to a seasoned mountaineer, the main focus is on: functional training. That’s the key word,” Yassine says as he and the “Beginner” class begin the walk back into the office, inside to the cubicles, leaving the convenient East Bank Esplanade behind. Everyone looks a little sad to say goodbye to the fresh air and buckle down to the grind again but they also looked reinvigorated, rosy-cheeked and energized, ready for more of the workday. That’s the intent; “a healthier employee is a happier one and a happy employee is more productive. It’s a pretty simple equation,” Yassine says, high-fiving the Coaxis employees as he sends them on their way. “Luckily there’s an indoor gym space we can use on the really cold and rainy days but for the most part class is held outside. People love getting out into the fresh air.”

Later that day McBride is in Forest Park with a client he is coaching and training for the Antarctica Ice Marathon in 2014. Steve, who works at Intel, plans to stay after the marathon to tackle Mt. Vinson, one of the “seven summits” of the world. He contacted Animal Athletics after being referred by friends and hearing about their unique approach and wide range of expertise, from the track to the trail, mobility to mountaineering.

Steve has done the “90 degree arm hold” many times. He’s a believer now, in that and the rest of Animal Athletics’ training, after feeling stronger and better than ever. He’s continuously improving as a trail runner and slowly working out all the kinks in the system by functional training and getting the desk out of the body.

Today he and McBride are where the Birch Trail meets NW 53rd Dr. Steve is walking down the lengths of the old telephone poles that are anchored horizontally along the side of the road. The poles are rounded of course so it takes some concentration and balance to successfully walk them without falling. There are about thirteen poles placed end to end, with a 2-3 ft. gap between that you have to jump over, all on the slope of a hill. Steve’s arms are out and he’s obviously concentrating hard, which is part of the purpose.

“Improving your balance is great because it’s also mental and demands your presence in the moment. You have to focus your mind, try to silence the mind chatter. You got to chip away at those mental walls,” McBride pauses, watching Steve walk along with his arms shaking slightly. “If you can learn to dig deep and push further even when your mind is freaking out… well, that’s a mental stamina, a faith in oneself, that can take you wherever you want to go.”

Steve appears spent, sweat streaming down his face, but he also looks like a kid: smiling, present and absorbed in the simple task of not falling off the log (into the perceived lava pits on either side.) Being child-like seems to be part of the intent at Animal Athletics. McBride congratulates Steve for a good effort, then tells him to dismount the telephone pole-balance beam and shake it out. “Yes,” McBride readily admits, “being child-like, acting like a kid, retaining that passion and playfulness and zest for life–that’s definitely a part of our philosophy.”

McBride has Steve do another set of plank, pushups and dips and then the two of them run down the Birch Trail to the famous Wildwood Trail, wet, bright autumn leaves plastering the surface of the footpath. From there they roll on southwards, to the Stone House to the Lower Macleay Trail along Balch Creek, passing dozens of other runners, hikers, and dog-walkers. In the couple miles back to the trailhead they pass many familiar faces and greet many fellow runners, friends, and other clients in just that short time. McBride and Diboun themselves–after corresponding via email–ran into each other for the first time in Forest Park on the Wildwood.

“It feels like a small town sometimes out there on the trail. It’s pretty amazing. I actually wrote a piece about that subject for Oregon Sports News,” says McBride, who is also a freelance writer. “It’s great how nature and outdoor spaces can bring people together and help create community.”

When they arrive back to Lower Macleay Park they run into Diboun with a woman he’s coaching and training for trail races. She just won her first event and the results are all over her face; she’s beaming, still glowing a week after she crossed the finish line.
“It’s about the people, that’s really the best part of this job. Getting to help people become healthier, happier, and more fit, reach their goals and empower themselves, it’s just awesome to be a part of that,” Diboun says as he’s finishing up the session with Jen, who’s doing the last of her stair repeats. “The community here in Portland is amazing, all the people we get to work with are great. We couldn’t be happier about that.”

McBride–heading out to teach one final class of the day at a downtown office–waves goodbye as Diboun is going over next week’s plan with Jen one last time. They’ll met up again later that evening for the Thursday Night Social Run, a free, weekly, informal group run from different locations around the city.

Just another day in the urban wilderness of Portland, Oregon with Animal Athletics.

To learn more about Animal Athletics check out or email

About Author

Matt Rasmussen lives in Keizer, Ore. with his wife and three daughters. He enjoys watching hockey, going to as many breweries (618) and wineries (152) as he can, and all things Canada (he was born there). Matt was raised as a baseball player and officially transitioned over to running in 2010.

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