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At Mark Twight’s Gym Jones, clients pick their poison

Gym Jones is a semi-exclusive MMA-focused training center, but the owner is a Cat. 3 and he caters to endurance athletes as well

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Mark Twight is every bit the teacher.

That’s the most apparent quality of the owner of Salt Lake City-based Gym Jones, despite the unapologetically macho first impression offered by his gym’s website, which relates its semi-exclusive membership policy to Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club and claims to settle copyright infringements “in the street.”

“If somebody trains with us in the gym for a year… they should be able to leave and design their own training and achieve whatever goals they want without us,” Twight told VeloNews. “If we do our job, and we teach well, then we lose them as a client.”

Twight, now a Cat. 3 masters racer, began his athletic career in 1980 as a professional mountaineer, “a sport where the results of a lack of fitness means you might not survive,” he said.

“I was one of the… better guys in the world at it,” Twight said of his 20-year climbing career. “But [I] realized it was pretty much a dead end one way or the other, and retired.”

“Better” is one way to describe it. Transcendent would be another. Twight’s feats include a 72-hour roundtrip ascent of the Deprivation route on Mount Hunter and a 60-hour ascent of the Slovak Direct on the south face of Mount Denali — as brave and bold as it gets in alpine climbing. He was a major antagonist in the movement for pure alpine-style climbing and was twice nominated for the Piolet d’Or, the top award in mountaineering.

But Twight began cycling after a late-2006 shoulder rebuild took him out of the gym for two months.

“All I could do was spend time on the trainer in my garage. That was what kept me sane,” he said. “I started reading a little bit about it, about bike racing, and thought, ‘you know, this could be kind of entertaining.’

“I learned that (BMC Racing team doctor) Max Testa was here in town, and decided that I should go talk to him… I did my first race in April of that year (2007), and it exploded from there.”

Visit the black-and-white website of Gym Jones — Twight calls the color scheme “stark,” saying it reflects his love-hate relationship with climbing and the gym’s all-or-nothing approach to training — and it might come as a surprise that the man behind it all is an avid cyclist.

Any one of the photographs would be equally at home on the Chippendales homepage, with the cuffs, collars, and smiles swapped for sweat shorts, barbells, and grimaces.

However, during the four months Twight spent in Bulgaria training actors and stuntmen for the upcoming sequel to “300” — Gym Jones also prepared actors for the 2006 original, requiring them to train shirtless upwards of six hours a day to force accountability — he “rode basically every day.”

“It’s a pretty dominant force in my life,” he said.

“Mark has been in that endurance world,” said Joe Holmes, former director of the Hagens Berman elite team and coach to seven-time U.S. junior ‘cross champion Logan Owen. “When he was doing his climbing, he’s doing stuff like a 40-hour push. You don’t get more endurance than that, right?”

Twight’s 1999 book, “Extreme Alpinism: Climbing Light, Fast, and High,” detailed one of the earliest training programs for alpine climbers. “He was ahead of his time,” Holmes said.

He began his career as a trainer in earnest by adapting the popular strength program CrossFit to endurance sports.

“I spent a couple years… trying to reshape what [CrossFit] had started so that it would work for guys who were doing climbing, or guys who were running 100-mile races, and, eventually, cyclists,” he said.

Twight’s training philosophy is simple: “Find the problem, fix the problem,” as he states it.

The approach, however, belies Twight’s understanding of the importance of getting inside the mind of the athlete.

“It’s psychological manipulation in some way,” he said. “And not in sort of a Machiavellian sense, but ok, what makes this person tick? What is this guy going to respond to?”

The challenge is in targeting motivation.

“Some people are going to respond better to the stick,” Twight said, “and some people are going to respond better to the carrot, and some people have to be tricked into doing something that they didn’t believe they could do.”

“They talk a lot about, ‘the mind is primary,’ that’s a big thing at Gym Jones,” Holmes said.

However, Twight’s objective-driven, results-based training is as exclusive as it is effective.

Gym Jones’ membership policy, instated when it opened to a few select, sponsored athletes in December 2003, vets prospective clients by work ethic and motivation; Gym Jones now has fewer than 40 paying clients, and trains a further 20 sponsored athletes free of charge.

In line with the membership criteria, an image accompanying Gym Jones’ online disclaimer shows an athlete in pain, with the caption: “You were free to choose and you did. Now lie in it.”

The message, both in the caption and in the gym’s name (a play on Jim Jones, who in 1978 led 914 members of his People’s Temple to drink cyanide) is clear: pick your poison. Clients whose commitment to training dips below 100 percent are shown the door.

“Not everybody gets given that gift of time and expertise,” Twight said. “The reason what we do works is because we control the environment within which all the work happens 100 percent. That means not only the physical space, but the people and the spirit of the people that fill the space.”

That exclusivity was born of those first three years as an invitation-only, free-of-charge training center for alpine climbers, skiers, and mixed-martial arts and Brazilian Jiujitsu fighters before the gym cracked its door ajar to the public in 2006 with online training programs and six-to-eight on-site seminars each year, in addition to the limited paid memberships.

Holmes, whom Twight accompanied in the Hagens Berman team car at the 2010 Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah, said the depth of knowledge of the staff (seven trainers, including Twight, his wife Lisa, and general manager Rob “Maximus” MacDonald of Toronto, Canada, a former police officer, UFC fighter, and kindergarten teacher) is also key.

“The wealth of knowledge that’s there is humbling,” Holmes said. “And it’s kind of inspiring at the same time.”

Take away the bare-bones gym floor, strict requirements of motivation, and exclusivity. What sets Gym Jones — and Twight — apart, even for endurance athletes?

“They walk the walk,” said Holmes.