The shelter director “tried to think of the nicest way to tell me that homeless guys don’t run,” she remembers.
Six years later, the nonprofit organization she founded, called Back on My Feet, operates run clubs at nearly 60 shelters in 11 cities, including Washington and Baltimore. (The newest branch, Los Angeles, opened Monday.) With a staff of 48, thousands of volunteers and an operating budget of $6.5 million, the organization can boast an even more impressive number: 46 percent of participants find a job, housing or both.
So Mahlum’s announcement in July that she would be stepping down as chief executive was surprising. And her press release in August that she’d be opening a boutique fitness studio in Washington was downright head-scratching.
But it all makes sense to Mahlum, who recognized about 18 months ago that she was growing restless. She pushed to expand Back on My Feet to more cities and developed an employment initiative. All that building led to more work, but no relief. Back on My Feet needed stability, and Mahlum needed a new project.
She found it in January at a studio in Los Angeles that specializes in the Lagree Fitness Method. Developed by celebrity trainer Sebastien Lagree, who souped up a Pilates reformer to create what he’s dubbed the “Megaformer,” the method pairs slow, controlled movements and rapid-fire transitions to absolutely devastate muscles.
“I walked into this class, and I thought, ‘I can run 10 miles without any effort. I’ll be fine,’ ” Mahlum says. This time, she admits, she was wrong. With her abs on fire and her legs shaking, she returned home to New York and told her boyfriend, Brennan McReynolds, he had to try this thing at a Manhattan studio.
“I was shattered,” says McReynolds, 33, who has an Ironman, ultramarathon and countless other endurance events under his belt.
The pieces just fell into place after that. Mahlum and McReynolds had met in the District and were looking for a reason to return. Although more than 100 Lagree Fitness Method studios have sprouted up across the country — and in Canada, Australia and Hong Kong — no one had bought the license yet for the Washington area. In March, Mahlum made a phone call to find out whether she could buy it. In August, Mahlum and McReynolds moved to Washington so they could begin training other instructors.
And on Saturday, the doors officially open at Solidcore at 1841 Columbia Rd. NW.
Because Lagree sells licenses rather than franchises, owners choose their own names and craft their own culture. Mahlum’s plan is to borrow from her Back on My Feet playbook as much as possible. She wants a communal atmosphere, with “a lot of high fives,” she says.
The major difference, of course, is that Solidcore is a for-profit business: After a student’s reduced-price first class, drop-ins are $35 per session. (Mahlum plans to teach community classes for Back on My Feet members and offer the studio for fundraisers.)
But Mahlum sees plenty of connections between the two endeavors. Back on My Feet was a personal project, and so is Solidcore. It’s her chance to reach out to people with body-image issues like the ones that plagued her in her early 20s.
“I was throwing up my food like nobody’s business. I was obsessed with looking perfect, being perfect,” Mahlum says. “When Back on My Feet started, I cared enough about other people that it went away. I had a bigger calling.”
At Solidcore, she wants to motivate students through tough workouts with only positive energy. Her instruction style is pure pep talk, congratulating people for showing up, pushing themselves and surviving. “It’s all about feeling strong and creating a better version of yourself,” she says. (And because this kind of exercise takes a toll on the body, Mahlum encourages breaks: “If someone was coming more than four days a week, we’d tell them to stop.”)
Both Back on My Feet and Solidcore also tap into her faith in the transformative power of fitness. “I just believe that the foundation for happiness is health,” she says.
In the lead-up to the opening, Solidcore has been holding a series of free classes to introduce people to the method. So last week, 10 guinea pigs circled around Mahlum as she gave them a tour of the Megaformer, which resembles a bed. There are stable platforms on either end, a sliding carriage in the middle and springs that let users vary resistance. Bars shaped like horns shoot up from the platforms, and resistance bands lurk below.
“We’ll never do anything for more than two minutes. And everything is four counts, nice and slow,” she explained as the students each mounted their own machines.
Every session starts — and ends — with abs. By the third move (which required lying back on the carriage while slowly lifting and lowering the legs), faces were gleaming with sweat.
“I know it’s already tough. It’s supposed to be,” Mahlum said.
“Gold Digger” blared as students stood with one foot on the platform and the other on the carriage to do squats. “I’m a Slave 4 U” was the accompaniment when they got on hands and knees, put one foot into a resistance-band handle and had to lift that sole to the ceiling.
Despite the upbeat playlist, students have to remember to keep the brakes on. “Going fast in this class is not going to help you,” Mahlum reminded students trying to lunge back on the carriage too quickly.
After a few more grimaces, some audible grunts and a flurry of more exercises (including a particularly brutal plank-to-pike move), 50 minutes was up.
“She makes you jump right into it, so there isn’t a lot of wasted time,” Aaron Maurer, 40, said. Maurer, who lives around the corner from the studio, signed up for a month’s membership.
He’ll probably bump into Jean Li, 29, who became obsessed with Megaformer classes in New York and jumped at the chance to visit a studio down the street from her condo. “This leaves no muscle unburned,” Li said, and warned that with variations, every move can be even tougher.
That’s no surprise for Jaime Alberelli, 23, of Shaw. She’s a member services manager for Back on My Feet, and knows that Mahlum likes a challenge.
“This is a supportive environment, but it’s still no-nonsense. You have to be ready to work,” Alberelli said. “It’s like Anne.”
Another sign that Mahlum is in charge is that the paint is barely dry, and she’s already eyeing other locations for expansion.
“I can promise you it won’t be one studio,” says McReynolds, who’s amazed the first location got up and running so quickly. “Unfortunately, she now has the expectation that we can do it faster.”
On Twitter: @postmisfits
Hallett edits the Fit section of Express.