A Portland Historic Workout Will Educate And Exhaust You

Sweatin' to the oldies in the Forest City.

Leigh Rush Olson instructing on her Old Port Historic Workouts tour
By Sara Anne Donnelly
Photographed by Tory Welton
From our April 2021 issue

Leigh Rush Olson’s tour of historic Portland begins with the city’s famous fires. There have been four big ones since the 17th century, she tells me, not long after meeting me in Monument Square. I can relate to all that burning. While Olson details the blazes, she has me marching to Heart’s “Barracuda,” which she blasts from a smartphone perched on the concrete base of Our Lady of Victories, a towering 1888 bronze figure of the Greek goddess Nike that honors local Civil War vets.

“Get those knees up, up, up!” she cries, before swiveling to point to the 1910 Beaux Arts People’s United Bank building across the street. “There’s Portland’s first skyscraper!”

Such is the charming nuttiness of Olson’s Old Port Historic Workouts tour — a 90-minute, 2-mile jog/speed-walk for solo exercisers and small groups that incorporates more than 50 stops at city landmarks, plus cardio and bodyweight exercises like jumping jacks, planks, and squats. It’s a concept that could easily seem gimmicky if Olson didn’t take her history and her aerobic activity so seriously. A former Portland history docent with Greater Portland Landmarks who spent years researching her tour, she’s a font of local knowledge in girly athleisure. Olson, a South Portland native, started leading workout tours in Manhattan in the late ’90s, paying her way through college by combining her gig as a health-club fitness director with her studies as a history major at CUNY Brooklyn College. In 2016, she launched in Portland with both workout and walking tours — the latter covering the same material, minus the heart pounding and squats.

For our jaunt, Olson’s dressed in a pale-pink knit hat with two huge pom-poms, cable-knit leg warmers and striped thigh high socks over gray leggings, and a black face mask with rows of gold studs that twinkle like a disco ball when she talks. She winds me through the Old Port and downtown, expounding on buildings designed by architectural luminaries John Calvin Stevens (the circa-1900 Romanesque Revival Oxford Block) and Francis Fassett (the 1876 Second Empire Centennial Block), among other highlights, like the 1786 neoclassical Wadsworth-Longfellow House and 1792 Colonial Samuel Butts House, the city’s oldest and second-oldest homes. All the while, she’s spearheading a full-body workout that guarantees I’m wide awake for every detail.

Somewhere in the middle of the tour, we pause in Tommy’s Park to contemplate South Portlander Will Sears’s abstract mural as best we can while reverse-lunging ourselves into neuromuscular conflagration. “If it’s burning, it’s working!” Olson cries. “No pun intended with the fires!” Then she turns to bound up Exchange Street, and we’re off again.

April–October (walking tours); May–October (workout tours); private tours available year-round.