During the month of March, athletes (and Regular Joes and Janes) all around the world compete against more than 80,000 athletes (and, most dauntingly, themselves) in a series of weekly workouts meant to culminate in the discovery of the "Fittest Man on Earth." This ain't the Hunger Games: It's the CrossFit Games Open. Here's is the story of how I basically almost won the whole thing.
Here I come, little Johnny Jack
Maybe it was peer pressure, if it's reasonable to consider the muscled coaches at my CrossFit box "peers". Maybe it was a temporary lapse in sanity due to lack of brain oxygen post-WOD. Or perhaps it was just the noisy little imp in my brain that shouts at me to get out of bed every morning to lift heavy things and hang from a pull-up bar for dear life. Whatever the reason, I signed up to compete in the CrossFit Games Open (or "the Open" as it is known to the initiated), mere weeks after learning the difference between a squat and a snatch.
Let's be honest here
I still get nervous every time I walk into a CrossFit class. I peek at the whiteboard for the WOD ("workout of the day"), and immediately begin to bargain with my body: "I swear, body, if you can just get through this 20 minute AMRAP, I will buy you anything you want!"
I rarely go with the prescribed weight ("Rx" in CrossFit lingo) for the exercises because thanks to my baseline knowledge of physics (courtesy of Mr. Gundy, my high school science teacher) I understand that my T-Rex arms cannot support the weight of anything heavier than a $5 Footlong for any significant period of time.
So why enter myself in an athletic challenge seeking the Fittest on Earth, when I'm not even the fittest in my apartment? (Sure, I live alone, but NYC rats are surprisingly strong...)
- Because of the support. I am a member of Brick New York, the most supportive fitness group I have ever snuck my way into. Entering the Open as part of Brick's team (which consisted of approximately 350 competitors!) made me feel like I was being set up to succeed by the network.
- Because I like to measure progress. Nothing measures progress quite as well as benchmark workouts. The Open was also a chance for me to see how I stacked up against other CrossFitters around the world.
- Because I love a challenge. More importantly, I was born without the shame gene. It is virtually impossible for me to feel embarrassed, so "failure" in this competition had a very narrow definition. There was nothing for me to lose by pushing myself physically to accomplish something that, a year ago, I wouldn't have even begun.
Preparation and The Announcement
In the days leading up to the first Open workout of 2014 - "Workout 14.1" - I did more trembling than training. The Open WODs are announced by the Wizard of CrossFit Oz on Thursday evenings; competitors have until Monday to complete the workout in front of a "judge" (who has the authority to "NO REP!" you - the two nastiest words you could hear in the middle of an overhead squat). You then load your WOD score (the number of reps you complete in the workout), which is validated by the CrossFit affiliate where you completed with workout. You have no way of knowing which exercises will be included in the Open WODs before the announcement, so it is impossible to game the system.
My training strategy consisted mostly of prayer. I also studied up on the most efficient ways to complete fundamental CrossFit exercises: pull-ups, burpees, box jumps, etc. [Side note: This training included one workout that was 7 straight minutes to complete as many burpees as possible. To compare this to Hell is an unkind picture to paint of Hell.] I studied tape (i.e., watched YouTube videos) of last year's Open to understand how competitors transitioned from one exercise to the next. I tried to glean strategies on when to take breaks. I focused on cardio, preparing my heart for the anaerobic push of the competition.
But at some point, the training went out the window. The workouts begin. May the odds be ever in my favor.
They say the first workout of the Open will be one "everyone" can do. It was an unpleasant surprise, then, when 14.1 was announced as a 10 minute AMRAP (as many rounds as possible) of 30 double-unders (jumping rope where the rope has to go under you two times per a single hop) and 15 power snatches at 75 lbs. (for men). Double-unders are notoriously difficult, especially for newbies - you've either got them or you don't. I don't.
"Let's just aim for 2 rounds," I joked to my judge before starting 14.1. I knew I would struggle stringing together the double-unders, but damned if I wasn't going to at least try for a good workout.
This WOD was scored by number of reps. Essentially, every time I jumped over the rope, I got a point. Every time I lifted the weights over my head, I got a point. One round (30 double-unders and 15 power snatches) equaled 45 points. I hoped to score around 100. I ended up close to 200 (!!!).
As the following Thursday rolled around, I was actually stoked for the unveiling of the second Open WOD. And then the announcement came and my stomach fell out of my butt.
The workout combined two seemingly simple moves (overhead squats and pull-ups), but threw in wicked time constraints. For the first round, each participant had just three minutes to complete two rounds of 10 overhead squats (95 lbs. for men) and 10 chest-to-bar pull-ups - 40 reps in 3 minutes. If you finished those reps in 3 minutes, you earned another three minutes to complete two rounds of 12 overhead squats and 12 chest-to-bar pull-ups. Each time you met the three-minute rep cycle, you earned another three minutes and added two reps to each workout.
I failed completely. There was nothing remotely impressive about my performance. I could barely hoist the 95 lbs. over my head, and got stuck at the bottom of my squats. I could not string together more than 2 or 3 pull-ups at a time. I was out after just three minutes; I didn't even make it to the second round.
The hardest part of dealing with my 14.2 performance was waiting a whole week to try to redeem myself. So when 14.3 was announced to include two of my favorite exercises - deadlifts and box jumps - I was psyched. The workout was an 8-minute AMRAP of deadlifts and box jumps. The deadlifts began with 10 reps at 135 lbs., and increased each round (second round: 15 reps, 185 lbs.; third round: 20 reps, 225 lbs.; etc.); each round of deadlifts was followed by 15 box jumps onto a 24" platform.
I will not allege to have achieved an objectively remarkable score, but I did hit a personal record in the deadlift. I bent down and lifted 225 lbs. off the ground. Without snapping in half. I had never done that before in my life and I was damn proud of it.
There are certain exercises you just know are coming, and 14.4 threw some of the toughest basics in our faces. It's called a "chipper" workout: a 14 minute AMRAP.
- 60 calorie row
- 50 toes-to-bars ("t2b's")
- 40 wallballs
- 30 cleans at 135 lbs.
- 20 muscle-ups.
If you threw up just now from reading that, you experienced my precise reaction.
I wanted to be done with this workout from the moment it began. I have become pretty fond of rowing over the past year (in huge part thanks to our friends at The Fhitting Room, Throwback Fitness and CityRow), and was pleased when I hit my 60 calories in under 3 minutes. But completing 50 toes-to-bars was no easy task, especially not after ripping a crater in my hand earlier that week during pull-ups. But perhaps hardest of all was that the row, the t2b's and the wallballs turned my arms into wet noodles, and it took everything I had to get just a couple of cleans before the bell rang. Mercifully, I didn't even make it to the point of embarrassing myself on the rings to attempt a muscle-up, an exercise I still have yet to even try.
You know how I mentioned that thing about inevitable exercises? I didn't need a crystal ball to figure out which moves would cap the Open - thrusters and burpees. But the CrossFit Gods were feeling sinister when they decided that 14.5 would not be a time-limited AMRAP. Oh no, 14.5 was intended to make you glad there was not a 14.6: 21 thrusters (95 lbs.) followed by 21 bar-facing burpees (a burpee where you jump over the barbell). And then 18 thrusters followed by 18 burpees. And then sets of 15. Followed by sets of 12. Followed by sets of 9, 6, and 3. Like some kind of twisted take on gym class suicides. That's 84 thrusters and 84 burpees. No time limit. Just do it.
This was scary. For the first time of the Open, I didn't believe I could complete the workout. I knew I couldn't thrust the weight of a runway model over my head 84 times. So I took the advice of my coach and broke the sets down: I wouldn't be going for one set of 21 thrusters, but instead three quick sets of 8-7-6. I couldn't breathe or even hear much of what was going on around me during the WOD, until I heard my coach and my fellow athletes begin to cheer me on, to jump up and down and tell me I was on to my short sets of 9. Then to the sets of 6. After 20 minutes and 14 seconds, I completed my 84th burpee. And the 2014 CrossFit Games Open came to a close.
With one CrossFit Games Open under my belt, I feel exhausted and definitely relieved. But in many ways, I'm sad that it's over. I pushed myself as I never have in the gym; I SCREAMED and GRUNTED as I flung barbells this way and that. I was, if only for a month, an athlete. And I can't wait until next year's Open to practice what I learned:
- Conditioning is key. As I discovered after the first week, the Open WODs are not necessarily about the heaviest 1-rep max you can do, but how many reps you can do without dropping the bar or stopping to take a break. In order to keep moving for the entire AMRAP, your body has to be conditioned to maintain an intense pace over a period of time.
- Pacing is key. No one is going to be impressed if you sprint out of the gate and run out of gas less than halfway into the WOD. Allow your body to get a feeling for the first round and maintain that pace throughout.
- But breaks are also key. If your limbs feel like they are about to snap like a wishbone, drop the damn weights, shake them out, catch your breath, and get back in the game.
- Planning breaks is a smart move. The most helpful tip I got in 14.5 was the strategy to break up lengthy sets. For instance, I found comfort in knowing that the round of 15 thrusters would be broken into three mini-sets: 6-5-4. This allowed me to reserve some energy, take shorter breaks and move through faster.
- Enjoying yourself is paramount. Most of us do not join CrossFit (or any gym, really) for the purpose of becoming the "best" at fitness. We do it to take care of ourselves, improve ourselves, and be good to our bodies. Participate and enjoy the benefits of your hard work.
For those of you who have never done Crossfit
A few facts:
- CrossFit is scary for newbies.
- Competition is intimidating.
- Participating in the CrossFit Games Open as a newbie should have made no sense whatsoever for me.
- This was one of the most empowering, self-affirming events I have ever participated in during my life. Clearly, it's not about where I ended up on the leaderboard - I am 62,715 out of 80,278 athletes in the world, and I am 6,000 of 7,913 in the North East region. But I don't care. Ain't nobody got time for stats. I took a risk, I put myself out there to fail, and in the end, I completed it. I completed it all.
A word in closing
Though I give my full stamp of approval on this experience, this post is not meant so much as an advertisement for CrossFit, but an endorsement to push yourself towards your fitness goals, no matter the venue. Maybe it's bumping it up from two to three pound weights in a SoulCycle class. Or hanging on to that plank for just three seconds longer. Whatever it is, you are stronger than you know: Sometimes you just have to put yourself to the test.
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