Prologue: The Shadows of Lascaux

Trxbal is the result of two things: my experience as a crossfitter at Pioneer Valley CrossFit and my need to write about that experience.  What I hope to relate is an image of a CrossFit box as a place that strikes an ancient chord in our being.  We are tribal by nature.  We express our best selves within communities that foster a shared sense of purpose.  My CrossFit box is such a community for me.  This is my attempt to explore why this is so.

If I have done my job well, this blog should also be full of humor.  The tribe that I have found at PVCF is an interesting cast of characters.  I hope that I have fairly captured and delivered the funny exchanges in our CrossFit lives, because humor is as essential to a good life as community, health, and having a great set of guns to display when you rip your shirt off during a WOD.

I am haunted by the cave paintings at Lascaux that appear on the home page.   Were we our best selves – physically and spiritually – when our lives were closest to nature and art?  Are we so removed from the elements of life that what is left is all simulated experience?  If so, how do we best live a fulfilling and meaningful life?  These are the questions that confronted me as I began to write about the deep sense of purpose that I found in CrossFit, which is really just a form of exercise.  I do not have any definitive answers to these questions.  But I have discovered that writing about them is somehow redemptive, cathartic, spiritual.  I write in the shadows of Lascaux.

1.20 The Arc of the Open

My participation in the 2017 CrossFit Open evolved along a natural human arc. It began with energy, excitement and anticipation. I felt it. I know my friends felt it. It proceeded into the hard work phase, followed by the ‘holy shit I might be really amazing’ phase, on to the ‘well, I guess not’ phase and finally to the ‘I love doing this so stop overthinking it’ phase. Or at least, those are the phases I have identified. But then again:

 

This arc of phases unfolded over the first three weeks. It started the day of the first open, 17.1, when my cell phone started blowing up with text messages. I had seen the announcement of what the workout would be the night before on the crossfit.com website. I had watched two sets of top rated Games athletes, men in Canada and women in France, battle head to head to start the Open. It looked rather Sisyphusian: start by picking up a 50 lb. dumbbell overhead, alternating arms, doing a certain number of reps. Then do burpees, i.e. dropping to the ground, getting back up, jumping onto a 24” box and off the other side, for 15 reps. Then back to the dumbbells, then back to burpees, ad nauseam. My reaction: (a) I can do that and (b) let’s do this thing. The texts were about who was going to be at Friday Night Lights, how to do the dumbbell snatches and what would be the limiting factor: strength, cardio, shoulders, low back tightening up, etc. But it was all logistics: it went without saying that we were up for the challenge.

The excitement and anticipation phase for me lasted until the exact moment when I jumped up onto the box after my first burpee. Up to that point I was worried that I would not be strong enough to repeatedly thrust a 50 lb. dumbbell over my head. But as soon as I jumped, my folly became clear: My legs already felt rubbery from the dumbbell snatches. Shit. Now I had to finish this workout, alternating shoulder-aching dumbbell snatches with leg-burning burpees, with my lungs absolutely on fire and no place to hide in a box filled with 200 screaming crossfitters. My thought must have echoed the thoughts of ten thousand other crossfitters at this point in 17.1: “Oh my god my legs are already rubber and I have 19 minutes and 30 seconds to go.” That 19 minutes and 30 seconds was one of the most grueling times of my life. I never knew a 24-inch box could look like the world’s tallest manmade structure.

With the excitement phase quite finished, I moved into the ‘work’ phase. My typical work phase is the middle third of a WOD, when I’m cruising through body weight stuff, running, or repping out weight work, and the endorphins have kicked in. I tend to howl, laugh, cheer and challenge the world through this high. I didn’t get my traditional work phase that night though. What I got instead was the kind of exhaustion reserved for 19th century shipwreck survivors and CrossFitters who go out too hard during an Open WOD. Sometimes you just get stuck grinding it out when all you want to do is fall over gasping for air.

During my last round of dumbbell snatches Seth, who was judging me, demanded that I do the last 20 reps without a break. I don’t know how I kept picking my arms up. By the time I was on to my last burpees, I was so gassed that it was all I could do to heave myself up and over without smashing my shins on the box. I ran out of time 7 burpees into the last round of 15.

I was not disappointed: I was about as capable of going faster as Trump is of going a week without having a Twitter meltdown. So much for week one. I was 2,821 in the world, 281 in the Northeast. Considering I was only able to do one of the workouts in the open last year without any modifications, it was already a huge step forward.

1.19 The Endless Round

As a New Englander and a baseball player, I grew up with an intrinsic understanding of the rhythm of the seasons. Summer was the high time. It was baseball season. I worked my job every day, played baseball every night and followed the Red Sox day in and day out. Fall was full of meaning: It started at the end of the summer when my team made its playoff run. It would take on greater dimensions in October with the World Series. Winter was the dead time. Red Sox Nation became Hiber Nation. I would play basketball and hit the weights, but really I was just waiting out the cold weather. And then there was the spring. There might be snow banks on the side of the road, but the melted snow would be rushing to sewer drains, the sun would start to feel warm by midday, the Red Sox would be in Florida at Spring training and the promise of another summer, full of hot weather and baseball, would be upon us.

It has been many years since I have played baseball. I do not follow the Red Sox in any consistent way these days. Somewhere in my 20s the rhythm of sports, school and seasons receded, replaced by the endless round of work. If the seasons lost their cultural signposts, so too did the weeks. As a lawyer in the age of the Internet, the weekend has long since lost its place as a time of rest and recovery. It is now just a slowdown in the endless storm of emails and phone calls, a chance to make up some time on the professional road, endless, leading not to a destination but to more road, sometimes straight and smooth, oftentimes hazardous, but always to more road.

This year feels different. CrossFit has its own rhythm, and I am starting to fall into it. The winter was pretty dead; it is winter, after all. But dead means less running and more strength training, and my body is starting to understand that short, cold days mean eating and lifting heavier. In January PVCF had its Fitness Forever Challenge, which has become my annual time to dial in my diet in advance of the beach days and metcons of summer. After the Challenge ended, I started gearing up for the CrossFit Open. The Open is a five-week, five workout competition. CrossFitters all over the world compete, submit their scores and see how they stack up against others in their age bracket. The top finishers advance to their regional competitions. The best at the regionals go to the CrossFit Games, where the winners are named the “fittest on earth.”

The Open feels to me like the unofficial start of spring. There is an energy at the box, a buzz about the event as it unfolds. PVCF has “Friday Night Lights.” We sign up in heats and do the workout as a big event. The athletes perform at an intensity that only the Open can bring to the box. The people not in a heat act as judges, and everyone follows the action, cheering athletes as they give max effort for one more rep, or to get their first ever pull-up, muscle up or 225 lb. snatch.

Whatever an athlete’s fitness edge happens to be, the will of the community propels her beyond it. Sometimes, everything lines up and one person goes much farther, lifts much heavier, gives something of himself that transcends his limitations. In that moment his effort elevates the entire room, the entire community.

 

Untitled

 

For everyone at PVCF, the Open is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end of our part in the quest to be named the fittest on earth. We aren’t going anywhere to see how we stack up against anyone outside of our box, and we know it. But like teenage boys playing Legion baseball for their local teams, there is nevertheless something irreducibly meaningful about it. To understand this I believe we need recall our ancient world, the world of the Paleolithic hunt, of cave paintings and rituals honoring the unity of hunter and beast, when our actions had purpose, when our combined skills determined our collective survival. I believe it is that world that we recreate in sport; that sports sound in ancient rhythms and universal themes.

My world is relatively meaningful from the perspective of modern society. I am a lawyer, a professional. My practice is intellectually challenging. My clients’ legal cases determine whether they will receive the monthly disability benefits that they desperately need to live with some dignity and financial security. But my days, weeks, months and years move to no great rhythm, echo in no great eternity. Ours is a world of making a living or making a profit, of punching a clock or piling up zeros in a bank account. We gave up the hunt long ago.

CrossFit does not displace work. As far as we know, it never will: there is nothing in our collective horizon pointing to a better way of organizing our world. Nor does it neatly line up with the New England seasons: the Open starts too early, as evidenced by the colossal snowstorm that buried my little city as I wrote this. But there is something in CrossFit that rekindles the rhythm of the seasons and brings out a level of human experience that is so often lacking in our day-to-day lives. I feel it in the annual events, in the subtle changes of the workouts as the seasons change, in the way that the programmers tailor the workout of the day to the mood of the season.

So with the 2017 Open I marked the new season and began looking forward to hot days, fun, sunny, outdoor workouts, and maybe even a little Red Sox baseball on the radio as I drive home, lit up from a WOD, with the windows down and the town abuzz with people enjoying the long days and warm nights, while they last.

1.18 GoldMember

Do you know who owns your bank? How about the places where you buy your coffee and your clothes? If you go to Starbucks and Old Navy, not a chance. Do you expect to have a say in the way those businesses are run, or to find a real sense of community? I doubt it.

CrossFit feels different. This is from the Home page of the crossfit.com website:

Untitled

CrossFit consciously builds community. People become attached to their CrossFit boxes. They form strong connections with the coaches who teach them and the athletes who train with them. But CrossFit is still a business, a worldwide, $4 billion a year business. The people who own CrossFit boxes have the right to run them just like any other business. Members pay monthly fees, just like at any other gym. A CrossFit box, in other words, is a community superimposed on a business.

PVCF had a kerfuffle recently that brought the dual economic and social nature of a box into sharp relief. The owners, whom I know personally and like very much, decided to offer tiered memberships. Under their new system, gold members would be able to go to any class, silver members to most classes and blue members to off peak hour classes only. The idea was to make CrossFit more accessible to those who might not be able to afford a full membership or who have flexible schedules and may not want to pay the full membership fee.

Some of the PVCF members, myself included, saw a potential problem. We worried that blocking off certain class times for gold members would make others feel that they were not full members of the PVCF community just because they could not afford the gold membership fee. The proposed change caused a stir: it really was a big deal to us. To us it was something that could change the nature of our community, so we felt compelled to express our concerns to the owners. The owners listened to us and explained their reasoning. Ultimately, they did go forward with their plan.

In my view, there is a fault line between community and our current socioeconomic structure, free market capitalism. This kerfuffle – and the CrossFit model more generally – reveals that fault line. Community is about inclusiveness. The word is, after all, made up of the words ‘common’ and ‘unity.’[1] What creates a community and keeps it together is a shared interest in the common good. What creates a business and keeps it going is revenue. Communities are made up of families, friends and neighbors. A business is made up of owners, employees and customers. A community is oriented to the full humanity of its members. A business need only be oriented to the economic part of its employees and customers. On the business side of things, there is a spectrum. On one end are those driven exclusively by profit. On the other end are those whose owners take into account the full range of stakeholders – employees, customers, the community and the environment – often making decisions for the greater good that hurt their own bottom line.

Our little kerfuffle was a 1 or a 2 on the economic/social Richter scale. It was just a small fissure between the owners and the community that they have created within the framework of their CrossFit box. It wasn’t really an issue directly about pricing vs. profit, just about the way that memberships would be structured. Still, it signified that a CrossFit box brings into play a much broader part of our humanity than we have become accustomed to seeing in the market place.

When I joined PVCF I was looking for community, because I am always looking for community: I enjoy connecting with people. But I think that everyone who comes to CrossFit will find a community if that is what he or she is seeking. Boxes become communities in a way that coffee shops and clothing stores do not. They build community in a way that I have not seen in gyms, yoga studios, hiking clubs, work places, and other organizations. Perhaps, as some have suggested, CrossFit is more like a church than a fitness center. It certainly has its devotees, and a Sunday morning workout followed by brunch with my friends sure feels like a day of worship.

I will never believe that our world runs best under an economic system driven by profit, or that subordinating the common good to private ownership and market forces is anything but a doomed experiment in promoting a vice as a virtue and selling it as ‘freedom.’ But I acknowledge that CrossFit is a business and that this is the world in which I live. I have a law practice. I charge my clients fees for my services and pay my monthly membership fees to PVCF. So when I feel the closeness of the CrossFit community, when I recognize how much it enriches my life, I do not lament that it is ultimately a business. Instead, I understand with satisfaction that our lives sound most deeply in our common unity.

Addendum: PVCF recently ended its experiment with a tiered fee structure.

 

[1] Totally not true. There is nothing about ‘unity’ in the etymology of the word ‘community.’ But shouldn’t there be? Doesn’t that just sound right? And anyway, I think my bastardization of the etymology of the word drives home my point quite nicely: Community is our word for the sum of the common bonds that unite us.

1.17 Solving for X

When 2017 rolled around, it brought with it the PVCF Fitness Forever Challenge. The previous year, I used the challenge to get to a base line diet, on the theory that I couldn’t really dial in my diet until I actually had one. Just eating whenever you’re hungry isn’t a diet, it’s food chaos. Or it’s being under 30. Last year was an elimination round: I had eliminated potato chips (that one hurt), ice cream (hey, shut up about cheat day, I have the floor right now), cookies (see prior parenthetical), pizza, late night junk food, candy, and plenty of other habitual indulgences. This year I wanted to build my newfound discipline into a diet based on nutrition, science, data – you know, something this side of total ignorance. I had eliminated the bad; it was time to see if I could eat in a way that was good.

I grew up in the 80’s, when ordinary Americans ate grains to be healthy and the know-it-alls were preaching about the virtues of fruits and vegetables because of their vitamins and minerals. Not so today. Today it’s all about macronutrients, or macros. Of these there are three, as far as I know: carbohydrates, protein and fat. These three macros are our sources of energy. They are measured in calories. Apparently some scientist kicked up a shit storm in the late 80s by theorizing that excessive carbohydrates wreak havoc on the human body. Almost 30 years later, grains are out, meat is in. Nutritionists and serious athletes, meanwhile, have been mixing and matching macros in search of the perfectly formulated gasoline mix to fuel the human engine.

I have now studied a ton about the amounts and ratios of macros I should eat in a day. And by a ton, I mean that I have watched I think four YouTube videos and had casual conversations with a few friends at CrossFit who seem to be a bit ahead of me on this topic. Bottom line: To optimize my athletic performance I needed to weigh and measure my food. Specifically, I needed to eat meals whose calories came 40% from carbohydrates, 30% from protein and 30% from fat.

Total calories per day should be driven by the amount of protein my body needs, which is in turn determined by multiplying (a) my lean body mass and (b) my activity level. Lean body mass is a person’s weight minus his percentage of body fat. I guesstimated my lean body mass at 132 lbs. (150 lbs. and 12% body fat). I have no idea how to convert my activity level to a number, but the people on the YouTube videos did. For a typical crossfitter who does one WOD a day like I do, the number to plug in is .7. Doing the math, that worked out to 92.4 grams of protein per day.

Now here is where it gets fun. If you start with, say, 7 grams of protein and want to create a combination of foods that works out to 40% carbohydrates, 30% protein and 30% fat, you will find that you need 9 grams of carbohydrates and 3 grams of fat (The Zone Diet, which is the bible for the 40-30-30 crowd, calls this a ‘block’: more about that presently). You will notice, of course, that 9, 7 and 3 do not sit in a ratio of 40%-30%-30% to one another. Presumably that would be too easy. Or it may have to do with the fact that these macronutrients do not contain the same calories per unit of weight. One gram of protein may contain 10 calories whereas 1 gram of fat may contain 25 calories, or whatever. I don’t care what it works out to: whatever it is, I have to do math by converting percentages to grams. I’d almost rather stay unhealthy.

It would be great if that were the only math built into the Zone prescription. It’s not. Food, as it turns out, does not come neatly packaged as “carbohydrate” food, “protein” food and “fat” food. My protein powder has 21 grams of protein in a serving, which is two rounded scoops, or 46 grams. But it also has 15 grams of carbs and 3.5 grams of fat. Wyman’s frozen mixed berries have 0 fat, but they have 18 grams of carbs and 1 gram of protein. Frozen kale? Again, 0 fat, but 6 grams of carbs and 2 grams of protein per cup. Olive oil, god bless it, has 14 grams of fat per tablespoon and no protein or carbs. Coconut milk? Good question: No protein, but 4.5 grams of fat and 1 gram of carbs per cup.

You see the problem: when you try to create, say, a smoothie, every time you add something to increase the percentage of one macro, the lesser amounts of the other macros in that food go in with it, adding to the amount of that macro and throwing off the ratio in another direction. The Zone people addressed this issue by creating the ‘block’ system. I’ll spare you the details: They created a whole bunch of pre-measured groupings of foods that add up to the proper ratio. So one kiwi, one egg and three almonds is a block of food whose macros are 40-30-30. If you like to treat food like the old garanimals – mix and match separates – then this is perfect. But if you want to take the meals that you actually eat and adjust the portions to 40-30-30, these blocks are about as helpful as a lawnmower.

In case you are wondering, that wasn’t the only other math problem built into the Zone Prescription. Almost all foods are made up of multiple macros and other things. My protein powder has 21 grams of protein, 15 of carbs and 3.5 of fat for a total of 39.5 grams per serving. The total grams per serving is 46, so there are 6.5 grams of who knows what also in each serving. So if you want to add, say, 30 grams of protein to your smoothie using my protein powder, you have to figure out how many grams of the powder contains the right number of grams of protein. The math equation shapes up as follows: if there are 21 grams of protein in a 46 gram serving, how many grams of powder do I need if I want a total of 30 grams of protein? And boom, just like that I’m back in junior high school, solving for x.

1

I don’t know why I started with 21/60. Probably because, you know, math. In any event, I had a beachhead in my mathematical battle for nutritional supremacy.

I would love to walk you through converting the other two macros from 15 and 3.5 grams per 46 grams to their respective amounts per a 65.71 gram serving. And then how I calculated the Wyman’s and the kale to get the number of additional carbs that I needed. Then how I had to jigger the numbers back and forth because the protein in the Wyman’s and kale meant that I had to reduce the total protein from the powder. And how I then had to go through the same process in figuring out the amount of coconut milk I needed, because I had the same problem except that I was getting extra carbs with my fat instead of extra protein with my carbs. And then how the whole thing is subject to the laws of physics, because the volume of coconut milk needed to deliver the right amount of fat would fill the smoothie container about 31 times. And how I finally came up with the brilliant solution of adding olive oil to the recipe because it has nothing but fat in it and it’s super concentrated, so just 18 grams got me to the number of grams of fat I needed to make the 40-30-30 ratio work out.

But I cannot take you on that journey, because I do not have the emotional fortitude to relive it and remain mentally stable.

The process took me about three weeks. No joke. For what it’s worth, here is the recipe for the Tony Smoothie, also known as “Seth’s Favorite”:

18 grams olive oil                                                                                                                  60 grams Orgain Vanilla vegetarian protein powder
480 grams coconut milk
84 grams kale
93 grams Wyman’s mixed berries.

I then had to repeat the process to create a second ‘meal,’ made up of hard-boiled eggs, sweet potatoes and olive oil. I am not fully recovered from the experience, but I now have two ‘meals’ that I can throw together quickly that give me the magical 40-30-30 Zone ratio of macros. I eat just those two meals, two of one and three of the other, or two of each on an off day, every day, six days a week.

I’ll cover cheat day in another post, as well as the fact that this meal plan works out to eating 50 – 60 eggs a week. I’d also rather not get into the fact that this ends up being a very calorically restricted diet, so I’m hungry all the time. But right now I need to finish drinking my black coffee (my kingdom – plus 15 lbs. off my back squat max – for some cream), which is all I ‘eat’ daily before noon. Seeing this on electronic paper, I also need to go home and reevaluate my life choices.

1.16 Tribal Living

            Liz jumped up to a set of rings, the kind that men’s gymnasts use in one of their six events. She swung her arms and legs out behind herself, arching her back to make her body form a giant backwards ‘C’, then reversed her momentum, pulling her arms and legs as if she were going to form a V shape and touch her hands to her toes. But instead, she pulled her hands toward her chest, her head leaned back and her feet pulled forward, so that she was almost parallel to the ground. At the moment when her pull lost its upward momentum and she felt ‘weightless,’ she reversed herself again, throwing her head forward using her core strength to get her arms and shoulders over her hands. Now instead of hanging with the rings above her head, the rings were below her head, her hands on top of the bottom curve of the rings but beneath her shoulders. Her elbows were bent, her head slightly ahead of the rings and her feet slightly behind. With an effort she worked to perform a triceps extension, locking out her elbows and making herself balanced and vertical, high above the floor. The 20 or so people in the box at the time were screaming and cheering: everything else had stopped as Liz straightened her arms to complete the movement.

What Liz was performing is called a ‘muscle up.’ It is one of the most complex and difficult movements in CrossFit. Liz is an accomplished former college athlete who trains regularly, teaches rowing and is super fit. Still, she had been working to get her first muscle up for about a year: muscle ups are just plain hard to do. Trainers and other members who already ‘had muscle ups’ knew how close Liz was to getting hers, and most of them had spent some time working on them with her. Those who didn’t have muscle ups, even those for whom getting muscle ups is not feasible in this lifetime, appreciated her steady work.   So when Liz got on top of those rings, everyone at PVCF was up there with her. Her triumph was a shared part of the community as much as the rings on which she performed them and the box in which she had been practicing them for the past year.

Technically, Liz had not completed the movement because she had not fully locked out her elbows, no doubt because she was so tired from all the attempts that day to get over the rings, which is the real challenge to the muscle up. But this story reads better with a complete movement. It is also an archetypal story: I could have highlighted the first muscle up of a number of different people, but I chose to highlight Liz because she has the kind of presence that pulls the whole box in to her indefatigable approach to CrossFit and life. She doesn’t understand what max effort means because she cannot conceive of giving anything but max effort. And really, regarding locking out the elbows or not, I don’t give a shit: I saw what I saw, and we all went crazy for Liz.

Some of us are on a group text where we banter about WODs, special events, getting together, etc. Someone had caught Liz’s muscle up on video and texted it to the group for those of us who weren’t there. Upon seeing the video, Seth’s response was: ‘no rep,’ which is CrossFit-speak for ‘it doesn’t count.’ It is just the kind of smartass comment you can count on from Seth. It could have been taken as insensitive. But Seth is the kind of person who can call bullshit without causing dissention or conflict, probably because he is just as likely to call it on himself as anyone else. And calling no rep when someone has given a herculean effort is a time-honored tradition in the box. By delivering that text he was acknowledging the obvious flaw in the movement while at the same time celebrating the greater part of Liz’s achievement. It was his way of motivating Liz to get another muscle up and then start stringing them together like we all know that she will one day.

If I were to analyze the significance of Liz’s muscle up Odyssey based on my modest knowledge of anthropology, I would say that she was expressing a cultural marker in the world of CrossFit. CrossFit has built into it a set of benchmark workouts that enable us to track our progress over time. There are also a number of skilled movements that all CrossFitters learn. Muscle ups are one example, but there are many others. Finally, there are the more traditional weightlifting movements, like back squats and Olympic lifts, as well as standard running and rowing distances, so we can track our progress by keeping a journal of our personal records (‘PRs’) in each of these domains of fitness.

In giving us these benchmark workouts and in developing a series of skills that we work on together, CrossFit seems to light up some fundamental culture-building neurons in our brains. We don’t live in tribes anymore, but we are still designed to respond positively to the cultural markers of successful tribal living, which include individuals gaining the kinds of skills that will benefit the whole tribe. Since CrossFit is about physical fitness, our skill work probably reminds the Paleolithic part of our brains of the skills needed to hunt, gather and live a prehistoric existence. By getting over the rings, Liz had become another member of the tribe with that skill, making our community that much stronger.

Or at least, that is how I see it, and that is how it felt to me. And I think that is why 2016 felt so significant in my life.   During that year all of my benchmarks improved. I seemed to be getting new PRs almost every class. In November 2015 I worked up to a heavy set of three back squats at 215 lbs. A year later I had a 1 rep PR at 255. Now, in February 2017, my PR is up to 275 and I did 5 sets of 4 at 225 after my Sunday WOD. The WOD called ‘Chuck Norris,’ also known as the filthy 50, is 50 reps of 10 different movements, a brutal workout. I did it in 29:18 in August 2016, beating the 30 minute cutoff for the first time. In January 2017 I did it in 25:20, almost four minutes faster. ‘Fran,’ the benchmark of all benchmark workouts, is sets of 21-15-9 reps of 95-pound thrusters (a combination front squat/shoulder press) and pull-ups. When I did it in April 2016, I couldn’t even do thrusters at the prescribed weight and instead had to scale back to 85-pounds. Six months later I did it RX’d (as prescribed) in 6:20. In December I did it in 5:47. I got my first muscle up in mid-2015, but wasn’t able to get another one until some time in the spring of 2016. But at the end of the summer I did 24 in a WOD that began with a one mile run followed by 30 muscle ups with a 30-minute cutoff. And on and on.

I don’t think I’ve laughed as much in my whole life as I did in 2016. What I was doing was just ridiculous to myself. The point is not that I was getting to be some amazing CrossFitter. I’m 5’ 5” and 150 pounds. I’m 45 years old. Reebok is not interested in sponsoring me, I assure you. The point is that I was basically living a tribal existence and thriving. A new cultural identity was emerging for me, based on eating healthy, doing intense workouts, mobilizing to remain flexible and injury free, and spending time with a group of people just as ‘dialed in’ to their fitness lives as I was. Subjectively, I felt amazing in my body. I had basically replaced spending time at bars with spending time at the box.

However it happens, people at CrossFit tend to thrive on the success of those around them. So when Liz got her first muscle up, everyone in the box who saw it or heard about it shared in her achievement. Based on the feedback I get when I improve in the box, I think that my successes are shared in the same way. I could not thrive in the box without my fellow CrossFitters. I am not even sure that “thriving” without them is even a thing. It is difficult to imagine what would be left of my CrossFit experience if it were stripped of its communal richness. It is only within that vibrant setting that my story makes sense to me.

1.15 Murph

Murph, performed on Memorial Day, is the unofficial high holiday of CrossFit. It is the day that CrossFit communities come together to join in a sacred ritual: Murph, the killer of all killer workouts, done not for time or for medals but in honor of fallen heroes. The core drivers of CrossFit – the need for physical challenge and the need for tribal belonging – find their ultimate expression in this annual event.

I did Murph at PVCF in Hadley, Massachusetts. I put on a 20 lb. weight vest and ran 1 mile, then did 20 rounds of 5 pull-ups, 10 pushups and 15 air squats, then ran another mile. Nearly four years into CrossFit, it was exactly what I wanted and expected: a grueling workout with my tribe, all of us getting after it, together. I went in the second heat. I saw the athletes in heat one return from their first mile run and get into their bodyweight work. I saw them again on their way back from their second mile run, heads down and determined, as I ran my first mile. I did my bodyweight work alongside 10 or so other athletes in my heat, music playing, friends cheering, sweat pouring. I saw the next heat start as I finished my work. I heard their words of encouragement as I ran, head down, finishing my own second mile. I ended my workout where it began, in my local fitness sanctum, the clock at 41:03, having kept the time of those ahead of me and still keeping time for those yet to finish.

Sisters Gabby and Jahnna did Murph together, as did Sean and Mukunda. Ari, Dan and Matt did their bodywork separately but ran the final mile as a group. Bryan did his work in a later heat, with four or five of us mobilizing nearby and keeping him within our ambit. At our box and around the world, this same scene played out in infinite variations: athletes working together or individually, but never alone. The entire CrossFit community was with them for this WOD dedicated to remembering, dedicated to celebrating the kind of fellowship that does not break, even in battle, even in war.

 

1.14 – Tony’s Coming With Us.

By the spring of 2016, I could no longer claim to be the turtle of CrossFit. I was going four times a week, soon to be five. My diet was falling into place. I had competed in the open and won a couple of points for PVCF East in our epic battle against PVCF West (I think ESPN covered it – it was huge). I really could have settled in to a nice exercise routine, a very gentlemanly set of one hour WODs, a good sweat, a little mobilizing and out the door, thank you very much. Instead I got recruited into a biker gang.

I do not mean a motorcycle gang. Those guys are sane. Big arms, big guts, a brawl here and there, but mostly looking tough and drinking beers. Not my jam, but I understand it. No, I mean cyclists. Cyclists are their own special kind of crazy. I don’t know why for sure, but I will speculate. First, what they do is unnatural. They crank pedals in a circular motion to propel themselves in a linear direction, converting a bunch of circles into a long line. It’s abhorrent to nature. Then there’s the issue of your genitals rubbing on the bike seat. How could anyone do that for hours uncounted and remain sane? Here’s a typical biker story:

-Remember that time your team got those seats from a company sponsor?

-Oh ya. That was fun.

-What happened?

-Some company that had a new kind of bike seat sponsored our team. So we all    got new seats. Every one of us during the rides would have a raging hard on for 45 minutes. Then we would go limp, our balls would go numb and we couldn’t feel anything for the rest of the ride.

-How long were the rides?

-Like three hours.

-How long did you use these seats?

-Two years maybe.

These people do not understand limits. I actually think they get the whole notion of limitations backwards: they see a limiting factor – say, ball numbing pain – as something that limits others from doing their crazy shit.

Mukunda had been coming to CrossFit for a while, but when Sean joined up the two of them really brought biker culture to the box. Cyclists work out the way that Bruce Springsteen gives concerts: they just keep going and going and going until whoever is running the venue shuts off the lights. So after the WOD, those guys would start plotting.

Mukunda: What should we do now?

Sean: I don’t know. A Ten minute EMOM with alternating sets of 10 handstand pushups and 10 kipping pullups?

Mukunda: But is that going to get us really big?

Sean: Don’t know. We could do some squats. Or deadlifts.

Mukunda: I was thinking barbell curls. That will get us beach muscles. And it      will piss Ayn off.

Tony: Why do you want to piss off Ayn?

Mukunda: It’s not that we really want to piss her off. It’s just that we have no     idea what we’re doing and we want Ayn to program stuff for us to do after the             WOD. So we figure we’ll just keep doing stupid stuff until she gives up trying to             stop us and just tells us what to do.

Tony: Or you could just go home. There will be another perfectly good WOD      tomorrow. Programmed and everything.

Mukunda: Maybe Tony wants to come with us.

Tony: Not unless you’re going for a couple’s massage.

Mukunda: Actually, that sounds kinda nice.

Sean: No, really, come on. We’re going to run a mile. It’ll be good.

Tony: I don’t think you two have fully comprehended the concept of the WOD.

Mukunda: You want to go. Look, Bryan wants to go too.

Bryan: Huh?

Mukunda: We’re gonna go run a mile. Tony’s coming. It’ll be fun. Chris wants to do it. Tony will take his shirt off.

Tony: It’s March. There’s still snow on the ground.

Mukunda: So we’ll warm right up. Who’s in?

Tony: You people are crazy.

Of course I went. I know pack animals when I see them. I can also recognize an invitation to join a pack when it comes along. So the mile run happened. When we got back, we mobilized and goofed around for a while, then Mukunda suggested some exercise or other – handstand walks, probably – and we got going on those. Then something else, and another thing, and whatever else they could think of until the street lights went on and their moms called them home for supper.

And that became my routine at least a couple of times a week: the WOD, then some cool down mobilizing, then Mukunda would shout over to me, “Tony’s coming with us,” and off we’d go, usually the three of us, plus Bryan, Liz, Seth, Chris, Katie, Katie, Katie (not a typo, there are at least three Katies at PVCF) or whoever else Mukunda could cajole into joining us.

When we got back, it would be like a CrossFit version of a traditional Quaker meeting: we would gather together in “expectant waiting” until some one of us or other was moved to “offer a message.” The message might be “let’s pull out some weights and make a hand stand walk obstacle course,” or “I was thinking we should do some muscle ups.” Whereupon that workout would happen. And then another expectant waiting, followed by another revelation, and more working out. And then another, and another and…no, wait, the streetlights just came on.