1.38 ‘Twas The Night Before Christmas at Pioneer Valley CrossFit

 

 

‘Twas the night before Christmas, all through PVCF,

Not an athlete was gathered, not even H the Lord Jeff,

The WOD on the white board was written with care,

But none of the athletes had yet gotten there;

No Seth on the floor with a back that was lit,

Insisting to Katie her score’s not legit;

No Alain in his goggles, no Michelle lifting with care,

No Liz Eleftherakis, fresh with this week’s new hair;

When out in reception there arose such a clatter,

Mael sprang into action, just like the mad hatter;

From office to floor he went in a flash,

Like that time he beat Kieran in the hundred yard dash;

The light in the hall showed that someone was boppin’,

As an Elvis themed Santa there stood Ayn Toppin;

Who else to his wondering eyes could he tell,

Sean, Ash and Mukunda rubbing thighs with their gel;

‘Round the corner came Bryan with newly shaved pate,

Which is hard to believe ‘cause he always runs late;

More rapid than eagles the athletes they came,

Mael nodded and prodded and called them by name;

Now! Amy, now! Tyler, now! David and Steph,

On! Julia on! Ellie on! Simon and Seth;

To your spots on the rig to your place on the wall!

Now chip away chip away chip away all!

As donuts on cheat days and Boston cream pie,

Don’t last thirty seconds with Ethan nearby;

So on to the barbells those big bumpers flew,

P.J. tried to use one but we shamed him to two;

The weights all in place, athletes each had a bar,

To make things more fair, Will deadlifted his car;

Dave gave a big grin, showed the ink on his chest,

Jack Morse had warmed up doing Murph in a vest;

Chris DeFrancis was ready we all heard his laugh,

He’s good for his age, ‘bout level two and a half;

Katie M. made a face and we knew it was on,

Is that Velner we see or our shaggy haired Sean?

Liz was going RX, Jess and Michelle too,

Katie B will PR then say, “what, how’d I do?”

Great athletes we have, young, old, bald and hairy,

Goofy things we still do, Curly, Moe, Shemp and Larry;

We phone in some warm ups and might miss some steps,

And ignore any coaches who call our no reps;

But in this I digress it was time for the WOD,

Ash had pulled off his shirt just to show off his bod;

The twelve days of CrossFit were ready to go,

As Colette called out damn! Why’s it end with a row?

Athletes bent over bars and got right to their work,

Deadlifting a weight Jesse Mager could jerk;

Laying hands onto mats onto walls went their toes,

And in their handstands all at once they arose;

Lizzy pulled out her lens for a pic of the day,

And snapped a great shot of the good Dr. Dre;

Each athlete did finish from newbie to stud,

Then collapsed on the floor with the sound of a thud;

Our work now complete a group photo did take,

Then fist bumped each other, forget the handshake;

It was off to our families for Christmas Eve cheers,

To talk so much CrossFit they bleed out their ears;

Papa Perrin exclaimed, as we drove out of sight,

Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night!

 

 

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1.33 Finally Straightened Out

The first month I was at CrossFit, Coach Perrin looked at my attempt at an overhead squat position with a combination of humor and disbelief. When I tried to squat, my ankles didn’t flex, my butt went back, my upper body, head and arms came forward and I found myself looking at the ground because I couldn’t pick my head up without risking falling backwards. I couldn’t get my arms any higher than parallel with the floor. Perrin had me hold on to one of the posts of the rig for balance. He told me to hang out like that for a while every day, and that I would progress quickly if I worked at it. Then he walked away shaking his head and suppressing a smile.

That was four years ago. Just this past week, I finally gained the ability to do overhead squats, a movement that requires enough flexibility to be in a full squat, holding a barbell straight overhead, with the chest up and arms locked out. Four years. To put that in perspective, it only took me three years to earn my law degree.

It took a lot of work. I mobilized after almost every WOD. I smashed my calves with a lacrosse ball to break up fascia and work out muscle knots. I did ankle flexibility exercises with an 88 lb. kettlebell on my knee. I would brace my back against a parallel bar, reach back and get a hold of the other bar and hold on to it, back arched, feet off the ground, looking like I was crucifying myself, and hold it for as long as I could. Basically, if it looked like a form of medieval torture or involved heavy weights digging into tender sinews, I tried to do it at least twice a week, for 2 minutes on each side.

When the time came to see if a coach would clear me to start putting weight on the bar to do overhead squats, I asked coach Mael to take a look. I grabbed a 45 lb. bar, took a wide grip, snatched it over my head and attempted an overhead squat. I could only squat down about 3 inches.

Me:     “Wow. I must look like an asshole.”

Mael:   “The bar’s too heavy.”

Me:     “It’s 45 lbs.”

Mael:   “It’s too heavy.”

Me:     “I squat 250. I press 140.”

Mael:   “Too heavy.”

Me:     “Really? Really? I have to use a 33 lb. bar? I’d rather limit myself to a 3                          inch over head squat.”

Mael:   “Grab the 15 lb. training bar and try it with that.”

Me:     “You have to be shitting me.”

Mael:   “Tony…”

Me:     “But people will SEE!”

Mael:   “The 15, if you please.”

So I pulled out a 15 lb. bar and proceeded to do about five solid overhead squats.

Mael:   “Those looked great. You can start putting on weight.”

Me:     “Huh. And to think it only took four years. What now?”

Mael:   “Do them after class twice a week at first, adding 5 lbs. a week.”

Me:     “Great. So in a year I’ll be able to overhead squat 275.”

So now I have overhead squats, and the humbling task of building up from a 15 lb. training bar. But you know what? It feels good to have so much progress ahead of me, and a great personal accomplishment behind me. I will check back on the blog in a year. I am quite sure that my max OHS will be 275 by then. Mael said so.

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.

 

1.11 A Turtle Training Montage

My grandfather was a professional boxer. He fought in more than 300 professional fights and was the big local draw at the Valley Arena in Holyoke in the 1940’s and early 50’s when Holyoke was the paper capital of the world and a bustling city known far and wide. I was punching into my grandfather’s hands before I could walk.   My father boxed in the Golden Gloves, fought in Vietnam and was a police officer in Holyoke in the 70’s after the paper mills moved south and it had become one of the most dangerous cities in Massachusetts, if not the country. Fighting is in my blood.

My grandfather was born in Palermo, Sicily. As a youngster I had no way of drawing a distinction between being Italian and being a fighter. I grew up on Rocky Marciano, Rocky Graciano, Jake LaMotta and the rest of the great Italian fighters. My father would take me over to my grandparents’ apartment and he and my grandfather would talk boxing. “Did ya see the fight last night? Jeez!” If there was a mantra in my sports world it was: “Rocky Marciano is the only professional athlete never to taste defeat. He had 49 fights, 49 wins, 43 by knock out.”

I was five years old when the movie “Rocky” came out. I never doubted that being Italian was synonymous with being a great fighter. Seeing Rocky Balboa go toe to toe with Apallo Creed for 15 rounds made that fact as big and as real to me as the night sky. Forty years later, seeing Rocky go from blundering bruiser to iron-willed contender over the course of a 5 minute montage still makes me feel like I can ‘eat lightning and crap thunder.’ I think that we all have that deep place within us that we access in order to get to the next level when we train. If you could use a special camera to see what is going on in that place within me you would find the Rocky training montage running on an endless loop.

Turtles are not known for getting their own training montages. Not even sprinting turtles. But a training montage plays an important part in any story featuring a great physical transformation: it turns the long, tedious training stage from the utterly boring into the truly inspirational. Even Sly Stallone could not save a movie from the depths of boredom that a long, meticulous training sequence would conjure. Incremental progress over months of hard work is just boring to the person who has to hear about it. The beginning part of training is funny because the person sucks and you get to see it or hear about it. The end is great because you get to see or read about the person’s amazing accomplishments, or watch them triumph over the bad guy or win the big game or whatever.   But the middle part – all the hard training, the long, slow trudge up the mountain? I’d rather look at a friend’s baby pictures while hearing him recap his last round of golf for me, hole by hole and shot by shot.

All of which is to say that I spent 2015 in a phase that might make a decent training montage but which if written would threaten the resolve of the alphabet to continue symbolizing the different sounds that make up speech. I respect the written word too much to abuse it in this way. But a few snippets might not kill the spirit of the average human:

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From the summer of 2014 to late 2015 I took a full minute off of my 1 mile run time. My bench press was back over 200 and I was actually trying to do deadlifts with real weight. Nobody was about to make a movie about me, and the “Rocky” theme song did not automatically start every time I laced up my sneakers. But I had rediscovered my inner movie training montage: the turtle was coming out of his shell.

1.5 Extending the On Ramp

            People talk about CrossFit as if you walk in and they have you doing this[1]:

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That just does not happen. Instead, at least at PVCF where I train, there is a three-day on ramp that everyone has to do before joining the regular classes. You may learn how to squat or clean using a plastic PVC pipe. Or you may learn pushups by placing your hands on a 24-inch box instead of the floor, so that you are only moving a fraction of your body weight. You get the idea.

When you finish the on ramp and start taking group classes, called WODs (workout of the day), you always have the option to scale the movements to something that is within your skill set, which they call Level II. There is also always a prescribed workout for people who are just beginning – or anyone else for that matter – that removes the time element and scales back the rep scheme, referred to as Level I. So the rest of the board from above actually looks like this[2]:

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CrossFit also has mobilizations – stretching and massaging muscles with a lacrosse ball or foam roller – woven into its culture. Classes may begin with mobilizations. Or, as in this class, it may end with them:

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Unless you are irretrievably anhedonaic (unable to feel pleasure, not to be confused with Anhedonaic, the fourth studio album by Jarboe, whoever that is), you will do the last thing always listed in our workouts:

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            There is a tendency for beginners to overdo it. I did not have that problem. I took full advantage of the Level I option when I started CrossFit. My onramp began in Northampton but I don’t think I fully merged onto the metaphorical CrossFit highway until I reached metaphorical New Haven. This is not easy to do. The classes are pretty intense, and it’s really hard not to try to do your best and keep up with the people around you. If you really want to slow boat your progress, you have to have a strategy. I had two.

First, I limited my workouts to 1 per week for months. No joke. I was paying $175 to go to four, maybe five classes a month. Looking back, I’d rather not think about what I paid per class. I finally started taking two classes a week somewhere in the 3 to 6 month range. Not kidding. For all of that time I was really just kind of playing at CrossFit, getting my bearings and taking the measure of the place, just showing up and not much more. I made Level I workouts my own personal jam. Sometimes I even modified Level I to make it a bit easier. Or I would do a few reps and declare that what I had done was quite sufficient, thank you very much. For all intents and purposes I looked like I did not give a shit.

Finally one day I was in the smaller room doing the Level I workout. The only other person in the room doing LI with me was a woman who was probably in her 70s. Nice lady. As we worked side-by-side she turned to me and said, “excuse me, are you recovering from an injury?” “No,” I said, “I’m impersonating a turtle.”

Shortly after that I began doing the Level II workouts. That is when I instituted my second strategy: I would find someone I knew I should finish ahead of handily, and I would pace myself to finish behind him. Again, please do not think that this is easy. The clock would be going, my adrenaline would kick in, people might be cheering for me (they cheer for everyone). But for a number of months, no matter what happened I stayed with my pace setter to the bitter end. As I told Tommy:

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I do not recommend this approach to everyone. But I do recommend it to almost everyone. Certainly to everyone over 30. I have been an athlete my whole life. But I was 42 years old when I started CrossFit.  Our bodies do not adapt to new challenges as quickly as we get older.  We can still do incredible things, but we need to take the time to adjust to new movements and loads.

Now, recall the objective of the founder of CrossFit, Greg Glassman, when he created it: “CrossFit is not a specialized fitness program but a deliberate attempt to optimize physical competence in each of ten recognized fitness domains.” Another CrossFit mantra is that we should do “constantly varied” workouts. So no matter what you have done athletically before, when you step into a CrossFit box you will be asked to do something that you are not conditioned to do.

If you approach CrossFit like a cocky, competitive 17 year old jock, you will (a) look like a bro and (b) probably hurt yourself. But if you start your CrossFit adventure sprinting like a turtle, you are much less likely to leave a WOD limping like a jackass.

[1] If you don’t know what a muscle up is, here is four time CrossFit Games winner Rich Froning doing one. GHD sit ups are done on a GHD machine.

[2] As rx’d means as prescribed.