"God help me, what have I done?" I thought as I stared down the length of my CrossFit gym. It was the evening of 14.1, the first of the five-part CrossFit Open 2014 competition. An intimidating, symmetrical line of barbells and crash pads faced me. The usually-inviting gym looked like the inside of a torture chamber: metal, ropes, and the smell of sweat and pain. Tonight was the very first night of the CrossFit Open and, heavens have mercy, I was signed up.
For those who are not in the CrossFit cult or are not dating/friends/family, I shall enlighten you. Every year, the CrossFit Games hosts a five-week long competition. It's one workout every Friday. The exercise is posted the night before and performed that weekend; scores for rankings are due by Monday evening. It's open to everyone (hence the name, Open) and the top scores qualify those competitors for Regionals, then the top competitors qualify for the national CrossFit Games.
Now I, probably like most, hear the words "CrossFit competition" and immediately tap out. That's for the super-humanly-fit souls who have mastered their will, overcome the need for sleep beyond the hour of 5 a.m., and probably eat barbells and little yoga practitioners for their post-workout meal. Basically, not me.
So how did I get on the list for this? Easy: peer pressure. Every morning at Brick, the CrossFit box I attend, some gorgeous, marble-statue-fit instructor asked the group who had not yet signed up for the Open. This CrossFit shaming finally broke me (also, news that participants would get a free T-shirt with the word "competitor." Bad-ass!). I felt nervous but, thanks to the soothing sales pitch of "it's open to everyone" and "people of all fitness levels compete," that it would all be okay. I would survive this. I would see what I was made of and would come out of it with goals for next year. This was going to be awesome.
Halfway through the first work out (14.1), I thought that this was anything but awesome. As I gasped for air, heaving large metal plates above my head, I knew that this was insane. Crazy people did this. People who could ignore the red-hot pain searing through their muscles and soldier on through these torturous exercises -- people like Christian Bale's Bruce Wayne in Batman Begins, hauling Ra's al Ghul up over an ice cliff with one arm (YouTube it, because that's basically 14.1).
14.1 was the first of five WODs (Workout of the Day) in the Open. It was a 10-minute AMRAP (As Many Rounds As Possible) of this brutal set: 30 Double Unders and 15 Power Snatches (55 pounds for women). Double Unders... a kiss of death for those unfortunate enough not to have mastered this skill. Jumping into the air and whipping the rope around your head twice usually ends with it biting you in the ass. Your legs, back and arms resemble a whipping post. If you're able to get through 30 of those (flesh still attached), then it's onto the power snatches, where you crouch down to then haul the weighted barbell up over your head. After you do that 15 times, then it's back to those DUs to start another round. Sound like fun? Yeah... that was my response, too.
I entered the Open with no set goals other than to survive it (and perhaps not to completely embarrass myself). I wouldn't say I'm a couch potato, but I'm no competitive athlete. When I took my place with the other competitors and stared across the gym at the line of eager spectators, I was nervous. I was even a little scared. To be faced with a challenge that so blatantly tested you, measured you and could so easily find you wanting was something I hadn't faced in a long time.
When I made it on to the third round, admittedly wheezing a bit, then onto the fourth (with a quick mental groan of "damn it, I have to do it all again"), I was shocked to have made it that far. I hurt. Oh, did I hurt. It felt like there wasn't enough air in the room and that if I tried to lift that stupid barbell above my head one more time, I would drop it on my face. But what surprised me more than that fact that I wasn't unconscious, laying in a pool of my own sweat, was that everyone around me wouldn't let me quit. My judge crouched down on the floor to scream encouragement and the spectators (people I had worked out with and faces that I didn't recognize) kept yelling at me to pick the bar, not to quit, to keep going. I couldn't remember the last time I felt pain like that, or had been so tired it took all my effort to keep from collapsing. Whether I had the physical ability or not, I did have the mental strength to keep going.
Just in the nick of time, I finished my last power clean to complete the fourth round. Completely ignoring any pride, I sat down on the floor in an inelegant tumble. At that point, I tried to pull my thoughts together and take stock of what had just happened to me. I still had (most) all the skin on my hands. There was that sharp, metallic taste of blood in my mouth (apparently, this can happen after an extremely intense work out). I was huffing and puffing like a birthing water buffalo. But I was alive. And I felt amazing. When I thought about the experience on the subway ride home, I was filled with triumph, but also a little disappointment. I realized how much I had been holding myself back every day and how much more I was capable of. That I had been letting myself fall short.
As the weeks progressed, 14.2, 14.3, and 14.4 came with small, personal victories and sobering disappointments. I managed my very first, then second, chest to bar in 14.2, only to be humbled by my modest strength in deadlifts in 14.3 (I only made it to 155 pounds instead of the 185 pounds I wanted). 14.4 was a brutal chipper, CrossFit slang for a long, grueling WOD (you go into it whole, you come out in pieces). It came with modest success; I completed those 50 bloody T2B (toes to bar, which is exactly what it sounds like) when I could barely do one a few weeks ago. However, I didn't make it onto the cleans. For this WOD, I felt as much disappointment as I did success.
The last WOD, 14.5, was announced just this past Thursday evening. I happened to be sitting with friends when a fellow CrossFitter texted me what our grueling, hellish last test would be: 95/65 pounds for men/women of 21/18/15/12/9/6/3 thruster and burpee sets for time. As I collapsed in a ululating pile on the table, I tried to think about how I was going to make it through this WOD. I didn't know if I would. I was sure that 14.5 would break me.
I had a moment of reflection on the entire Open experience after I explained to my bewildered friends what had caused my drastic reaction. My friend, gaping in horror, asked me blankly, "Why do you even do this?" To be honest, even with everything I just shared, I didn't quite know how to answer her. At least, not without sounding trite or overblown. In New York City, a place filled with Type A overachievers, telling someone you want to push your limits receives no more than an understanding nod. It's like feeling good about taking public transportation instead of driving when you're standing on the jam-packed subway platform during rush hour. Everyone seems to do it.
However, I can't help but feel that I went through a significant experience. I hadn't thought about what the Open would be like, much less what I would take away from it. But it's something meaningful. The Open was more than a test, more than a challenge. This was Judgment Day. 14.5 was almost a punishment, but one that forged you. I have never crashed up against the walls of my own limits as during that workout. But in those excruciating moments, I felt like I joined a distinct community of athletes. I do not have the hubris to say that I personally relate to the incredible athletes that inspire Will Smith's motivational quotes, but more that I can relate, on my own level, to Rocky's famous quote in Rocky Balboa: "It ain't about how hard you're hit. It's about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward. How much you can take and keep moving forward."
Grit is what got me through the Open. When I squatted down to grab that bar for yet another thruster, afraid of the pain and afraid that I would fail myself, I found the pure, iron will to make myself do it. Never had I pushed to that place. And this is the why. Why we do this. It's not an original reason, but that's also why it is so powerful. I feel like I have entered the ranks of those who have suffered to that place beyond their prior limits, and that being a part of this community is the greatest reward.
In the same vein, the Open has made me realize how important the CrossFit community is to me. Of course, working out with friends and like-minded people is always a great environment, but I didn't realize how strong a Brick was, nor how much I derived from it until complete strangers got down on their knees to scream at me. We're all personally invested in this journey, whether we know each other or not, because we all face these insane challenges. Challenges that humble us, break us, strengthen us. And though the athlete's journey is often a solitary one, it never felt that way during these five weeks. It felt that I learned more about myself than I have in years and that I did it with others there to watch, bolster, and celebrate with me. I have stood on the sidelines cheering others to that place of grit and determination, just as they pushed me there. It was one of the most moving experiences I've ever had and one for which I will always be immensely grateful to the Open.
But with all that being said, though, 15.1 can take its time coming.