The older I get, the more I think success in life is about maintaining flexibility: to recognize when you need to change and to be ever willing to evolve. It’s easy to want to stick with what has worked in the past, with what makes us feel secure, with what offers us a sense of our place in things. But thriving, over time, requires change—sometimes immense change. It requires us to step out of our comfort zone, risk failure (in whatever sense) and disappointment, and give our all to something different than what has worked for us previously.
Sometimes that evolution occurs naturally; it just slips into our lives over time like high tide. Other times, though–and sometimes it’s really damn hard–we have to take a deep breath and make a leap.
I made one of those leaps soon after we arrived in Santa Monica. I made a change that has changed my body and shifted my perception of myself. I joined Crossfit.
Are you familiar with Crossfit? It’s a fast-growing, worldwide phenomenon (with some affiliates apparently remarkably better or worse than others) wherein you, as part of a group, do hardcore, seriously ass-kicking workouts that are based on functional movement (movement you would use in real life, not movement isolating muscles). I had a guy friend and girlfriend in Atlanta who did Crossfit; she started doing it because he coached. He talked about it nearly constantly for a while. I often teased my girlfriend about her involvement in Crossfit, because at times, Crossfit can come across as a bit cultish, and I have a certain level of discomfort with that. But I also was consistently amazed by her enormous progress. She started out as someone who had never really exercised (she’s one of those people with a crazy-high metabolism), and she was really thin. Then she became thin and POWERFUL. She doesn’t look very different, but holy cow, she has changed a lot in her ability to use her body.
Truth be told, in the last six months before Dan and I left Atlanta, we exercised very, very little. Dan was finishing his Ph.D. thesis, I was trying to figure out my professional life, and I had started a program for an MBA in Sustainable Business that had me flying to Seattle one week a month. Also, I’m an emotional sponge. My husband was so stressed out by his thesis work (and then part-time work he took on before he finished it) that he grew sleep-deprived and snappish—not at all his usual calm self. In photos, you can see that, for a while, Dan looked 7-10 years older than his 32 actual years. While Dan looked the part of the stressed-out person, I absorbed all of his emotions and then doubled them–and reflected them back to him. As a Highly Sensitive Person, I try to put up emotional walls (in a healthy way) to be less of a sponge, but during the last thesis semester, the stress was great enough that I didn’t do a good job. The result should have been that I exercised more for stress relief. I should have applied the self-care principles I know so well and have written about amply. But we all possess weakness as well as strength, and I retreated from exercise. I also overate during that time period, especially starchy and sweet foods. I could see it happening but couldn’t seem to bring myself to do any better. I felt overwhelmed.
We arrived in Los Angeles (me about fifteen pounds fluffier than a few months earlier) for my husband to take his job here, and we swore we were going to do BETTER! We decided to go back to C25K (which I had done before successfully). That lasted about a week. Of course, even with the good stress of my husband’s new job (which he loves!) and being in a new city (Santa Monica’s pretty great!), the move was also negatively stressful in many ways (long-term housing, cost of living, even grocery shopping). I don’t know if I brought it up or if Dan did: “What if we tried Crossfit?”
Now, I should say this: I don’t usually go for group workout environments, because I don’t want to feel competitive with other people working out near me. I need to work at my own pace and level. I especially often dislike trainers telling me what to do. Most of the trainers I’ve dealt with at gyms have not been the good ones: they have seemed to enjoy their clients not knowing what to do for exercise. At the Georgia Tech gym we used to frequent, I had positive interactions with a couple of great trainers . . . but I also watched and listened as other trainers mocked the form of people working out. One goal of many trainers has often seemed to me to be to keep a position of superiority over the client, and that’s just bullshit. It’s the whole teach-a-man-to-fish thing. I believe in getting encouraging people towards a sense of ability and accomplishment.
Also, I hate bootcamps. I have never done one, but when I lived next to Piedmont Park in Atlanta, while I was running in the mornings, I would often hear the bootcamp trainers there yelling at the participants. You want to piss me off and make me obstinate about not doing what you want? Try yelling at me, and you’ll see why my mother often compared me to a mule when I was a child. Plus, the design of the bootcamp workouts seemed arbitrary and miserable, and I didn’t understand why the trainers weren’t doing the workouts with the participants instead of just standing and watching them. (I know people who love bootcamp. If you do, and it actually encourages you to exercise regularly–not just binge exercise before you quit again–then that is awesome. To each her own.)
So when we went to visit Crossfit, I wanted to see if it would feel like bootcamp or like the trainers (there’s a high trainer-to-participant ratio at Crossfit) were there to lord it over us. We met with the gym owner, a former Marine who’s done insane things like 100-mile barefoot races through the jungles of Panama. But we didn’t know all of that then. We just knew from our conversation that Andy was obviously a nice guy. He informed us about the philosophy and work style of Crossfit. He told us that the point was, over time, to learn to push ourselves right to the edge of our capacity without going over. (He did show us the puke buckets for when people go over the edge, but he specifically said they wanted people to stop before they reached that point.) He told us that everyone does the same basic workout at a given class, but that people scale the workouts individually based on their own levels of fitness and strength. He had us do a sample, short (baseline) workout to see where our fitness level was (um, very poor). He asked us about what motivated us and limited us, he told us he would suggest starting at a low level of commitment and working up from there, and he encouraged us not to make an immediate decision about whether to join. He was obviously into Crossfit, but he obviously wasn’t an egomaniac. And he wasn’t pushy–that was huge. In fact, he told us we should come do a sample workout with a group before we made a decision.
We arrived early to our first class. I felt ill with anxiety; I felt entirely self-conscious and out of place. I watched the class before ours finishing up, and I thought, I don’t know how to do any of what they’re doing. I kept wondering what the hell I was doing at a gym that included free weights, pull-up bars, kettlebells, rowing machines, and parallel bars . . . but little of the normal gym stuff. I was so nervous that my palms sweated endlessly. Plus, the trainer leading our class was obviously a total surfer jock–he seemed nice, but I was waiting for it to become apparent he was laughing at us–and I noticed he had on jeans. Great, he wasn’t going to do the workout with us. A bit of nausea twirled in my stomach.
The class trainer sent us out for a warm-up mile jog. Seeing the look on my face, one of the few women in class told me she took a shortcut to warm up by doing half a mile–and reminded me that it was all about me working with my own ability level. I did the half mile, walking a good bit of it, and, honestly, fighting off cursing myself for letting myself get into such bad shape. That’s why you’re here, I told myself. Don’t beat yourself up when you’re doing the right thing.
When we got back to the classroom, the trainer asked us how many of us were there for the first time. A couple of other people than me and Dan raised their hands, which I found a big relief. Then the trainer began to teach us how to do clean & jerks. We used PVC pipe to practice the movements before switching to weights. And it began to dawn on me that our trainer, who became Michael and not just ‘our trainer,’ was without pretense. He was encouraging us. He wanted us to succeed. I felt like, in an exercise capacity, he was offering the type of movement toward self-sufficiency that I try to offer clients with my gluten-free/allergen-free coaching. I’m a pretty good caretaker, and I felt the same type of encouraging energy from Michael.
When we were done learning to do the clean & jerk, we went into our full, timed workout that included it. (To be honest, I don’t remember all the details of what we did that first night–just how it kicked my ass.) My classmates set up their individual amounts of weight that they wanted to lift, Dan and I did the same, and when Michael flicked the timer on, we were off! As fast as we could, using as good of form as we could manage, we did the workout. I had to stop, panting, several times, as did a variety of people around me at one point or another. Many people grunted as they worked hard. I was startled at first to hear people cry out as they pushed themselves hard. But I was far too busy and focused to feel self-conscious during the workout, and the same was true for Dan. As each person finished, he or she joined up with other finishers to cheer on the people who were still working. Everyone stayed till every person was done, some of us stretched, and then we all did minor maintenance/clean-up of the classroom.
And I thought, Hell yeah, I get this. This is awesome. I was so pumped that I went home and ran with the dog. I had immense energy. I felt powerful. Dan felt really excited as well.
The immense soreness that came upon us didn’t keep us from signing up the next day. For financial reasons (Crossfit ain’t cheap, and in LA, it really ain’t cheap), and with Andy’s encouragement not to overcommit, we signed up for two classes per week. (We’ve since noticed that that is a pretty normal commitment for beginners at our gym.) For that amount per month (Crossfit is much more expensive here than in cheaper cost-of-living cities), we could have a car payment for a pretty nice car.
But it’s worth it to us. We started attending religiously, twice a week, and watched as we quickly had gains in strength, flexibility, coordination, speed, and agility. For a while, every single (beginner) class, I was learning a new kind of exercise (box jumps, snatches, back squats, L-sits). I loved it–loved the feeling of accomplishment I felt after each class–even when I had days when I wasn’t able to do an exercise correctly at first or was the last one to finish. Loved the gains in my body. Loved the camaraderie. Loved the coaching from every coach we had–including our personal coach (for skills clinics and individual consultations), Jonesy.
Hmmm, wouldn’t it be great for the story to end there? (You know by this point that I can’t write short blog posts, right?)
In May, the Crossfit staff encouraged us to sign up for the Smoker Challenge. Our Crossfit affiliate (maybe this is a general CF thing?) has challenge periods wherein we pay money into a pot, do a specific workout, and then do that workout again 8-10 weeks later to see how much our performance has improved. The competitors with the greatest gains in improvement (measured by percentage of improvement in time) win some of the money we all paid in. I debated whether to do the challenge for a long time–I really didn’t know if I could lift 40% of my body weight for front squats, much less 30 times! . . . and that was the lowest level allowed–but eventually I got swept up in the idea of doing it and kicking ass!
In fact, I came up with a plan to have AMAZING improvements, to SHOCK everyone with how well I would perform. Not only would I continue to do Crossfit twice a week, but I would also go back to running three days a week, I’d do Crossfit-like workouts in my non Crossfit days, and I’d even add in some extra Crossfit workouts! Then, in 10 weeks’ time, right before my birthday, I’d be kicking ass! I’d go into my 30th birthday in the best shape of my life, and I’d smoke the other participants in terms of % of improvement!
The day of the initial challenge workout arrived, and we arrived early. I had that now-familiar sensation of nausea going in. (Several advanced people have told me about Crossfit, “You’re not working out hard enough if you’re not feeling nervous going in.” I’ve got that one down.) When I realized that, with my weight gain (gained a chunk of muscle doing Crossfit), I’d be lifting 75 pounds, I felt very daunted. Jonesy and Michael coached me up to being able to clean that much weight to set up for my 30 squats. I was in the first round of the challenge, and I had a huge adrenalin rush surging through me as we started. I gave the workout my all, and I felt really good about how I performed. I had a shorter time (for 30 squats plus a 1-mi run) than many of the other beginner participants. Of course, that would make my improvement percentage harder in the next workout, but I had given it my all, and that was the honest way to kick things off.
With my plan firmly in my head, I began running in the mornings. Then my left knee started aching. Then I went on a trip to see a friend. I thought I would work out while I was there, but I didn’t. On the way home, I injured my neck somehow on my flight . . . and suddenly, it had been three weeks since I had done a Crossfit workout or any other kind. Then I found myself reticent to go, and on my first day back, I felt the shyness and awkwardness I had felt on my first day there. I’d also eaten a lot of sugar earlier that day, and I had noticed before that eating sugar on my Crossfit days was a great way to crash my blood sugar mid-workout. I had a bad workout that night. I felt downhearted.
I began making excuses about not going to Crossfit. Some were legitimate, like a migraine, and others were not. My husband would go without me. Then I had another trip to visit friends. Suddenly, the challenge finale date was looming over me, and I felt very frustrated with myself for not having trained–for not even having stuck with all my Crossfit workouts, which I liked! There was no point in not going. And I hated that I’d paid for workouts that I hadn’t done; it was like stuffing money down the garbage disposal.
The day of the challenge arrived, and I was once again nervous about having to lift 75 pounds. Jonesy was a little less eager to help me figure it out (though he graciously did), and I couldn’t blame him: I hadn’t been showing up to give it my anything, much less my all.
Nonetheless, I was able to do the workout, and I even got confused and did two extra squats. I took off running and found the mile very hard to do. I finally picked up speed as I approached the finish line, other competitors cheering me on, and discovered . . . I had finished in exactly the same time as 10 weeks prior. To the second. 0% improvement.
I was so frustrated with myself, so embarrassed. My husband, by sticking with the Crossfit workouts, had cut 2.5 minutes (15%) off his time, and I was proud of him for that. I talked to a guy, Ross, who had done what I had meant to do: he had trained over and above to get in better shape, and he had cut his time nearly in half. And, seriously, I didn’t recognize him at first because I hadn’t been in classes with him those 10 weeks, and his body had changed that much. But as we talked (he was very empathetic), I realized what had happened to me. Previously, at Crossfit, I had thought, “I will show up, and I will give this my all, and I will not compare myself to anyone else.” The challenge had awakened my competitiveness, but an unhealthy version of it (that I often fall prey to): I wasn’t perfect at preparing to compete, so I gave up.
As I sat on the floor of the gym, watching other people go through their rounds, I thought a lot about Crossfit and why I felt like utter crap on a day I could have felt great about myself. And I decided to recommit. You can’t move back in time, only forward, right? And I love the workouts and the people–and how Crossfit teaches me to push myself beyond what I think I’m capable of, both at the gym and in my life in general. I decided, Either I go back to doing this for myself, at my own pace, and appreciate that, or this isn’t worth it. I recommitted.
The next available beginner workout time was on my 30th birthday, this past Monday night, at 7:30 p.m. So at 7:10 or so, Dan and I arrived at the gym–still really sore from the previous Saturday’s challenge. I watched the class before ours doing handstand push-ups and thought, “Holy crap, there is no way I can do that!” I told myself I would do the best I could. I psyched myself up big-time.
I ran my warm-up half-mile. I talked with a new woman who set up her workout station next to mine and explained to her what helped me learn how to do cleans. Another woman told me how much I’d helped her a few weeks earlier by encouraging her to experiment with lifting heavier weights–she said I’d help change her perception of herself, which meant an enormous amount to me. I set up my own station, and I experimented with adding weights to my bar for cleans; then I realized I had set myself up at 63 pounds of weight for my cleans. I realized that, even with my setback, I’d come a long way.
Our assigned workout was 7 rounds of 3 power cleans plus 4 handstand push-ups. I set up and tried out a modified version of the handstand push-ups, using boxes, that I still found incredibly tough. But when the timer started and the music pumped, I took off like a rocket. I felt back in the flow. I pounded through my first three rounds of cleans and push-ups in two minutes. I felt light-headed, so I stopped for a few seconds, and then I picked it up again. I talked aloud to myself, encouraging myself, with no one around me even noticing. Michael came over to coach me on my clean form, and I made the change he suggested. I jumped back on the boxes to do the push-ups. I heard one person call out his name to indicate he was done. And then I was done–at 5:25, the second person in the class to finish . . . after my husband. We high-fived, and then we cheered on the other folks there until everyone was done. I was in awe of how hard everyone worked, how committed they all were to busting their asses. And I was proud of myself, too. It was great to come in second, but the point was to be there doing my best.
It was a powerful, meaningful way to start my 30s. I’m back in the game, and I’m loving it. In fact, I have Crossfit starting in an hour, so I have to go get dressed now.