I saw Mark almost everyday at Starbucks. We sat across from each other in the comfy blue chairs in the corner of the store. We worked on our laptops, cracked jokes, and asked each other ponderous questions. Once a week I’d ask him how much weight he had lost. Each week the number would change: 25, 30, 35, 40 pounds lost. He was losing weight so fast it was dripping off of him. He would get up from his big blue chair and leave behind what looked like a puddle of melted butter. His transformation was impossible to ignore.
I had been yo-yo dieting for years and found my weight consistently hovering 20 to 35 pounds over my playing weight in high school. I was running, doing yoga, and lifting weights several times a week. I paid attention to what I ate, but still ate too much of whatever was on my plate. If I hadn’t developed some moderately healthy eating habits I would have easily been 50 pounds overweight.
Every time I complimented Mark on his weight loss, he would invite me to come workout with him. He was doing something called CrossFit. I had never heard of it. I kept telling him I would give it a try someday and then would put him off for another week. One day he sent me a video of two people doing a CrossFit workout known as “Fran.” (Many CrossFit workouts are named after women. There are also “Hero” workouts named after fallen soldiers, police officers, and other public servants.) It was unlike any workout I’d ever seen. A man and woman, with pro-athlete like physiques, were blazing through multiple sets and reps of a complex barbell movement known as a “thruster” and crazy looking swinging pull-ups. Just watching it made me tired.
Is this what Mark had been doing? It looked incredibly difficult. It also looked a lot more interesting than spending 45 minutes on the elliptical machine at my gym. So I finally accepted Mark’s invitation and decided to give CrossFit a try. I was curious as I pulled into parking lot of the industrial park where the gym was located. If I hadn’t been looking for it, I wouldn’t have noticed it. There was a small sign next to to an open bay door. Inside, the wall was lined with workout equipment. No mirrors, TV’s, or machines. Lots of barbells, kettlebells, and medicine balls. Mark introduced me to his trainer, Eric, and my curiosity gave way to butterflies.
It felt a lot like visiting a new church.
Eric asked me a few questions, had me sign a waiver of liability, and explained that CrossFit is “constantly varied, functional movements executed at high intensity.” It all sounded good to me. I was ready to give it a shot. To begin, Eric put me through a short warm-up that was harder than anything I’d done in the past five years. While I was catching my breath, he introduced me to a “baseline” workout designed to test my level of fitness while also giving me a taste of CrossFit.
When he wrote it out on the white board, it seemed like an innocuous combination of movements. I was going complete a 500m row, 40 squats, 30 sit-ups, 20 push-ups, and 10 jumping pull-ups. I thought it would be a cakewalk, especially since I was working out three or four times a week and already in pretty good shape. This (delusional) self-assessment was based on nothing concrete except that I hadn’t had to buy bigger jeans in the past six months.
Just before I started, Eric said, “A good CrossFitter can do this in less than 5 minutes, but it will probably take you 8 or 9 minutes to finish it.”
I had grown up in competitive athletic environments. I had been an over-achieving basketball player in high school. I knew a challenge when I heard one. I decided I would do the workout in 6 or 7 minutes and then let Eric apologize for underestimating me.
He said, “3-2-1 go!” and I started rowing, squatting, sitting, and pushing. I never got to the pulling part. When I finished my 20 push-ups I stood up and walked over to pull-up bar. I was about 7 minutes in and only had 10 jumping pull-ups left. I grabbed the bar and tried to collect myself so I could jump and pull my chin up over the bar. Instead, things began to go dark at the outer edges of my vision. The tunnel of light in front of me was getting small fast. That’s when I knew it was time to hit the ground on my own rather than fall like a tree hacked to death by a lumberjack. The good news is I didn’t faint. That would have been embarrassing. But I did spend the next 10 minutes flat on my back, unable to roll over and stand up. Other athletes had to step over me as they went about their training. I was delirious and kept asking Eric to call 1-9-1 as he hovered over me. He offered me water and kept asking if I was okay. When it seemed likely that my family wouldn’t be testing the validity of the waiver he had made me sign, he leaned in and said, “Welcome to CrossFit.”
Right there, in the middle of the floor, paralyzed by lactic acid, I knew that I was hooked. If CrossFit could make my friend Mark melt like butter and if it could put me flat on my back in less than 10 minutes, it was something worth doing.
As I drove away from the gym and tried to remember where I lived, I was sure of three things: 1) I was going to be sore in the morning, 2) I was in worse shape than I thought, 3) I was more excited about CrossFit than anything I had done in a long time.
You can read more about the connections between CrossFit and spiritual fitness in Train For Something Greater, available in Kindle format.