25 Aug

Road to St. Cloud – Team Training

This past weekend I saw the amazing, harrowing documentary film “Meru“.  It is about three American climbers – Conrad Anker, Jimmy Chin and Renan Ozturk –  who were the first people to scale Meru Peak, a 21,000-foot Himalayan mountain in India. The film had me riddled with anxiety the whole time as I wasn’t sure if they were going to make it or if some tragic accident was waiting to happen.

As the end credits rolled, I was in awe at their drive and commitment to each other’s success. I was also struck by how mentally strong and focused they were and how much trust they had created. The three of them were the definition of a team. Each taking the lead at some point up the mountain. Each contributing their individual skills and compensating for each other’s weaknesses.

The North Face Meru Expedition, 2011

The North Face Meru Expedition, 2011

The film doesn’t get much into the weeds about the technical aspects of climbing. However, it is clear that this trio had to be in constant communication with each other. One mistake could be fatal as they clip in, clip out, give each other rope, take one step up and one step over to get to the top. They had to cheer each other on as it got harder and harder to get up that peak. They also had to be brutally honest and keep each other in check. Their success was their trust in each other, their ability to be vocal, but also their ability to listen to one another.

Over the past two weekends, the coaches at Kingfield have organized a Saturday training sessions for the athletes competing in the Granite Games. My team attended both and it has been a fast lesson in communication. While I got to know my teammate Nick during the trip to Nicaragua, it is a relatively new friendship and we have never competed together before. I have been in some classes with our other teammate Jarrod at Kingfield but we too are still getting to know each other. To belabor the point, Nick and Jarrod had never even met until two Saturdays ago. We are three relative strangers trying to quickly unify ourselves as a team.

In the first training session, the coaches wasted no time in making sure we were communicating with each other, or learning what happens when you don’t. The workout for time was as follows:

  • 50 deadlifts (135#)
  • 50 hang power cleans (135#)
  • 50 shoulder to overhead (135#)
  • 50 toes to bar
  • 50 handstand pushups
  • 300 double unders

Your team could break up the reps in whatever way you wanted. However, for the first three movements, the bar was not allowed to touch the ground. This meant that if you wanted to switch with a teammate during the deadlift, you had to somehow pass the bar over to your teammate.

Like the others, we found it easiest to have one person on each side of the bar. We decided that when the person had done as many reps as they could they would say “Switch”. The two guys on either end would grab the bar and say “On” and then that person who just went would take over holding the end of the bar and teammate #2 would go to the middle of the bar and grab hold and yell “Off” when they had a secure grip.

It was a simple system yet complicated by us not knowing each other well enough yet to instantly read each other’s signs. And as the clock progressed, we learned how you had to be very loud and clear no matter how tired you were getting to make sure the teammates knew when to take the bar or to let it go. We never dropped the bar, but we were not running smoothly.

This past Saturday for the second training sessions, we were off to a bad start as Jarrod was nowhere to be seen. He bartends and works long nights. A phone call after he was 15 minutes late to training revealed that he was still sleeping. He proved his commitment though by rushing over to the gym and getting there 1-minute before the workout started. He had to go cold into the following:

  • Event 1 – Burpees to 6′ target (7-minute time cap)
  • 10-min Rest
  • Event 2 – Each teammate had to do 30 calorie Row, 20 Deadlift (225#), 100 Double-under, 30 Shoulder-to-overhead (85#), 30 Pull-ups.  One person followed the next through the sequence and two people could not do the same movement at the same time. The event had a 20 minute time cap.
  • 10-min Rest
  • Event 3 – 70 Snatches @ 85# and 70 Clean & Jerks @ 85# (8-minute time cap)

Each event had its own challenges and required that constant support and communication that are so important to a team’s success.

In Event 1, we decided to each do 7 burpees and then switch. I was to keep count the whole time to make sure we did not lose track. We picked a number that we felt was doable for all and left everyone with enough wind in their sails to get through the whole event without faltering too much.  We ended up with 146 burpees total.

In Event 2, we identified that Nick should be the leader and go first. He was awake and energized and feeling strong. Jarrod, having woken up thanks to the burpees, went second as he could move faster through the deadlift than I could. The goal was to have everyone finish, but also to as a back-up figure out a strategy that would get us the most total reps. And if you ended up having to wait for the person ahead to finish a movement, it was key that you support and encourage them to keep everyone motivated and moving.

In the last event, we decided to each do the number of reps we were comfortable with. We had learned the week before that you have to check the ego at the door. If you are getting close to being spent or failing a rep, you have to let your teammate tag in rather than waste time trying to prove you can get one more rep. We all want to win but we can’t do so by “hogging the ball”.

We also learned when we got to the clean and jerks how we all need to be on the same page and have a clear understanding of the rules. I thought the movement was just power cleans. Nick knew it was clean and jerks. Jarrod was not sure and just following our lead. We would have been corrected by a judge very quickly in the competition but it would also have been to our detriment and a waste of energy if we were doing the wrong movement. And yet we did so anyways and did 70 power cleans. It was practice so it was fine. But those type of mistakes are huge on game day.

We can’t meet this weekend due to schedule conflicts. I think we need to find an activity outside of the gym to get to know each other better and form that crucial bond. Maybe we should go rock climbing?

20 Aug

Motivation by Way of Laziness

Two Sundays ago I was at CrossFit Kingfield for the regular 11am class.  We had done our warm up and then worked on a 4 rep max in the push press. As the end of class came near, it was time for the main workout of the day.  With a 15-minute time cap, the WOD was 5 rounds of  the following:

  • Sprint 100 meters
  • 15 Thrusters
  • 7 Handstand Push-ups

Like most people, I hate thrusters. The squatting and the pushing, the up and down, it makes me want to hurl.  However, the more challenging element for me was going to be the handstand push-ups.

We loaded up our bars and found a place on the wall for handstand push-ups (HSPU). The only problem was that I had not done one single HSPU this year. In fact, my experience before 2015 was limited to doing a few strict here and there (emphasis on few).  I had done plenty of handstand holds this summer, but always by way of a wall-walk to get into position.

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Rightly so, Amanda, who was coaching, did not want us doing HSPU facing the wall. We were to kick-up into a hold, but I was totally out of practice with my handstands and was hesitant to kick-up into a hold.

Amanda encouraged me to give it a try.  Yet I stood there hemming and hawing and regressing into my irrational fear that I was going to break my face.  A fear that I had gotten over in the past but that was rearing its ugly head again.

I asked what the scaled movement was and she said that it was dumbbell push presses.  “F@ck that!” After 15 thrusters, I did not want to do dumbbell presses.  And yes, I am aware that handstand pushups are very taxing on one’s shoulders, but they sounded much better than the alternative.

And thus in my attempt to avoid the dumbbells, I got out of my head and kicked up into a handstand against the wall. It wasn’t pretty as I started with my head on the ab mat on the floor, but I was able to push out of that into a handstand hold and then do the HSPU from there.

I don’t know if it was some sort of mental Jedi trick that Amanda played on me, but out of the pure laziness of not wanting to touch the dumbbells and deal with more weight than needed, I found myself doing HSPU in the WOD. Amanda gave me some tips about kipping and I was actually stringing a few in the row.  I ended up doing 24 in total, which was probably 20 more than I had ever done at one time.

This past Monday the WOD was “Diane” and suddenly I was doing 21 HSPU in a row in the first round.  It’s probably cheap for me to say I was being lazy and thus kicked up into the HSPU.  The fact was I had for a moment lacked confidence in my own abilities and had forgotten how capable I was of doing these movements. Eventually with my training I want to get to a place of complete “Yes!” where I don’t question or hesitate. I just do.

10 Aug

Running Stairs with the November Project

This past Friday morning, my alarm clock started blaring at 5:45am – much earlier than usual. I had decided to check out the November Project, a free community workout held over near the University of Minnesota boathouse on Friday mornings. (They also meet on Wednesday mornings between the Mill City Museum and Guthrie Theater.) The meeting time was a very specific 6:27 AM and so I hauled my butt out of bed, splashed my face with some water and headed over to check it out.

I first read about the November Project in Outside Magazine back in 2013. The article explained how a grassroots fitness community grew out of two former college rowers doing workouts together to keep each other motivated. They would run stairs together and slowly and surely the group got larger and larger thanks to word of mouth and social media. Eventually, the idea spread way beyond the Boston area.

A November Project workout at Harvard stadium.    Photo: Bojan Mandaric

A November Project workout at Harvard stadium. Photo: Bojan Mandaric

Today, according to their website, November Project is “now present in multiple cities in across four time zones in North America, the movement is using a simple sense of accountability to motivate and encourage people of all ages, shapes, sizes and fitness levels to get out of their beds and get moving.”

My Granite Games teammate Nick met me in the parking lot near the boathouse. It had rained the night before and the sky was still a bit overcast and gray.  There were about a dozen young twenty-somethings in workout gear gathering together. Among the group was a familiar face – Jake from my CrossFit gym – who randomly was also their for the first time too.

Nick and I were greeted by Ben, Cyndi and Holly. They skipped handshakes and went straight for a hug to say hello and welcome us.  A quick warm-up lap and then we all met at the set of stairs that lead down from East River Parkway to the boathouse, which the group affectionately call  “King Kong.”  There Ben, the charismatic ringleader, who had brought the November Project to Minneapolis, explained the day’s workout.

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The workout was as many rounds as possible for 33 minutes of the following:

  • Run all the way up to the top of the stairs and back down (300 steps total)
  • Run half-way up and back down (150 steps total)
  • Run all the way up to the top of the stairs and back down (300 steps total)
  • X number of Burpees
  • X number of Hoistees

When you got to the burpees and the hoistees, you were to find a partner to do them with. You could choose whatever number you wanted to start at for the first round, and then add 2 to that number for every subsequent round.

Hoistees were new to me and Nick and led to much comedic effect. You and your partner had to grab each other’s hands, lower yourselves down until your butt touched the ground and then stand back up and jump.  Our timing was off on the first few attempts, but eventually we got into the rhythm.  Ben encouraged everyone to loudly yell “hoistees!” with each rep.

That enthusiasm, which started with the hugs at the beginning, was maintained throughout. It was hot and sweaty and totally exhausting. My calves and quads were burning with every step.  But people were constantly high-fiving and telling each other “great job” and  “keep going” as they passed each other on the stairs.

At the end of the workout, we all got into a 1-minute plank position and we were instructed to maintain eye contact with someone else. The workout was about more than just yourself. It was about connecting with the community. When time was up, it was a round of applause and more sweaty hugs. To some it could seem off-putting, even cult-ish. To me, this group has organically created an atmosphere of “Yes!” that I have found to be a great approach to life.

It was a really tough workout but so satisfying. I completed 4 rounds, which equals 3,000 steps or approximately 250 flights of stairs.  It’s hard not to feel good about your day when you start it with that kind of energy and output.

I’ll be headed back this Friday. You should join me.

20 Jul

An Unexpected Competition

This past week at class, while I was in the middle of a 30-second passive hang on the pull-up bar as part of the warm-up, my coach Danny starts telling me that I should sign up for the Twin City Throwdown, which was going to be held at CrossFit Kingfield just a few days later. With my feet dangling, I was non-committal. He continued to encourage me to think about it and put in a final reminder before I left.

Secretly I was itching to compete again. I am planning on doing the Granite Games, but I was ready to be back in the arena. I had seen pictures of the Sisu Summer Throwdown on Facebook and was cursing myself that I hadn’t signed up.  As awful as it feels, I wanted that nervous stomach, constant sense of having to pee, anxious feeling that only comes through competition. By the next day, right as registration was closing, I signed up for the Men’s Scaled division.

The Twin City Throwdown was a great way to get my feet wet again as it only involved two events and there were only 32 competitors in total. It was efficiently run and a great crowd came out to watch. Plus, it started at 10am and was over by Noon. However, that didn’t make it feel any less important in terms of giving it my all and going for the win.

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EVENT 1

AMRAP / 10 minutes of 2k Row buy-in then max single unders.

I can honestly say I never rowed a 2k that hard in my life. My strategy was to keep my splits below 2 minutes. I started by hovering around 1:45 and it slowly inched it ways up the further I got. It hit the 2:00 mark once or twice, but overall I kept it pretty consistent between 1:45 and 1:57 and resulted in a time of 7:33, which was a personal PR.

Getting off the rower to go into the single-unders, my legs were as shaky as you imagine. Plus, I was having a hard time focusing as I was breathing hard and tired already. I got my act together after some misfires and actually did the final 30 seconds mostly unbroken for a total of 201.

For scoring purposes, the time on the row was one score and the amount of double unders was a second scored event. There were 8 men total in my division. I took 3rd place in the row and 3rd place in the single-unders. There were also 5 men in the Rx division who did the same 2k row. So out of the 13 total men, I came in 5th in the 2k row.

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EVENT 2
4 Rounds for time of 3 Squat Cleans + 4 Front Squats + 5 shoulder to overhead at 95#

The morning moved quickly and we basically right into the next event. The heats weren’t taking up the full 10 minute time cap and there was little to do in terms of switching out weights so my heat went earlier than expected. So I downed a bottle of water and devoured a Quest bar as I was felt so hungry after finishing event 1. I also had a little costume change into a fresh shirt as it was extremely warm in the gym and, like everyone else, I was sweating a ton.

I warmed up a bit and the weight felt heavy and my “squatter” felt tight. Another quick pee and it was time to go. Surprisingly, when the clock started, the weight felt lighter than I thought it was going to. The trick of the complex was to just string it all together each round. I’m not sure if it was round 3 or round 4 but I had a mental block and dropped the bar after the 3 squat cleans rather than just going right into the front squats. The extra cleans definitely slowed things today but I was moving at a decent enough pace. I also had one no rep on a shoulder to overhead as my feet weren’t completely under the bar.

I finished in 4:01, which meant I took 5th place in the event. Those little mistakes added up as I was 30 seconds off from the cluster of where 2nd, 3rd and 4th place finished.

As I was in the last heat, the score were tallied and minutes later they announced the winners. Points in each events were given based on what place you took. The person with the least amount of points won. I had 11 total and ended up coming in 4th. The 3rd place finisher had a score of 10. A one point difference!

My mistakes in the strength complex were to blame. But maybe if I had better control after I got off the rower I could have gotten more single-under and caught 2nd place.  Lessons learned for next time about maintaining focus throughout and controlling energy levels.

Regardless of not making the podium, it felt great to be out there. In my head and heart, I am a very competitive person. I’ve spoken about how in the past fear held me back from even showing up. In the end, I don’t need the trophies or the prizes. I just need to know that I am putting myself out there and striving to do my best. I was sitting on the bench these last few months and it is time to get back in the game.

15 Jul

Why I Still Believe in CrossFit

Four years ago I went to my first CrossFit class. The workout that day was Fran, one of the most brutal benchmarks WODs. It involves 21 – 15 – 9 thrusters and pull-ups for time. I’ve kept a training journal since the beginning and my notes indicate that it took me 11 minutes and 40 seconds that warm summer day using a 35 pound bar and a blue assistance band. Many questioned my sanity on why I would ever return to the gym after such a harsh introduction, but I did week after week and year after year. And here I am today, still going to class and always a bit anxious and excited that they will say the workout that day is Fran.

Finding CrossFit was a turning point in my life. I had been living in Minneapolis for almost a year and pretty much hated it. I had a dismal social life that involved superficial friendships with my neighbors, which mostly resulted in drunken nights wondering what I was doing. I was also spinning my wheels trying to get “fit” by running 5Ks and giving little thought to my nutrition. But that all changed when I entered the box.

I had met the owner and he told me the story of his own transformation through CrossFit. An overweight depressed cubicle nerd who went from staring at screens to becoming a total beast who was transmitting what he learned to others everyday. The gym had weights and pull-ups bars and jump ropes and rowers and I thought this has to be better than anything I am doing on my own. I signed up that same day.

Since then, I have completed two 1/2 marathons and three Tough Mudders, visited boxes in Fargo, Las Vegas and Bangkok, competed in individual and team challenges, trained with Games athletes in Tennessee and done beach workouts in Nicaragua. I have had plenty of ups and downs and PRs and everything in between. I still can’t do a muscle-up, but I can string multiple pull-ups and do double-unders. I’ve taken up boxing and stand-up paddle boarding and have taken Muay-Thai lessons in Chiang Mai and gone  white-water rafting in Costa Rica.

CrossFit is performing “functional movements that are constantly varied at high intensity.” It is preparation for a life that is active, not passive. Everything is scalable and emphasizes that we are all on the same path but just at different points. One person might be able to carry a 50 pound kettlebell across the room, while another struggles with a 10 pound one. Both individuals support one another because they recognize a shared mindset. They put in the work and similarly commit themselves to self-improvement.

CrossFit bleeds over into daily life so easily. Once you have done that first strict pull-up in class, you are anxious to do a second. That can-do attitude is hard not to take with you into the workplace and into your relationships. If I can lift more weight and move faster and constantly improve in the gym, why can’t I do that in other aspects of life? You soon find the answer is that you can and so you do. You start to make changes to what you eat and the activities you partake in with friends and family, you start to push yourself on the job to accomplish more and not restrict your goals to just the bumper plates.

“Eat meat and vegetables, nuts and seeds, some fruit, little starch and no sugar. Keep intake to levels that will support exercise but not body fat. Practice and train major lifts: Deadlift, clean, squat, presses, C&J, and snatch. Similarly, master the basics of gymnastics: pull-ups, dips, rope climb, push-ups, sit-ups, presses to handstand, pirouettes, flips, splits, and holds. Bike, run, swim, row, etc, hard and fast. Five or six days per week mix these elements in as many combinations and patterns as creativity will allow. Routine is the enemy. Keep workouts short and intense. Regularly learn and play new sports.”  ~Greg Glassman

Cut to four years later and I am in the best shape of my life. I have an amazing group of friends that I initially got to know while we sweated and grunted together during workouts. I’ve also met a wide array of kind, generous  and inspiring people. I have come into my own. I truly believe it is all because I lifted a barbell that first day and said I want to be better and stronger than I am today. And I’ve said that everyday since. This is what I learned at CrossFit and this is why I still believe in CrossFit.