I am absolutely the target audience for Embrace the Suck, a memoir by Stephen Madden, former editor-in-chief of Bicycling magazine, about his time spent doing CrossFit. He chronicles a two-year period in his life where he “immersed himself in the culture, diet and psyche of CrossFit” and share what he learned about himself along the way. The book should perfectly appeal to someone like myself who has been doing CrossFit for almost 5 years and has competed, attended camp, visited affiliates gyms around the U.S. and abroad, etc. However, the book falls flat.
If the aim of the book is to provide a deep dive into CrossFit via one man’s experience, Madden fails to capture the heart and spirit of the sport and community. Anyone who picks up the book that is unfamiliar with CrossFit will not takeaway much more than what they could have learned in health magazine and blogs. Further, Madden misguides people by harping on this false idea that CrossFit makes its a goal to push people to the point of puking. He writes, “I wear my Pukie the Clown T-shirt with excellent pride”. It is like when the media focused on the hidden evils of the sport and that everyone is going to get rhabdomyolysis (rhabdo). No matter whether I have been training at a box locally or in Las Vegas or in Bangkok, I have never met a coach or athlete that encouraged anyone to push themselves to the point of causing physical harm to themselves. I am sure they are exceptions, but Madden makes it sound like the norm.
If then the book is to provide one person’s own story about how they tested their limits and conquered their fears, than Madden also lost me. He recounts his youth and depicts himself as this unathletic overweight kid, but then tells us about how he started playing hockey in third grade and was a killer on the ice and later about his career as an adult as a cyclist. Maddens seems to want to play up this struggle he has of separating his current self from his image of himself as a “slow, fat kid”. I don’t want to discount or deny his own experience, but the narrative feels strained and gasping at straws to make it resonate with the reader and have the emotional impact he desires.
My favorite section of the book is when Madden travels to Allentown, Pennsylvania to attend the SEALFIT 20X Challenge with Mark Divine. As SEALFIT describes, “20X event is a one day (12-14 hour) intensive delivered by SEALFIT certified coaches at CrossFit gyms and other training sites around the country. The purpose of 20X is straightforward and clear: to break down your inner limitations and immediately expand your definition of your capabilities as an athlete and human being.” Madden uses the experience to prove he is “good enough”. He and the other attendees are put through the ringer as they endure endless physical and mental challenges. It’s awesome and one can clearly understand why it could be life-changing. But then Madden comes out of left field and shares the following exchange after the hours spent in the mud, carrying rocks, running and being fatigued beyond belief:
“‘Madden?’ Divine is in front of me. ‘What’s the most important thing you learned this year?’
‘Love is the answer, sir.'”
Madden later echoes this idea that love is the underlying reason of why he was able to “embrace the suck” and push his limits at the conclusion of the book. The problem is, and while he might believe the answer to be very true to him, Madden did little to explain how he got to this thinking. He tries to say that all the ups and downs were buoyed by the support he received from his wife and children and gym mates and even his mother who encouraged him to play sports as a kid. But it just didn’t register. Perhaps if the book was more well written then I would have more empathy for this epiphany that he has. However, Madden provides little to the reader to give us reason to believe he didn’t know this the whole time.
Madden tries to be informative about CrossFit and the culture that surrounds it, but doesn’t articulate why the community is so strong and why the sport has proven to be more than a fad. And he tries to take us on this personal journey, but he does not lay the groundwork that makes us really care. The book is fine and is an easy read but I believe Madden could have done much better. He could have pushed himself a bit harder as a writer to produce something that truly inspires.