Learning to Compete

January 13, 2015



My first morning at Paradiso CrossFit, David, the owner and a trainer there, was kind to me.  He showed me how to use a giant green rubber band to assist myself at the bottom of a pull-up.  The band had so much tension it practically sent me through the ceiling like a pea from a slingshot. I’ve been known to wear jewelry that weighs more than the kettlebell he had me swing. And after just a few regulation push-ups, I had to drop to my knees to finish a set of ten. Fortunately, I was finishing up this humiliating performance with a few sit-ups by the time anyone else arrived at the gym, so I managed to preserve my dignity for another day. I limped home, leaden in my worn-out limbs, but most sore in my heart with the realization that I had become a person who was resting on wilted laurels.

Working out for a score, which is a hallmark of the CrossFit program, was entirely new to me. In fact, I had never in my life participated in any sport with a winner or a loser. The first time I saw my time and reps recorded on the whiteboard at Paradiso I was horrified to have my place in comparison to the rest of the class become public knowledge. The workout was 5 pull-ups, 10 push-ups and 15 air squats, repeating as many rounds as possible in 20 minutes (a sequence known as Cindy in the CrossFit world). I performed the whole workout with modifications—so I wasn’t really performing the prescribed workout at all—and simply could not get my hip crease to fall below my knees in the squat. I recorded a score which fell in the middle of the group, but even though I’d done my best and gotten an intense workout, it wasn’t truly legitimate.

I worked hard to improve my strength and mobility for the sake of my fitness, but more than anything, I wanted to post a real score. I wanted to meet movement standards and perform at prescribed weights so badly that I simply stopped caring if I was in the middle or dead last. It was about that time, six months after I started CrossFit, that I started to get real. And, apparently, better at it.

There are two CrossFits. It’s a type of gym and a fitness philosophy, but it’s also a sport, and now I wanted to compete. I had strength, endurance, and a high threshold for pain, honed by years of alpinism, and that was (and is) a big plus in CrossFit.  What I needed most was to learn to use my body efficiently and to its greatest advantage—skills most often cultivated in the team sports I’d never played.

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I entered the CrossFit Open for the first time in 2012 and I finished in 70th place out of 194 women in my age/gender class (55-59 years old).  In January of 2013, I entered an All Master’s Competition in Northern California and took third place. While the field of competitors in my class was small, they were fierce, and included at least one Master’s Woman my age who had been to the CrossFit Games the previous year. The three of us standing on the podium were within a few points of one another’s scores. It was the first time I had ever felt truly competitive in a sport. I got a taste of winning, and I liked it.

After that, and with just six weeks left to train for the 2014 CrossFit Open, I started a training program written for aspiring Master’s Competitors. This meant training five days a week for three hours a day and active rest work on the two days I was not at the gym. I placed 5th in my region and 46th out of 522 in the world. While I was happy with my improvements in the overall ranking, the big takeaway was how much I enjoyed training hard, every day, with a goal in mind. And that is what I have done, every day since.

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  • Reply Mickey April 6, 2015 at 3:01 pm

    I so love to read your blog. I started crossfit 9 months ago, age 59 ( I am 60 now).
    In the Netherlands so few wonen over 45 do Crossfit. I am the only master 45+ in my Box and am constantly trying to compare myself with my fellow athletes ( who are under 35). And that is stupid, of course. So you are kind of an example to me. I wonder how you cope with the fact that as we grow older it is more difficult to get stronger. I have been trying to get a strict pull-up for 9 months now, without succes, and the 25+ althletes come In and master them in 3 months.
    I hope you will qualify for the Games this year,

    • Reply Sandy Hill April 6, 2015 at 7:06 pm

      Hey Mickey! I am glad you like reading my blog, and happy that you found CrossFit. It is a great way to get fit and stay fit at any age. I think that the biggest limitation to learning new advanced moves, like the SPU, is NOT that we don’t develop muscles as fast as our younger counterparts do, but it is that most members of our generation, and especially women, were never taught how to perform athletically like this when we were young. It wasn’t so long ago that people believed (most) women were incapable of performing pullups at all, so few bothered instructing it. As with all the advanced moves in CrossFit, it is important to learn to recruit many different muscle groups, in addition to the obvious ones, in order to reach your goal. In the case of the SPU, engaging your abs and hips is essential, but not immediately apparent, especially if you are struggling. Ask your coach to teach you some progressions. Two of the best exercises I did to improve my SPU was drilling pullup holds (holding chin over bar until failure) and performing tempo releases to the hang. To reach the bar, use a tall box so you are not wasting anything on the pull and preserving your strength in order to control the eccentric movement. I am sure your coach has many similar drills which he can show you. Ask. And please share what you learn here. Good luck!

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