Stronger, Faster, Older

September 16, 2015

IMG_0241I spent 10 days in the desert at Burning Man, in a camp of a 100 people who came together to form a lovely temporary community. The winds and the dust were fierce, but I still danced every day, sometimes for eight to ten hours—for those 10 days, that was my fitness.

And somehow I still managed to injure myself. A member of our camp had been given a portion of Timothy Leary’s ashes by his family, and she thought it would be fitting to recremate them in the “Totem of Confessions” (in a Burning Man ritual, the art and architecture is always burned to the ground during the last days of the Festival). When it came time to pick up the litter on which the reliquary that held the ashes sat, some members of the camp volunteered me. It looked like it was made out of paper mache, so I leaned down and picked it up with all the form that you would use to pick up a Kleenex. It wasn’t paper mache. And like that: tweaked back.

It was a fitting end to my month of rest after the Games. No one disagrees that rest is needed after such intense exertion, but people do vary in the amount they suggest is optimal. Some tell you not to take more than a week off. But I struggled to return to the gym. Unlike someone like Camille Leblanc-Bazinet, the CrossFit world champion in 2014, who has the goal of the next Games and the incentive of her sponsorships to keep her motivated, I did it solely for the challenge of working up to my potential. I don’t plan to compete again.

Plus, I had a road trip already planned, which didn’t lend itself to a lot of gym time. But, me being me, I didn’t totally veg out. I stuck to the running program that genius trainer Chris Hinshaw created (he uses an amazing algorithm that takes all your performance numbers and spits out a personalized set of paced intervals). And I feel the gains: I’m stronger, fleeter, and can go much farther than I’ve ever done before.

IMG_4888That success has pointed me toward my next goal. We’ve all seen what happens with age: we slow down, muscles and joints start to ache, and the training that kept us fit and active for years begins to lose its efficacy. We hit a peak in our early thirties, and it just goes downhill from there, even if we train for general physical preparedness—the CrossFit model of “functional fitness”—which is the best way out there to train.

But does it have to go downhill? My experience with running tells me it doesn’t have to; that a generally fit individual can take steps to counteract the effects of age, and maybe even improve beyond what he or she was capable of doing at the peak of fitness. It won’t always be easy—as with anything in life, the worthiness of a task is often equal to its difficulty—but I believe that I can find ways to continue improving.

Almost two years ago, I set out to reach my fullest genetic potential by training for and competing in the CrossFit Games. The feeling of pushing my body to its limits and beyond was exhilarating. But I’ve had countless people say, “I don’t need to do what you do because I just want to fit into my clothes.” Fine. But if you can’t squat down or bend over to pick up something without thinking about it, if you can’t live in a dynamic way well into your 50s and 60s and 70s (and beyond, I hope), then what is the point of those hours slogging away in the gym or around a track? Instead, think about training as giving yourself a gift: the gift of living a joyful life, where there are no limits.

So one great goal—competing in the CrossFit Games—has come to an end, but a new adventure awaits. Through experimentation, consultation with experts, and, of course, more hours in the gym, I hope to find some answers to the conundrum of staying fit while aging. And when I do, I’ll post them here.

 

 

Think Positive

August 23, 2015

Rosalie Glenn won the 2015 CrossFit Games, Master’s 60+ division. Like all the competitors on the field, her strength and mental stamina were astounding, and it was an honor to be on the field with her. Here she shares part of her story.

—SLH

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One day, early this summer, I saw an advertisement for a simple metal bracelet that said “she believed she could so she did.” That phrase really spoke to me, so I bought the bracelet and wore it almost non-stop right up to and throughout the CrossFit Games. In those dark moments during practice when I thought my lungs would burst and even as I stood on that immense stadium field during the Games, I repeated that phrase over and over to myself.

I remember the first time I attempted a CrossFit workout, not because it nearly killed me or because I felt so enlightened or invigorated, but because I approached it in a singular act of desperation at a time in my life when I felt I had exhausted every other option available to lose weight and improve my health.

For many years, I struggled with issues of eating and body image and I assumed that my CrossFit adventure would just be another chapter in that on-going saga. This struggle has not been particularly obvious to most people I’ve known—except for the mean kids that called me “Fatso” during my chubby phase in 3rd grade! Somehow, those little voices have always remained in the back of my mind, even through my years as a normal-weight, athletic teenager and a young professional wife and mother.

Because I’ve always loved cooking and eating and science, I chose a career in the field of nutrition and thus became sort of “food personified” in my work and personal life. As such, I felt an obligation to eat a perfect diet, feed my family perfect meals, maintain a perfect weight, etc, etc. For many years, I religiously counted calories and toiled away every morning in my family room to whatever exercise video series was popular. I’ve done them all—from Richard Simmons to Body Electric, Denise Austin to Power 90 to Jillian Michaels.

But then, after many years, along came menopause and a high-stress job in management and an increasingly growing fatigue with trying to keep up the appearance of personal and professional perfection. Without ever making a conscious decision, somewhere in my early 50s I became a person who felt too old and too tired to worry about that stuff anymore. Five years later, I found myself staring in the mirror at a 200-pound stranger who suffered from plantar fasciitis, chronic stomach problems, and a feeling that bordered on self-loathing for what I’d let myself become.

Against my own professional judgment, I sought help at a non-traditional weight-loss clinic and even managed to lose almost 30 pounds in 40 days on a regimen of human chorionic gonadotropin, a hormone produced during pregnancy (commonly known as HCG). As soon as I went off the drug and resumed my not-so-great diet, however, 20 of those pounds crept their way back. I was so frustrated! I knew better than to let this happen but seemed almost powerless to prevent it. I launched into another round of HCG and watched myself yo-yo back and forth for the better part of another year.

But then something I now consider close to divine intervention happened. The non-traditional physician with whom I’d been working mentioned that he was applying for an affiliate membership to open a gym that promoted a new type of exercise known as CrossFit. I showed up for that first workout and many of the others that followed in desperation. If the gym hadn’t been so new, with such a small and friendly clientele, I probably wouldn’t have persisted. To my utter embarrassment, my once-fit body was now totally unable to perform a single push-up or anything that resembled a proper air squat. I almost quit several times when I found myself unable to perform even the most highly scaled version of a particular movement. I thought, “Who am I kidding? I’ll never be able to do this stuff!”

What brought me back to every workout, however, was the open, accepting, caring concern of the people I came to call my friends there. We sweated and complained together, we whipped ourselves silly practicing double-unders, and bloodied our shins on box jumps. And somewhere along the way, this amazing body of mine began to forgive me for those years of abuse and neglect. My weight and body fat percentages began to fall in line without all of the obsessing I’d done in prior years. In practically imperceptible ways I got stronger, more flexible, and more able.

By 2015, I had entered the Crossfit Open three times, but this year I was amazed to finish in 2nd place in my age division. When I managed to maintain a spot in the top 20 and got my invitation to participate in the Games it really was, again, to my utter amazement!

I realized then that I needed to spend the summer working hard and preparing myself mentally and physically for the Games. I had received some coaching during the Master’s Qualifier from a new trainer who exuded some of the most powerfully positive energy of anyone I’ve ever met, and we worked together again toward the Games. Each session, we worked on strength and endurance, but he also never failed to give me positive reinforcement to help build my confidence. In addition, I spent substantial time doing positive visualization and striving to believe in myself. During these exercises, I would often imagine hearing the announcer say my name or seeing myself on the Jumbotron. When I got to the Games and these things actually happened, the feeling was almost surreal.

The final result of placing first still leaves me in a bit of awe. I sometimes have this funny feeling that I might wake up tomorrow morning and find myself back in Carson, California with the actual workouts yet to be done. But then I see that gold medal hanging from my bedroom mirror—a symbol of how far I’ve come, once I believed I could.

Rosalie Glenn on the Jumbotron, 2015 CrossFit Games.

What’s Done

July 31, 2015
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In the Finals. Photographer Benjamin Brayfield.

Competing in the CrossFit Games was the hardest thing I have ever done (with all due respect to climbing Mt. Everest, and the emotional challenges which followed in its aftermath). Now that I have regained practical use of my hands and arms, I could write a book about my experiences during the last two years, culminating in those three days last week.

And over the course of several posts (to come), I will recount some of them here. But for now, a status report:

The day after (Friday), I slept until 2:00 PM. When I finally woke up, I was spatially disoriented (most noticeable when walking down the flight of stairs in my house—I clung to the railing—and driving), and I felt challenged to recall familiar words and names. My balance was off; my right ear ached inexplicably, and radiated shooting pain down the right side of my neck (an issue which persists, but seems to be diminishing). I had a big-time headache for four days. I broke out in hives on my lower back, upper arms, and neck. People have postulated heat stroke, PTSD, central nervous system breakdown, adrenal failure. I don’t know, and no symptoms have been so acute that I have been motivated to see a doctor. Besides, the “cure” for all of those conditions, as far as I know, is time and rest. So my instincts tell me to maintain the eating and sleeping routines I have practiced for the last 18 months, to stay home and putter, to coddle myself a little, and to reflect.

Everything hurt, a lot at first. The 80 deadlifts in “The Sandwich” (Event 6) on Thursday morning took a toll on my lower back muscles, and triggered a sympathetic reaction in my lower and upper body. The webs between my thumb and index fingers were ripped open, which happened during the 40 push presses before the deadlifts, and was exacerbated by subsequent events and shaking hands with so many people after the finals. But the pain has ebbed, hands healed, and today I woke up feeling nearly myself again.

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Crossing the line for a 2nd place finish in this event. Photographer Martina Paradiso.

And gratitude:

To Greg Glassman for his genius “invention,” the sport of CrossFit, and to Dave Castro for bringing authentic functional fitness into focus by organizing the CrossFit Games. And to the many volunteers who made this colossal production possible.

For the chance to meet and compete with some truly badass women: Rosalie Glenn, Bernadette Elliott, Mary Schwing (who respectively took 1st, 2nd and 3rd place), and the 16 other competitors in my division. Congratulations to you all.

For my coaches: Maddy Curley, Logan Gelbrach, Chris Hinshaw, Dusty Hyland, James McCoy, and Sean Waxman.

To my medical and nutritional consultants: Dr. Chris Renna and Chris Talley.

For my training partner, Games Coach, and friend Jessica Suver. We were together 5-6 days a week for the last three months, from morning until night, during which time we shared in many successes and breakthroughs, not to mention many laughs. She opened up her heart and mind to me during times when we were stuck in traffic between workouts, and we connected over our many other shared interests, including English Literature, our pets, fashion. The bonds we formed are sure to be the biggest and most enduring prize of this whole project.

My home gym: Paradiso CrossFit Venice, and the community of supportive, encouraging, enlightening, and inspiring members, too numerous to count, but you know who you are.

Two special friends in the gym: Matthew Walrath and Patrick Madaj, for all they did to support me through the Open and the Qualifiers rounds.

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My participation in the CrossFit Games was the result of many months of hard work and sacrifices. It was my goal to qualify for the CrossFit Games and coming in fourth place in my rookie year was a bonus. Once I qualified, it became my goal to place in the top five in every event. Four out of seven isn’t bad; I missed the podium by two points out of a possible 700.

Weaknesses: knowing how to compete, barbell cycling, consistently linked pull ups—both chin over bar and chest over bar.

My big dream move: one elegant muscle up. Stay tuned to learn my progress toward achieving it.

Strengths: endurance—always has been and always will be.

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Photographer Martina paradiso

What I know now: to be good at CrossFit, like anything where nothing less than excellence is the goal, you need to push yourself to uncomfortable places when you train. I cannot honestly say that I did that as often as I could have. This was due in part to the fact that I was busy learning essential skills that I did not possess just two years ago, like pull ups, weightlifting, and inversion work. But, in some measure, it was because I figured I could pull it out in competition (see “endurance” above) and didn’t need to go to that hurting place often in training.

The Games are more than just another workout. Take the last event, “Amanda,” which I did not finish in the allotted time. It consists of two moves, ring dips and #65 squat snatches, alternating in diminishing numbers over three rounds for a total of 9 dips and 21 snatches. In training, I do these numbers, if not more, at least twice a week. In the final round of competition, however, I could not link two dips, and that barbell felt like it weighed twice that. It is one thing to perform them in your old familiar gym with no one watching and quite another to be on center court with a judge at your side, and an announcer calling out your name (if you are ahead) or the names of others (if you are not) to a noisy crowd in a vast stadium.

Regrets: that the competitors did not have more time to meet and converse with other athletes. Not only the 19 other women in my division, but any one of the 340 other world class athletes who competed in the CrossFit Games this year. I will make it a point to reach out to some of them in the coming months and, if they allow it, will share some of their stories here (including other members of the 2015 Fourth Fittest Club, Samantha Briggs and Dan Bailey).

Immediate Plans: I am going camping this weekend. Nothing strenuous—just an hour outside of Los Angeles to a small lake with a group of friends and acquaintances. Looking forward to reconnecting with them and to making new friends after many months of abstention from a social life and communion with nature.

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After Event 7. Photographer Benjamin Brayfield.

Day Three

July 23, 2015

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As I did on every other day of the Games, I went to bed last night at 8:30 p.m., and I woke this morning at 4:00 a.m. Early to bed, early to rise—a schedule I’d been practicing for the two weeks before the Games started.

Today challenged me mentally. The first event, the Sandwich, doesn’t take much technical skill, but you have to be able to focus. I summoned all my determination to get through it, and I felt elated at my finish.

Then, to the final event—”Amanda”, which, for my age division consisted of alternating sets of ring dips and snatch squats. My arms were really, really tired, and I knew that it wouldn’t be easy to hammer out the ring dips, even though I can usually string five in a row. What I didn’t expect was how much the change in venue effected me. We moved from the soccer stadium to the tennis stadium—an unfamiliar, more intimate space. The announcer sounded much louder, and the crowd felt closer. A more seasoned competitor might have been able to stay cool under the pressure, but it got to me. The skill I’m going to have to work on: composure.

Despite it all, I am thrilled at my finishing place. I knew that I wasn’t on the podium, but I was so locked in on just getting through all my reps that I had no idea what anyone else was doing. I reunited with my family when it was all over, and they told me: fourth place overall.

I came in to the Games in awe of the athletes I was about to compete against, and I leave with even more respect and admiration for them. I feel fortunate for those athletes I train with much of the time, most of whom are younger. But it was an honor and a pleasure to compete against athletes who are my peers in every way. I hope that we will stay connected in the coming months.

 

Day Two

July 22, 2015

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I woke up this morning feeling fresh, despite the effort of yesterday, and I entered the stadium energized. My training partner, Jessica, had looked at the grind of the Long Chipper and the time cap, and decided that it was unlikely that I, or anyone else for that matter, would make it to the sandbag run. So she came up with the idea of warming up backwards: a few minutes on the sandbags, just in case, and then wall ball, pull-ups, box jump, D-ball, then running.

As we finished the first circuit, I could feel what a difference the good coaching from Chris Hinshaw was making. My legs felt strong. And taking the steps reminded me of my daily routine: I live in a house taller than it is wide, three stories high, so taking stairs fast and in twos is something I do multiple times in a day, without even thinking about it. I guess that is the definition of functional fitness.

Coming to the end of the run in first place, I knew I had challenges in front of me. I felt well-prepared for the D-ball ground-to-shoulders, thanks to Logan at Deuce Gym, who taught me good technique (squat over the ball, straight arms, and hip kipping the lift) for picking up heavy balls and chucking them over my shoulders. Then I treated the box as a restful movement, a time to gather my breath.

I knew that the high pull-up bar would take it out of me. I can’t link many pull-ups yet, and each jump sapped a little more strength. I have the deepest respect for my competitors who were able to link them, which takes months of practice, and particularly for the one I spied out of the corner of my eye performing butterflies, which is a fast link, and one of the very hardest moves to master. Brava.

Afterward, I went to StretchLab, in Venice to prep for tomorrow morning. The therapist concentrated on shoulders, in anticipation for the morning’s overheads and the row.

As ever, I’m incredibly grateful to my training partner Jessica, who is generously, kindly, capably working as my coach for the Games (practically every Games-level athlete has someone working in this capacity). Her knowledge and experience in competing, something I’ve never done before, have been invaluable. She gives me sound advice, backup plans, pacing ideas, and plants positive images in my head before I leave the warm up area, and she has been my rock throughout.

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The judging standards at the Games are very precise: must touch the chess piece, move the block to a certain place, face a certain direction, touch a certain ball, etc. Facing the long and complex Long Chipper this morning, I was concerned I might make a small mistake that would cost me points. So I made up a wristband whiteboard to make sure I hit every mark.

Day One

July 21, 2015

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My day didn’t start out as well as I had hoped. I entered the soccer stadium feeling disoriented. During the chest-to-bar pull ups of the Triplet, the judge began to no rep me. Instead of becoming more resolute, I got flustered. I didn’t make the finish line by the cut off time of ten minutes.

In the Thruster, it happened again: the judge no repped me for not getting my hip crease below the knees. I disagreed with that call. But instead of letting that throw me off, I did it again.
And by the SQT, I felt collected and ready. During the sprint, the grass beneath my feet felt soothing after my months of track and pavement work. I moved through the event exactly as I’d practiced. Here’s hoping for the same tomorrow!

The Week that Was

July 5, 2015

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With just 14 days left before the CrossFit Games begin, this is a list of the quantifiable work I did this week to prepare.  More than one ton of thrusters?  No wonder my shoulders are sore.

Where are the rope climbs, anyway?

Graffiti.  Retna, 2012

Graffiti, Retna, 2012

*The list does not include warmups, cool downs, or accessory and skill work.

Just a Number

July 4, 2015

Super Mamika, Sascha Goldberger, 2010*

The idea of a “fitness age” has been floating around for a while now. When I took the online test, my result placed me at less than half my age. Flattering, but what does that really mean? My training at times takes age into account, but I have never felt constrained by it (and as a competitor, my age as given me an advantage, since I’m one of the youngest in my bracket). Is younger necessarily better?

Of course, what’s excited scientists about “fitness age” is its apparent correlation with a low risk of premature death. And I am really happy that in those terms, I’m as low-risk as it gets, even without my so called “fitness age” achievements: my lifelong habit of (mostly) clean living has rewarded me with with longevity-promoting levels of cholesterol and blood pressure. But why equate youth (the lower your age, the better) with vigor or longevity; what matters is what we do with what we are given, from our stage of life to our abilities.

I’m neither a gifted athlete nor preternaturally strong, and my build is average, maybe a little tall. Whatever I have “going for me,” I earned by working for it. Because I have made fitness my goal, I think I am as fit as a 60-year-old woman of my genetic makeup can be. I’ve had the time, the resources, the curiosity, and the discipline to maximize my own potential. So am I proud of myself for halving my chronological age in this test? Not really. But I am proud of the fact that, in spite of the myth that we can’t improve past a certain age, I continue to challenge the edges of my genetic potential every day.

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Super Mamika and Friend, Sascha Goldberger, 2010.

*These photos, by the French photographer Sascha Goldberger, are part of a larger series called “Mamika,” which feature his grandmother Frederika.

Happy Independence Day to you all!

Adding Up and Counting Down

June 27, 2015

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There are just 22 days to go.   This is a tally of the quantifiable work* I did last week to prepare for the competition.

What, no rope climbs, again?

Heat, Kenneth Noland, 1958

Heat, Kenneth Noland, 1958

*The list does not include warmups, cool downs, or accessory and skill work.