Becoming Your Best

July 17, 2015
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Photo by Paul A. Smith, Simply Perfection Photography, 2015

The message is everywhere: with the right shoes, the right watch, the right diet, and the right trainer, you can become anything you want to be. In the Age of Aspiration, where we all want to be the best, even hoping to transcend our physical limitations, all we need is the right equipment and the right attitude.

But can we? Can we be actually be more than ourselves? Or should we focus on being our own true selves, the best that we can be, thereby fulfilling our genetic potential? Indeed, each and every one of us is unique, born with the capability to realize our own genius. A few years ago, I decided that’s what I wanted: a chance to become the best that I could be.

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Up until now, I’ve sought challenge and fulfillment in physical exertion. From childhood, I wanted to push myself up mountains, ski down them, ride great distances on horseback. I wanted to do. When I looked at photos of men summiting Mt. Everest, their gender didn’t concern me, but the accomplishment inspired me. I wanted to be there, too.

I got there.

In the early 1990s, I set my goal: to climb the Seven Summits, the highest peak on each continent. Between 1992 and 1996, I traveled across the world and pushed myself past fatigue, past brutal weather extremes, past feet that looked like they’d been in a blender. I attempted Everest three times, and summited once. I knew and worked with some of the most talented mountaineers of the day, and I discovered the inner peace that comes with complete exhaustion.

Yet, as much as I met those challenges, I never felt like I was fully living up to what I could do. Then I discovered the sport of CrossFit and the CrossFit Games, the ultimate test of genetic potential, where players compete at the leading edge of every physical ability humans are made for: strength, endurance, flexibility, and balance. To even make it on the field, to compete against dozens of other supremely talented women, would be a tremendous honor. So I embarked on this grand adventure, the quest to qualify for the Games, just to see where my genes would take me.

Photo by Paul A. Smith, Simply Perfection Photography, 2015

Photo by Paul A. Smith, Simply Perfection Photography, 2015

 

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I never participated in team sports when I was in school. Title IX didn’t come along until later, and girls didn’t typically play sports—they were encouraged to become cheerleaders. That didn’t interest me, so I found my outlet in the mountains, alone. That experience gave me strength, endurance, and a high threshold for pain: all advantages in CrossFit. But I had to learn—and am still learning—how to move efficiently and use my strengths in new ways. I needed to become flexible—both in muscles and mind—in a way I’d never done before.

I first started competing in CrossFit in 2012 . At first, I was solidly in the middle of the pack. But in 2013, I placed third in an All Master’s competition against a field of tough women. Standing on the podium was exhilarating, and I wanted more.

Eighteen months ago, I dedicated myself not only to competing but excelling as a player in the 2015 CrossFit Games. I put together a team of coaches, nutritionists, peers and trainers who advised me every step of the way. I wrote up a plan, I followed it (with a few minor tweaks). To my surprise, I advanced into the 60+ Division this year. And, in April, I qualified for the Games, which commence in three days.

In these 18 months, I’ve seen that anyone, with time and dedication, can meet his or her own potential. People who train for the CrossFit Games have varying skill sets and body types: some of us are tall and strong, others are small and agile. But we all work at the limit of our genetic abilities, and I’ve come to relish the feeling of hitting that mark, the ache of your body and mind stretching forward beyond what you ever thought possible.

I’ve realized that chasing a dream of being the perfect athlete, or the perfect body, is a fool’s errand. We can’t all become the ideal—whatever that ideal might be, in any given age—but we can all strive to be our own best selves, whether that’s to compete in the Games or to lift a weight you never thought possible or to run a mile faster than ever before. In my training, I’ve met many people who are reaching for their own personal bests in many different arenas. They aren’t all doing CrossFit, but they are all living up to their genetic potential. They are all inspiring.

On July 22, I will walk onto the field knowing that I am the very best athlete I can be. By doing so, I will have won the Games before they even begin. I am going into the competition in a state of “personal best”: never stronger, more nimble, faster, or skilled than I am right now.  And I will walk onto that field grateful—for all the support I have gotten these past few years, for the chance to stand among a field of my peers, and for the privilege of living a life that has allowed me to express my genetic potential.

Photo by Paul A. Smith, Simply Perfection Photography, 2015

Photo by Paul A. Smith, Simply Perfection Photography, 2015

Game On

May 7, 2015
Fire in the Belly.  Andrew Brischler, 2013

Fire in the Belly. Andrew Brischler, 2013

It’s official: I received my invitation today to spend three days in July at the StubHub Center in Carson, California, competing in the CrossFit Games. I’ve worked incredibly hard to get to this place, but what I feel most is the honor and privilege to be in the company of the many amazing athletes heading to the same place.

After all, this is an event created to test fitness in a way that no other athletic event has ever done. With an emphasis on functional movements, athletes come to the field with no idea what is in store for them: there could be an open water ocean swim, a long run in the mid-summer heat, a rope climb. We might have to lug a bag of sand, or a log, across a field. And any number of more refined movements—like Olympic weightlifting or handstand walking—might pop up as well. This is a contest to crown the “Fittest on Earth,” so we better be prepared to do anything we are asked.

I will be following a training program prepared for Master’s Games Athletes by Invictus and supplementing it with sessions with Sean Waxman and Maddy Curley, a more intensive extension of the work I did to prepare for the Qualifier round.  I will also be adding in some other fun stuff: strongman training, Wing Chun (martial arts), Pilates, and parkour are some of the ideas I have been talking about with Jessica, my training partner (we are pretty much joined at the hip at this point).

This arduous work requires special fueling, and I’ll detail here in the future what kind of meal plan I’m following to optimize my performance and recovery. I won’t be going out to restaurants much, but I hope to be able to entertain at home more, especially because I need the support and love of my friends now, more than ever. And I’m always eager to get a mental break and have interesting conversation about topics unrelated to my work.

Now, I have 90 days to make myself into the fittest person I can be.

Jack Pierson, 2002

Jack Pierson, 2002

A Seventh Decade

April 23, 2015
Bloodshot, 2007.  Marilyn Minter

Bloodshot, 2007. Marilyn Minter

Last week, I turned 60 years old. There was no birthday bash. No fireworks. The bottles of champagne remained corked. Some of my friends were insulted that I couldn’t be persuaded to let them celebrate me. But the parties can wait. The Master’s Qualifier starts today, and I am focused on reaching a goal bigger than myself. To have allowed myself to whoop it up, even for a day, might have jeopardized realizing it.

That’s the 60th birthday gift I have given myself: my dream. One year ago, I embarked upon a personal challenge to test the bounds of my physical and mental potential.  The measure of this would be qualifying for a place at the CrossFit Games. Up to this point, I feel like my achievements in life have been largely shaped and defined by the expectations of others. In fact, it seems like I have been operating for a lifetime fueled by fear of not meeting up to those expectations: Fear of missing out. Fear of failure. Fear of success. Fear of insignificance. Fear of rejection. Fear of not fitting in.

But training like I do demands missing out, not fitting in, facing failure, success, and rejection. I have chosen to practice confronting my fears every day until the time comes when I can live fearlessly.

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The list of 200 other 60-year-old women who have qualified to advance to the next stage of competition is official, and each one’s performance history appears on the CrossFit Games website. In order to better assess the talent I am up against, I made a spreadsheet showing the 2015 Open scores for the 25 top scoring athletes in my division (I took 3rd place)*. Then I added in their performance history in the Master’s Qualifier events in 2014. I found that:

  • 6 athletes are already seasoned competitors, having been in the CrossFit Games in 2014 (along with 14 others who are not in the running this year)
  • 7 have recorded a heavier barbell Clean than I have (beating me by at least 10 pounds)
  • 3 women (other than those in 1st and 2nd place, who beat me in all but one event) beat at least 3 of my scores in Open workouts
  • 1 woman beat four of my scores in Open workouts
  • 8 women, like me, just turned 60 and are new to the division

No matter how things turn out for me over the next four days, I still plan to celebrate myself next weekend, with a postponed birthday trip. Hopefully, I will also be celebrating having qualified for the CrossFit Games in 2015. If not, I will still be happy, knowing that I have worked my hardest to approach—and maybe even go beyond—the edge of my limits.

 

*With respect to the 175 athletes I did not include in my analysis, I do not discount you: three competitors in the Women’s 60+ Division last year with scores below 25th place went on to earn a position in the Games because of their high MQ Scores.

 

Last Splash, 2012.  Marilyn Minter

Last Splash, 2012. Marilyn Minter

 

 

 

 

Double the Fun

April 18, 2015

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I have almost always worked out alone. Not isolated, mind you. I am rarely in an empty room. But it is something like walking by yourself down a crowded street.

Throughout the years, I have tried many times to get friends to join me at the gym, but it didn’t work for more than a session or two. For many years while training to climb mountains, and now as I train for competition, what I needed from a workout was wildly different than someone looking to maintain fitness. Still, I’ve watched the many athletes in my gym who have training partners with a small twinge of envy. They are never stuck setting up complicated equipment by themselves, which adds an element of inefficiency to the workout, or wondering how to set a good pace or where to take breaks. And even during the most arduous sets, they can laugh at the pain, rather than be overwhelmed by it.

This week, I found a training partner: Jessica Suver, a CrossFit Games athlete in 2013 and thirty years my junior, who shares many of my weaknesses and strengths. Because we are both tall (she is 6′), we are especially challenged by the gymnastic elements of CrossFit, and we are both strong (Jessica has a 400 pound deadlift!). Because Jessica is not competing in the Regionals Competition this year (and therefore is ineligible for the Games), she decided that the Invictus Masters competitive plan (the program I follow), with its emphasis on building skills while improving strength, would be the perfect way to accomplish her own goal to qualify for the CrossFit Games in 2016. Partnering up with me was her idea. I leapt at the chance.

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Working together, Jessica and I plan to do the same things every day: training barbell at Waxman’s Gym, seeing Maddy Curley for gymnastics coaching, and performing our WODs at Paradiso’s Gym. The only difference is that she will use the weights prescribed for younger Master’s, while I lift the “granny” weights prescribed for me. We’re also planning to do some of the recommended recovery activities together, like hiking and swimming.

In just one week, I have already discovered the benefits of working with a partner. Jessica has been a rower and volleyball player, and I am learning from her aptitude for competition. We can hold each other accountable for really learning the skills we each need. We can spot each other and take video to illustrate constructive criticism. We might even indulge in occasional commiseration. But I look forward the most to a shared sense of accomplishment as we reach our individual goals—double the gratification.

 

The Unknown and Unknowable

March 31, 2015
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Tracey Emin, 2014

 

Across the world over the past five weeks, athletes of all ages have tested their fitness in the CrossFit Open—the first stage in a competition to find the fittest people on Earth. Each week, the prescribed workout called on our physical and mental acuity with a range of movements: toes-to-bars, snatches, deadlifts, clean and jerks, overhead squats, chest-to-bar pull-ups, muscle-ups, wall-ball shots, double-unders, handstand push-ups, cleans, rowing, and thrusters. At the end of it, I took Third Place in my division, world-wide.

When I started the year, I thought I had another year to set the groundwork for qualifying. And as I headed into the 2015 Open, I never imagined I’d make the podium. What I earned in this stage was the chance to progress (in three weeks) into the Master’s Qualifier—five days to complete four events in order to qualify for the CrossFit Games this summer. Last year, I finished the Open in 46th place, so I didn’t really take the MQ seriously. But now it seems quite possible that I could land in the top 20 and make it to the Games. Suddenly, my dream looks like it could be a reality, sooner than I ever expected.

 

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Will Be, Tim Etchells, 2010

 

Looking forward, I hope to get in the Games to be on the same field with women who inspire and motivate me. Mary Schwing and Rosalie Glenn came in first and second place, respectively, in my division. They both logged solid scores throughout the Open, evidence that they are powerful athletes by any measure, for any age, beyond classification as “Masters.” To compete with—not against—them would be a wonderful culmination to my quest.

But first I have to get there. In preparation for the intensity of the MQ, I’ve stepped up my training schedule: following the Invictus Master’s Qualifier Prep (which will include TWO training sessions in a day several days a week, three days a week being coached by Sean Waxman, and two hours a week with Maddy Curley. No rest for the weary, it seems.*

The hardest part now is mental: knowing that now I start over. Only 20 of the field of 200 make it to the Games. My first score for the Master’s Qualifier will be my final place in the Open—number 3. But after that, nothing we did in the Open matters. It’s a new start for all of us. Whose brilliant idea was it to become a professional athlete at 60?

 

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Survival Series (1983-1985), Jenny Holzer

 

*The phrase is actually “No rest for the wicked,” but I’m too tired to get up to anything risqué.

 

Rational Exuberance

March 23, 2015
Beautiful, amore, gasp, eyes going into the top of the head and fluttering painting, 1997. Damien Hirst

Beautiful, amore, gasp, eyes going into the top of the head and fluttering painting, 1997. Damien Hirst

 

 

Sometime during my formative years, I picked up the notion that restraint was a hallmark of success. And even though, if asked, I can easily name dozens of unbridled and eccentric geniuses and I’d be hard pressed to cite a single example of one person in history who excelled because they held back, I have clung to this flawed logic for as long as I can remember.

Now, I don’t pretend that what I do as a sports competitor is on par with inventing the silicon chip, painting a masterpiece, or performing an opera capable of making an audience cry, but for short periods of time, almost every day, I am expected to give 100%. Yet I don’t think I realized what “leaving it all on the floor” really meant, until today.

I began to question the value of parsimony a few months ago, when I started analyzing pull-up videos, which I took of myself and other athletes in my gym to try to figure out why I could not get my chin over the bar when they could. The tape told me: I could plainly see that the other athletes’ movements exploded into unbridled exuberance at precisely the same point when I aborted in the name of control.

Beautiful Helios Hysteria Intense Painting (with Extra Inner Beauty), 2008.  Damien Hirst

Beautiful Helios Hysteria Intense Painting (with Extra Inner Beauty), 2008. Damien Hirst

My suspicions were further confirmed when I started working with a specialized gymnastics coach. When she described the back swing—the point where the athlete is hanging off the bar and the body is bowed back—she exclaimed, “This is the fun part of the movement, where you want to take a minute and feel how long and exposed you are, and hang out there for a second, then pop up to the bar, filled with joy.” I realized that the same moment was, for me, the cue to take a death grip on the bar, and to avoid at all costs getting to that moment when control is lost and one is given to the forces of nature.

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I needed that same exuberance to get through 15.4—no pull-ups, but dozens of push presses and cleans. Of course, strength comes into play, but no one on earth can lift 7000 pounds in eight minutes* using their arms alone.

Today, though, I approached the weighted barbell with an ebullient spirit inside me that I have never felt before. It seemed to infect the iron with light and life. As my judge counted “60, 61, 62…” I imagined tossing the bar into the rafters. I fell two short of my goal to reach 100 reps, but by the measures that count, today was a big win for me.

It was also fun.

 

* a number I calculated by multiplying my goal of 100 reps times #70.

Doing the Math

March 16, 2015
Childhood Dreams, Loui Jover, 2104

Childhood Dreams, Loui Jover, 2014

It is important for me to establish a clear goal for myself before beginning any competitive workout. Since I would only be making one attempt at 15.3, today’s go had to represent my best effort. This weekend I spent a little of my down time gathering data. Since age is not an impediment to jump rope speed, I researched how long it takes the top athletes to perform 100 double-unders: around :55. Allowing for the likelihood that I could not do them all unbroken, I allowed myself an extra :05 to trip and go again.

I calculated :10 for the switch to wall-balls and to take a few breaths before starting what I hoped would be an unbroken set. There are not many ways to speed up wall-balling (10# to a 9’ target), since gravity brings the ball down. But after watching a few instructional videos, I discovered that there is one technique to speed up the squat and toss sequence, the half of the move an athlete can control, by using a wider stance and parallel feet to keep tension on the hamstrings. When pulled in a squat like the rubber band in a slingshot, these muscles propel the ball into the air like a pea.

I timed the pros in the demo videos, and they were doing wall-balls at a rate of 1 per second using this technique. Looking back over my own records for wall-ball sessions, I found that my best rate to date was 1 every :03. I decided to shoot for a rate of 1 per :015, which, if I could pull this move off for 50 wall-balls, would give me a finish time of 3:25. Bingo. I had a goal.

Then I asked one of my coaches for input, and she added a coda, “Finish in 3:25, yes…and then get to the rings for the muscle-ups.” I had not considered setting up for a move I cannot do. Still, she asked me to keep getting to the rings in mind the whole time.

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I started the day at my chiropractor’s office, in the hope of sweetening up my nearly mended back. Since his work is more about engagement of the joints and muscle groups surrounding the injury than it is about back cracking, I went straight from there to the gym, and felt no need to do additional mobility in preparation. I set up the rings for a muscle-up, as I’d been coached, in spite of raised eyebrows from gym mates who know I don’t have them yet, and I assembled the rest of my station, with a wall ball and a jump rope. The moment my judge arrived, we started the clock.

As I had predicted, I tripped up once midway through the double-unders, and quickly resumed jumping again, finishing them at 1:00 and on schedule. I started throwing wall-balls at exactly 1:10. While I didn’t manage to throw them all without a break—at number 35, I started seeing stars and decided to hold the ball for a second and catch my breath—I didn’t glance at the clock until after I heard my judge count “48, 49, 50.” It read 3:25.

I didn’t go straight to the rings because my head was spinning. But I got to them about a minute later, jumped up, felt the smooth wood in my palms, and steadied the sway by engaging my midline, as I have been taught to do. I took a huge back swing with my legs, and as they swung forward, thrust my hips toward the ceiling with as much force as I could muster. I pulled hard with my arms to try and capture the upward momentum, and felt, for a fleeting second, that making it over the rings and into full extension is closer for me than it has ever been.

No rep on a muscle-up today, of course. But in spite of it, I ratcheted up the ladder this week to 3rd place worldwide, and resolved to make muscle-ups a priority in the coming months.

Up the Mountain

January 19, 2015
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Everest to the Gangetic Plain, Bill Thompson, 1983

 

(Read how I started training and competing.)

The 2015 CrossFit Open begins in two weeks and I am 59 years old now. I turn 60 this year, on a date too late to qualify to compete in that age class. But I am hoping to make a good showing in spite of the fact that I’ll be among the oldest in the group. Plus, I am going in this year knowing that I still don’t have some skills that will be critical for qualification in the CrossFit Games. Handstand walking, muscle ups, linked pull-ups in high volume: I don’t have them, but I will continue to work hard until I do.

I don’t know what the future will bring. Friends who have known me for many years are very supportive when they say, “Look, you have climbed Mt. Everest, you can surely win this.” But climbing is not a competition and no one is keeping score like they do in CrossFit.

 

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My goal is to make it into the stadium in 2016 as one of the 20 qualifiers aged 60+ to compete for the title of the Fittest on Earth. Success in CrossFit competition has practically nothing to do with climbing a mountain. But when I think of what lies ahead of me, I am reminded of the moment in 1996 when my expedition leader Scott Fischer called our first team meeting. He told us, “From this point on, everything you do or don’t do, what you eat, what you think, what you feel must be oriented toward the goal of making it to the top of the mountain, if you expect to have a chance at success.”

Boom.

January 1, 2015

New Year’s resolutions have, for me, always taken a positive spin. I cannot remember a single midnight on December 31 when I promised myself to stop or do less of anything. Rather, I typically resolve to fill the coming year with more of something I truly enjoy. I figure that, as my days become packed with whatever that something is, less interesting and less desirable pursuits will simply get crowded out of existence.

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Last year at this time, I was at home in California, and trained at the gym on both New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day. That I chose to work out while others were preparing for parties measured my commitment to a daily practice of the athletic skills I had, in 59 years, never learned, like gymnastics, weightlifting, running, and swimming. I train hard because I like it, and because I am serious about discovering the degree of excellence I can achieve.

This year, I am resolving to make my experience communal by writing about it here for myself and for others. This will be as much about discipline as my training schedule. To fuel my writing, I’ll need to pay closer attention to my workouts and how and why my body responds the way it does. That attention, too, will have to be brought to bear on my feelings. I don’t want to just write a report. But examining and sharing my feelings will be as hard—and require as much practice—as learning to handstand walk.

And then, I know that observation affects outcome. In writing about my training, I will find weaknesses—and strengths—that I can bear down on, and I hope I’ll find that more mindfulness equals refined techniques and a stronger inner game. To perform at your best, you have to think and think until you stop thinking, and that’s where I want to be.

I hope you will be patient when I stumble. It is an inevitable part of learning at any age (and there may be more of it as I turn 60 this year). And when I do, I hope that you and my other readers will help me as my coaches do by catching my falls, and patiently explaining how I can do it even better tomorrow. This isn’t a how-to, or a training guide, but I hope it will be entertaining and maybe even inspirational and thought-provoking. I believe that I will do better with your support and empathy, and I hope that you will be here to cheer me on for the next 18 months.

Happy New Year.

Boom.

 

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