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.
I am not sure if it is from spending eight minutes upside down yesterday doing forty-five handstand pushups or from the champagne I drank after my results for the 2015 Master’s Qualifier were posted on the Games website, but I got out of bed this morning seeing stars.
I finished the Master’s Qualifier in the top ten—#8 to be exact— which means I will be in the first heat of my division at the CrossFit Games in Carson, California this July.
I’d started the MQ on Friday morning at Waxman’s Gym with the one rep max snatch. Because Waxman’s is an Olympic standards gym, he only has weight plates in kilos. Jessica Suver, my training partner extraordinaire, gathered 100 pounds worth of weight plates (evidently feeling optimistic about my prospects, since I had never snatched more than 82 pounds). Coals to Newcastle: Waxman proclaimed it the first time anyone ever brought their own weights into his gym. After performing my warmup with an empty bar, Sean and Jess started loading on plates. I lost track of how much weight was on the bar. Jess just told me not to worry about it and to just keep lifting. My final score was 93 pounds, but when I did it I had no idea I was lifting eleven pounds over my previous personal record.
After that, we headed back to Paradiso’s Gym to perform Event #1, dips and cleans. I’ve been working on ring dips for 2 ½ years, but I had finally learned to do them only five days before; I was elated to show off my latest trick. At the signal, I leapt onto the rings and performed the first five dips unbroken in 13 seconds. I finished the clean weight (10 reps at #75) by the time the clock read 00:48. As I transitioned back to the rings, I thought to myself, “I can get five rounds. I am a dip star. Yes!”
I jumped up, expecting my arms to hold out for another five. But they gave out after just one. It took a full minute and a half to get just four more.
At 3:30, I was finished with the second round of cleans, giving me a full minute and a half to perform…just three dips. Lesson learned: coming out blazing isn’t the best way to win a gunfight.
I planned to do Event 3—row/thrusters/pullups—on Saturday morning and Event 4—deadlifts, box jumps and handstand pushups—later in the afternoon, in spite of the intelligence coming out of Invictus suggesting just the opposite. My reasoning was that the moves in Event 3 are all strengths of mine, and therefore would not sufficiently weaken me before tackling so many handstand pushups, which I thought would take me at least twenty minutes to perform. (Last year, the same number took me 35:24.) And, as I suspected, I finished Event 3 in fine time (21:49), a number I did not think I could improve without linking many more pullups into larger sets than my hands can tolerate. I did not, however, anticipate finishing it with my energy so completely spent. Even after a long healthy lunch and a catnap on the floor of the gym, there was no way I could find the power in my limbs to make a good score on Event 4 on Saturday afternoon.
I spent Saturday night in a Korean spa in downtown Los Angeles. These bathhouses are a dime-a-dozen in Koreatown, and a unique and inexpensive luxury. First I baked in a hot mineral salt room, then reaped the metabolic benefits of the Yellow Ochre room. Next, I simmered in a pool of warm water, before being called to the scrub deck by my aesthetician/masseuse. For 90 minutes, she scrubbed, massaged, and oiled new life into my tired body. I left with skin glowing, but otherwise more drowsy than ever from the narcotic effect of sustained exposure to heat.
Sunday had always been planned as a rest day. Despite the fact that I had only two scores I was happy with, and it was tempting to hit the gym on Sunday so I didn’t have work right up until the deadline for scores submission on Monday at 5;00 PM, I honored my commitment (and the admonitions of coaches and fellow athletes) and rested. I started a new book, Natural Born Heroes, by Christopher McDougall. His previous book, Born to Run, changed contemporary thinking about running technique. This one is an exploration into lost fitness arts and human strength capacity. I am only about ¼ of the way through it, and already, my copy is filled with notations about new ideas to take up with my coaches. (I will share those adventures in upcoming blog posts)
I tackled Event 4 first thing on Monday morning in a gym filled with people doing their regular workout. The countdown clock signaled the familiar beeps: 3-2-1…go. I lifted the #105 bar and it seemed light as a feather. 21 unbroken reps in the deadlift. I did the same number of box jumps, stepping up, not jumping (which is allowed, and takes just about the same time, but uses far less energy). I wasn’t winded when I finished and moved to the wall for the handstands. I performed them in seven sets of three, and went up and down each time feeling graceful and confident, just like Maddy has taught me to. Before I knew it, my judge counted 21. I finished the whole event in slightly more than half the time I’d expected, at 9:42. There were high fives and hugs all around.
I came home for lunch and a short session on my e-stim machine for my triceps before returning to perform Event 1, the dips and cleans, for the second time. It was 4:30 p.m.. The deadline for scores submission was 5:00 p.m, but the event would only take five minutes to complete. Jessica timed me on the seconds between each dip, and I resisted the urge to string two together. But I followed my plan (and her cadence) precisely, and, with five seconds to go, I had executed the 45 repetitions I wanted. I ran back to the rings in the hope of getting just one more in, but time was up.
Jessica typed my scores into the Games website, as I was still too shaky to do so myself. Then we went for champagne, even though the results of the MQ would not be made official until Tuesday morning.
It was very hard to ignore the news coming from Nepal over the weekend, especially since I have so many Sherpa friends who live there and climbing friends making attempts on Everest and other mountains in the region this year. I spent as much time as I needed to find out that everyone I know is alive and safe (although two dear friends were trapped, but unharmed, in the Western Cwm on Everest after the route through the Khumbu Icefall collapsed).
Beyond the still-horrifying news and with body counts still mounting, thoughtful commentary is beginning to emerge. And none I have read is more eloquent than this one, written by Steve Casimiro, in the fine publication which he founded, Adventure Journal.
If you don’t have time to click through and read it in its entirety, I will quote just two paragraphs here:
“Adventure challenges us physically, emotionally, and spiritually. It forces us to confront our greatest fears, it teaches us to draw upon our greatest strengths. It makes us suffer, it makes us doubt. It holds up a mirror that shows us our truest selves. And if we stay with adventure, if we set ourselves on a course of life is that is refreshed throughout our years with the joys of uncertainty and risk, these wonderful hallmarks of true adventure, then we become stronger, better, more flexible and more able.
And if we do this with other people, if we watch as they fail, get up, and succeed, if we support them and they support us and we get through our darkest nights and longest days, we make a connection that never truly dies. Bonds are only created through shared experience, and the more intimate the experience the greater the bond. The more you’re laid bare by the cold vagaries of the mountains or the seas or the desert, the more that intimacy can flow. And while anyone can be friends in good times, it’s in those crucibles of doubt and pain and survival that the deepest, strongest, most sustaining relationships are formed.”
As a climber, I recognize the relationships he describes; but I also recognize them as a competitor in the CrossFit Games. These are useless pursuits, earning nothing and contributing nothing to the practical pursuit of survival; yet they can help us feel connected. Not just connected to each other—though they do that, too—but connected to our best selves. It’s these connections that make enduring sorrow possible.
I’m glad to be heading into a week of rest, rejuvenation, and reflection. On coaches’ orders, I’m relinquishing the gym until next Monday. Besides hiking a little and taking some ocean swims, I will belatedly celebrate my 60th birthday this weekend. Starting next week, I’ll be focusing my all on the Games. And in each rep I’ll find gratitude for these muscles, these sinews, and this sweat.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I took my first go at 15.2 on Friday afternoon:
For Master’s Women 55+, there was a subtle difference from the challenge for younger athletes, who had regular chest to bars: we were asked to do jumping chest-to-bar pull ups, which are really a different exercise because the power in the movement comes from the jump. My goal was to make 175 points, halfway through the round of 16’s. But I focused on the challenge of the #45 overhead squats, because when two of the top athletes at my gym performed it the day before, both of them mentioned afterward that they wished they had worn lifting shoes. With rigid soles and raised heels, these allow you to squat into a deeper position while maintaining a balanced upright torso, making these high reps much easier to perform. On Friday morning, I wrestled with the decision, and ended up wearing lifting shoes.
After just 10 jumping pull-ups on Friday, I almost quit because I could feel my legs fatiguing under the strain of jumping in my lifeless lifting shoes. By the second round, I knew, these shoes would feel like concrete boots. But my stick-to-it-iveness would not let me stop. Instead, I continued to failure which came, exactly as I predicted. As the clock ticked toward 6:00, I failed 12 attempts to reach chest-to-bar (ouch) and fell three points shy of completing the round. My final score reached a mere 85 points.
I considered redoing it on Saturday morning and reserving the possibility of making a third attempt today. But instead I rested my arms, which were more wiped out than they should have been after so few jumping chest-to-bars—I’d had to compensate for my poor jumps. On Sunday, I went to the gym and practiced the rounds of 14 and 16 reps, ingraining the timing I needed into my muscle memory. Without the lifting shoes, I found that I could easily fit the number of moves (56 and 64 respectively) into the allotted 3:00.
This morning, I followed my usual routine. Wearing my minimalist sneakers, five of my squats were disqualified (or, in the lingo, I no-repped on them) because my hip crease failed to dip below parallel—something that is harder to do in shoes with a lower heel-to-toe ramp angle. But I came away with a score more than double what I got on Friday: 182. This puts me at 13th place for the workout and in 5th place in the Worldwide rankings. I can live with that.
Two down, three to go…
This weekend I competed in the NorCal Masters competition. While the field in my division consisted of only seven competitors, they were formidable: three of them were CrossFit Games athletes in 2014 and one finished in 10th place. For most of the two-day competition, I held a strong fourth place. I made the finals. But in that heat, which consisted of a succession of Power Cleans at #105 and rope climbs, I lost my game. Sure, I was spent from the eight previous events, and the lifts were at my one rep max—but they were at the high end for everyone. My competitors distinguished themselves with an ability to maintain focus and form.
I am beat up, sore, and exhausted. But I came away stronger in the long run, because my weaknesses were writ large for me, and I know what I have to train for in the coming months. I must learn to use momentum in my pull-ups—to kip them—and be able to do at least five sets of ten in rapid succession. While it was not tested this weekend, I also know that I need solid chest-to-bar pull-ups. I must improve my barbell work, so I become comfortable working at heavy weights and maintain form under pressure. From looking at videos of myself in that final heat, I can see that I had the strength to pull 105 pounds off the ground. But I failed, consistently, to get under the bar to lift it. That process is not yet fully routine, and it must be in order to compete at the level to which I aspire. And part of that failure had to do with my weak inner game. I need to find calm and grace under pressure, every time I step up to the weights.
I am going to take today as a rest day and restore my tired muscles and my spinning head. But tomorrow I will hit the gym with new resolve and focus, grateful that I was able to compete among a group of high-level athletes who helped me learn more about what distinguishes them from ordinary mortals. I will get there.