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CrossFit Masters

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.

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!

Taking it in Stride

June 16, 2015
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Hilary Swank, Norman Jean Roy, 2005

Like a lot of people, I’ve seen my running times slow over the years. (My PRs for a mile and a 400 meter sprint are from 2013 and 2012, respectively.) My number of strides per minute, though, (right + left) has remained the same: 184. I suspected that my stride length had diminished, though it didn’t seem any different to me.

A few weeks ago, I met with Chris Hinshaw, an expert running coach who works with CrossFit athletes on endurance. He confirmed my suspicions, and noted that studies have shown that while stride rate often remains the same after 40, stride length decreases by 40 percent. Trying to compensate for a decrease in stride length by increasing stride rate is usually ineffective.

While the factors that go into this slowing are complex, the big culprit (according to a study of masters athletes) seems to be a loss in muscle mass, which causes the contact time between the foot and ground to increase, and the lift-off to be less explosive. Less air, less speed.

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Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Point Dume, Herb Ritts, 1984

The good news? There’s a way to improve. Chris prescribed a workout progression, a combination of sled pull and push sprints, flat sprints, and hill sprints, all done at 95 to 100% effort. These, he wrote me, “will help to improve ground force, reduce ground contact time, increase power output, fast twitch muscle fiber recruitment, [central nervous system] efficiency, and range of motion.”

I’ve completed three of the workouts, and I can feel the effort from my glutes down through my Achilles. As I run, I envision my stride opening up, gobbling up the yards. These workouts hold the potential to not only make me faster for the Games, but keep me running strong for years to come.

 

Time Again

May 17, 2015
The Alarm Clock.  Fernand Leger, 1918.

The Alarm Clock. Fernand Leger, 1918.

Time is on my mind. Measuring my performance by reps per minute, pacing my lifts so they start slow and finish fast, all in a matter of two elapsed seconds, noting the skills that need to be mastered before competition—is there enough time for me to master this? Time expands—when I’m working at my best, the ten seconds from setup to lockout in the deadlift feel like an hour—and contracts. Only three months until the Games.

In the gym, I’m constantly surrounded by time. The analogue clock on the wall, the countdown timer, my wristwatch, my timer app, a stopwatch: I use them all, sometimes simultaneously. I break hours into minutes, minutes into ten second intervals, those intervals into second-long movements. I turn my body into a metronome. The sound of my own breath keeps pace.

Whenever I lose myself in the physicality of time, I’m pulled back into the awareness that time equals achievement. Can I fit more pull-ups into a minute than I did last week? Can I shave time off my mile run before the Games? Even as time suspends during an intense workout, the countdown clock is ticking away in my mind.

L'horloge (The Clock).  Fernand Leger, 1918

L’horloge (The Clock). Fernand Leger, 1918

Claudia Hammond, in “Time Warped,” talks about the many ways in which we perceive time: “We construct the experience of time in our minds, so it follows that we are able to change the elements we find troubling — whether it’s trying to stop the years racing past, or speeding up time when we’re stuck in a queue, trying to live more in the present, or working out how long ago we last saw our old friends. Time can be a friend, but it can also be an enemy.”

The constraint to be the very best I can be on July 21—the day the 2015 CrossFit Games begin—could seem hostile and looming, but I actually find it exhilarating. Urgency makes every moment feel vital, which makes the days feel slower, more meaningful. I feel, as Joseph Campbell put it, “the rapture of being alive.”

 

Seeing Stars

April 28, 2015

Events 1-4

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.

 

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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).

Everest at Night, Jimmy Chin

Everest at Night. Photographer, Jimmy Chin

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.

 

 

 

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