Browsing Tag

CrossFit Masters

The Unknown and Unknowable

March 31, 2015
Tracey-Emin-The-Last-Great-Adventure copy

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.



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?



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.


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.

Making a Study

March 20, 2015


Yesterday was my rest day. I typically spend Thursdays doing something related to art, because I cannot easily fit visiting galleries or museums into my schedule on the days when I train. A large show—more than 60 paintings—by the masterful British artist J.M.H. Turner (1775-1851) just opened at the Getty Museum, in Los Angeles. I visited it with my friend C.F., who is a painter and a sculptor, and my favorite person to go with on these weekly art outings because his eye is keen and our taste in art is similar. We are both devotees of abstraction: he paints it, and we both collect it. And we are also lifelong students of art history.


Turner is best known for his large, densely painted oils, often depicting dramatic allegorical scenes, and the show was rich with some of his finest. But my favorite pieces were the light and airy watercolor studies, created with speed and efficiency, on site and only for himself, where the master experimented technically before committing to the more permanent medium. There is an unselfconscious, spontaneous quality about these small personal works that I found more intriguing than many of the larger, heavily worked masterpieces for which he would be judged.




It is in the spirit of making a study of my own that I will make a first go at 15.4 this afternoon. I have no idea how many rounds and reps I can get in eight minutes. Because Masters 55+ are asked to perform multiple rounds of Push Presses  instead of Handstand Pushups (like younger athletes must do) interspersed with rounds of Cleans, I can’t reckon my own numbers based on their times like I did last week when our movements were exactly the same. So like Turner working fast and light to capture a few fleeting moments of sunlight, I will just start working against the clock and see what turns up.

Open_Workout_15.4 Details


Good News, Bad News

March 13, 2015


I tweaked my back on Wednesday. When the pain became acute, I was not doing anything heavy or even very strenuous: low weight thrusters in volume. But whatever caused what was later diagnosed as an irritated nerve may have happened earlier in the day, during gymnastics. My physical therapist said it might have been brewing all week.

So the pins and needles were more literal last night before 15.3 was announced. I was wired to my Marc Pro electrical stimulation machine, twitching involuntarily, as I watched the Games website feed on my iPad. When I learned the workout will be jump rope double-unders, wall-balls, and muscle-ups, I felt an overwhelming sense of relief.


Photographer Guy Bourdin

I cannot yet perform a muscle-up. I have been working on them for more than a year now, but I don’t consider myself even close to possessing the strength and understanding for this fast and complicated gymnastics movement. So back problem or not, I will not be able to score enough points (157) for a full first round. The question is, how many other women 60+ in the world can do a single muscle-up, let alone seven of them, which will allow them to progress into a second round, where racking up many more points with fast paced double-unders and wall-balls will be a sure thing?

The really good news for me is that neither double-unders or wall-balls will compromise my back very much, if at all. So my personal goal is to get to 150 points (the full number of reps of double-unders and wall-balls in the first round) as fast as I possibly can to place my best in the tiebreaker, which is determined by the elapsed time to completion of the last wall-ball shot.  I will rest and treat my back all weekend. On Monday, I will do 15.3 just once, going balls to the wall*. And that night, when the results are all in, I’ll be eager to see how many of my peers can perform a single muscle-up, let alone seven of them. Go, girls!



* From the Urban Dictionary: To push to the limit, go all out, full speed.

A very colorful phrase, one needs to be careful when using “balls to the wall”.  Although its real origin is very benign, most people assume it is a reference to testicles. In fact it is from fighter planes. The “balls” are knobs atop the plane’s throttle control. Pushing the throttle all the way forward, to the wall of the cockpit, is to apply full throttle.


If the Shoe Fits, Wear It

March 10, 2015

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.



Cement Shoes, Le Corbusier


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…

Marilyn Monroe. Photographer Philippe Halsman, 1958




Suddenly, 60

January 26, 2015

suddenly 60 grid

I am 59 years old and I won’t turn 60 until April, two weeks after the conclusion of the CrossFit Open. It was logical to think that I would have another year before entering the 60+ age division. My training schedule has been laid out, since last year, with the goal qualifying for the Games in 2016—time enough to nail muscle ups, handstand walking, and a host of other skills.

“Prepare…not only for the unknown but for the unknowable as well,” CrossFit founder Greg Glassman has said. Today, I registered for the 2015 CrossFit Open, and this confirmation screen popped up:

Suddenly 60

So here I am, suddenly “60,” with my first chance to qualify for the Games only a few weeks away. I went from elation to panic in a matter of seconds. I’ll be training harder than ever. One reassuring thought: perhaps my relative youth—now I’ll be the youngest competitor in my division—will give me an edge.

Considering Anxiety

January 21, 2015
photo by Melanie Blanchard

photo by Mel Blanchard

Three days from now, I am going to compete in the NorCal Masters competition. The heats were announced yesterday, and, along with my starting times, I have the names of the competitors in my division, Women’s Masters 55-59. The roster includes at least two CrossFit Games competitors, one of whom, April Kitagawa, placed 10th in the world. Suddenly, things are getting real.

Immediately, I felt a crushing sensation in my heart, my limbs went limp, and “butterflies in my tummy” is a description too cutesy to accurately describe the overwhelming knot in my gut. These are classic physical symptoms of a condition with which most human beings are all too familiar: anxiety.

If my quest to make it to the CrossFit Games is about anything at all, it’s the opportunity to overcome a lifelong aversion—you could call it fear—of being objectively judged among a field of my peers and receiving a rank and a score for it. I’m just as afraid of winning as of losing. Up to this point, I have lived a life in which, for whatever reason (lack of opportunity or subconscious avoidance), I have “enjoyed” few of these moments.

There are great existential philosophers (like Kierkegaard) who have written about anxiety. While I do not pretend to comprehend all that they have written on the topic, versions of their thoughts, reduced to the size of a motivational poster like this one, I DO sort-of get:


It is an expression of my humanity to be afraid: the challenge is going to hurt and it will take everything I have just to finish. But people who are courageous act in the face of their fear. I am trying to channel Henry Fleming. Rather than allowing my anxious feelings to degrade into the dead end that is dread, I am going to read them as a signal that I am on the precipice of wonderful things to come, no matter what the score may be at the end of the game.

Learning to Compete

January 13, 2015



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

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

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

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

Screen Shot 2015-02-22 at 10.21.22 AM

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

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