Jan 172014
It may not look like I'm having fun here, but I promise I am.

It may not look like I’m having fun here, but I promise I am.

Of all the sports and physical activities in which I engage, none is so polarizing among my friends as running. That’s surprising, given that running is the one sport I do that our bodies were specifically engineered to do, if the human physiological adaptations for moving faster than a walk are considered. And yet when I tell people I run, or about a big race I just finished, non-runners will invariably react with an expression somewhere between confused and horrified.

I get it. I get it more than most people would understand. I hated running for most of my life. I wasn’t good at it in school. I ran track in Junior High, middle distance, and was painfully slow. I was so bad at it that I didn’t run competitively again for more than a decade. I’ve never had great lung capacity, my feet flatter than a pancake on a sidewalk in Holland, my knees are less than top-shelf equipment, and I’m not all that strong. I smoked heavily for 9 years. Until a few years ago, all running ever did for me was hurt, even though I had done a whole lot of it. Heck, I wrestled in High School, and at a lot of practices we would run more than the Cross Country team, but I never got any better at it.

Running still hurts. It makes my joints ache, and my lungs burn. Part of me still hates it. Every single time that I run, I cross a threshold where I wonder why I’m doing it. That moment of misery awakens every voice in me that says “quit,” that questions everything I’ve worked for, and the time and effort I’ve put in working for it. I’m still not all that fast. I still don’t have great lungs or legs. Most days, I’m not a contender to win much of anything.

But I run anyway. I run because it does things for me that no other sport does. I run because of the feeling of moving fast along the ground, by nothing but your own power. I run because the runners’ high is stronger than that of any other sport I’ve tried. I run to silence that inner voice, to prove it wrong. I run to stare my doubts straight in the eye and tell them they mean nothing. I run to beat myself, to beat the parts of me that I don’t like.

And I run because they told me not to. In the early summer of 2010, I was rehabbing my right knee after ACL reconstruction surgery. My physical therapist had just put me on the treadmill for the first time and let me jog for a  couple minutes. I was still dealing with quite a lot of pain, and my knee felt loose. My muscles were so weak from post-surgery atrophy that every step on my right leg felt like imminent collapse. I asked the PT how much I’d be able to run again, and he sort of laughed and shrugged. He told me that, since I was in the Air Force, I could probably hammer out my annual 1.5 mile run, but not much more. And I should be careful on my mountain bike, too.

If you know me, you know that telling me I can’t do something is a pretty sure way to get me to try it. I finished my rehab program two months ahead of schedule, and immediately started jogging again. I completed a couple 5k races that fall, running gingerly and slowly, but running. I spent all of 2011 travelling, and fell off the wagon for awhile. But when I got home in 2012, I was done making excuses. I signed up for the Air Force Half Marathon, and started training in earnest. I joined the Ohio River Road Runner’s Club for the inexpensive races. It was a year of trial and error, of leaps forward and setbacks, but by the end of it, I had completed two half marathons and 20 other races, for a total of over 100 miles raced. Not bad for a guy with pieces missing out of his menisci!

I like running now because I chose to. I didn’t like it automatically. I didn’t like it because I’m naturally good at it, or because it’s easy for me, or any of that. I decided I wanted to do it for all of those reasons I talked about. Liking it happened later, and I can’t even say when. Now, the thought of not running is as repulsive to me as running once was. I used to look at runners and think, “why?” Now I know why, and I can’t imagine stopping.

Jan 132014
Sweat on a kettlebell.

Sweat on a kettlebell. If that doesn’t say CrossFit, I don’t know what does.

For any athlete new to CrossFit, the prescribed (Rx) weights and reps on most of the workouts can be daunting. For me, since I started going regularly late last year, they’ve ranged from “hey, I could almost… no I can’t” to “there is no freaking way.” For several WODs, I’ve been able to Rx two out of three exercises, but not that third one. Many of the overhead movements are just beyond my strength, I don’t have a whole lot of pull-ups strung together yet, and don’t even get me started on double-unders. Those are a long, long way off.

Even if the exercises present are things that I can do, sometimes I still can’t Rx the workout. Sometimes it isn’t a matter of the weight, but the volume. For instance, I can clean 135 lbs without too much trouble. But 45 times? Not so much. I can do pushups, but when the workout is umpteen sets of 20, I end up falling apart before it’s over and having to switch to a different movement to finish up.

All that said, CrossFit is nothing if not variable. It was only a matter of time before the right combination of movements, sets and reps came up together, on a day that I could go. A couple weeks ago, that day finally came for me. I checked CrossFit Dedication‘s site as I was getting ready for bed, and got more excited than a person really should get about an impending twelve minutes of grueling misery. It wasn’t complicated, it wasn’t flashy, but it was doable: ten reps each of kettlebell swings, box jumps and burpees, for as many rounds as possible in the allotted time.

I didn’t walk in the next evening with the idea of Rx-ing the WOD. The prescribed 53-lb kettlebell is still pretty heavy for me for swings, and this would be a high-intensity workout anyway. I figured I’d use the 35 pounder and call it good, but then two things happened: Katie picked up a 35 pounder, and Matt (our coach) mentioned a tweak for my form that suddenly made the KB fly up much faster and easier than I was used to. Just before the WOD started, I swapped my 35 for a 53, and then we went at it!

It's a small thing, but it means more than you'd think.

It’s a small thing, but it means more than you’d think.

I tried to set a steady pace from the outset, but the combination of the increased weight and the dynamic movements had me sucking wind by the end of my second round. Sweat was pouring off of me. My lungs begged for mercy. My joints popped and my muscles complained, but I stayed focused. The possibility of completing my first Rx served as added motivation, and I eyed the clock at the end of round 4, trying to catch my breath a little. There was just enough time for one more round, if I really hustled!

I banged out the swings as quickly as I could, trying to be careful about my form with the increased weight as I got tired. My fatigue became apparent as I started the box jumps. I was really working to make the 24″ height, and I had to pause between the last several reps for air. Things got a little crazy on the burpees, which I had to really hammer out to finish my set. I was breathing as deep and as smoothly as I could, but I wasn’t meeting the demands of my body, and my vision started to blur and swirl! I was basically falling to the ground for the last five reps. It was ugly, but it worked, and I finished my last round with a few seconds to spare!

It’s been awhile since I pushed myself that close to the edge, and while working hard enough to get dizzy sounds extreme, I’m happy to do it. Finding out how your body reacts when pushing it to the limit is what training is all about, as it will help you better understand how to deal with it in competition.

It may be awhile before I Rx another WOD, but I’m glad to have the monkey off my back. It’s a small step, in the grand scheme of things, but it’s one that every CrossFit newbie looks forward to taking.