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Two Hours Before the CrossFit Open…

In General, Training on February 27, 2014 at 6:32 pm

Dear Self:

For the CrossFit Open 2014, I will not:

– Ask you to do anything you are not physically prepared to do

– Expect of you things you are not physically prepared to do

– Punish you for not being able to achieve the things you are not physically prepared to do.

– Overthink, overanalyze, or regret

I will:

– Ask that you be present and give all that you have for those 7-18 minutes or whatever that Castro conjures in his twisted little mind

– Support every member of our gym– whether they’re aspiring to make regionals, just to finish the workout, or whether they’ve chosen to abstain altogether

– Enjoy this community and the people

– Forget all the little things.

Every year when the CrossFit Open approaches, I spend a long time deliberating about whether or not to sign up. I have no large competitive ambitions. I obviously will not make regionals. It’d be a PR for me to finish Rx’d this year. From the “CrossFit community” standpoint, I think it would be fun to go to a local throwdown, meet real people, compete for a day or two and go home. Something about the prolonged agony of the Open annoys me– five weeks of a disrupted training schedule. From a coaching perspective, it means that we can’t predict Friday or Saturday’s workouts for our athletes for the next five weeks. It means most of us will be in there more hours than usual for judging. It means we have to quell our usual instinct to emphasize quality over quantity and let some form and some technique slide knowing that (for five weeks), these members are essentially “competing.”

But I get into the hype too. I love watching the bigshots compete with the announcement of each workout. I’m also curious what HQ will come up with, and how it will shape the future of CrossFit. I love how it brings people together.

However, from a personal standpoint, the prolonged duration of the Open doesn’t work so well with my neuroses. As veteran readers of this blog will know, I have a history of getting down on myself when I simply can’t achieve the things I want to achieve. When the chasm between desire and actual physical capacity is so great that I can’t fathom it, and instead blame it on my own personal shortcomings. As if my inability to get five more reps on this or that workout were any indicator of ethical goodness. The Open means nothing. It’s just another five workouts– admittedly, an annoying five that I have to perform at a different time of day and that I have to shuffle my training around– but… I’m always afraid I’ll get swept up in the hype and start kicking myself again for not doing things that I’ve never been able to do. Things I’m working to be able to do but just haven’t gotten there yet. But I’ve worked hard to earn my peace with my capabilities and inabilities. And, as with every year, when it got closer to the Open, I felt like I was letting my community down if I did not throw down alongside them and experience this with them– for good or bad, whatever insiduousness Castro has in mind.

But this year is different. I’ve achieved everything I wanted out of CrossFit. I’m a coach, and honestly, this blog has faded in the past months because… I’ve been busy and fulfilled. Coaching is a blast, and I get to work with and engage with fascinating, wonderful people that are not just great athletes, but just fantastic humans. Younger Jo– asthmatic, unfit, never-touched-a-barbell Jo — would’ve never believed that the thing I’d want to do most at the end of a long day is go to a gym and hang out with a bunch of people around bumper plates and pull-up bars. But I make it through my longest days by looking forward to the class or two I get to coach at the end of it. I love seeing concepts click with a beginning athlete– when someone strings together her first kips, when she lands a good snatch by keeping the barbell close, when she realizes she just deadlifted over 200lbs. It’s a blessing to be a part of these moments– people discovering their strength and their confidence.

Sure, I still have personal fitness-y goals. A year after my first muscle-up, I’m still chasing that damned unicorn. More importantly, I want a 1.5 x bodyweight clean and a bodyweight snatch. Perhaps a sub-4:00 Fran. But these goals no longer haunt me the way my physical weakness absolutely tormented me for the first year of CrossFit. I’m happy just going to the gym each day (other than rest days!), putting the work in, and enjoying the journey. Eventually, I hope, I’ll get there. If not, I’ve had fun and I really don’t lose anything by not being able to lift precisely this amount of weight off the ground.

So, I’m going to do the Open to enjoy the ride, to leave everything on the gym floor but not overthink what I could’ve/should’ve done to be one rep better. Best of luck to everyone– but more importantly, have fun, and after these five weeks we’ll get back to that more serious training ;).

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On Integrity and Intensity: Comparing Two 300lb “Grace”s

In Training, WOD on February 13, 2014 at 5:26 pm

I’d like to draw everyone’s attention to an astounding video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VF3rIHZ-GHc&feature=player_detailpage

The most impressive part of this video is not the fact that Zach Krych completes 30 clean and jerks at 303lbs in just over 18 minutes– though yes, that’s a feat that most mere mortals cannot even imagine.

The impressive part is this:

Note how, despite the fact that Zach clearly fatigues during his monstrous Grace-on-steroids, he still hits these five key positions. We provide a lot of excuses about how, when intensity ratchets up, form naturally breaks down. Don’t let it. Yes, to a certain degree, your movements will get messier when you’re “going for time.” However, maintain the positions that matter. It’s easy to black out in the middle of a WOD, to miss entirely the cues that coaches call out, but a smart coach is prioritizing the points of performance that ensure that you’re moving safely— and these same positions will also help you move the most amount of weight efficiently.

I stumbled across this video because Columbus Weightlifting posted it in comparison to Rob Orlando’s 300lb “Grace”– a video that impressed me waaayy back in my early days of CrossFit. However, with a few more years of scrutiny and CrossFit screw-ups under my belt, all I can see now are the many breaks in Rob’s form. Don’t get me wrong– he’s a phenomenal athlete. But as he tires throughout the WOD, his feet spread into a hideously wide catch position. He doesn’t fully extend on his jerks. He hyperextends his back. All that kicking the wall probably doesn’t help either. Also… Rob’s final time? 33:07.

CrossFitters tend towards an impatient mentality. We want to be good at all the things right now, and sometimes it can feel frustrating to slow down, to scale down, to reduce everything to make sure we hit all our performance points. However, Zach’s performance proves that ultimately such attention pays off– maybe not for this one workout, maybe not tomorrow, but for your growth as an athlete and your health– well, as a human.

Of Superhumans and Humanity…

In General, Training on December 21, 2013 at 9:00 pm

I want to share my past few days with you, but honestly… no words would suffice. I’ve been in Northern California from Monday – Thursday, working with Coach and getting to know the CSA CrossFit family. Honestly, it’s been one of the best parts of my year. But the reason for this is not at all CrossFit related. I mean—yes, I had some fantastic CrossFit moments. It took a few tactile cues (and a few friendly racial epithets) from PowerWod for me to finally understand the feeling of “knees out” because mine still always cave in on my squats. I learned to put myself in a stable, freestanding headstand. I finally understood what Coach wants me to do with the rings when working on my muscle-up kips. I got to work out alongside legends… Regionals and Games athletes—a child among superheroes.

But what I’m going to remember most about this trip has much less to do with the fitness and much more to do with the people.

Let’s back up a bit more. I know my posts have lagged a bit in the past few months. To be entirely honest, I’ve been struggling. The dreariness of winter always gets to me. The monotony of sunless days—the perpetual cold. But it’s been worse this year. I haven’t been home for a year, and I haven’t spent more than a few days out of State College in that time.

I’m not complaining. I’m lucky. I know I am. I could be in far worse places, in far worse situations. But sometimes I (we?) get so trapped in the everyday that it becomes suffocating. We forget about the humans around us—and the fact that we, too, are people—not just cogs in machines, students producing papers, teachers writing lesson plans, athletes working for that next one rep max. We’re complicated, and needy, and full of magnificent, heartrending feeling.

I think I needed to leave State College to get my head out of my ass work and really appreciate everything around me. I think it’s a struggle sometimes because we (as a species) tend to become fixated on our goals and productivity. Students expect instant feedback. Teachers can’t understand why their classes aren’t picking up concepts. Athletes are impatient for progress. Coaches want their clients to translate words into physicality sometimes in a body that just doesn’t respond to those cues. I’ve had days in State College when I feel like only a convenient step to someone’s objective—or worse, an impediment to that objective—days when I’m either a tool or an obstacle, but definitely not a person. And I know I’m probably oversensitive, so, take that for what it is.

But visiting NorCal was different. Because I was out of my environment, and a definite imposition on everyone’s lives, we all had to respond to and accommodate that. We had no choice but to break routine, to see beyond our tunnel vision. And what I saw was so overwhelming.

I can’t say enough good things about the generosity and humility of all of CSA CrossFit. Something I’ve loved about being a member of the CrossFit community is that it makes me feel a little less homeless everywhere I go. If you can find a box, you can find people that share a language with you—and a work ethic, and a slightly twisted sense of masochism. The thing about CSA… this is a gym that actually produces monsters. Its MMA gym—where it all began—boasts an array of world-class trainers and fighters. It has a powerlifting sector overseen by one of the best lifting coaches in the country—a man who’s totaled elite in 6 weight classes. The CrossFit gym sends a team to regionals every year and houses two major NorCal individual competitors. But that’s not a thing you think about when you’re in there. You’re too busy laughing at their jokes, talking to them about their day jobs away from the gym, or their past careers as figure skaters or gymnasts or volleyball players.

There’s something comfortingly familiar about the way CrossFitters construct a community—a reassuring universality I’ve found that soothes the Jo far from home: the way the coach dances along to the warm-up music while you’re still trying to stretch the reluctance from your limbs at an odd hour of the morning. Or, the way athletes joke and stall and whine between sets when things get heavy. The way everyone cheers loudest for the last athlete to finish—counting reps, calling cues, understanding exactly how much pain you’re in and willing you through.

I appreciated so much how CSA treated me as one of their own—no belittling explanations, no overwrought introductions. I was just expected to make myself at home. And so, it felt like home. I love friendships and relationships that seem to begin in medias res. You’re already immersed, the journey is well on its way, just go with it.

Beyond the awesomeness of CSA, though, it was also a fantastic week for just… people in Jo’s life. I got to catch up with some former State College-ites who’ve built an admirable life for themselves out in California. I’m entirely grateful for old friends willing to drive out of their way and remove themselves from their daily responsibilities for a Jo visit—though who knows, they probably just wanted to come watch the Supple Leopard himself move serious weight at Supertraining.

The next day, I caught up with another old friend—this time, a girl I’d grown up with in Arizona. We went to elementary, middle, and high school together. We’ve known each other since the age of eight and in that time, we’ve been best friends and bitter “enemies” (in that teenage, melodramatic sense of the word) and all sorts of messy in-between. These days, even though we don’t talk nearly as often as we live on opposite sides of the country, we’re still people who really care about each other… people who’ve been through a lot of shit together and put each other through even more shit. The funny thing was—what we were discussing at dinner—I don’t have the mental or emotional space to hold grudges or to really… resent, anymore. I can’t believe the amount of energy we wasted feuding with each other—when at the end of the day we actually just cared a fucking lot and didn’t know how to deal with the ways we worried about each other.

I’m back in Arizona now—it’s good yet strange to be back in the city where I grew up. I intend to spend the next few weeks getting back to work and finding my place amid all the reading I need to do for comps. But I also intend to give plenty of attention to the friends and family I get to see only once a year nowadays. Perhaps I’m late to this realization, or perhaps we all need a bit of reminder sometimes—people are incredible things. Embrace them.

The Thing About Food…

In Food, Training on September 27, 2013 at 11:51 am

The first time in my life that a lot of people began asking me about my diet, I became very uncomfortable. It was right after I’d gotten sick– after dropping 30 pounds when eating became such a painful and unpleasant process that food made me anxious. It was right after my IBS diagnosis and way before I figured out what I could and couldn’t consume to avoid a beeline to the bathroom when I was out in public. It disturbed me that some friends and family (and many acquaintances) were suddenly “amazed” by my transformation. When they asked for the “secret” to my weight loss, I wanted to (and often did) tell them that the “secret” was to feel awful for three months, get so small and weak that everything feels cold and you can never stop shaking, and to spend ridiculous amounts of time looking for a g*ddamn toilet (TMI, sorry). In retrospect, I probably should’ve been gentler in my responses… but being perpetually underfed makes one a feeble, hangry (hungry+angry) cretin.

Those of you that remember my arrival in State College might (actually, should) be surprised– or rather, appalled– along with me that anyone had such a response to my weight loss. It disgusts me that we’ve so saturated ourselves with the promotion of “weight loss” that any weight loss is presumed intentional and commendable. The gym’s photo of me when I signed up as a member is pretty terrifying. I cringe every time I see it… I didn’t realize it at the time, inhabiting my own body and experiencing the (albeit very fast) “gradual” change to thinness, but I look like I could snap. There was nothing healthy about being so skinny that sitting was uncomfortable because my bones dug into the chair.

But food is a strange beast. I find it infuriating that people get so dictatorial about other people’s diets– or that people refuse to understand when an individual struggles in reforming that diet. I’ve probably said it before, but… the solution for most addictions is abstention. But we have to eat. Repairing unhealthy dietary habits requires more than sheer avoidance or “eating all the things.” A binge eater or anorexic needs to confront his/her “addiction” every day. Finding balance is so much more challenging, and means something different for every individual. For me, any unfamiliar food filled me with fear. Eating out felt like playing Russian roulette with my stomach– except all six chambers were probably loaded. I was really sick and in denial of my sickness. I wanted to be “normal” (whatever the hell that means) so when people insisted “oh just try this” or “don’t be like that, have a piece,” I did. So I never figured out what my trigger foods were, and felt perpetually ill.

I felt like I had no control over my body until I finally took charge of my diet. This required a lot of experimentation to figure out what worked for me. It required saying no to a lot of things and rejecting other people’s dietary “wisdom” no matter how right they thought they were or how well such advice had worked for them. I still have bad days sometimes, but they’re a lot more manageable. I can go out to eat now too, and have become an expert at navigating menus for the things that won’t make me sick. To get to this point, I had to confront certain things about myself– that I’m not “normal,” that the average diet wouldn’t work for me, that I’d have to sit out of the pizza parties and that sometimes I’d have to be “lame” and reject the party offerings. But, fortunately people have been pretty understanding and I can have a perfectly good time at parties without eating pizza or drinking beer. Even if it means I have to bring my own Chipotle take-out to the party.

This time around, when a lot more people in my life have come back asking for nutrition advice, I hope it’s because they’ve seen the reverse transformation– that I’m actually working my way back to health. I’m still nervous dolling out dietary advice because the one thing I’ve learned is that it’s immensely personal. A notorious example from our gym is my favorite enduro-addict who can have a tube of Pringles and a package of Oreos washed down with a Rockstar for dinner, every single night, and feel fine. He’s shredded, has spectacular endurance, and is all-around healthy. His lipid panel is apparently stellar. It works for him. But probably not for the average human.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, if I didn’t have to eat the way I do, I probably wouldn’t recommend so much care for anyone else. Between the IBS and CrossFit, if I have one bad day, I can do spectacular damage to my body. I know that I’m bad at keeping myself out of the gym even when I’m feeling weak from IBS flares, so I do my best to avoid all triggers… otherwise Jo goes in to work out in a body devoid of nutrients and her body tries to eat itself and the hangry cretin comes back. I’m also (getting) better at taking it easy if I’m having a rough day.

So… now when people ask me for nutrition advice, I generally have two points to emphasize:

1) For the great majority of people just looking to get healthier, eating whole, minimally processed foods will be everything you need. If you can recognize the ingredients (if they didn’t come from a lab), they’re probably okay for you. If it lived and died before you ate it (including plant-matter), it’s probably okay (don’t eat poisonous plants, cook your meat… unless it’s sushi… or tartare… mmm tartare).

2) Beyond that, diet is largely personal. Some people function better on high-carb, low-fat, others vise-versa. Don’t use the scale to gauge your progress. Use how you feel. Do you feel more energized or sluggish? How do your clothes fit? How are your lifts? (Hopefully, you’re lifting 😉 ). How is your recovery? Give everything you try enough time to play through your system (2-4 weeks) and then reassess. Don’t listen to anyone else’s dogma. Don’t follow what Rich Froning or Michael Phelps or Miley Cyrus eats (souls? She eats souls, right?). Revising your diet is confusing and daunting– partially because there’s not a lot of concrete research in the field of nutrition (and it has a new fad every month) and partially because our bodies are so adaptive and dynamic that it’s difficult to isolate any one factor as the change. The only way to feel like you have any grasp of what’s going on is to take control of your own nutrition– make your own damn decisions and track your progress based on how you feel rather than how you’re told you should feel.

Anyway, this month’s been really rough in terms of stress-factors and… well a lot of unexpected life complications. I apologize for the tapering of posts. However, after a few recent conversations, I felt this was worth saying. It’s nothing new or revolutionary, but particularly for those beginning their own journeys towards health, I feel it might be worth hearing. You’re not broken. It gets easier. You’re not alone.

Be good to yourselves.

Jo

Goalsetting and Girly Tunes

In General, Training on July 6, 2013 at 9:30 pm

I’ve been around a lot lately to see Coach Singalong and his country-music-loving-buddy work out together. You haven’t experienced all that CrossFit has to offer until you watch two men with the collective work capacity of a Spartan army clean and jerk a couple hundred pounds while singing along to Kelly Clarkson’s “Stronger.” Despite their un-hardcore (softcore? No…) taste in music, they’re both undeniably phenomenal athletes. And, if you compared their scores on the whiteboard, you’d assume they’re evenly matched. But what I find fascinating about watching the pair is that they’re two entirely different trainees.

Coach Singalong is… well, a coach. He knows others will model themselves after his movements. He aspires to competing at the Mid-Atlantic Regionals. He wants to make CrossFit a profession. Most of the time, his every movement is precise. His last push-up is as clean as the first one, even if he slows  between them. Every single squat hits well below depth and he hits full extension at the top. CountryBoy, however, is a totally different beast* (*actually, beast is probably an understatement. This man can bench press a small truck– or a large tractor… for reps). More often, CB is clearly just there to get a workout. A few of his squats miss full depth. If he loses a lift right before full extension, he might not necessarily try it again. That’s not to say that CB can’t hit those lifts perfectly, or that he’s being a dishonest ass that day. It’s just that day, that moment, he’s just working out for himself and doesn’t give a damn. In a stereotypical CrossFit setting, the “hardcore” coach would be “no-repping” the shit out of CB. Would be screaming at him to reach a higher intensity, with more precision. But… sometimes that’s not the point.

As much as I love the CrossFit culture– its passion, its commitment– I think that some participants lose sight of the difference between “training” and “competition.” In “competition,” you want to go all-out… you want to give that 110% and your judges are going to hold you to that precise standard: hips below parallel, chest touching bar, head through the window. From the competitor’s perspective, things look a lot more black-and-white. You want high intensity, and there are clear standards for each movement– from point-A to point-B. With training, there are so many different factors that make a mess of things.

In general, if you’re training for self-improvement, to work on your movement patterns, to work on your health, to become a better athlete– you want the best movement within your range of motion. For some trainees, that’s not a squat to full depth yet. For some, they shouldn’t pull a deadlift off the floor until they have that mobility. For most, that also means that some workouts shouldn’t be for the fastest-damned-time or the most-fucking-reps you can get in that workout. Yes, during competition, that’s important because you’re trying to win by the numbers on the board. But in training, perhaps your personal “win” is a clean where you hit all three extensions, or a kettlebell snatch where you don’t beat the shit out of your forearm. I had a member ask me during our on-ramp if all the “in-between steps” mattered during a Turkish get-up, or if he could just stand the Kettlebell from Point A to Point B. The “in-between” steps matter. They’re not only the most efficient, most stable, safest way to get from point A to point B, but actually the in-between steps of that particular movement also ensure you engage all the muscles that such a full-body exercise intends to train.

You’d think that makes training also black-and-white. In competition… we want intensity and any way from point A to point B. In training, we want perfect form. But it’s not that easy. We’re all so far from perfect. And we have different reasons for training– even from day to day, week to week. And what’s different about CrossFit is, well, we’re really not quite a “sport” in the same way as others… it’s not like a powerlifting gym where every day people come in building towards their next meet… or like Football or Soccer where you’re preparing the team for the game. For a lot of recreational CrossFitters, this is a fun way to get their fitness on and in good company. For CB, sometimes he just wants to get a good sweat and have fun with his training buddy, which I would ruin by telling him he’s missing his lockout on this or that rep. For some of our beginner CrossFitters, they would be entirely demoralized if we “no-repped” every time they didn’t hit all the points of performance. Some of them would never get any reps. It would’ve taken me several months of CrossFit to even be able to write my name on the whiteboard. This means that coaching requires a large amount of compassion and intuition. You have to understand an athlete’s goals, present mood, current motivation, and balance all those things to ensure that he 1) stays safe, 2) progresses, and 3) feels satisfied with his workout. On some days, that means letting CB get away with a few missed reps. On some days, that means slowing a new member down– fixing the second pull of the clean but acknowledging that she’ll need to work on depth and wrist mobility another day.

I’ve had such lofty and faraway goals for myself as a CrossFitter for so long that, for a while, I reached a point where all of my workouts felt hopeless. If I didn’t PR a lift, I wasn’t getting stronger. If I did PR a lift, I wasn’t getting stronger fast enough. If I PR’d one lift but slowed in my metcons, I was getting stronger, but my conditioning was suffering, etc. The way I’ve managed to change this– how I got back to getting excited about every workout and being able to leave the gym each day with some degree of satisfaction– is by setting a small goal for each training session, and adjusting that goal as the session progresses. If I show up at the gym and my bench is just not happening and I missed the strength PR I wanted to set for that day, then I end the day with some technique work. Yes, I didn’t get stronger that day. But I improved my kettlebell clean and the speed of my elbow transition.

Admittedly, too, sometimes like CB I just want to get a good workout without fretting too much about my form. I went to the gym last weekend, during open gym hours, just frustrated with a lot of external bullshit that I let get to me. And I just wanted to rage. So… I didn’t make a plan, didn’t give myself set reps or a time, or whatever. I picked movements that were relatively safe and not technically demanding, and I just bear-crawled and burpee broad jumped and slam-balled until the feels went away. And that was what I needed– nothing quantifiable, nothing on a whiteboard, nothing but the sheer adrenaline of the moment. That was my training goal for those ten minutes of that day. The following day, I came back and drilled my olympic lifts with a PVC for precision. As coaches, we may do well to keep such flexibility in mind when working with clients. Some days, it’s not the time to scream at your athlete to go-go-go. Sometimes he needs to slow down and work on technique. Other days… if he’s not hurting himself, maybe you let him go wild. No one wants to come back day after day to have his form nitpicked to exhaustion. Also, the workout on the whiteboard is not engraved in stone. Perhaps this particular athlete needs to cut the AMRAP to ten minutes. Perhaps she can do this weight but for fewer reps. Maybe she should work on double-unders by doing attempts for one minute instead of counting “reps” so that she can fit in skill-work without A) getting stuck on the movement and wasting the entire WOD getting a “good rep” or B) replacing them with single-unders and not really training that skill at all.

So, takeaways: Coaches should consider the different needs of their athletes on different days, athletes could find greater motivation in making small goals for their workouts, and – most importantly – sometimes big, burly badasses throwdown to really girly tunes.

Stepping Forward

In General, Training on June 24, 2013 at 9:33 pm

As I travel for work and for CrossFit, I find myself becoming more comfortable in the unfamiliar. In fact, I find myself excited by the unfamiliar– by being immersed in new, daunting environments wherein I have the humbling fortune of meeting people so much more knowledgeable and experienced than I am. This past weekend, Coach let me hang out with her and PowerWOD (her boyfriend/strength coach/elite powerlifter in five different weight classes/nicest guy I know with a 800+lb deadlift) while they were in Virginia to conduct a seminar. Though Coach has helped me a great deal just through video correspondence, emails, and my incessant text messaging, it was so much more helpful to be able to work in person. And just to absorb her knowledge and coaching techniques as well. It also restores my faith in the world to confirm that these athletes and trainers whose careers I’ve long admired are also genuine, down-to-earth people who will readily welcome a neurotic Asian chick as a friend. Furthermore, traveling to CrossFit Annandale, meeting their crew and staff and welcoming community– I’m still stunned by the way CrossFit gives people a shared language with which to connect so quickly.

I insist that, of the many cool things in CrossFit, the best thing it has to offer is the way it brings people together. It took fitness and made it accessible and communal– not that this is new. This has happened in group fitness classes, in yoga studios, in bodybuilding and powerlifting gyms long over time. But I think some athletes and coaches forget to take advantage of the robustness of this community. We become comfortable in our boxes, surrounded by our familiar faces. We’re used to our favorite pull-up bar and wall-ball target and afraid to look incompetent in a new gym. But it’s too easy to stagnate in the familiar– in what we already know. It’s in discovering what we don’t know and pursuing that knowledge that we grow.

Speaking of pursuing knowledge, Coach gave a piece of advice that really stuck with me. It was about the 100’s chipper (event 4). Coach didn’t brag about this during the seminar, but I’ll brag for her here. She took second place in her region. On a 400 rep workout. Her point, during the seminar, was that… during that workout, you can’t think about the 400 reps. You can’t start counting at one and expect to get to 400. All that matters is the rep right in front of you. Similarly, when you’re coaching that athlete, you don’t tell her to get 400. You applaud her one and tell her to get two. Then to do another two. Then get to five. Then six. Thinking about rep 400 at the beginning is soul-crushing. But if you rep it out one by one, you’ll get there.

I couldn’t help thinking about how that applied to my life. Or how I should apply that to my life. Calling myself a graduate student felt like a fantasy. Still, the idea of ever becoming “Dr. Jo” feels impossible and ridiculous. The idea that, at the end of all this, I’ll have been in school for a minimum of 19 years (not even counting preschool)… is beyond soul-crushing. If I woke up thinking about the fact that I still have to finish my coursework, and memorize hundreds of texts and spend days being tested on these texts and pass my comprehensive exams and then write an entire book-length dissertation (along with a second book-length project that my adviser and I have agreed I will try to complete concurrently) and defend that dissertation… and afterwards, throw myself at the mercy of a near-impossible job market and beg for a position at a respectable institution and pray that these 19 years of learning and writing and studying have been enough. Well, fuck, I’d never get out of bed in the morning. I get out of bed by deciding that today, I will get to my classroom and teach my class and hopefully those students will leave a little more excited about the power of language. I will go to my office in the writing center and work with students on individual pages and those individual pages will improve and hopefully they will draw from that something they can apply to future pages. I will get to the gym and I will lift something that will break me a little bit so that I can heal and grow stronger and bigger and lift a little more the next time. I will help coach this class and learn from the coaches and athletes around me so I can be a more experienced, more knowledgable coach tomorrow. And in these small ways, these tiny steps, I will inch my way towards the Jo I want to become.

I’ve noticed that we apply the words “it’s not a sprint– it’s a marathon” to just about everything that matters in life– as much as I love the sprint, it appears that the dreaded long, slow distance is a better metaphor for life. Most journeys towards self-improvement are long and soul-crushing. But despite our dread, we still readily undertake them– and like marathoners, we should approach these challenges not just to cross the finish line, but for every tortuous footfall that takes us there. It’s a marathon. But don’t think about mile 26 right now. Just lift your right foot. Then your left. And step forward.

Growth and Gratitude: reflections on two days of trial-by-coaching

In General, Training, WOD on June 12, 2013 at 9:47 pm

The past two weeks have been a “trial period” for aspiring coaches at our box. I really regret missing the entire first week for my conference in Kansas (despite the absolute awesomeness of CrossFit Lawrence). However, I was fortunate enough to teach three classes in these past two days. Honestly, the experience has just been fantastic and rewarding, very enlightening, and humbling at the same time. For the teacher in me, a lot of it feels familiar: breaking concepts down to their constituent parts, linking them back together in a way you hope will make sense to others. I think the part of it that has been strangest, and that I’d really love more experience in, is just managing the movement element. I’ve been a writing teacher and a stage director. I’ve taught and coordinated people, but only either in sedentary settings or with predetermined scripts. A gym is obviously an entirely different environment. Arranging 15 people and 4 benches for some pre-metcon strength work is a game of strategic navigation that I’ve never played before. Nevertheless, no one died– I think. And no one threw a kettlebell at my head (despite Scotchy’s threats). I’d like to believe that the classes went well. I know I learned something more with each one– about group management, time management, about each of the individual athletes and how they respond to different cues. My favorite part of all this has been getting to spend more time with the community of welcoming, generous people we have at the box. I’ve loved getting to know the new faces when they walk into the class. Additionally, I’ve really enjoyed getting to know my fellow would-be, could-be coaches better. I’ve enjoyed participating in their classes and seeing how they apply their own personalities to the workout– how they analyze and take apart and approach the teaching of each movement. Maybe it’s just me, but I’ve felt more energy in this box this past week, and I hope that endures. I’m excited to see where and how we can grow from here. Anyway. I don’t envy The Jefe his decision, and want to express my earnest gratitude to him for having the open-mindedness and faith in people to believe that anyone with his/her heart and mind in the right place has the potential to be a good coach. Of course, there’s much more to the job than the mere desire to do it well. I hope my acts have lived up to my intentions. To those of you wonderful folks that have attended CrossFit à la Jo in the past couple days– thanks for your trust and your time. I hope I have earned it. If not– well, I’m nothing if not relentless. And I will continue learning and growing and improving until I do deserve that faith.

In other (somewhat but not entirely unrelated) news, I PR’d my Cindy today– by almost double the rounds I’d tallied a year ago. My point, though, isn’t to brag about my Cindy score. This particular workout plays to my strengths, and I still have so many areas in which I need to improve. Even today, I know my push-up form collapsed, and I need to strengthen the endurance of my core. But I am improving. I still see myself getting better in small, measurable ways each week as I train. And in just the two days I’ve been coaching, I want to say this to the newer athletes at the box: I get it. To the kid who’s trying to clean too much. To the girl flailing off the pull-up bar. I get it. I get how frustrating it is to feel your body betray your will. I get how infuriating it is to fall so far behind the firebreathers that you feel like you’re not even playing the same game. And worse, how entirely disheartening it is when, afterwards, all the “hardcore” athletes banter about their times and rounds and no one asks you because it’s irrelevant to them. Fuck them. Fuck the weight you can’t yet lift or the pull-up you’re still chasing. You’ll get there. If you slow down. If you stop beating yourself up for what you can’t yet do, and you start encouraging yourself to achieve what you can. Yes, lifting heavy is freaking awesome for you. But sometimes, you need to put down the iron and pick up the PVC again. Retrain the basics. Build your foundation. Allow yourself to progress one small step at a time and applaud those moments. And you’ll be surprised how those tiny, incremental advancements can accrue. And, a month– two months– half a year from now, you’ll be amazed by how far you’ve traveled.

A last note for my State College readers: those of you that have attended classes with the aspiring coaches in the past few days, please do email the box with your feedback– even if you did want to throw a kettlebell at my head. The success of this place is best measured by how it fulfills our members and helps them both define and attain their goals.

Happy Wednesday, all. And, as always, thanks for reading.

CrossFit Lawrence: Refuge and Rage

In General, Training on June 4, 2013 at 2:59 pm

People throw around the word “community” a lot lately. Your neighborhood is a “community.” Your classroom is a community. Your workplace would like to be a community. One of the many things I love about Crossfit is that, in this claim—and all claims—it is honest. The CrossFit community is a tangible, palpable, reliable thing. And, fortunately for us, the proliferation of boxes across the country means that the traveling CrossFitter is rarely stranded.

As most of you know, I’m in Kansas for the week for a professional conference. Because I didn’t want to throw away an entire week of training, I spoke with Coach and she programmed a week of travel workouts for me. I emailed Thomas Thatcher, the owner of CrossFit Lawrence, to ask if I could obnoxiously impose and use his facility for my own pre-programed workouts. He responded with two words: “Come rage.” I liked him immediately.

Despite my frequent travels, I still feel a bit of anxiety about visiting new boxes: what if I get in the way? What if I misrepresent my box or my coach? What if I trip over my own two feet again and faceplant on their plyo boxes? Yet always, I feel silly for these thoughts within five minutes of visiting a new box. The coaches always welcome me into their space. The members are friendly and help me find the equipment I need. They don’t judge me, or watch to evaluate how much I lift or how many skills I can perform; they just encourage me to WOD on beside them.

Every time I visit a new box, I also try to take in everything about their procedures, their coaching process, etc… to see what I can smuggle back to my own box. Thatcher runs a fantastic facility. Given: the space is expansive and has more toys than I can name—tires, a full rig, a bouldering wall, kettlebells, and dumbbells, and a yoke. They have indoor and outdoor lifting platforms.

But, more importantly, Thatcher runs with his box with thoughtful attention and an infectious enthusiasm, and just an embracive love of people and movement. The daily workouts are balanced and carefully planned. Today, I witnessed a group warm-up, focused strength and skill work, an intense metcon, and a cool-down—all packed into an hourlong class. Though Thatcher circulates the facility throughout the workout, twirling a PVC, shouting at his athletes, he keeps a critical eye on everything. Between enthusiastic whoops and Kelly Clarkson lyrics, he corrects form and technique and advises athletes on how to scale. He maintains a keen awareness of when athletes need to be spurred on, and when they need a moment to breathe. And somehow within all that, he has the time to visit a back-squatting Jo, to tell her to power through the bar for her last set.

Next week will be my first week of trial-coaching, and I’m so grateful for the opportunity to conduct a few classes. I’ve been working towards this moment since I tripped over my first plyo box—since the first time I dragged my scrawny, asthmatic butt through a 400m run and bruised my collarbone on 50lb cleans. I’ve grown a lot since those hapless days, but I know I still have far to go. I will never stop learning, and I want to apply that education to help others find their own way, perhaps even to save them from some of my mistakes. As a coach, I want to be able to promise my athletes the same things I pledge to the students in my English classes: I will never ask you to do something without knowing concretely why and how it will benefit you. I have done and will continue to do my utmost in self-education and experiential learning so that I can provide you with the most comprehensive understanding of your own plan for self-improvement. We are in this together, and I will not abandon or give up on you. I’ve got your back.

As I become even more of an active member of the CrossFit community, I remain conscious of the ways I can draw from and give back to this world. Regardless of my silly anxieties, I will continue visiting new boxes and putting myself in strange environments to force myself to grow and learn from this newness. I will observe more experienced, more knowledgeable coaches like Thomas. I will eventually become a model from which others can learn. I will provide a refuge for athletes and traveling CrossFitters looking for a place to sneak in a pre-conference WOD. I will add to this network of compassionate trainers and athletes and humans out there that support one another, hundreds of miles from home. Thanks to this very solid, very real community, and Thomas, and the folks at Crossfit Lawrence…  at 6:00am before a full day of professionalization and headache-inducing conversation, I get to listen to the Kansas rain, watch the dawn crest the horizon, bury my thoughts beneath the barbell… and rage.

Conversations in Coaching

In Training on May 15, 2013 at 6:55 pm

I’ve been teaching for almost as long as I can remember– starting with peer-tutoring programs in elementary and middle school. In high school, I  guest-lectured in English classrooms during my summers in Taiwan. I also tutored students one-on-one and sustained these relationships from afar when I returned to the States. I saved money in college by working for SAT and AP-prep tutoring companies, and eventually stirred up my own small business in Arizona. These days, I teach composition and creative writing at a University. This summer and upcoming year, I’m also working at the Graduate Writing Center, where I help  fellow graduate students develop their writing. I love teaching– perhaps selfishly sometimes because I’ve always understood it as not only a process through which to share my experience and knowledge, but to enhance my own comprehension as well. In a good student-teacher interaction, no one goes unchanged. Everyone’s perspective changes. It’s a conversation.

But with all my experience, I’m still scared when I think about the magnitude of responsibility it entails. Teaching is serious shit. By virtue of my very position in front of the classroom, I’m granted an assumed and sometimes unjustified expertise.

I want to believe that all my students care enough and think critically enough about the world that they won’t take my words at face value. I try to instill in them the will to question what they’re told– to find their own reasons for following “rules.” But that’s not always the case. Even the kid rolling his eyes in the back of my classroom, fiddling with his iPhone in his lap– if I tell him to put away his Angry Birds and I write on the board “Thruster (noun): a form of sadomasochism performed in windowless garage gyms,” he might actually believe this new dictionary definition of “Thruster.” He’ll believe me not because he’s dumb or mindless, but because he placed a certain amount of trust in the University when he chose to attend– that it would educate him. It would guide him towards a better version of himself.

I try to be as honest with my students as I can at the beginning of each semester: I will never ask you to do something that I don’t believe will teach you something. I will not waste your time. I am confident in the merit of the things I’m teaching you, but I don’t know everything. If you ask me something to which I do not know the answer, I will tell you. And I will find the answer, if I can.

I think that same level of self-awareness needs to go into coaching. CrossFit certifies anyone who pays for a $1,000 seminar and passes a relatively simple, multiple-choice test. This says nothing about his/her ability to train an individual. But when  a gym supports that person– puts him/her in front of a class and a whiteboard– the members naturally trust the individual to know what s/he is talking about. I was once told– just once– that I needed an exaggerated “shrug” to finish my deadlift– to completely break all body tension and shift my shoulders back in order to get a valid, visible rep on the lift. Since that one, offhanded remark, I’ve been shrugging at the end of every deadlift. Even when I deadlifted on my own, I would no-rep myself and criticize myself for forgetting the damn shrug. It wasn’t until I had my deadlift form critiqued by a strength coach that I realized: the shrug makes absolutely no sense. You finish the lift by extending your hips. You keep your shoulders where they are because they’re holding hundreds of pounds off the floor and if you lose tension there, you force all that pressure onto an overextended spine.

I see two faults in my story. The coach who told me to shrug probably knew that the shoulders needed to be behind the bar, but didn’t understand that that visual cue was to ensure the athlete had achieved hip extension (and not spinal hyperextension). Non-critical-trainee-Jo simply thought “hrm, a coach told me so so it must be truth.” I think coaches do need to realize the amount of responsibility and authority that they have– they need to make sure that they’re properly educated and that they’re confident in their ability to give sound advice. But also, athletes need to take responsibility for themselves as well. There are fantastic coaches, and mediocre coaches, and people who have no business coaching. There are fantastic coaches that have bad days, and there are fantastic coaches with gaps in their knowledge. The thing is– bad advice, or even advice that’s not suited to the trainee– will inevitably happen. An athlete must learn to protect herself by educating herself and learning and knowing the eccentricities of her own body.

Let’s look at “scaling” as an example. I like the idea that most workouts were designed for certain time frames. For example: “Fran” is supposed to be a 4-7 minute workout. Athletes should scale accordingly even if it means a 45 lb bar and banded pull-ups. If an athlete completes 21-15-9 95lb thrusters and strict pull-ups in half an hour, he is no longer performing “Fran.” He has converted a quick, metabolic conditioning workout into an agonizing chipper. But in this situation, if said athlete insists upon a 30-minute Fran just because he can “Rx” it, I don’t think it necessarily falls on the coach to argue with him. After all, it’s his body. As the trainee, then, Half-Hour-Fran needs to acknowledge his training goals and how best to achieve them. The coach can (and should) offer advice, and should explain the philosophy behind the programming, but it’s up to Half-Hour-Fran to recognize his current weaknesses and address them accordingly.

The process of teaching and learning– coaching and training– should involve demand awareness of personal responsibility for both parties. We trust our coaches to know what they’re talking about and to admit when they don’t. We trust our athletes to understand their own needs and to articulate them when necessary. If you’re still beat up from the last workout, maybe today is not the day to try for that deadlift PR. If you can do a 95lb thruster, but not more than three at a time, perhaps you are not yet ready for a prescribed Fran. I’m a firm believer that there’s no “perfect” training protocol– that developing athleticism is a journey and there are infinite routes towards the same destination. Better communication between coaches and trainees can help us find the paths of least resistance– so that coaches don’t misguide their athletes, and athletes don’t wander off alone.

Faith and Falling

In Training, Writing on May 11, 2013 at 5:34 pm

I don’t know if any of you have heard– but Cheryl Nasso has dropped out of Regionals. A scrappy competitor who started CrossFit at an enfeebled 83 lbs, she naturally became one of my favorites when I first started my CrossFit fixation. But this year, after a season of dogged training, Nasso had to withdraw from her Reigional competition. In a freak-accident of life, she fractured her wrist while breaking up a dog fight. Fellow top competitor Talayna Fortunato wrote a rather lovely tribute when the announcement was released. She recounts one of her most powerful memories of Nasso:

We had to climb a rope without legs to 20ft. Cheryl got to about 15ft. and was struggling. She struggled her way to 19ft. At the point most people would have saved their last bit of grip strength to make sure they could put their legs on she was still reaching for the top. I know because I watched in disbelief as her forearms finally gave out and she plummeted from the top of the gym.

While I’d never advise an athlete to push him or herself to that point, I can’t help but admire that spirit– that commitment… determination that so completely eclipses fear or reservation.

When I first saw Zebrapants work out, I concluded that I want to live like he WODs– it’s a silly turn of phrase, but true. I want to be able to apply myself with that much passion, that much conviction… so much sheer force of will that everything else becomes irrelevant.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately– and feeling a lot. I do that too often, you all know. I have this theory about writers… at least, all the writers I met in my cohort during my MFA. We were all drastically different people, with such different experiences and life perspectives and writing styles, but the single thing we shared in common– the grounding force that drew us together– was the sheer excess of our emotions. Oftentimes, reading all our disparate work, I got the sense that we had all become writers because we didn’t know how else to cope with the terribleness of our thoughts. We mulled too often and too long about the ways in which people wound one another– sometimes maliciously, sometimes innocently and with such heratbreaking naivete. And because we don’t know how to process this– how to contain this realization– we write.

I won’t bitch about the things that have happened to me– everyone gets hurt. I’m not special or a victim or any more unique than the next person. Everyone gets knocked off the metaphorical rope  a few times– regardless of grip strength. And we mostly get back on the rope too because we naturally seek direction. But the question is how you regain the spirit of the first climb– how do you pull yourself blindly towards the top when you remember how it feels to have everything slip from your grasp– the indiscriminate force of gravity.

Sometimes I feel my arms giving and I’m paralyzed by fear– so much that I’m clinging to the rope, too fucking stubborn to slide back down, yet to terrified to reach ahead. So I wind up with the worst possible option– stagnation.

I started this year telling myself to hell with fear– I would commit 110% to everything that mattered to me and see where it took me. Trying to become a CrossFit coach has been the most frustrating struggle for me. Sometimes I feel like the amount of time I spend working on it is… silly because I have an entirely different career that I’m building in academia… because, despite that career, sometimes I feel all I do is cast my heart and every last bit of will into CrossFit, and it’s just consumed by an unfeeling world that doesn’t give a damn how hard I work but only how much I (cannot) lift… because I’ve never worked for so long at something and felt like I’ve made little progress.But I’m trying to commit to this entirely… I’m trying not to give a damn if I slip and fall– to be unfazed, even, when my hands yield for a few seconds and I drop a few heartstopping inches before I’m once again clinging for dear life.

Training this week has gone well. I hit four PRs in six days– in lifts as well as aerobic efforts. While rowing at a “recovery pace,” today, I accidentally beat my old 1k PR. Tuesday, I stood with 160lbs on my back for the first time– from a box squat just above parallel, but I’m chasing that 1.5x bodyweight backsquat to full depth… hopefully better now that Squatsalot was kind enough to look over my form for me.

In other aspects of life… I’m still paralyzed. I’ve been disappointed a lot lately. Some big things, some small things. I’ve been frustrated by people who fail to see the humanity in others– whose perspectives of the world narrow only to themselves. But strangely, I can’t blame these people because they’ve learned, right? The way to survive this world is to take care of yourself first because nobody else will. But this fact makes the world a frightening place for me. You’ll notice the key word I apply to often to CrossFit is camaraderie. I’m in love with people. I love the human race– I want to believe in the innate goodness of others. I want to believe that empathy is instinctual… that you will always clamber to cliff’s edge and pry the stranger from the ledge. And we see moments of selflessness and courage that are restorative. But sometimes they feel so distant and faraway when I focus too much on the pettiness that sometimes pervades everyday interactions. And I’m stuck, 10 feet off the ground, trembling fingers trying to hold on to the thread of good will amid all the… careless… mindless hurt.

I guess I want this to be a hopeful post, though… because I want to keep trying. I want to live with that blind faith that everything will be okay– if I continue throwing everything of myself into my pursuits, into my friendships and those that care for me– if I commit myself to the things that matter and keep fucking climbing… maybe I’ll make it there. Or… if I don’t, maybe I won’t regret those few weightless seconds before I hit the ground. It’s exhausting, though, and sometimes it feels lonely on this rope. So thank you for reading– particularly since I know this post isn’t altogether coherent… but those of you that believe in me, that invest a bit of your time and emotion in me… it matters. Thank you.