Epic. Last year there were 7 female competitors and 11 male competitors. This year, something like 45 women and 65 men. Then again, that’s the scale of the growth of the sport of CrossFit that you see overall.
Fast forward to the end. I didn’t win this year, and I wasn’t on a team that was battling for the title (we’d been divided up into ‘Core Teams’ for the training season, and two of my core team members were not able to participate). But I did finish second and to be fair, there was no chance of beating the women’s winner Rika on that day with those workouts. Honestly, she laid down the gauntlet for Regionals with today’s performance. She won every single event, and by a good margin. Unlike the men’s side which saw all sorts of lead changes, the women’s battle was really a battle for silver.
But so much fun! The event was held at Camps Bay High School. I was as ready physically as I could be, I’d slept 9 hours or so the previous two nights and had eaten extra food all week so I was rested. I should also mention at this point that one of the rock stars of the CrossFit world, Carl Paoli from San Francisco, was in town this weekend because he was doing a gymnastics seminar on Sunday. I met him Friday afternoon when I went to the gym to get my mobility work in, and he immediately got on my good side by proclaiming his appreciation for the fact that I cared about my mobility (for THAT I can credit my coaches thank you very much), and then diagnosed and fixed a mobility issue in my right hip which made him my favourite person of the day. Super nice guy, funny as hell, AND knows his shit.
But in all seriousness … you have two sides. If you don’t time your stretches, seems to me you’re doing it wrong. Just me, maybe? Eh…
Anyhow, Saturday dawned rainy and cold. Suited me fine, but the organisers had set up the first event to be outdoors so had to move all the equipment inside, which caused a slight delay, but I didn’t really mind.
The first event was a ground to overhead (i.e. clean & jerk) ladder, similar to the thruster ladder in last year’s Regionals. You had 20 seconds to make each lift, then 10 seconds to rotate to the next bar. The weights increased in ~5kg increments, starting at 24kgs for women and ending at 68kgs. We were unseeded going into this so I was one of the first athletes to get to the relatively high weights (I think most people failed somewhere in the 40s). I did what I always do, and had no problem with 52, and 57 was relatively easy. I got to the bar at 61, and I just lost it mentally. Got it high enough for a squat clean but I’m not very comfortable in the receiving position of heavy squats and after I missed the first lift I panicked and didn’t take the time to set up properly for a second attempt.
So Carl congratulated me immediately after, told me what I already know which is that if I could just get under the bar I’d be able to lift a lot more. THEN he came out with the compliment of the weekend:
“Do you know who Jenny LaBaw is?”
(She was sixth in last year’s CrossFit Games)
– pause –
“Wow. That’s a huge compliment.”
“You’re strong as shit, you look like her, and you even move like she does.”
I’m not even sure what happened for the next hour or so because I was floating on air. Carl coaches her (she’s based in Chico, CA). Anyway it was a nice compliment, and one that still makes me happy but I am certainly not an athlete of anywhere near her calibre today, and anyway the most important thing, as we were discussing later in the evening, is to be the best athlete YOU can be, and always growing and learning, drilling your weaknesses and having fun pushing your strengths. If competition pushes you there as it does for me, great.
So, comparisons to superstar CrossFit athletes from CrossFit coaches aside, what else happened? Other than Rika, no one else in the field lifted more than I did. I think there were about five of us tied for second place. But, again … I should be able to lift a lot more than this, because relative to the rest of the field and presumed relative strength levels, I should be lifting more than I am. Really need to work that technique. But I already knew that.
The men’s thruster ladder proved very dramatic with about fifteen athletes finishing the ladder and moving up a heavier ladder. It was great to see the form and raw strength on some of these guys – Neil from Ballistix Fitness in Somerset West had particularly nice form, but he’s been practicing the Oly lifts a lot, and it shows.
The second event was a three-part event. The first bit was a max l-sit for time, followed by max double unders in 60 seconds, followed by a complicated shuttle sprint/sandbag shuttle sprint agility drill. My double-unders as anyone who reads this blog knows, are pretty terrible. But oddly enough that was the part of the workout I did the best in, compared to the competition, finishing with 43 (the best I’d gotten in practice was 38). I just kept calm and did my thing, as relaxed as I could. The l-sit was a bit of a disaster, I firstly got a bad grip with my right hand, and then my right hamstring cramped and I had an involuntary muscle contraction and my leg just went down. Very frustrating. But I finished that with 13 seconds which was disappointing but not catastrophic. The shuttle sprint I expected to do better in because I used to be a sprinter and I fancy myself pretty agile, but I was so focused on making sure I had three points of contact that I lost a lot of time. Overall I finished seventh in this event, leaving me tied for third with Lynda from CCF and one point behind Diane from CrossFit Jozi.
Then there was a loooong delay. They briefed the next event(s) which were the final two individual events, held outside where by now the weather had turned sunny: a 1,000 meter row for time, followed, without any rest, by 30 burpees onto a plate followed by 40m overhead walking lunge, followed by a 400m run on grass (should you get there within the time cap). There was a time cap of 4:30 on the row, and 9 minutes total for the workout. The delay wasn’t so much in getting going, as it was that the top two heats of women and men were going to decide the outcome of the competition, so they were held until last. There were something like 20 heats before mine (mine was the second to last heat, the leading men being the final heat). Yaw that was a rough wait, because you’re nervous and you want to cheer on your teammates, but it also psyches you out in the head to see athletes whose work capacity you know, struggle on the rower and then the burpees. Our pal Carl Paoli meanwhile was busy being MC, and doing a great job at it. Natural born crowd-pleaser.
So here’s what happened. I was so scared by the rower that I didn’t go very hard on the row, at all, and wound up finishing fifth in that event (second in my heat behind Rika, but there were some strong girls in the prior heat). Another few seconds faster (I finished in 3:54) and I would have been in second place, and really, there’s no reason I should have gone as slow as I did other than fear. The second part of the workout was really my kind of workout. I rock at burpees (slightly less so at the ones onto a plate), and I can run. Walking lunges are a bit of a weakness but I could power through that. As you might expect, Rika won that event too because she had a good lead coming off the rower and it taxed her less than the rest of us, but also I was maybe 4 or 5 burpees behind her, so she really pulled way ahead on the walking lunge. I was a solid second in that event, and Lynda came third despite a very slow row. I had a bit of a laugh as my judge, Wayne, started whining as I took off on the run: “Oh no, I have to run! Oh my God, I have to keep up with you!”
Overall on the women’s side Rika was first, I was second, Diane was third, and Tammy from CCF fourth. Lynda finished seventh or eighth, her slow performance on the rower hurt her badly in the standings. Now I learned a couple of things from this. Firstly, I should have ignored the other athletes crashing. I knew I could easily hold a sub-1:55 pace … but I didn’t out of fear. This didn’t hurt me today but it easily could have if the field had been different. Secondly, I was of course analysing everything and this got me thinking … I used to LOVE the rower and be psyched every time it came up in a workout. But recently I’ve been scared of it. I think I traced the origin of this fear down to the time we had to do the max 500m row after finishing a deadlift-double under workout and it smashed me so badly that I couldn’t walk for 10 minutes. So basically, this competition uncovered a fear that I didn’t understand the extent of. I guess I know what I’m doing at open gym on Saturday…. 2K row, at target 1:52-1:55 pace.
From a competition standpoint, I did make a few mistakes (of which that was the biggie). Won’t bore you with the details but it was perfect in that I could learn in a fun competition where the results didn’t matter for much, it was a good tune-up for the competition season, and I did face down pain in that final event. I wanted to slow down, make the pain stop, but I pushed through it. As Carl was saying in just about every heat: it’s not just about work capacity, it’s about intelligent application of work capacity. And being strong in the head, and the heart. I’ve won races in the past I wasn’t supposed to have won, just by wanting it more and refusing to let someone else beat me. It wasn’t wanting to show off in front of a crowd that kept me going, or even knowing that I would be disappointed in myself later, or that I’d look bad to be seen to give up. It was actually something else … something hard to describe, but I guess the only way I can is to say that I kept going hard because that was the plan, and I was already committed. Like once you decide to pull out into an intersection, the most dangerous thing you can do is stop and not follow through with the movement. Just. Like. That.
Again, from a focus standpoint aside from on the row where I was all over the show, mentally I was in a good place. The clean & jerk ladder had enough waiting time built in that I was peripherally aware of people cheering for me as I got to the heavy weights, but I couldn’t pick a single person out of the crowd. Same the rest of the day, especially on the burpee/walking lunge bit – I could hear my name but I was only vaguely aware of where I stood in relation to the other athletes. Playing my own game, knowing my own capacity.
So that ended the individual competition. Next up was the team competition (along with a weather change, this time to rain!), which consisted of two events (individual scores from the prior events were also added together into team rankings). The first was that the team had to assemble two barbells: a men’s with 100kgs and a women’s with 60kgs, carry it maybe 10m, and then do 80 team deadlifts, carry the barbells 20m, do another 80 deadlifts, another 20m carry, then reduce the weights to 60kgs and 38kgs, respectively, and do 80 power cleans, then get all the weights back to the original platform, and disassembled. There was a mix up with the announcers; they announced a team name that wasn’t us, but it turned out actually to be us so we held up the start of our heat and didn’t get to warm up … not an ideal set of conditions but what the heck, I guess you can warm up with 60kg deadlifts, right??
This was really a lot of fun! As mentioned above, I was on sort of a cobbled-together team, so we weren’t in the running for the title which in some ways is of course frustrating but in other ways is liberating because again, that pressure is off. It also happens that these are relatively light weights for me (about 50% of my max deadlift and 60% of my max clean), and my teammate Emma was very easy to coach throughout the day and was very easy to work with here, too: we both knew I was way stronger so she would do 8 or 10 reps and I would do 15 or 18, then we’d switch up. It gave us both enough time to rest and recover and go touch & go. Even still we wound up finishing our 40 a few ahead of the guys, so we cranked out another 5 or 8 in both rounds to finish it up.
The power cleans were another matter: 38kgs was near Emma’s max so I did something like 10, then passed to her, and she did 3 slow ones then failed twice. At this point I’d had 20 seconds of rest or so, and I cranked out maybe 15 or so unbroken (our judge Kerry: “come on Ellie! It’s just like Grace!”) before passing back to her, but then she failed twice more so I just stepped in and kept going as fast as I could, because letting her try would just waste time and we both knew it. A bit of a miscommunication here as we started to load our bar for the return carry when the boys were only on 30 (I misheard their judge and thought they were at 38 and 39 when in fact it was 28 and 29 … I was at 38 and 39), so we unloaded and I cranked out another 5. So something like 40 power cleans to finish it off … fun stuff.
The second team event was 100 team box jumps, and then medicine ball tosses for reps in something like 4 minutes. That was fun, although jumping onto a 40cm box almost caused my calves to cramp so I had to do some serious stretching before we got going. Our team wound up finishing fourth, apparently, just off the podium. The second place team was quite strong, I think my ‘normal’ team would probably have been third. The CCF “A” team finished at the top of the podium, which was great. So for the second year in a row, CCF won the women’s side and the team event. Let’s hope we can do the same thing at Regionals, where it counts!!
Recapping the men’s competition is a mission in its own right, with lead changes after each set of events. The results aren’t up yet and I didn’t take photos, so I’m actually not 100% sure of all the details! Suffice to say that the usual suspects featured in the top 8 or so places: last year’s Regionals winner Danie du Preez, 2010’s winner Neil Scholtz, CCF’s own Chris Oman, and a few others showing up in the top of the rankings. At the end of the day, someone I didn’t know named Richard Smith won, Danie was second, and Jason Smith third. We were all, of course, rooting for Chris, and he didn’t have a very good performance on the row. Difference between him and me, of course, is that the men’s field is deeper than the women’s. But we got to watch him in an epic performance on the burpee/lunge/run event come from behind (waaay last in his heat off the rower), catch up and finish first in the second part! Super dramatic, but at the end of the day that’s CrossFit … you have one weakness or one bad event and if the field is too deep, it’ll kill you.
That was one of the cool things about the day I must say, I had a number of people come up to me and not just congratulate me but comment that they learned something from watching me compete. CrossFit is a very young sport in South Africa and I think that’s really just the key lesson: the concept of the hopper teaches us in theory and competition teaches us in practice. Consistently do ok, and you’ll wind up doing quite well in the overall rankings. Now I can’t wait for my body to get back to normal so I can get back to drilling my weaknesses.
A completely different event than last year …. Much less strain on the body, and I think actually more of a fair event. Last year two of the four events were clearly work capacity events (a 12 minute AMRAP and a death by thruster/burpee workout), with a sprint event and a strength event in there for fun. Although this was also more of a CrossFit competition, because ground-to-overhead and double-unders are skill-type movements that the general population probably isn’t very good at. Then again, neither am I, ha!
But the crowd was also great, and I just had such a fun time hanging out with everyone, cheering on the people that I knew, coaching, giving tips …. One girl had lower back pain so I showed her a few stretches and she nearly kissed me, and Emma even told me after that she wasn’t sure she could have made it through the day without my encouragement, tips, coaching, etc. I think that’s a huge exaggeration, she did amazingly and she did it all herself, but this is a very important aspect of the sport (or any sport, really …) the camaraderie. And so cool to see guys from all over the country, who you mostly only stay in touch with via Facebook and even some of the Jozi boys who weren’t competing but were down to spectate. Super, super cool. Yeah, I’m a natural-born extrovert (and a genetic freak with A negative blood … if I didn’t look just like my parents and share various other traits with them I would seriously wonder if I wasn’t swapped at birth!).
A final word on athlete integrity and judging (note the order in which I write that): for the most part it was quite good. The judges did a very good job up until the burpee/walking lunge event where there were definitely some no reps that should have been called for open hips on the burpees. They were doing a good job with the hand-release bit. My judge, Wayne, was fantastic in everything: counting each double-under including being clear which were fails, and calling me out when I didn’t open my hip on one of the burpees (and he was also correct with every call, which also helps). But I did see some athletes not following the rules, in particular with regards to keeping the weight over head. I’m sorry but behind the head is NOT over the head. In all honesty, this is what Chris and Jobst drill us on, and one of the reasons I love Chris as a coach: it must always be the athlete’s place to maintain movement standards. If Wayne hadn’t called me out on that burpee I would have jumped back on the plate anyway because it was the right thing to do … I didn’t mean not to open my hip but sometimes you move so fast you’re back off before you’ve completed the movement properly (sloppy, I know … something else to work on).
So! After the awards ceremony I helped clean up the trash around the venue, then helped the team move the equipment back to the gym. It was all loaded up into the van, so all we had to do was move it from the van into the lift, and from the lift into the gym itself. This was actually a lot more fun than it sounds like; I call that functional fitness. I was actually surprised I was the only athlete helping to be honest, but the braai couldn’t start until we got back with the meat. I never got to operate a lift like that before, old-school with levers where you physically must stop the lift where you want it and gates that must be closed on both sides before you can move … by the end when I was lift operator there was quite a bit of joking around about such things as my level of accuracy (one of the 10 physical skills you’re supposed to be good at as a CrossFit athlete) when I landed the lift perfectly level on two consecutive trips. I also nearly lost my finger tips at one point, so the adrenaline from that also had me quite punchy.
Back at the venue most people had left but there was a group of maybe 20 people left for the braai. So we chatted, braaied and then devoured our meat. I also ate about a half a chicken and two sweet potatoes in the car outside CCF before unloading, so unlike some other people I wasn’t as ravenous as I could be. Good fun though just chatting after the event, under what would have been stars if we could see them. Carl was saying, in language that I can completely understand, how he’s somewhat jealous of us living here, and that he feels something of a pull to this place. Hell, I get it. I get it like a virus. But I also get how for the work he does, he has to live where he does, at the epicentre. It got me thinking, too … I’m living in Cape Town because I want to be here. I could up and leave tomorrow, and there may come a time in my life when living here becomes constraining. This is not the epicentre of social enterprise in the world, and if our model is as unique as we think it is once we’ve worked out the kinks I may be living a bit of a Carl Paoli-style life myself with a home base maybe here, and traveling all over the show. Do I want that? I don’t know. Sometimes you just fall into things, and they become comfortable, and you don’t really think. The difference between being in a groove and a rut is not only the depth, but the perspective.
But also … how damn surreal and cool is that, to be chatting for hours to a legitimate coaching superstar of the CrossFit world, talking about everything from the lifestyles of the Silicon Valley rich & famous to my time living in California to how success doesn’t matter for shit if you don’t have people around to share it with, to the general stuff CrossFit nerds talk about: progressions, and how you have to get your first pullup before you start thinking about getting 50 consecutively. Not naming any names, but some of the CrossFit superstars I’ve met leave a bit to be desired in the ‘would you want to have a beer with them’ category. Carl, not so much.
What a day. I’m not sure Fittest in Cape Town 2013 can top this one.
- “No one ever comes into my gym and asks to use a stopwatch to time their stretches! You care!” – Carl
- “You’ve got your game face on!” – Thatch
- “But I’m a disaster, too. … No, actually, I’m a really nice guy.” “You notice how he just said two opposite things in two consecutive sentences?” – Carl & Ellie
- “Ok there, Spiderwoman!” – Carl (I was demonstrating some halfway decent agility … one of the 10 physical skills)