Subject: Professional baseball player Craig Kimbrel
Materials used: dried cranberries
Subject: Professional baseball player Craig Kimbrel
Materials used: dried cranberries
“Kaiko,” my coach said a few months ago, as he watched me try to snatch, “stop getting flung away.”
“Okay,” I said.
“And I don’t mean just by guys.”
I stood there, sweaty, with third-degree burns from that roast. The whiteboard declared that we’d be doing snatches, and I’d been attempting to heave the barbell and two oversized, red, plastic plates weighing 2.5kg each, over my head. To accomplish that, I was bouncing the bar off my hip flexors instead of scooping it up, then getting pulled forward before swinging the weight back towards my body to get it over my shoulders. My arms were tensed up and straightened throughout the lift. It seemed to me what a snatch should look like, except it was completely wrong.
Fortunately, the vice grip I had on the barbell and the tension in my arms naturally died after doing about 20 snatches for a WOD. By snatch 26, my coach was impressed with my form enough to be shouting out praise over the increasingly irritating pop music.
“Good snatch, Kaiko!” he said, “you’re not wasting any movements!”
I was sweating uncontrollably and turning increasingly pale. My lungs hurt but everything else was becoming numb and useless. I had stopped concentrating on form, on all the small things that need to come together for a half decent snatch. I was too busy trying not to die.
There’s very little that is more fun than learning the Olympic lifts. But the process can often feel a lot like trying to date in Tokyo in your 30s: first, you spend a lot of time and energy trying to control things you can’t, then, once the deadening exhaustion sets in, you lose all the fucks you thought you could give and, ironically, start getting better at it.
I’ve been learning this the hard way. There were the ghosters, the friends-with-benefiters, the guys who can’t take rejection, and the guys who just want to sext. So far, it’s been a string of failed attempts. Most times, I fix one way I approach things and something else goes completely wrong. Other times, I need to step back, take a break, and re-group.
In the process, I’ve learned that rushing things can get you hurt or at least make you feel like an idiot, but, taking a few risks isn’t a bad thing. That having more confidence and a little more faith in myself never hurt, and meaningful progress always involves being uncomfortable. And that for every failure, there are ten, twenty, fifty more chances to get it right.
They say you get back what you give. What they don’t tell you is that you can give your best but a lot of the time, you have to wait to get it back. It’s not your day or your timing is off or it’s not meant to be. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t give your best at every try, or half-ass your pulls and expect a great result. As exhausting, frustrating, and infuriating as it can be, you have to keep pulling with the hope that one day, everything will boomerang back to you. And since you miss all the shots you don’t take, eventually, I’ll set myself up at the bar again and try to get something off the ground without looking entirely stupid and/or disposing of my dignity.
A few weeks back, after a crush didn’t pan out, I arrived at the CrossFit box to another torturous WOD.
“We’re doing this ‘Heartbreak’ one,” coach said.
“But, no,” I whined, “I’ve had enough of that this year.”
He laughed, because he somehow believes I’m capable of more than I think, and we did it anyway.
“How’s therapy?” friends who know of my weekly appointments to keep myself reasonably together occasionally ask, “is it working?”
“I don’t know,” I always say. It’s an honest answer, but I leave out the part about how, since I had lacked the self-awareness to realize how not okay I was until I was severely not okay, assuming that I could now somehow judge my progress is either a testament to how much my friends believe in me and my capacity to make progress, or, perhaps more accurately, how little they know about my descent into sadness. Sometimes, when pressed, I’d offer that, “my therapist thinks I’m doing okay.” People seem to take this as a good sign, but given that she has also congratulated me on not being a manipulative sociopath, I probably set the bar kind of low with that relationship.
The problem is that it’s difficult to measure progress you can’t see. There are no progress pictures you can take of your mental health, no benchmark VO2Max, lifts, or WODs. There’s no road map or training program. Other than the uncomfortable realization that I was more unhappy than I’d like to be, there wasn’t much else I was sure of.
If the first step to addressing your own bullshit is recognizing the problem, they say the second step is acceptance. Somewhere in between, you’re assumed to have pulled yourself back to a functional state and mentally prepared yourself to address your numerous hang ups. It’s an uncomfortable experience made even more frustrating by the fact that no one actually tells you how to get from step one to generally happy. Even when you pay for professional therapy, you’re left to claw your way out yourself while answering vague questions like “how did that make you feel?” and “how do you think you can deal with this issue better next time?”
“What do you mean, ‘next time’?” I’m tempted to say, fully prepared to take the easy way out and avoid, for the indefinite future, whoever in my life had created whatever unpleasant situation I was complaining about. “Does there have to be a ‘next time’?”
It’s the same question I voice at the CrossFit box, except, because no one there is paid to give a shit about my feelings, I’m bluntly told yes, I will eventually have to put myself through that extremely painful experience again. That the increasing weight on the bar or the heavier kettlebells are entirely for my benefit. This information usually annihilates the last thin thread of willpower I was clinging to to stay both upright and conscious. It also seems fundamentally unfair. I understand my therapist’s attempts to turn me into a better person – that’s what I pay her for – but no one told me building character was part of CrossFit or Olympic weightlifting.
Yet, as if to make up for the fact that I can’t snap under the bar with anything that resembles speed, the harder I’m thrown, the faster I seem to come back. This could be proof that I’m still clinging to learned behavior, that I’m still seeking out situations which maximize my suffering. I like to believe, however, that this time around, I’m at least limiting my masochism to the CrossFit box.
I will concede that this is by default, not by choice. The beauty of any activity that corners you into playing self-defense so you don’t die is that it doesn’t leave you with much energy for remaining high-strung for the rest of the day. It just sort of beats you into acquiescence of whatever might have previously evoked some type of strong emotion. Completely drained of the majority of my will to live, I’ve been forced to stop fighting the things I can’t change. Exhaustion has led me not only to acceptance, but to exercise-induced Stockholm’s Syndrome, as, inexplicably, I’ve taught myself to love it. A few weeks ago, I stood in front of the whiteboard, staring at the WOD with a friend, as if I could change the numbers or exercises by glaring at them.
“Well, at least it’s box jumps, not burpee box jumps,” I said.
“So basically,” my friend said, “you’re saying that since coach isn’t going to kill you, you’re okay with him punching you repeatedly in the face.”
This probably isn’t the form of acceptance they talk about in therapy. You’re probably supposed to choose to accept things rather than be cornered, then beaten, into it. Sometimes, however, the amount of bullshit you’ve allowed yourself to get away with dictates that nothing else is really going to work.
It doesn’t seem like much, but I’m going to go ahead and call that progress.
Another favorite for the Games!
Subject: Canadian CrossFit athlete Patrick Vellner
Materials used: Maple cream cookies
I'm aware CrossFit athletes don't eat Oreos but...
Subject: American CrossFit athlete Mat Fraser
Materials used: Oreos
I’m 35 today.
It’s a weird feeling, arriving at an age that suggests established adulthood when my life resembles a never-ending vortex of chaos mixed with a good measure of underachievement. 35 suggests an age when people generally have grown into themselves and their decisions; when life stabilizes, at least temporarily. When you feel good about most things that you’ve done; when you make enough to afford small luxuries and most things fit into place. Or, at least that’s how I imagined it.
Instead, I am 35 today and having only been behind the wheel of a car once, I feel like I’m in a F-1 race, drunk to the point where decisions are confusing and laborious, trying to figure out how to drive. I’m technically, miraculously, still in the race, but I’m not sure what lap I’m on, when we’re supposed to stop, or what we’re all racing away from. Given the circumstances, however, I suppose I could be doing a lot worse.
I say that without allowing myself the luxury of being grateful for things that my friends tell me I should take into consideration; that I’m not, for example, a homeless convicted sex offender or a crack addict turning tricks to support her habit. I am aware that my life could be much worse, but I also wonder what it says about my friends’ perceptions of me that they revert to such extreme examples. Couldn’t they choose less desperate hypotheticals?
That’s not to say that they’re wrong. Despite the fact that the bottom fell out of my life recently – or perhaps because of it – my current life can only be described, for better or for worse, as unexpected. It’s not cycling or lifting, but CrossFit, that has become that thing I do to keep my mind off of everything else. And because I need to keep it a daily practice to keep those black dogs at bay, the workouts and WODs have led, to, of all things, preparing batches of broccoli and chicken breast twice a week.
I had always seen meal prepping as too rigid and restricting given my desire to be perceived as easy-going and flexible. Who wants to be around someone who is so Type A and neurotic about their food, I thought. Who wants to eat the same thing every day for lunch and dinner? Who is humorless enough to choke down chicken breast twice a day? And then I became one of those people.
Let’s be clear; that’s not to say I actually eat well. I follow up that chicken and broccoli with ice cream and potato chips on a daily basis, which means that I am only trying to make up for my otherwise shitty diet at meal times. I call it balance.
Yet, my best efforts at self-sabotage via a half-assed diet have ironically resulted in arriving at 35 looking better than I ever have. Like a cheaper form of liposuction, CrossFit erased the cellulite I couldn’t get rid of unless I was at least 3 kg lighter than my current weight. Everything got tighter. I grew lats and my back got brawny. I actually look like I lift things with my arms and not just my legs. It feels pretty good.
But the best part is that I have people to lean on when times get tough, who will listen and nod and give me a hard time. The same friends that tell me that while I might feel like the emotional version of nuclear winter, “at least you don’t look that way.” The ones that get coffee with me, and sometimes McDonald’s, and who will stay on the phone whether I’m sobbing or laughing. Whatever my underachievements or my failings at constructing an age-appropriate life, those friends remain a sign that I might not be doing it all wrong.
I’m 35 today. Still drunk behind the wheel of that F-1 race car. Still confused, still figuring it out. But things could be worse.
Here’s to another lap, another year of keeping the rubber side down.