Catch Me If You Can

A couple weeks ago, in attempting a snatch, I threw the bar behind me for the first time. As the bar flew backwards, and with no weight to counterbalance me, I fell forwards onto the wooden weightlifting platform. I landed on the same knee that I destroyed when I got my first adult bike, and was failing to learn how to not get my front wheel caught in railroad tracks in Boston. Those falls had torn more and more away from the front of my knee; the skin has essentially been replaced by a big, blotchy, shiny patch of scar tissue.

I haven’t thought of cycling much recently, other than in a spectating sense, but the fall reminded me of the mental fortitude that’s forced on you when you ride alone enough. The kind of resilience you develop when you end up having to pull yourself out of sometimes awful situations on dead legs, fully aware that help – in any form – isn’t coming. Cycling often requires a good dose of “I’ll figure it out if it happens” and the willingness to get lost, with the faith that you’ll find your way back because you got yourself into this damn mess in the first place. It’s probably why cycling is a sport particularly appealing to lone wolf types; personalities that are open to hectic, solo ventures, who like to go to places you really shouldn’t on two wheels.

hookgrip casualty.

hookgrip casualty.

But cycling never taught me confidence. It was, instead, insecurity in my ability and speed that fueled training rides and trainer sessions. I wanted, desperately, to be better, faster, stronger, because so many people had said that I was too slow, too heavy, too whatever to be a “decent” cyclist, and I’d believed them. The reality is that you can do a lot with cycling even with the debilitating insecurities that I had. It fuels the dieting, the training rides in winter, the hours spent on a trainer. Because if you’re convinced you’re not good enough, you try harder.

I took that mentality with me into CrossFit, then weightlifting. It worked, for about seven months. Since late December, my snatch 1 rep max stubbornly stayed at a measly 30kg. No amount of strength training seemed to work to pull anything over 30kg over my head. I leaned into my insecurities, trying to stoke the fire that fueled rides, trying to bully myself into raising my 1 rep max. Instead, my doubt creeped into my lifts. I would psyche myself out once 30kg was loaded onto the bar and my form would fall to pieces. I held back tears of frustration in class. I considered quitting a lot.

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Something changed around late April; the box offering daily weightlifting classes and an additional coach who seemed to see something that could be salvaged were two big ones.  At one class, paired up with a friend, K.H., who is significantly stronger than me, I kept missing that 30kg snatch. We were supposed to do sets of two, but I’d get under the bar maybe once, only to have it crash in front of me the second time. In the end, I never got that two rep set, but for once, it wasn’t not fun trying. Plus, I got something a lot better. After K.H. got a new two rep max, she watched me again fail another attempt.

“What’s impressive,” she said, “is that you’ve lifted 30kg like 50 times.”

I realized then that I’d been looking at weightlifting entirely the wrong way. Missed lifts, until K.H.’s comment, had been failures. All I was seeing were non-reps and reinforcement of my belief that I couldn’t do it. The other side of those missed reps was acclimatization to a weight I’d only been able to pull once or twice. It actually blew my mind.

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Her comment was undoubtedly a part of my piling on 5kg to my snatch two rep max in the space of a month. Another part of that was the observation that I was lifting scared.

“You’re still catching the bar in a safe place,” my coach said, “be more aggressive. Get under it like you know you’re going to catch it.”

Unlike riding, the scenery never changes with weightlifting. The adventure is always the same: you, a barbell, and a bunch of heavy plates. There’s no risk of getting lost and having to find your way – physically, anyway – home. There’s no mess to get out of, no situations where a cell phone barely works and you’re hopelessly lost in the middle of nowhere.

But weightlifting starts with a brash belief that you can, one more time, launch an uncomfortably heavy barbell high enough to get under it, often while your whole body feels like deadweight. It requires, before you step up to the bar, that you not only believe you can make the lift, but you execute with that confidence. That you dive under a potentially lethal barbell with the conviction that you’ll catch it, or at least, not drop it on your head.

All the training in the world ultimately doesn’t mean shit if you lift scared. So I started to fall, diving aggressively enough to throw the bar back and slam onto my knees. It makes missed lifts look a lot worse than they actually are – usually, you just end up with some impressive bruises – and there’s a weird sense of confidence in knowing that you tried lifting that weight with no fear. That you somehow managed to wipe the slate clean of doubt, insecurity, the knowledge that your muscles are close to dead, and replaced it, for a brief second, with pure faith.

Note my coach looking not horribly disappointed in me, for once.

Note my coach looking not horribly disappointed in me, for once.

A million thoughts still run through my head as I approach the barbell, about form, triple extension, where my weight should be, my elbows. “What the hell,” I think, as I grab the bar with hands white with chalk. I vaguely imagine completing the lift before all thought drains from my brain and I’m pulling, falling, diving to catch another snatch.

Of Asics Weightlifting Shoes and Camel Toe

“Oh my God, I accidentally saw that part where her leg, you know, meets her groin…?” A friend told me earlier this year.

“You mean, her labia?”

“Well, not the entire thing, but yeah, part of it.”

“Ew, gross,” I’d said.

As my State-side visit neared its end, I was increasingly becoming anxious about going back to the box. Not only because of the inadvertent two-week hiatus where I’d packed most of my workout clothes and then used them just once during my trip. Toward the end of last year, a girl had joined my CrossFit box, shit had hit the fan, and I got splattered with it.

It wasn’t just her tendency to wear thin running shorts and leggings that didn’t cover her butt or hide the shape of her nether region. It was more that within two months of joining our box, she had thrown herself at our happily-married coach. Despite friends pointing out how blatantly she was flirting with our coach, I first assumed she was overly friendly and maybe didn’t quite understand the concept of boundaries. Maybe she was excited to join a new box after an allegedly poor experience at her previous one. She seemed nice, she was good at CrossFit, and we became friendly.

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That initial assumption was napalmed at a year-end party that a box member had organized. After the party, we had all lingered outside the bar, waiting for someone to take the initiative and lead the way to the after party. It was cold and we were all trying to keep warm, hands stuffed into pockets. As I shot the shit with my coach and a few friends, the girl slid up to him, rested her head on his upper arm and slipped her hand into his coat pocket.

Things got pretty weird after that. I made it clear that I didn’t need friends who lacked a moral compass, the box owner eventually found out about the shady behavior, and the girl, for the most part, cut it out. She still apparently hates me.  

When faced with sticky situations, I generally choose to delete myself from the locale or social circle involved. Despite the fact that I love my box, I started avoiding classes and only coming by the box during open gym hours when I knew I’d be alone. The additional support the box provided this girl for her attempt to get into regional championships, her strength, and her proficiency at WODs made me feel small. I’d done nothing wrong but I felt like the outsider. I considered quitting every week.

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By coincidence, however, I’d ordered a pair of Asics lifting shoes prior to the year-end party. Handmade of thick suede, the heel is lower than competing models and they look like Soviet-era relics in comparison to the Nike Romaleos or the Reebok Legacy Lifters. There’s no cool Velcro strap, and unless you go the custom route, there are only two colors. But they’re also the best lifting shoes you can buy.*

Unfortunately, they’re also expensive. The money had been spent, though, and the shoes were on their way. There was no going back.

The first time I got under the bar with these shoes on, I finally understood why people say that lifting shoes are a worthy investment. If you’ve ever ridden a fixed gear after doing most of your miles on a road bike, that’s what wearing lifting shoes feels like. Except the plastered-on feeling is on your feet, not your butt.

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Although I’ve tried lifting with plates under my heels to  replicate the effect of lifting shoes, it never felt stable. The soles of my feet seemed to cave in towards the ground. With the Asics, the stiff leather soles keep my feet glued to a hard, supportive surface which means I can grip the ground more effectively. The lack of any cushioning translates to the feeling that I’m lifting barefoot, but with enough support to keep my heels raised. Lifting in normal sneakers feels like standing on a soft bed in comparison.

People say that lifting shoes will automatically add 5kg to your squat max. I can’t say that I’ve been gifted those instant gains – for a number of reasons, I haven’t tried to max out my back squat this year – but I can say that squats feel good in these shoes. My muscles still feel awful during the movement, but I’m not trying to feel out the “tripod foot” in soft, cushioned shoes. Instead, I can grip the floor through my shoe and drive up through my heels with a little more efficiency.

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The only drawback I’ve experienced is the lack of cushioning makes for a harder landing. I noticed that my heels would occasionally hurt after a lift, and that they sometimes felt bruised for a couple days afterwards.

“Is this normal?” I asked my coach.

“Probably,” he said, “I think I stopped noticing.”

That was a couple months ago and he’s right. It becomes one of the aches and pains that come with weightlifting way too much in your mid 30s. Like being constantly, visually assaulted by genitalia that you have no interest in, you eventually just get used to it. And in the end, both are a small price to pay for solid weightlifting classes at my favorite box.

* The Asics shoes are considered world-class, but those with less ankle mobility might want to consider the Nike Romaleos or the Reebok Legacy Lifters which provide a higher heel.