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My Attempt to Become a Better Person Through CrossFit

I decided to try CrossFit, because it seemed frightening and intense, which is the opposite of my life.


Illustration by Heather Benjamin

We gave the writer Edith Zimmerman a monthly column because we love her. But like everyone, she could be better, so we asked her to write about doing things that improve herself. Follow her over the next year as she gets better and better until she reaches perfection in March 2016.

Have you ever seen a picture of yourself and thought, That can't possibly be me—who is that person? But it is you, and you're forced to acknowledge, maybe for the first time in a while, the way you actually look? I had a moment like that a few months ago. My pub trivia team had won the thing we'd been trying to win for years, and so we took a group photograph, and it was great, although after I saw the picture I faked some of the happiness, because I felt a little undone by realizing—somehow, suddenly, in that instant, I guess I was finally able to see—how far I'd let my actual appearance get from the way I thought of myself. I knew I had gained weight, but I naively kind of thought that maybe I just carried it well. I mean I knew that TECHNICALLY I'd gained like 30 or 40 pounds—I still don't want to get on a scale—but somehow I thought maybe it worked for me, or was the invisible kind of fat. Haha.

So I decided to try CrossFit, because it seemed frightening and intense, which is the opposite of my life. There are apparently about 11,000 CrossFit affiliate gyms around the world, up from 13 in 2005, nine years after it was "invented." A lot of people call it a cult and make fun of it. But the people photographed in the endless CrossFit trend pieces usually look pretty amazing, and I was definitely open to becoming addicted to and annoying about it, to becoming part of their cult, if for some miraculous reason it stuck and I could maybe end up like one of the women in cool sports bras and Spandex shorts whose bodies are so fit they're frightening.

But then I actually went to a CrossFit class.

The gym—or "box"—felt like an industrial-style, gladiator-type training cavern that had been tucked behind an unassuming, normal-size door on a Brooklyn side street. It was filled with black metal jungle gyms, bars and gymnastic rings, and stacks of weights—also rows of kettlebells and medicine balls, racks of jump ropes, a bay of rowing machines, and a corner piled with wooden crates—but mostly big expanses of open space padded with black mats and Astroturf.

At the beginning of the class, we went around saying our names and fitness histories and hopes. Some said that they ran or swam or played basketball. I said I didn't exercise at all, hoping it might give me an excuse for whatever came later, but then a cute couple who arrived late also said they didn't exercise. And then they were so fast and strong at seemingly everything and never out of breath. Especially when we were learning burpees, a horrible exercise in which you drop fully to the ground, then jump up—if you can—back to standing, and then clap your hands over your head as you hop up in the air. And then do it all again. Over and over and over.

After around ten of these, I realized that I had at some point begun making audible groaning noises, kind of like in tennis(!), which was exciting because I don't think I've ever groaned from exertion before. Then we finished with four minutes of plain air squats—20 seconds of going up and down like you're peeing, followed by ten seconds of rest, eight times over—which maybe doesn't sound too crazy but was almost certainly the hardest I've ever worked out in my life. I fell down immediately afterward, on the first steps I tried to descend, walking off the mat to the locker area.

But I was so tired I didn't care whether I looked stupid, and at that point all I wanted was to go home and lie down. And never come back.

Concern over people doing CrossFit too intensely, or with improper form, has led to at least one lawsuit, in 2008, in which the plaintiff, a Navy technician, sued his gym (not CrossFit itself), claiming that his trainers' instructions gave him rhabdomyolysis, "a condition in which damaged skeletal muscle tissue breaks down rapidly" and that is often caused by "extreme physical exercise." (Quotes from Wikipedia.) He had been peeing blood and was hospitalized for a month, and he eventually won $300,000. To raise awareness about improper technique, CrossFit CEO Greg Glassman has run several articles on rhabdomyolysis in CrossFit's (non-peer-reviewed) online publication, CrossFit Journal. In one 2005 post (three years before the lawsuit), Glassman wrote:

To date we have seen five cases of exertional rhabdo associated with CrossFit workouts. Each case resulted in the hospitalization of the afflicted... The hardest hit was extremely sick, the least afflicted had no complaints other than soreness... Soreness doesn't adequately explain the discomfort of rhabdo, however. The worst hit, a SWAT guy, recounts that six days of intravenous morphine drip barely touched the pain.

The illustration accompanying the post, under the word "RHABDO," was a drawing of a jacked but bleeding and miserable-looking Krusty-esque clown, hooked up to a dialysis machine, his kidneys on the floor. The clown cartoon eventually came to be known as "Uncle Rhabdo," and one writer later called him, in a popular 2013 Medium post, "CrossFit's unofficial and disturbing mascot."

At home, the pain made me unexpectedly giddy and euphoric. Even though I wasn't experiencing rhabdo, LOL, I kind of loved the ache and burn—I could barely sit down normally, and if moving quickly or going up and down the stairs had been part of my job description, I might have had to take the week off. It was like there was a whole other body inside my regular one, waking up. And she was angry and mean, not because I was bothering her but because it had taken me so long to remember she was there. And I loved hobbling around and screaming when I sat down, "IN CASE ANYONE HAD FORGOTTEN THAT I WAS DOING CROSSFIT DID I MENTION CROSSFIT."

So I signed up for what's called the "On Ramp" session, a two-week, six-class beginner course in which you learn how to do all the actual CrossFit exercises appropriately, and which is required for anyone who wants to continue doing it.

The session I chose began the morning after the first class. It turned out that the gym was a lot quieter at 6 AM and only four of us had signed up. And our coach was really nice and seemed gentle and sympathetic to how intimidating it was to be there. He also seemed great about understanding everyone's personal limit and at helping without making anyone feel stupid or disgusting. He was also very fit, in a weight-lifting way, and he had a big beard.

So we all chatted a bit and then started learning some CrossFit, and for the next hour, I panted and sweated and felt weird, doing push-ups and sit-ups and pseudo-pull-ups (with a big rubber band), and I kind of had fun, or not fun, but something like satisfaction, and when I went home I couldn't shut up about how I was "doing CrossFit."

But over the course of the next two weeks, something shifted. What started as a desire to become FIT AND STRONG (i.e., skinny and hot) sort of changed into being about making my coach and the people in my class like me, and about looking forward to being around them, in just a goofy, simple way. Because it was clear from the get-go that I couldn't keep up, exercise-level-wise, and that almost everything had to be amended to fit my physical limitations. But that was kind of freeing, because the workouts were still exhausting; it just wasn't so terrifying or comparison-based. And it was nice to just be in a room with some new people, doing a new thing, looking like an idiot.