It's hard to look at CrossFit as anything other than a sweat cult formed from packs of jocks. It's universally considered the go-to activity for dicks, or people too buff to have better hobbies. This perception can drive a person to the point of blind rage. Fuck, it's those vanity batons with their dumbells again, you think. Fucking CrossFit. But, then again, I, like you, have never given CrossFit a fair shot. I knew I hated it; I just couldn't place my finger on exactly why. So when a friend of mine said he was attending a European CrossFit competition called the Battle of the Beasts, I figured I'd give it a chance.
The competition was held in a massive hangar in Colchester, a biggish town in England that you wouldn't visit without a very specific purpose. The corridor to enter the event was clogged two by two with swollen frames, edging along on cleft-chinned calves. Inside, a thousand or so fans were milling athletically about to the tempo of the familiar, but unnameable gym music. Every man, woman, and child had shoulders that could support a man, woman, and a child.
It was easy to separate the real fans from the wannabes, because most of the CrossFit faithful wear gym gear with the "CrossFit" logo on it. It occurred to me that this was akin to a football fan wearing merch that simply said, "Football! Just, generally!"
The day is split up into five punishing 20-minute workouts, where men and women compete to extract as much exercise from their bodies as is inhumanly as possible. Each workout consists of a selection of exercises designed to find a weakness in your overall fitness. The freaks that progress to the semi-final, then on to the finals, have to do another two "bonus" workouts.
Waiting for liftoff, I sipped on the only alcoholic drink in the arena. Unlike most sporting events, this one did not have a selection of booths where one could buy beer and hotdogs to enjoy from the bleachers. The people here were interested in reaching peak human fitness, a goal hindered by pounding back beer after beer. I sipped mine in silence.
The seats were all pointed at an old school gym apparatus, which could easily be misappropriated for mass hangings. Some of the CrossFit competitors entered the arena topless, showing that each of their six-packs had spawned a subsidiary six-pack. Here we go, I thought, choking back my desire to scoff.
Then they began, and that scoff never took shape. Each exercise looked like torture, whether competitors were wrenching an unnatural amount of metal above their heads orbench pressing their body weight. Managing one "rep"—meaning, one unit of suffering—would take you or me years and years of striving. Our single creaking attempt causing a repetitive strain injury somewhere made-up sounding. These weirdos heave themselves through it a metric jillion times.
On and on they went, seesawing their weighted limbs through the same movements. They jumped on and off and on stuff in the least convenient way. They lifted their body weight up again and again, until agony stretched across their faces, until pushing the planet down seems more practical. Soon, all their muscles were vibrating together in a polyphonic request for a lie down.
In real life, the extent of their self-inflicted, life-force-draining slog was hard to mock. It just doesn't come across in a photo or a promo video. Just watching them was exhausting. We didn't have the lung capacity to cheer through the whole workout, nor hands muscular enough to keep up the supportive applause. Halfway in, I had to stop supporting them and start mentally pleading for them to stop.
After 20 long minutes, a klaxon sounded, and the Crossfitters crumpled on the floor. They lay strung out on endorphins, retching smiles up to the roof. They'd driven their souped-up systems too far, way past the point of what seems to be healthy or beneficial.
But that was just their first workout competition of the day—one out of a potential seven. CrossFit is the stuff of labor camps run off aspiration. It's not a sprint. It's not even a marathon. It's a sprint to a marathon to some other feat of human endurance that, like childbirth, is physically incomprehensible to those who haven't done it.
Watching the competitors, it seemed that the whole thing wasn't about showing off as much as it was about collectively reaching a new level of human fitness. CrossFitters are not a race of vindictive GM super jocks. Sure, they can walk on their hands with more ability than most people can walk on their feet and climb up ropes with freakish speed. It doesn't make them bad people. In fact, the way they all cheer their flagging opponents through their last few agonizing reps is kind of sweet. The CrossFitters were just nice, normal people who wanted to exercise to the death, if only their bodies would allow it.
To be sure, they are pretty cultish—but there are worse things to worship than all-around fitness. Maybe I got low-key indoctrinated. Maybe the motions of the competitors hypnotized me. Or maybe it is actually possible to like CrossFit without being a dick. Take it from me—I went looking for a decent reason to hate them, and I just couldn't.
Leaving a CrossFit event, you can't help but think about the physical potential of your own body. It even inspired me, a committed sloth, to half-heartedly consider joining a gym for weeks after.
Follow Sam Briggs on Twitter.