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Inside the Box

Get on the treadmill. Slam on the big, red, “STOP” button as soon as you’ve run the fastest mile of which you are physically capable. Are you sweating yet? Take no break; hop immediately from the treadmill to the pull-up bar and fight through 100 repetitions. You heard me. Do you feel the burn? When you’re done, get on the floor and complete 200 pushups – knees on the ground when necessary. I’m not exaggerating. Can you push through the pain? Once those are finished, peel yourself upright and begin the bodyweight squat countdown from 300. That’s not an extra zero. KEEP GOING. DO NOT STOP. Get up and jump back on the treadmill. Force one leg in front of the other until you’ve pounded out another mile. Are you still breathing?

If you are, congratulations. You’ve just completed one day of CrossFit.

According to Chris Arcure, the owner of Wolverine Strength and Conditioning, a CrossFit affiliate gym in Ann Arbor, Michigan, part of the program’s beauty is that “anyone can do it.” He’s addressing my surprise at the class’s diversity. In front of me, an overweight middle-aged woman relies on her knees resting upon the soft ground to complete the assigned set of pushups next to a younger, bulky male ex-marine doing the same thing minus modification. Completing the other rotation of this WOD (CrossFit for “Workout of the day”) and with their backs facing the pushup population, a lean young woman works out next to a graying older man. Both launch up from a deep squat while simultaneously thrusting balls of varied weight at the proper height for their respective genders, indicated on the wall in front of them by a navy blue male or female stick figure painted atop the bright yellow concrete overhead. “It’s just not for everyone,” he qualifies the statement. You don’t say.

Every break between classes feels like the calm before yet another storm. While the gym is at rest and the action has temporarily ceased, there isn’t much to see. The transparent door to a large refrigerator displays a collection of the most fitting items: a collection of purple and red Gatorades stand next to a pack of green coconut water bottles (all used for hydration purposes), vanilla and chocolate Muscle Milk shakes (for protein purposes), orange and grape flavored Kill Cliff cans (for energy purposes) and Power Bars made from whey protein (for, well, power purposes). The only other items for sale are apparel; the thick sweatshirt’s gray backdrop allows the bright yellow “WOLVERINE Strength and Conditioning” to speak for itself, the bottom left corner of a pink form-fitting tank subtly sports “Peace. Love. Crossfit.” next to its more masculine counterpart, a black tee whose short and sweet description does a lovely job of capturing the sport in a nutshell, “JUMP. LIFT. PULL. PUKE. REPEAT!”

They call it a “box.” To an insider, it’s a space dedicated to transforming bodies, strengthen minds, releasing anxiety and frustration, realizing what is both physically and mentally possible, and escaping from the pressures, fears, struggles, and difficulties of reality. It’s the place to challenge, push, and discover oneself. It’s the place to find comfort, belonging, and purpose. It’s the place where everybody knows your name. To an outsider, however, it really is just a big box. One half of one wall is stacked with workout equipment such as kettle bells, medicine balls, and free weights. The other side is lined with rowing machines and pull up bars stand on long poles toward one end of the open rectangular space. Despite some unfamiliar specifics, the gym where CrossFit athletes exercise is reminiscent of any typical school gymnasium or dance classroom, inevitably evoking a familiar feel.

The two desks sitting directly in front of the front door seem misplaced, as if once stripped from inside an office building and relocated beyond their will inside this space dedicated to a much different kind of work. They alone constitute the only evidence that some managerial business takes place behind the scenes of the weight lifting and cardio routines for which the rest of the area is reserved. On the desks lie black and white flyers for the upcoming Skunkbear CrossFit ThrowDown competition. A weekly class schedule displays the upcoming hours devoted strictly to Olympic lifting as well as times for “bring a friend classes.” Regular CrossFit workouts are represented on the calendar by the familiar black stick figure that typically indicates a men’s restroom, now with his knees bent, barbell overhead. The message displayed on the white board in between the desks cannot be overlooked; no doubt having been written with immense pride, it advertises the “CROSSFIT Anti-Aging Drug,” whose “Side Effects Include: stamina, strength, flexibility, power, speed, agility, coordination, balance, accuracy, cardio-respiratory [health], and community.”

These elements collectively construct the skeleton of what CrossFit is all about. Officially established by gymnast and personal trainer Greg Glassman in 2000, the workout routine transforms physical fitness into its own sport, inspiring improvement of physical capacities in all of these areas. The point is to be as good, as strong, and as fast as possible in every way and for every situation, rather than improving capabilities in any one specific realm or section of the body. A post on the organization’s website, written by Glassman himself, describes the official CrossFit prescription: “constantly varied, high-intensity, functional movement.” Inside the box, a coach offers me a translation for the laymen; the regimen is focused on doing a bunch of different exercises (“constantly varied”) that improve your overall quality of life (“functional”). The self-explanatory characteristic is the one that’s been drawing attention and turning heads for more than a decade: “high-intensity.” Using a diverse set of workouts including gymnastics, weightlifting, and high intensity interval training as the means to achieve those ends, CrossFit enthusiasts take pride in their ability and desire to endure uniquely hard, intense, sometimes dangerous, and occasionally fatal workouts.

The program is building a controversial reputation for itself, one often spread by word of mouth about the many injuries, hospitalizations, and deaths it’s caused. For example, rhabdomyolysis, a condition caused by straining muscle fibers and one that sometimes leads to kidney failure and heart complications, is a well known repercussion among the CrossFit community. Casually turning “Uncle Rhabdo” into a sort of twisted mascot for the movement, his cartoon manifestation depicts a panting, injured clown standing in a pool of his own blood, hooked up to an IV, with his kidney on the floor in front of a backdrop display of dumbbells and gymnastics bars. Even Glassman doesn’t shy away from the truth; he willingly admitted to the New York Times that he’s always been honest about the fact that his fierce brainchild “can kill you.” Advocates will say that most undesirable consequences are preventable problems resulting directly from incorrect form, sloppy technique, or lack of a knowledgeable and experienced coach, but they also can’t, and don’t even attempt, to ignore the driving force of intensity without which such failures would not ultimately be achieved.

Having grown from one single establishment in Seattle to over 9,000 affiliates worldwide, the addictive CrossFit movement has itself become an exercise revolution. Across the country and then around the world, average Joes and Janes have grown committed to a program used to train military men and women, law enforcement officials, and firefighters. There is usually an understood destination, a logical goal such strenuous activity might achieve, a justification for such extremity. Nobody questions why policemen need be able to run so fast or why marines and Navy seals should pack on the muscle tissue. Testing physical limitations in this way, and the resulting pain, suffering, and soreness, is typically used to fulfill a means to an end. But when Glassman opened his first gym, was anyone expecting that the means and end would fuse into a sport voluntarily attempted in one’s leisure? With the expansion of these routines now unifying stay-at-home mothers with professional body-builders and Olympic athletes alike, workouts characterized by pain and suffering followed by recoveries marked by vomiting and fainting has birthed a cult of loyal followers with a love for, and obsession with, the sport. It’s a curious phenomenon.

My interest led me to a “Fundamentals” class, in which I would be individually taught the correct form and technique for performing CrossFit moves as a potential new member of the cult. While it is possible to jump directly into the real thing, the “highly encouraged” introduction classes are designed to teach a prospective athlete how to walk before he or she attempts learning how to run. Off to the side of the box with a regular class taking place behind my back – an enterprise quite difficult to ignore – I stood determined with a personal trainer by my side that I would discover whatever there was to discover about this madness. I grabbed a silver training bar (a measly 15 pounds), and began following orders. Back flat when you bend. Arms straight when the bar is overhead. Elbows high when you thrust upward and hips first when you squat downward. After exhibiting enough competence and ability to do deadlifts, presses, squats, snatches, and thrusters, (all different moves centered around lifting and moving with the bar in different ways), I was encouraged to graduate from one-on-one instruction and join in with the regulars just as they united for their post-warmup huddle.

The head coach today resembles a built leprechaun. Sitting on a set of wooden drawers in front of a whiteboard and speaking with a bold tone through a beard of red facial hair, Mike O’Brien nearly bounces with excitement as he explains to the class in which form the pain will come today. The board indicates that today’s WOD is “Fran.” The red marker ink also indicates that this equates to “Today is gonna suck.” Mike explains that the workout is “here” (he draws an abstract location in the air with his hand), death is “here” (another location, directly neighboring the first) and the line between them is “here” (a finger slides through the two). “Today, I want you on this line,” he instructs. He isn’t laughing because he isn’t kidding. He isn’t kidding because this is CrossFit. Smiles that indicate a shared understanding emerge within the crowd; a slow applause begins among the sea of calloused hands. After allowing a quick swig of water and demanding a round of fist bumps between group members – as if eagerly toasting glasses prematurely for their own funerals – coach Mike spits preparation instructions at superhuman speed and indicates that it’s finally time to disperse by closing his post-warmup sermon with a booming, “MAKE IT HAPPEN!”

I’m personally instructed to gather two black, circular 10-pound weights and two small silver contraptions used to pin them to either side of the naked bar. I then claim a spot with my equipment on the floor among the experienced. Responding immediately to my evident confusion about how to work these clip-like things, my bald neighbor with a slight beer belly bends down to assist me while offering a reassuring, “I’m pretty new here, too.” Personal trainer by my side, I join the others in lifting my loaded bar from the floor to my hips, from my hips to my chest, from my chest to a stable position overhead, and then finishing with a deep squat with my arms still straight above me. Surrounding me are men and women doing the same thing minus the commas; every motion I witness is a rapidly smooth, flowing, and coordinated counterpart to what I myself am performing. The surround sound speaker system proves its functionality as Eminem’s anger pulses through the room as audible motivation at a suitably loud volume. Almost no time passes before the beads of sweat on my face fuse with one another and fall to the padded mat below my feet. My body is overwhelmed sooner than I’d hoped it would be, but something about successfully manipulating a barbell and then hearing it smash against the ground when released from above admittedly made me feel temporarily powerful beyond measure.

As fatigue begins to infiltrate every muscle of the bodies with whom I now share the box floor, I am again observing the amazing workings of willpower. I didn’t know Jess well enough yet not to be afraid of her; I didn’t see the talkative people person within her, I didn’t see the friendly, outgoing, bubbly personality or her longing to know and become friends with everybody. I didn’t see how warm and welcoming she was. In this moment, she wasn’t that person; she was only the things I could see. I see her release a heavy black barbell from overhead, causing one of the many striking crashes to be echoed throughout the box. She then dips into the silver steel bucket sitting in the middle of the pull up bar area to spatter white chalk on her hands as she attempts, yet again, another pull up. I see her cheeks growing even redder. I see her black hair pasted to the sides of her face with sweat. I see her eyes widening, teeth clenching, and I can hear grunts of effort exertion in between deep, heavy gasps of air. She looks like the physical manifestation of pure anger. I’m trying to determine under what other circumstances she would ever resort to making such facial expressions; in this moment it’s an obvious result of her physical discomfort, but I couldn’t even figure out what could be said or done in life outside the box to simulate such fervent passion. I immediately dart from eye contact, afraid she’s going to come rip the skin from my body just for looking in her direction.

I’m still in the corner of the room being talked through the movements as she and few others continue. The lucky ones have already finished. But instead of putting away equipment or getting a drink of water, their self-imposed responsibility upon their own completion is the completion of others. Gradually, the collective focus of the box prioritizes the people who are still going. Some spectators are lying full-body on the ground, as if lifting the weight of that barbell made them suddenly unable to hold their own. Others are hunched over, knees bent with hands relying on the support of their thighs to catch themselves from toppling over. No matter the recovery position, all are unified in forming a support system for the rest. “YOU GOT THIS!”, “YOU CAN DO IT!” and “KEEP IT UP!” come from a sea of sporadic cheers like “YOU’RE CLOSE. YOU’RE SO CLOSE!” and “COME ON JESS!” She makes her final push, instantly returning from hulkhood to humanhood as her feet touch the ground. Her relief is so physically and mentally palpable it’s contagious; final cheers and applause recognize her admirable dedication. Exhale.

Through my observations it suddenly became understandable, why, when asked, Crossfitter after Crossfitter provides the same answer for explaining why Crossfit. They take no time to think about their response to the question; each can identify almost immediately what keeps them continuously attracted, if not completely addicted. Yes, it’s breaking a good sweat as well as working toward the repeatedly referenced shared goal of “looking good naked.” But it is also, primarily, about the atmosphere. The community, the camaraderie. The sense of belonging. It’s about feeling like part of a larger whole, an individual piece to a collectively constructed puzzle. It isn’t like any other workout group; the meeting of a zumba or yoga class doesn’t cause a similar effect. Even the workouts with which CrossFit is often compared, such as Insanity and P90X, (the self-proclaimed “hardest workouts to ever be put on DVD”), can’t do what CrossFit does in terms of community building.

The structure of CrossFit workouts is uniquely designed in a way that inherently fosters an air of communal effort, making the resulting bonds between athletes inevitable. While some WODs are supposed to be completed AMRAP (meaning each member does “as many rounds as possible” of specified exercises), others are supposed to be done “for time” (a set number of repetitions to be done as fast as possible). Any committed CrossFit athlete can tell you how long it takes them to complete the “Barbara,” “Diane,” or “Chelsea,” workouts, “benchmark” routines to which they continuously track their progress. When a WOD specifies an exact amount of movements to be done, each athlete completes the exercise on his or her own time. Instead of everybody working out until the clock runs out, competition brews as some, naturally, finish before others.

It is within these few minutes, when the heart rates of some athletes find relief in the opportunity to decelerate while those of others continue to rise, that the CrossFit box becomes a study of camaraderie. “I was the last one to finish, so the whole class including the instructor started doing the last round of the exercise with me,” explains Aaron Podell, a senior at the University of Michigan whose roommates got him hooked on CrossFit a few short months ago. A female box-goer echoes his statement, “Nobody should be last. It’s like… a team, you know?” This is the heart of it. To gain any appreciation for or understanding of the sport, this is a fundamental principle that must first be made clear. The specific people from day to day, hour to hour, workout to workout, may rotate, but anyone in your CrossFit class is on your CrossFit team.

When the unprecedented intensity and hardcore rigor of the program are questioned, CrossFit athletes across the board don’t seem particularly preoccupied with rationalizing their drug of choice. “It’s death in a box,” declares Jess Arcure, wife of gym owner Chris and proud first lady of Wolverine Strength and Conditioning. There’s playfulness in her deep brown eyes and lightness in her laugh as she uses her fingers to point to the four walls by which we are surrounded, illustrating an abstract square in the air between of us, “This is the box.” They realize it doesn’t make sense. They know it seems absurd. They can tell they’re misunderstood. I’ve been told repeatedly that any outsider just doesn’t understand it, and members of the CrossFit community rely on the understanding of one another to be okay with that fact. Arcure admits, “It’s really hard to describe to people.” She takes her time and tries to be careful with her words, but she struggles to explain the craze. Obviously trying to avoid landing on the answer we both know at this point is entirely imminent, she surrenders, “I just don’t have the words.”

Luckily for both of us, my understanding doesn’t require an explanation. I get it. I, a member of the excluded and admitted outsider, get it. I may not have done it in a box or with a crew, but using exercise to lose 150 pounds has fostered a similar relationship with working out – a rapport I value more than can be commonly understood, one that still confuses and occasionally concerns me, one I feel the need to constantly explain if not defend against a general public who just. doesn’t. get. it. I can interpret the situation of every CrossFitter in a way that, contrary to popular belief, actually makes perfect sense.

For me, the worst part of school growing up was gym class; the worst part of gym class was the fitness test; the worst part of the fitness test was the mile run. The morbidly obese justifiably fear that black track like the infinite loop of death it ultimately proves itself, and I was no exception. I remember thinking during my middle and high school days that if everyone in the world shared my views, a mandate to join the track team would be considered a universally agreed upon form of cruel and unusual punishment. I could never understand how running, the absolute worst component and most dreaded part of every soccer, basketball, football, lacrosse, and field hockey practice, became its own sport. How and why would anyone ever voluntarily opt into… just running?

Newly graduated from high school, I find myself on the treadmill. It’s my first session with this personal trainer, and two days prior I weighed into my first Jenny Craig appointment at 302 pounds. I’ve officially accepted the challenge to divide my body weight in half, and this is where it all begins. I’m told that my first physical assessment would be a mile run, to be completed as fast as I possibly could. Of course. I have no choice but to rely on fluctuating speeds; following every short stint of “running” is a necessary bout with the relief of walking. Eventually, I finish with a final time of something between 17 and 18 minutes. Standard. Upon returning home, I immediately surrender my aching body to its overwhelming and unrelenting exhaustion and allow for a complete collapse. As if I had any choice in the matter.

The following months are filled with hikes up mountains, climbs on the stairmaster, laps in the pool, kickboxing in the studio, strides on the elliptical, arm machine after leg machine. And I couldn’t escape that godforsaken treadmill. I remember one specific run during which I was tortured by interval training. A short, tan, woman trainer, whose attitude consistently struck an appropriate balance between peppy and stern, stood idly by my struggling side to play God, having my sneakers pound the electronic pavement at a pattern of something like 5.0; 5.5, 5.0; 6.0; 5.0, 6.5; 5.0, 7.5. For the first ten seconds, the treadmill makes me feel like I’m a small step away from flying. Every second after the eleventh makes me feel closer to my death. Each time she slowly hovers her index finger over the up-facing arrow, she inherently teases me with a few seconds to conceptualize the imminent speed increase that would soon happen below my feet despite all my feelings of incapability and resistance.

The seconds slowly become dragging minutes, each growing exponentially longer than the last. I feel as if I’m being forced to cause my own suffocation. Every inhale is a gasp for air too big and too fast, completely swallowing the respiratory system not designed for such abuse. There is no alternative – the intake of an appropriate amount of oxygen at a reasonable speed proves itself an impossibility. I don’t even remember how to breathe through my nose. While pushing the buttons to challenge my physical strength, she takes the opportunity to simultaneously encourage my mental state. During these moments she temporarily embodies the personal trainer stereotype, relying on phrases like “You can do this!” “Come on!!” and “You got this!” to encourage my endurance. I’ve never actually feltmy lungs before, but their previous passivity has been morphed into a pervasive embodiment of my overall dehydration, painful in its deep aridity. A pressure on my chest continues to build, as if an obnoxiously heavy metal plate is resting upon my upper torso, majestically pinned to me by a force of horizontal gravity.

Every second I struggle with the stinging physical discomfort that comes with running, I question the motivation she offers. How do you have any idea that “I can do this?” What shows you that “I’ve got this?” My legs are burning, specifically my abnormally tight calf muscles, each feeling as though they were just cruelly injected with liquid fire. Hey, what do you know? Lactic acid really does feel like acid. Every second brings another fight against the natural inclination to drive my hands to the handlebars of the machine and bring some of the burden to my upper body, which would ideally be followed immediately by the ability to hunch forward. I can’t do this, I haven’t got this. The only thing keeping my eyes from closing is the inevitable consequence of losing all balance. Then again, I’d probably prefer that. My body is begging me to stop and my mind can’t focus on anything but the countdown to completion. I can barely hold on. I can’t run this fast nor this long. I can’t breathe, I can’t move. I can’t. Everything within me tells me I cannot keep going, but she won’t stop telling me I can, I will, I must.

So I do.

I listened to her as one instinctively follows orders; she was an authority figure with the knowledge to justify her commands. If my ability to speak hadn’t been clenched by the cardio, I would have begged her to lay off, lighten up, give me a break, cut me some slack. I always longed to respond to her verbalized motivation in a pleading voice something like, “You don’t know how this feels!” or “You don’t understand!” But her job didn’t require her knowing how it felt, nor did she have to understand. She was educated and certified. Unfortunately for me, that meant she was qualified to press the buttons. I didn’t know how she could possibly feel comfortable increasing the speed when I knew I couldn’t keep up, or how she could feel at all confident that I would keep going when I knew I had to stop. It was mybody, I should have known better. But I didn’t. I remember trying to understand the method trainers use for determining just the right speed and time each of their clients could last before reaching the point where they literally could no longer continue. Because, as my developing relationship with exercise eventually taught me, there is a vast gap between what you think you’re capable of and what you’re actually capable of.

As that truth repeatedly reveals itself, everything changes. When you’ve been taught that your mind and body aren’t always in sync, and that the disconnect can either work with or against you, you cultivate the ability to obey the voice in your head saying you can and break the shackles of your body telling you that you can’t. It may hurt just as bad and the physical discomfort may be just as present, but it is eventually welcomed rather than avoided. Gradually, every speed increase is met less with a “God no, please God, not again” mindset and more with a “Bring it, bitch” attitude. Once you realize the limitations and boundaries you assumed for yourself could be expanded, everything in the gym, and then everything in life, seems to shift from impossible to possible. The temporary suffering becomes internalized as an indication that you’re doing something you thought you couldn’t, the aftermath thus another moment you’re riding the natural high of power, strength, achievement, and triumph. Another moment you’re on top of the world. Another moment you can do absolutely anything.

I remember walking home from a workout one day. It was still warm out but the sun was setting, its descent a perfect reflection of my body’s waning energy. While waiting in the middle of four lanes of traffic to jaywalk across the other half of the street, I see a car pass slowly by in which two young men are rocking back and forth with laughter. I automatically assume they might be laughing at me, the sweaty and exhausted 300-pound girl trying not to breathe so damn hard from climbing up and down the hilly streets on which they glided with automotive ease. Something within me, a gut instinct driven by no rational thought I’m sure, convinced me of my accusation’s legitimacy. I felt victimized.

I felt victimized, but I didn’t feel like a victim. I’m not sure how the situation would have struck me otherwise, but I know that my reaction was a direct result of the fact that I was immediately post-workout. I stared directly into the car, trying to power my gaze through the windshield glass to grip eye contact with the culprit; I wanted to glare with unwavering pride into those motherfucker’s eyes. I remember thinking, “Let him laugh, let them all laugh, but they can just wait and see.” I remember actually envisioning myself somehow having the opportunity to experience a face-to-face encounter with him – I wanted to ask for his email address so that in a year or two years or however long it took, I could send him the after picture corresponding to the current before. I remember having enough confidence in myself that I wanted to keep in touch with this guy, because I knew to my core that I would be able to show him up in the future. I remember trying to string together just the right combination of words for our hypothetical interaction, so that I’d be prepared for the next asshole with something bitingly clever about me one day ultimately having the last laugh.

I remember feeling, no, knowing, that I was capable of what I set out to do. I remember knowing that I was going to achieve my goal and nothing was going to get in my way. I remember knowing it was going to be day after day of the hiking and the hills and the huffing and puffing, but I knew I was going to do it. I remember looking toward the future at a challenge that seemed impossible having just finished a 50-minute session in which I continuously pushed the limits of possibility. I remember channeling what it felt like to finish a workout. I remember feeling, no, knowing, that I was fucking invincible.

The first experiences I ever had with exercise were motivated by extreme and rapid weight loss. Because I began attempting to improve my physical fitness at such a heavy weight, and felt determined to lose as much of it as fast as I possibly could, my workouts constantly demanded my reaching an unprecedented level of discomfort and pain. I dreaded what it would require from my body in order to achieve the goal in my mind, but I had no patience for light workouts. Sessions of doing medium-level this and moderately-paced that left me feeling unsatisfied. I had to know that I was doing everything in my power to drive the process of weight loss forward. It was never easy and I began by dreading every second of it, but I saw the end and I knew the means through which it would most rapidly be achieved.

As my body grew more physically capable, I felt obligated to myself and compelled by my vision of a lighter and skinnier future to make my workouts more difficult. I had to continue feeling the rush of knowing that I was getting faster, stronger, better, or else I was settling. If I had ever lived at a normal weight, or if I spent my youth as a child athlete, my relationship with physical struggle and mental strength would be vastly different. Perhaps I would never have cultivated such a deep understanding of, and appreciation for, the beauty of sheer willpower, without which I would not have reached my weight loss success.

This is why the intensity of CrossFit honestly doesn’t shock me like it does most. The amount of loyal followers who continue this outrageous form of exercise doesn’t really surprise me. The addiction, the cult, the drug it has become, barely perplexes me at all. CrossFit is where the power and strength of the community co-created by the athletes themselves functions to improve that of each individual. “Even though this is a team sport, it’s all on yourself. You want to better yourself to be better than the next person,” Arcure explains after blaming CrossFit for her newly competitive edge. It all takes place in a setting that fosters a team, but the responsibility to endure is placed upon each individual member at play. They all agree that if you finish a CrossFit session feeling like you could do more, you didn’t do enough. It is understood that anyone who finishes a class and doesn’t admit to a complete asskicking is either lazy or lying. If the grim reaper doesn’t wave to you at the door on your way out, you should probably turn around and try it all over again. CrossFit is the place where the impossible becomes possible. Crossfit is where they feel fucking invincible.

They may come for the community, but they stay for themselves. Susan Ciotti has lost 200 pounds since starting CrossFit and acknowledges the role it’s played in her transformation. “Everyone cheers for the person who finishes last,” she says, “It was what I needed to achieve my weight loss goal.” Jess Arcure agrees, “I’ve never worked so hard at something as I do when I’m here,” she states. Aaron Podell, who admits to loving the sport despite how he is “So new, and so fuckin’ bad at it you wouldn’t believe,” feels a similar gratitude. He admits that most of the warmups of a CrossFit class would likely equate to his entire workout elsewhere, but in response to my asking how he feels when a workout is over, he proves yet again that following the pain comes the gain: “I just went so much harder than I ever thought I could,” is his response. When I discussed it with another advocate eager to share his experience, I asked what would be lost if he attempted the same workout at home. He instinctively dives into details about not having enough space nor the proper equipment – frankly, he needs the gym. I shifted my angle slightly to make clear exactly what I was probing at, and asked instead, “What if you had to do it alone?” He cracks a smile, honors his impulse to unleash a light laugh, and releases his head into a slow shake before reciprocating eye contact once again and admitting quite preciously through an honest grin, “I couldn’t do it.”

I witnessed the atmosphere in action, the community they come for in practice, and I realized part of what sets CrossFit apart. It’s different when you’re playing a sport and your mom’s voice radiates a loud “go for it!” from the comfort of the sidelines. Or when your friend walks you to class and sends you into an exam with a “you got this.” Or when your score on a practice SAT shows you’re just shy of your dream school’s standards and your teacher says, “You’re so close!” Inside the box, none of the many cheers or morale boosts begs for a rebuttal like, “You don’t get it,” “You wouldn’t understand,” or what used to be my own personal favorite, “You don’t know how this feels!” Inside the box, people are not only doing the same thing, they are feeling the same thing. Inside the box, supporters are made from fellow athletes, so that inside the box, following every “you can do this!” is an unspoken and understood “because I just did.” They do for one another a job that can only be done by each other; they challenge each other in a way only they can. “That push, you couldn’t simulate that by yourself,” Podell explains, “Everyone else keeps you going.” They may not be educated or certified to know with certainty that one another has the ability to continue, but they are qualified to tell one another that they will.

So they do.

The benefit of CrossFit is twofold. As much as the sport of CrossFit establishes a team, it simultaneously prioritizes the improvement of each individual player. “There’s a really unique blend of the community and the personal piece,” explains Podell. Although the movements are the same and the number of repetitions applies to everyone, each athlete lifts their own amount of weight on the barbell (used in most WODs) and makes whatever modifications are necessary to complete the workout. “All workouts are scalable to everyone’s own ability, so you don’t have to feel like the last one to finish every time,” says another avid box-goer, before adding the necessary “even though it’s NEVER about who finishes first or last.” Everyone may be competing against one another to avoid being the last one to do the same thing “for time,” but everyone is ultimately only competing against their own previous times. That’s why some CrossFitters also occasionally participate in competitions, leaving behind the classes of men and women who helped foster the required courage and motivation to prove their strength and speed while tracking their progress over time against other individuals. Speaking from her first competition experience, Arcure explains the rush, “You’re up there like, ‘I can’t breathe,’ but when you’re next to someone who’s going harder than you, you’re like ‘I’m up here, I’m gonna do my best. I don’t care if I die doing it, I’m going to do my best.”

Following what was initially diagnosed as a stroke (then to be correctly labeled an “optical migraine” or “migraine with aura”), Jess had surgery five years ago to repair a 20-millimeter hole in her heart. She competed in her first CrossFit competition in celebration of the third anniversary of her heart surgery, but is still consistently plagued by the concern of recurrent migraines that temporarily blind her and paralyze parts of her body. Illustrating the determination demonstrated by countless similar CrossFitters who refuse to stop CrossFitting (she refers to a man with one leg and an 8-month pregnant woman, among other examples), she defends her refusal to cease such rigorous exercise. We discuss the tension of confronting medical concerns with her wanting, longing, needing, to continue working out as she does. When asked what she would do if forced to stop, she pauses to acknowledge the conversation is becoming emotional. Her story may differentiate from most, but I know she speaks on behalf of all. A small tear traces her lower eyelids as she turns slowly with admiration toward the center of the box and then back at me. With an air of childish simplicity, she releases a familiar profundity that just begs for understanding. “I feel stronger in here.”

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