Lessons Off The Mat: Competing in the 2016 CrossFit Open

This year I decided to compete in the CrossFit Open. The Open is the first qualifying stage of the Reebok CrossFit Games. You know that crazy competition where men and women compete to be crowned the “fittest in the world”? To get a sense of the level of athleticism I am talking about, last year there were 13 events at the Open such as the “Sandbag” where athletes were required to move 8 sandbags (4 100-lb bags and 4 80-lb bags for the men, 4 70-lb bags and 4 50-lb bags for the women) from one side of the stadium, across the floor, up and down the stairs on one side of the stadium, back across the stadium floor and then up the wall and to the top of the stairs on the other side of the stadium. All within 15 minutes. Or the “Soccer Chipper “ where athletes have to flip a “pig” halfway across the field to a rig where they had to perform 4 legless rope climbs and then complete a 100 foot handstand walk, divided into 50-ft. sections without coming back down onto their feet. All within 12 minutes.

The Open is comprised of five workouts over five weeks (numbered 16.1-16.5). The workouts are announced every Thursday night at 8pm during the five weeks of the Open. After the workout is announced, any athlete who has registered for the Open has until 5 p.m. on the following Monday to do the workout at their local affiliate (while being observed by a qualifying judge) and then submit their best score online.

What I love about the Open is that ANY athlete who wants to compete can. The fittest athlete or the novice. This is especially true because you can compete either at the prescribed level (RX) or at the scaled level. All you have to do is make it through the Open and score well enough in your region to qualify for regionals and then the top scorers move on to the Games. Of course this is nearly impossible. More than 200,000 people participate in the Open. You have to be in the top 20 to actually make it to the Games. Think about that for a moment. Not a great set of odds.

Most people don’t compete in the Open to qualify for the Games. Most people compete to be a part of something. To build community. To get motivated. To have a purpose for your training, To get a snap shot perspective of your fitness level. To see where you stack up.

But the reason I finally sat down in front of my computer and paid the $20 registration fee was because of a promise I made to myself over a year ago right before the start of the 2015 Open. At the time I had just started CrossFit. I was totally out of my element. I felt like a stranger and an impostor. I could barely lift a 35-lb barbell let alone do a pull-up. No surprise. I had traded in my sneakers for my yoga mat years before. I was no way ready for such an endeavor. I explained this to my clearly disappointed coach when he asked me point blank why I wasn’t participating. But as I came up with every excuse in the book I couldn’t ignore a strange feeling in the pit of my stomach— nerves coupled with excitement and wanting. “Next year” I blurted out to my utter surprise. “I promise.”

And so next year came. Quickly. And before I knew it I was logged on to my computer at 8pm for the official “live announcement” of the first workout 16.1. I was a nervous wreck. I had no idea what the workout would be. Would the scaled weight be too heavy? Would it call for unassisted pull ups? Snatches heavier than 65 pounds? Deadlifts heavier than my personal best?

And then I saw the workout and breathed a sigh of relief.

I texted my friend Shannon, a fellow yogi, also registered for the Open.

“I can do this” I wrote.

“We can crush this” she replied.

And while I may not have “crushed” the 2016 Open these are the things I did learn

  1. I’m better at this than I thought.

When I registered for the Open my only goal was to be able to finish the workouts, My secret goal, if I’m being honest, was not to rank last. So I must confess I was seriously surprised when I scored in the top half in my age group and region. I contemplated why this could be after each workout as I lay panting on the floor trying to catch my breath. My coach would say it is because I have gotten that much stronger over the year I started CrossFit. I believe a few other things were at work. Like the 10 minutes of sun salutations I did in the corner to warm up before each workout . Or the constant cheering from all the athletes who showed up to root one another on. Or the coaches screaming at us to keep going despite the fact that all those minutes on the clock felt like an eternity. Or maybe its just luck. But whatever combination of things, I kicked ass.

2. For a yoga teacher, I am seriously competitive

I am not a competitive person. I went to Quaker school where competition was not only frowned upon it was forbidden. I was raised by hippie parents who taught me to value cooperation over success. I teach yoga for a living for God’s sake. But after workout number one, I felt the seduction and draw of competition in all its glory and I was hooked. I was seriously pumped. I felt like a winner. I proudly punched in my scores online and told everyone I knew how many reps I did. Which is kind of funny because unless you are a CrossFitter hearing someone boast about doing 213 reps is totally meaningless. My mother for instance, when I called to share the news, could only muster “that’s great dear” with as much enthusiasm as a sullen teenager.

But I was not deterred. I proudly checked the CrossFit Open App on my phone to see my rankings. I checked each and every possible filter. How I ranked amongst individual women. In my age group (masters 45-49). In my region (northeast). In my division (scaled). I am not ashamed to admit I checked it more than once a day. I soon learned that as the cut off time gets closer (you have 4 days to complete each workout) my ranking got progressively worse.

3. You have to give up control

Luckily the seductive pull of competing hadn’t worn off the time the second workout was announced. Otherwise I might of bailed because this workout included squat cleans with progressive weights much heavier than I had ever lifted. We had four minutes to complete 25 hanging knee raises, 50 single jump ropes and 15 squat cleans starting at 55 lbs. If we completed it in time we would move on to round two adding 20 pounds to the cleans and decreasing the reps by two. This went on until we either failed to do a round in four minutes or the clock reached 20 minutes.

“I’m fucked” I told my friend Shannon.

“We both are.” She said

But I showed up, knee socks pulled high to protect my shins from the collateral damage. My coach Steve told me not to worry. “You’ve got 4 minutes” he said dryly “plenty of time.” And it was, for the first round. By the time I got to the second round and made my way to the squat cleans I had 3 minutes left to complete 13 cleans at 75 pounds. While this may not seem like a lot of weight, it was for me. More than I normally lift. I did alright for the first couple. But then I got spooked. I kept picking up the bar and missing. It was tiring me out.

“What are you doing?” Steve yelled at me. “Get under the bar.”

“I can’t” I gasped.

“Yes you can” he answered.

So I did. Barely. Fighting for every rep. The clock ran out with 3 reps left. I never made it to the next round.

“175 reps” Steve announced when it was over.

Disappointment hit hard. I only needed 3 more reps to get to the next round and start the 4 minute clock over again. I knew if I did I could have added another 75 reps to my score.

Steve could read my mind. And then he offered these words of wisdom.

“The thing about weightlifting is that as soon as your hands grab that barbell you are no longer controlling the bar. Instead you meet the bar halfway and you and the bar work in unison. You are strong enough to lift that barbell. The problem is you are working too hard at trying to control the bar. You have to learn how to relax and get under the bar. To learn how to receive the weight and not try to control it.”

And that is when it hit me. Just like yoga, the way I lift is the way I live my life. I will never master that weight if I don’t learn to let go of trying to control it.  I have to learn to meet it halfway.

4. You have to use your whole body

“I know it is going to be snatches” I said to Shannon the day before the third workout was announced. The snatch. My most feared Olympic lift. A snatch requires you to lift a weighted barbell off the floor and into an overhead position and “catching” it while in a full squat. What that means in plain English is picking up something heavy in one awkward position and finishing in another more awkward position. The only thing I like about the snatch is the perverse pleasure I get saying the word aloud given its double entendre.

The only saving grace was that the weight was only 35 pounds and they were only power snatches. That meant I didn’t have to finish in a full squat. That plus the workout was only 7 minutes long.

“Snatches” I whispered under my breath before the clock started.

“3-2-1”

And I was off. 10 snatches. 5 jumping chest-to-bar pull-ups. By the third round I learned that it wasn’t the snatches that would do me in but the pull-ups.

“Use your legs!” Steve yelled. “You’re trying to pull yourself up with your arms.”

It’s true. Trying to do a jumping pull-up without your legs is hopeless and absurd. Trust me, I did it 24 times before I got it right. And then it was too late. Anything you do, be it a pull-up, a snatch, or picking up a pen you dropped on the floor requires using all of you. We are our most stupid and inefficient selves when we fail to use all of our intelligence.

5. Counting is everything

I spend a hopeless amount of time counting at CrossFit. Counting reps. Counting seconds. Counting minutes. Counting plates. I do this in a myriad of ways. Sometimes I count in groups of 5. Or 10. Or 3. I count forward (1-2-3) and backward (3-2-1). Sometimes a combination of the two. Especially when doing burpees. Or wallballs. Or box jumps. Or anything for that matter. The counting starts with 10 seconds on the clock and doesn’t end until I hear my coach say “time”. Needless to say it is very noisy in my head.

During the Open each workout was done in front of a judge who counted your reps for you. This is to ensure that each athlete does the workout as prescribed and no one cheats. What this meant for me was that I didn’t have to count. Someone else would do that for me. All I had to do was focus on the workout.

What I didn’t realize was how much this fucked me up. For the first time I had absolutely no idea how many reps I did. I mean I could hear my coach counting off in the background (12, 13, 14…) but I was no longer playing the number game in my head. Instead I was just moving one rep at a time waiting for my coach to tell me to move on to the next part of the workout. It was deathly quiet in my head. All I could hear was my labored breathing, my grunting and the sounds of the plates hitting the floor. In yoga this would be called being in the moment. It is what I strive for. It’s a gift when it happens. But unlike when I am on my yoga mat, at the CrossFit Open the deafening silence in my head was a curse. For me to succeed I needed to be constantly planning ahead. Strategizing. Setting small goals and meeting them. Chipping away. This is what counting does. It gives you perspective and overview. It makes the unbearable seem possible.

6. Success takes many shapes and forms

The day before the announcement of the final workout I got the flu. Full on. High fever. Chills. Congestion. Uncontrollable Cough. The whole thing. I slept for three days. When people asked me how I was feeling I kept telling them I was getting better. I think this was more to convince myself because each day I was confined to bed meant anther day I couldn’t compete. Sunday I was out of bed but still suffering. I contemplated the future and weighed the risks of doing the workout the next day. And it was a doozy. We did it a month earlier as our daily WOD. I remember being destroyed and sore for days. “It’s not worth it” people told me. Monday came and I knew as much as I wanted to finish it I couldn’t risk getting any sicker. I had already been out of work for a week and I had a teacher training to run a few days later.

So Monday came and went and the final round of the Open was complete. My score for 16.5 was zero. I was devastated. At the start of the Open my goal was to finish. And here I was unable to finish. Failure.

But then it hit me. Success takes many shapes and forms. I showed up the best way I could. I kicked ass. I pushed myself past my limit. I bravely and courageously picked up that barbell and refused to stop. I listened to my coaches who encouraged me to do one more pull-up or crank that rower faster and pull harder. And each time I stopped mid lift or mid stride to catch my breath I continued. I never quit.

This my friends is a measurable moment of success.  And while my scorecard may be incomplete, I for one have surpassed my goal.

Watch out 2017. I’m coming for you.

8 Comments on “Lessons Off The Mat: Competing in the 2016 CrossFit Open”

  1. Ellen Pearlman

    I am so proud of you and it’s not because of the 4 sessions you completed — although that’s pretty terrific. I’m proud of you because despite your disappointment you were able to really think about why not finishing was so devastating for you and that taught you a very valuable lesson. Yes, you did succeed. You showed up and you did your best and that’s all you can do in life — keep showing up.

    1. Leslie

      You have been such a good role model for me. I continue to learn this valuable lesson watching you continue to show up in more ways I can count.

  2. shannon

    All great observations about competing in the open. What an adventure we’ve had these past 5 weeks! I especially loved the part of being much stronger than you originally believed. Each workout we did we kept predicting that we would be happy if we just got past such and such a point….and each time we both surpassed what we predicted!! It was such a great experience in so many ways. Thanks for documenting all of your take aways(big and small).

    1. Leslie

      Yes Shannon. I remember how we would set a goal for ourselves and surpass it each time. You were such an inspiration to me and continue to be.

  3. Heidi

    Leslie you are amazing . I know you about 3 years now. I learn so much from you. You are my first yoga teacher. I am able to carry over what I learn in your class to my everyday life . Thank you !!?❤️

    1. Leslie

      Heidi I am so touched by your words. And so glad to know that you are able to take the lessons of yoga off the mat and into your everyday life.

  4. Hajna

    Leslie
    You are a winner because you showed up and gave it your all. You were present , in the moment and most of all you kept your word .
    I am very proud of you and really enjoyed hearing about the workouts before yoga class -the excitement in your voice was very thrilling for me to hear – playful??
    You are awesome!

    1. Leslie

      Thank you Hajna! Your words mean so much to me. Especially because I know how hard you work on these things yourself.

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