|At my gym in Vladikavkaz|
I wasn’t much of an athlete in school. My older brother was a gifted track athlete and still holds the triple jump record at our high school in North Dakota. My younger brother was Mr. Everything at his high school in Oklahoma. Basketball, football, track, Shawn was a standout in everything he did and he was worker; here was a kid who would not date during football season and put himself through hellish self-concocted training regimes during his summers.
As for me, I played a little football in high school, but was not particularly good at it or even all that interested in it. It just seemed like the thing to do; I would much rather have spent those painful (and embarrassing) high school football practice sessions reading comic books and eating Skittles. I did start lifting weights with my friend Dan in high school though. We had no idea what we were doing. But, I loved the weight room immediately: the clang of metal, the solemn ritual of chalking your hands before your lift, the discipline of it all. Dan and I lifted weights in a traditional bodybuilder fashion minus the legs. We never would have come out and said it, but we were mostly concerned about aesthetics. “Getting big arms” was motivation enough for me when I was sixteen and I honestly didn’t care if I could do a single pull-up or push-up as long as I looked good.
I didn’t become concerned about athletic performance until I joined the Marine Corps, where I learned the difference between bravado and toughness, between poise and posturing. When I got to my first platoon at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina I started lifting weights with my friend Ross. Ray Ross was (and is) a bear of a man. We did a traditional bodybuilder-training split (again, minus the legs) and, yes, aesthetics remained near the forefront of our minds. Still, every workout was like throwing down in a bar fight; we would stack weights beyond what was reasonable or even realistic, challenge each other with words that were only permissible between best friends and I loved every minute of it. But, while grueling, our workout sessions seemed oddly out of whack with the functional physical conditioning one needed to be a good Marine – being able to curl 70lb dumb bells was not really going to help you in a fistfight or in a foot race or to hoist a wounded comrade onto your shoulders and hump a couple kilometers.
I left the Marine Corps and started graduate school at the University of Oklahoma (OU) in 2002 with aspirations of pursing a career in something foreign affairs related. Consequently, I’ve often daydreamed about OU’s (underrated) International and Area Studies program getting half as much recognition as the school’s football program. My brother was a junior in this storied football program, when I moved in with him in Norman, Oklahoma that fall. During the off-seasons we worked out together. The format did not follow a traditional body builder split and legs were not just a part of our routine, they starred in it. Aesthetics still lurked near the top of my list of motivations, but mostly I loved hanging out with my brother and, in some small way, feeling like I was helping him train. Shawn is the ideal workout partner, at once all business and funny. He is also one of the all around toughest men I know and looks more comfortable under a squat bar than anyone I know.
Shawn and I graduated at the same time – I moved to Kiev for a fellowship and then to D.C. for work and Shawn went on to become a Strength and Conditioning coach, first at OU, then at Stanford and finally at the University of Arizona, where he’s working now.
By the time I moved to New York to join the United Nations I was a married Dad. I still worked out, out of habit, but it was uninspired. I couldn’t quite put my finger on why I was still in the gym, “getting big arms” just was not in any way important to me anymore. I was having a blast with my job, traveling all over the world and doing something I thought was important and useful. But, while Rumbek, South Sudan and N’djamena, Chad are both fascinating places, neither is known for the sophistication of its workout facilities. I stayed in decent shape, but it was a struggle. And it wasn’t fun.
To celebrate her 30th birthday my friend Angie invited a group of her friends to run a half-marathon with her. Just for fun. That’s the type of person Angie is. Her husband (my Marine Corps buddy Ray) and I decided to get piss-drunk the night before the run. We laughed and reminisced about times we got hammered the night before taxing Marine Corps P.T. sessions at Camp Lejeune. Telling stories about throwing up on your running shoes is great fun, but setting yourself up to relive those inglorious moments is something else entirely. What can I say? Peer pressure can be a bitch.
The race organizers had a shuttle bus pick up participants from their hotels in the morning and take them to the race start point. My most vivid memory of that day was sitting in the back of the shuttle bus, miserably hung over, dreading the run and silently cursing the excited chatter of the other participants.
“These people are all happy and hydrated.” I sulked.
Ang just shook her head. We were a pair of jackasses unworthy of excoriation, but fully deserving the pain of the upcoming run. Ray, who was undoubtedly hurting as badly as I was, didn’t suggest skipping the half-marathon and neither did I. What can I say? Peer pressure can be a bitch.
After the LONGEST 13 MILES OF MY ENTIRE LIFE we went for pizza and I mentioned to Angie my general humdrumness in the gym for the last couple of years. Now, Ang is a professional trainer (who, by the way, keeps a great blog http://i-am-paleo.blogspot.com/)) and people pay her good money for her guidance on diet and fitness. So, in retrospect, it actually wasn’t that cool of me to hit her up for free advice over pizza and beer. Sorry, Ang – if it makes you feel any better, I’ve heard that people frequently do this to doctors as well. In any case, in less than a week Angie sent me a structured training program that contained elements of gymnastics, Parkour, sprinting and Olympic lifting. Suddenly, my workouts were challenging again. Demonstrating a stunning ability to read my mind, Ang wrote next to some of the workouts the following instructions, “this is not a typo – do XX sets with XX kgs.” She also took the liberty of naming some of the workouts. One of my personal favorites was one she dubbed “Breaking Dewaine,” (it did). For the first time in years I was really looking forward to my morning workouts.
Around this same time my friend Kirk drank the Crossfit Kool-Aid. I once read a book review that said, “The type of book that you press on complete strangers. Deserves to sell more copies than the Bible.” This was the type of simple and utter praise Kirk had for Crossfit. How can you ignore a guy who’s starting his sentences with phrases like, “in terms of sheer awesomeness Crossfit is _______”? Okay, Kirk, you’ve got my attention, pass the Kool-Aid.
The principles of Crossfit were so simple that I found them astounding. How did I spend fifteen-some-odd years messing around in the gym without ever clearly articulating why I was there? What I was after was functional fitness: combine your average sprinter, average weightlifter (and here I’m talking about Olympic lifts), average endurance athlete and average gymnast and you get an exceptional all around athlete. Someone with mastery of these general physical skills:
1. Respiratory Endurance
A host of Crossfit trainers (most notably pioneer Greg Glassman) have pointed out that if you ask most people who they think is the fittest person in the world they will almost always name a tri-athlete, cyclist or marathoner. Now don’t get me wrong, these are all admirable pursuits, but they call for “hyper-specialization.” If we agree that achieving competence in the ten general physical skills above is our goal, then the logical next question is what does the tria-athlete, cyclist and marathoner sacrifice to achieve such an exceptional level of respiratory endurance? Certainly strength and power, but probably also coordination, agility, balance and accuracy as well.
If you work out there is always this kind of unspoken assumption of narcissism. However, I can honestly say that today I do not worry about aesthetics in the least. All I think about is performance: how fast can I run this 5k? Can I finish this round of pull ups? Can I jump that high? Crossfit makes you compete against the clock, the weights, your buddies and yourself. It compels you to learn new physical skills and please trust me when I tell you that your first proper handstand pushup is a sweet, sweet moment. I focused on performance and forgot about aesthetics. And guess what? Suddenly working out was fun again.
Some of my friends commented on the cultishness and haughtiness of the Crossfit community. They’re right. Last year a couple of security officers from the American Embassy came down to the Caucasus with a USAID team. On the way to some project site in southern Chechnya I discovered that one of the security officers was a Level I Crossfit coach. From then on the conversation was all “Fran” times and snatch pointers. No one else in the car had any idea what the hell we were talking about.
“You want to do what to Fran – in her what?”
(In case you don’t know what Fran is, here’s a clip of a guy killing it. Can't beat the title of this, by the way: “Navy Diver does Fran (Crossfit Workout not porn)”).
In many ways my gym in Vladikavkaz has been an ideal place to Crossfit. The number of guys whose workouts seem to focus chiefly on concentration dumbbell curls, is greatly surpassed by the number of former athletes – gymnasts, boxers and a lot of wrestlers. For athletes Crossfit workouts make sense. I talk to these guys and the conversation is about rest time, diet, how to do a one-legged squat (still haven’t got that bad boy mastered yet). Isn’t it cool that physical training makes a Black American and North Osseitan have more in common with each other than they do with their respective couch-potato countrymen? I just had to stop typing for a minute to crush a manly tear into my cheek with the back of my fist and hum, “we are the world.” Okay, I made that last part up, but you get the idea: athleticism crosses many of the boundaries that we humans set between ourselves. That is a good thing.
When my colleagues in the UN ask me how does fitness relate to our role as field security personnel, I ask, “How does it not? When the roadside IED detonates next to our convoy in Ingusheita (or Somalia or Afghanistan) I know I can toss the heaviest man on my shoulders and run 100 meters. I know I can do this. Do you? After I’ve sprinted to safety and my lungs are burning, I know that a bit of suffering after physical exertion is normal. Are you mind and body trained to know that?”
MMA trainer Greg Jackson put it best:
“Mental toughness is learned. It’s not a skill that everyone has, or is born with. There are people born tougher than others mentally, or figure things out earlier in life. But if you have motivation you can acquire mental toughness, it’s just about what your body gets used to putting up with.”
It gets better.
“You do it to acquire mental stamina as well as physical toughness. You do brutal workouts to get used to suffering so that suffering doesn’t become a huge defining deal.”**
Is there any human endeavor in which one would not benefit from better mental stamina? The UN’s Department of Safety and Security is full of consummate, hard nosed professionals doing thankless, yet vital work in some of the most God forsaken places on the planet; it is embarrassing that the Department does not, at the very least, require field security personnel to take a physical fitness test as an entry requirement. Pretending that physical toughness doesn’t count lessens the esteem with which our profession is viewed within the UN as a whole. Ours is the only department that serves the Agencies, Funds and Programs of the UN itself – how the managers in those Agencies, Funds and Programs view our department matters.
But, I’m leaving something out. Yes, the tangible benefits of working out are abundant, but there is also something cathartic and cleansing about physical exertion. My friend Zu once told me, “I’m not religious, but I am spiritual.” I think I rolled my eyes at the time, but when I think about it I do get spiritual in the gym. Everything comes into better focus after a hard workout. Your senses are amplified and you feel oddly thankful for minuscule things: the air you’re drawing into your lungs, the floor you’re lying on. In the aftermath of the pain details are sharper, music is crisper and every single one of your problems matter less. I’ll take that over big arms any day of the week.
*If you’ve ever seen the movie “Starship Troopers” then you’re probably wondering why I would quote Heinlein. When that ridiculous movie was released Mr. Heinlein was probably doing pissed off back-flips in his grave. “Starship Troopers” is an interesting, very readable, sci-fi page-turner:
“War is not violence and killing, pure and simple; war is controlled violence, for a purpose. The purpose of war is to support your government’s decisions by force. The purpose is never to kill the enemy just to be killing him… but to make him do what you want him to do. Not killing… but controlled and purposeful violence.”
There’s a reason Starship Troopers is on the U.S. Marine Corps Commandant’s reading list for Privates and Lance Corporals.
**From Sam Sheridan’s The Fighter's Mind: Inside the Mental Game