Finishing Last: The Series

“Finishing Last” is an editorial series by Christina Crumpecker, MD. Check out Christi’s Featured Athlete profile here

Finishing Last: Reasons Why I Can’t Go to CrossFit Today

I’m the girl who spent months stuck in Fundamentals classes. I’m the one who took week-long “breaks” from the gym.

I had every excuse in the book for not making it to CrossFit Memorial Hill for regular classes. And it’s not that I didn’t want to go or didn’t like the place; there just always seemed to be something getting in the way. So I wrote a list of that stuff and made plans for how to address it. That has helped me turn the corner and get myself in to the gym. Maybe you’ll see something familiar here.  Maybe you have something to add. Maybe you’ve never been affected by any of these reasons for not making it to CrossFit, and if so, good for you!

But I think most of us have at least one reason in common for not walking in the door today…

1. I have no time

CrossFit is more than just an hour-long class; it involves getting there, participating, mobility work and showering before you are publicly acceptable again. That’s nothing to sneeze at. It’s a lot of time when you work a full-time job, or have a family, or both. It cuts into free time for other hobbies, and especially for introverts, takes away from the “down time” you need to recharge. We each only have 24 hours in the day, and we all know that has to include a healthy amount of sleep.

How do you allocate the waking time?

I have a calendar that lists all of my work and social obligations. Included on this calendar are my CrossFit workouts, at least 3-4 times per week. I had initially set my goal at 5 times per week, but that just wasn’t realistic with my schedule and consistently failing to reach my goal left me discouraged and less likely to go to class at all. So, 3-4 workouts it is. When other opportunities come up during those planned workouts, I just say no. I’ve even left the office to go to CrossFit and returned to finish work later in the evening. I’ve said “no” to happy hours more times than I can count.

I’ve had to make some hard choices and sacrifices, but I have never regretted a WOD.

It’s like the financial concept of “paying yourself first”—I prioritize my time so that CrossFit is my way of paying myself first with time allocated for my health and fitness, before almost everything else. I work 60 hours per week. It’s not easy. I find a way to get there. You can, too.

2. There are few familiar faces

Sometimes I go to the gym and recognize almost no one. Not too long ago, I didn’t recognize anyone. It’s tough walking into the gym those days. In spite of the warm welcome from coaches, in spite of the smiling faces ready to introduce themselves–if you are at all shy, it’s still really hard.

But it gets easier every time you do it.

You find something in common with the athlete standing next to you: you are wearing the same socks, you both work night shifts, you share a love of tattoos. You introduce yourself and work out side by side and then those less familiar faces become good friends. And then there are the coaches. It’s easy to get used to the one or two coaches that you initially have classes with. But the rest of them want to know you, too. The first several times I got a call or an email from one of the coaches, I immediately felt worried: Did my monthly payment not go through? Did I break something at the gym? Was I not getting better fast enough? Of course not.

They were emailing and calling to offer encouragement, to answer questions, to give advice.

It took me several months to get over this and recognize it for what it was. An offer to connect, recognition that maybe they haven’t since your face for a while and want to make sure that you’re okay. A welcoming, an open invitation to just show up.

3. Muscle ups and double unders

Nope. Can’t do either one. They’re not even on my short list of goals. When I see a WOD that features one or both of those movements, I think this is not for me.  I will probably never be able to do either of these badass skills. Guess what?

Many of athletes at the gym can’t do them.

It‘s fine to have these movements as goals, but realize that you can be successful  in CrossFit without being able to do either. Even if that’s what the WOD calls for, every movement is scalable.

Every. Single. One.

Typically, scaling options are offered by the coaches right up front. But what if you can’t even perform the scaled skills? When I first came back from knee surgery, there were some WODs in which I could not participate in a single part. Know what the coaches did?

Made up a workout for me, right there on the spot, like it was no big deal.

So just because a WOD has movements that you can’t do, it is you ALWAYS possible to scale it into something you CAN do. I still can’t do a single pull-up but I can do progressively more difficult ring rows every month. So no matter what the WOD is, just show up and you will get a great workout.

4. I’m too out of shape for this

No doubt, there are a lot of people at CrossFit Memorial Hill who are in great shape. Everybody can find somebody in the gym who is faster, stronger, or more skilled if there looking for it. And the athletes who are in great shape got there by working really freaking hard. When you are just starting out, it seems like everybody can bust out a bunch of handstand pushups, when you can barely do one on your knees. It feels like other people must be judging you—you doing front squats with an empty barbell, stepping up on plates rather than doing box jumps, using hand weights instead of the lightest kettlebell.

Here’s the secret: they’re not judging you.

Every athlete is in the gym to work hard on their own weakness and they are plenty more focused on their own actions than they are on yours. But if you are anything like me, it seems like everybody in better shape. No one else is overweight, gasping for air and nearly worn out before the warm up is even done. No one else is sweating—and I mean SWEATING—like I am.  It used to be embarrassing, but now I’ve just embraced it as a sign of a good workout. It was an easy thing to be self-conscious about. At some gyms I’ve been to, it was downright unacceptable. But at CrossFit Memorial Hill, another athlete told me, “When I see you sweating and I’m not, it makes me feel like I’m not working hard enough.”

And if anything is constantly celebrated in CrossFit, it is effort put forth.

At CrossFit, a sweat angel is the sign of a workout well done. The gym community will meet you wherever you are and support you as you develop your fitness. They’ll high-five and even hug you when you are a sweaty, dripping mess. So just come to class and try your best. I promise you it’s good enough.

5. Yoga Pants

It’s true that a lot of women at CrossFit look like they should be modeling for lululemon (again, that’s hard work right there). I used to hate going anywhere in leggings or yoga pants, even the gym. I could imagine what people are thinking when they saw me from behind. Now I’ve become the person who has family and friends suggesting they put on some “real pants” before heading out to Costco. I still typically wear a long shirt with them because I prefer to cover my assets.

But I’ve learned that at the gym nobody really cares.

Lots of women wear yoga pants or leggings because they are comfortable and easy to work out in, but there is no dress code for CrossFit. I’ve seen everything from sports bras and short-shorts to tutus (side note: be careful on the rowers) to an infamous mullet wig. Pajamas. A Wonder Woman outfit. Basketball shorts. Leg warmers (seriously, who still knows where to find those?). Day-Glo colors. All black. Wear whatever you are comfortable moving in.

Stand out or blend in. Just show up.

6. I’m too tired/sore/sick/injured

I fight this one a lot. I’m tired at the end of the day. I have arthritis in both knees and am less than six months out of surgery on one. I often have a little respiratory illness going (an occupational hazard for a doctor). I’m sore. Sometimes from the WOD the day before, but more often from sitting on my ass in a chair all day. It took me several tries to realize that if I could get myself to the gym, get some blood flowing, and get my muscles moving, a lot of stiffness and soreness went away.

But it is still a battle.

When I know there is a baseball game on and my dog is waiting for me at home, the couch seems to be calling my name. So I bring my workout clothes to the office and change before I leave. Nothing feels more foolish than going home in workout clothes without getting sweaty. Like all CrossFitters, especially those of us who have a few more miles on us, some soreness from WODs is going to be inevitable. I’ve learned to love it, to see it as a sign that I am that I am doing good work for my body.  And don’t underestimate the benefits of mobility and recovery. Some days your body really does need a rest and that’s a GOOD reason to skip a WOD.

7. I’m scared to try (and fail)

True story: even before I had my most recent knee surgery, I couldn’t do a box jump. Or I should say, I wouldn’t. I mentally just could not get myself there. For right now, I have a physical excuse that prevents me from trying, but not for much longer. I’m going to be the girl who practices jumping to a single plate, then two stacked plates…until I finally get there.

It may take me a while. But now I’m looking forward to trying.

It’s a goal I have set for myself for this year, and slowly moving that direction is one of the things that brings me in the gym every week. I didn’t always feel this way. Going to CrossFit seemed like an overwhelming opportunity to embarrass myself—from not knowing which one is the slam ball, to dropping an empty barbell on the floor my first day, to still not knowing what hang power clean (is that even a thing?) means exactly. Not knowing how to get my body to do it correctly even if I know what it is.

But I’ve learned that you can ask anybody and they’re happy to tell you, even show you.

And you will see people constantly try and “fail” at CrossFit –a new snatch PR, a string of double unders, a higher box jump. This is a perfectly acceptable and even embraced part of the culture. It’s working your weakness. The only way to get better is to keep trying.

8. Shoes and shakes and wrist wraps

Why does everybody have so much stuff? Because they’ve been at this for a while and know (or are figuring out) what they need to get the most out of their workout.

Do you need all that stuff to start CrossFit? Nope.

I’ve been going for months in the same beat-up pair of running shoes. They serve me just fine for now. As does plain water for hydration. It took me a while, but I did come around to a mostly Paleo eating plan—after asking lots of questions and a bunch of dietary trial-and-error. I got interested in wrist wraps after a coach let me borrow his for a workout when I recognized that this was a weak point for me.  Ask questions about the equipment people are using. They are more than happy to tell you what works for them and where they found it.  Gradually you’ll figure out what you need to support your body’s needs.

But you don’t need anything special to start.

Nor do you need to eat a particular way or drink anything special (even the Kool Aid). You just need to show up.

9. Partner/Team WODs

Ah, the moment that CrossFit is a little like grade-school gym class. If you are new or shy or just not very confident in your skills, a partner WOD can make you just want to stay home. I used to hate these WODs and went out of my way to avoid them. I felt like my lack of fitness and speed would drag down a team. Who wants to be that person? Also, if everybody else is already partnered up, what do you do? For a time, I stopped looking at the WOD before I went to the gym and stumbled into a partner workout. Just like I feared, the beginning was a little bit awkward. Most people already had a partner that they knew and wanted to work with (it’s not fair if you come to the workout with a spouse or a twin), and everyone paired up until there were just two of us left: the two slowest, newest people at the gym. We shrugged and agreed to work together. We rowed and planked and did squats and step-ups.

We both probably worked harder than we ever would have, left on our own.

I didn’t want to let my partner down. I could feel her eyes on me, willing me to row faster while she planked. It was totally invigorating and inspiring to see someone work so hard on my behalf. We finished last. Way, way last.

But by the end of the workout, I had a new friend.

We had survived something together. I still get a little nervous about partner and team workouts, but they always end up being some of the best excuses I have to really push myself and a way to bond with other athletes at the gym. And I never regret that.

10. Finishing Last

This. Is. The. Worst. It happens to me a lot. A LOT. It used to really bother me. Not just because I was suddenly, very obviously the slowest one, the one keeping the class from moving on, but because everyone would be cheering for me to finish. If you are a shy person, this is like your worst nightmare come true. It used be enough to make me scale workouts so they were a little too easy just so I wouldn’t end up in this dreaded position.

Then I had an experience that completely and totally changed my mind.

I traveled to another state and dropped in at a CrossFit affiliate, full of military members. Already nerve-wracking enough, but they had programmed an extraordinarily difficult WOD with a time cap of 40 minutes. I gamely joined in, scaling appropriately. At 25 minutes, the class was cheering in the last finishers. Oh, except me. I was only at the halfway mark. I was tempted to quit right then and call it a day. I’d already gotten in a pretty intense work out, right? No one knew me there and I would likely never see any of them again. But then this happened: several members of the class, including the coach, fell in beside me and starting finishing the WOD with me. At my own slow pace. Those that didn’t participate encouraged me and cheered for me to keep going and not to quit.

And then I got it.

All that attention and focus was truly because they wanted me to be successful, they considered me finishing the WOD part of their success because I was part of their team, even it is was just for one hour. It was an act of solidarity. And I did finish, even under the time cap. I carried that memory with me back to CFMH. It made me realize that nobody cared that I was last, just that they had a team member still fighting their way through a WOD and want to help in any way they could. As one very fit member pointed out to me during a particularly taxing finish, “You are working harder right now than I ever have.” Probably not entirely true, but it gave me the little extra motivation I needed to push a little bit harder. You’ll be the last to finish sometimes. Maybe a lot of times. Then one day, something wonderful happens. You are not the slowest, newest one. Or you appropriately scale a workout and end up finishing before the Rx athletes do. And you find out what a privilege it is to watch your fellow teammates strive and struggle and not give up. And you find that you can’t help but cheer.

And the thought of finishing last will never keep you out of the gym again.

So, I get it. I get why you didn’t make it to CrossFit today. I understand all of the potentially stifling, confusing, mortifying reasons you just couldn’t get to the gym. But I’ll keep looking for you there.

If I can battle through all my reasons for not going, so can you.

I’ve never regretted a single WOD. Every time I go, I build momentum that makes it easier to show up the next day, and the one after that. If you are looking for me, I might be off to the side, sweating my ass off, practicing for that big box jump. Come over and say hello. Share the reasons you have for avoiding the gym—or better yet, what motivated you to make it in today. That’s the good stuff.