Burning Runner: Inside The CrossFit Culture

Reebok CrossFit Games

The Reebok CrossFit Games may be the world’s ultimate fitness lab—throughout the Home Depot venues there are men’s and women’s elite individual competitions, a team competition pitting the best CrossFit affiliates (also known as boxes) against one another, masters competitions and a teenage event. The competitions themselves are direct expressions of the daily workouts performed at 2500 affiliates around the country, throughout U.S. military installations, including Iraq and Afghanistan, and internationally. The workouts are constantly-varied combinations of movements and exercises plucked from gymnastics, endurance sports, powerlifting and Olympic-lifting, performed at high-intensity and against the clock and against one another. For example, the one we’re watching now consists of the three rounds of the following: 7 reps of the front squat, 700 meters on a stationary bike and a 100-foot traverse of “the killer cage,” a sprawl of post-apocalyptic looking  set of monkey bars. The elites would do the most—10 different workouts spread across three days, the final three performed with brief rests in between. At the Reebok CrossFit Games, fitness–with rigorous attention to how fitness can be defined and measured—is a sport.

STARRETT IS ONE of countless coaches in attendance and competing. Another, sitting 200 feet to Starrett’s right in section 7, sipping on a beer–and no doubt in equal distress over the poor front-squat technique on display–is Mike Burgener, owner of Mike’s Gym, an Olympic weightlifting expert with more than 30 years of coaching under his belt. Brian MacKenzie, CrossFit’s resident endurance sports guru, is also here with a posse of CrossFit Endurance coaches. In fact, through most of the stadium you’ll find CrossFit-certified coaches, box owners and their members. Arriving at the Games, the competitors had no idea what the workouts would be. The CrossFit athletes had to train the best they could for anything and everything, and from the original pool trying to qualify to be here–according to Reebok more than 25,000 participated in the process–the best were now grinding their way through the flurry of races, testing their speed, power and stamina in a demonstration of CrossFit’s attempt to define precisely what fitness is. CrossFit’s open borders have attracted an array of experts from various disciplines and sports sparking discussions, sharing of ideas and the ongoing lab test of the daily WOD (workout of the day) that ordinarily would never have happened within the relative isolation of individual sport communities.  Competition WODs of the 2011 Games drew in elements as widely varying as an ocean swim, wind sprints, dead lifts and climbing across monkey bars, and through the workouts a parade of powerful, sinewy athletes were physically and psychologically engaged in a showcase of what Starrett calls “the unified field theory of athletics.”

The 2011 CrossFit Games drew in elements as widely varying as an ocean swim, wind sprints, dead lifts and climbing across monkey bars.

This “open-source code” structure of Crossfit has caught fire. The Games started modestly in 2007 and through 2009 was held on a ranch in Northern California.  Rising with the tide of meteoric growth of Crossfit boxes and Crossfitters, the event moved to the Home Depot Center in 2010. But perhaps the most telling signal of Crossfit’s viral explosion is the investment being made by one of the world’s largest fitness shoe companies.

IT WAS LAST November that I first heard that Reebok, a global sport and fitness footwear company, signed a partnership with CrossFit, a grassroots, viral fitness phenomenon 10 years in the making that has been radically re-writing the books on what constitutes a local gym. I had known Reebok since my years in the late 1980s selling their shoes at a technical running shoe store in San Francisco, but I’d only become introduced to CrossFit through reporting I was doing for a Triathlete magazine story.  I knew enough to know that those watching from the sidelines could see the risks for both brands. Consider the collision between the two brand images: CrossFit was Navy SEAL Hell Week set to death metal music and Reebok was an hour of step-class performed to music from “Flashdance”—Reebok’s global image could be muddied and spiral out of control and CrossFit, a training movement based on a grassroots revolt, could betray its followers, spark countless spinoffs and shatter to pieces. The 2011 Games weekend was a key checkpoint in the relationship. I’m here for several reasons—one being that in the last six months I have joined the growing legions and have become a Crossfitter myself, a surprise considering my old-school, long-distance running past. I also came to report on the partnership with Reebok and how Crossfitters were reacting to it.

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