Burning Runner: Inside The CrossFit Culture

The “Boxes” Are Full

CROSSFIT GYMS are called boxes because that’s usually what the are: a large box of raw space. In a typical box you’ll find all the equipment stashed along the sides or in the corners of the gym—barbells, kettle bells, jump ropes, and weights are the standard fare. Climbing ropes usually hang from the ceiling and sprawling cages can stretch out alongside one wall for exercises like pull-ups or toes-to-bar. Reebok Crossfit One is massive. I’m not sure but I think you could host an arena-league football game inside it.  On the day of my visit they held classes from 6:30 am to the early evening, five workouts in all. I joined the lunchtime workout where they’re were about 20 of us. Three coaches, lead by Denise Thomas, hovered throughout the hour, talking us through technique and firing off bits of encouragement. The “met-con” segment—met-con short for metabolic conditioning—was a combination of rowing, thrusters with a weighted barbell and pull-ups. A thruster, roughly speaking, is a combination of a front squat and a push press, and it’s become fascinating to me how the heart-rate bangs against the ceiling whenever you start cranking out reps of these relatively technical movements (far more technical, for example, than doing arm curls on an arm curl machine) that tax a combination of muscle groups. I was partnered up with a Reebok employee named Neil, and we pushed each other to the end of the met-con.

Reebok CrossFit in Canton, Massachusetts has grown to over 400 members in a matter of months.

Before the workout I chatted with Chad Wittman, Reebok’s director of sports marketing and fitness training, and he told me that, of some 1600 employees at the Canton headquarters, the number of those going to the CrossFit classes has grown to 400. “I think eventually half of the company will be doing CrossFit a year from now,” he said. “That’s how much our people have embraced the culture. It’s not just that CrossFit is a hard workout—it is for sure—but it makes hard training fun.” In fact, the program has proved so popular that the Reebok café has been transformed to offer options that are Paleo-friendly, the Paleo diet (a diet that recommends meat, fish, vegetables, fruit and nuts and staying away from processed carbohydrates like pasta) being foundational to the overall CrossFit approach.

On the first day of the Games at the Home Depot Center, I attended a small press conference held by Reebok and talked with Reebok’s Chris Froio, who is spearheading the company’s partnership with CrossFit. “Our mission is to refocus the brand back into what it was founded upon: A fitness training brand,” he said. “We know that a lot of people are out there doing fitness activities but they’re not enjoying it. We’ve been asking, ‘What is our definition of fitness? What is motivating? What can make fitness fun?’ We researched every idea possible over the last three years. We found CrossFit to be the best partner for us to take to our mission to the world.”

I asked about the strategy of this: In the DNA of CrossFit is a revolt against the popular ways of mainstream fitness. Will the greater CrossFit community revolt against the intrusion of a corporate giant?

“I think you can see the reaction here at the Reebok booth has been very positive and we’re putting people to ease that we’re not the monster that is going to ruin their community.”

“We knew we had to prove that we were real,” Froio adds. “We started our box nine months ago with just a few members, but now we have 400 active Crossfitters.” Froio said that they were purposefully slow to announce the new partnership, allowing for an incubation period, one in which Reebok spent time talking to leaders in the CrossFit world to ask what people wanted and didn’t want from them.

Froio believes the approach has paid off and that the authenticity of Reebok’s embrace is valid. “This fitness culture has transformed our office in Canton. This is a viral thing. People talk about it. The community is realizing we’re not just a bunch of suits just out to throw money at CrossFit.”

At the press conference was Kate Rawlings, owner of Cocoa CrossFit, an affiliate based near Cleveland, Ohio. Rawlings has become one of the first professional CrossFit athletes and is sponsored by Reebok.

“I think they’ve done a beautiful job,” Rawlings said. “They didn’t come in and just tell us what they were going to do. They put the community on a pedestal. They made it less corporate.”

The most powerful spokesperson on behalf of the authenticity of Reebok’s embrace of CrossFit, however, was Peggy Baker, 53, who has worked at the company for 27 years. A type-2 diabetic for 22 years, Baker says she’s needed pills and insulin shots for 18 years. When she was pressed to try a CrossFit workout, Baker said her goal was clear: “I would try it so that I could tell them I hate it. Seriously! I’m 53 years old. I haven’t run since high school. I said, ‘Listen, I’ll try it. But is my health insurance going to cover this? Will my husband get a double-payout on the life insurance?”

The author after a workout at Reebok CrossFit One in Canton, Massachusetts.

The first element of the workout was an out-and-back 400-meter run. “I was afraid,” she said. “Right away I was well behind everyone. I get out to the halfway point and I wasn’t sure how I’d get back.”

Denise Thomas, one of Reebok’s Crossfit coaches, then appeared at Baker’s side, and quitting was not an option. Thomas comes from professional soccer and is as lithe as she is explosively energetic. In her coaching she somehow manages to mix equal parts cheerleader and drill sergeant. Baker soldiered on, and was energized by a sight of the finish. “Everyone was standing on the ramp into the gym, shouting ‘you can do it!’”

In telling the story Baker choked up. “It’s a community like I’ve never seen,” she said. In two months she’s lost 33 pounds and her insulin injections have been cut in half, and she’s been told that she may be able to go off insulin treatments completely by the end of the year. I asked her what she had to say to others struggling with adult-onset diabetes and weight problems. She replied, “If I can do it, you can do it.”

Reebok’s stated intention is to take this message—If a 53-year-old hasn’t-exercised-since-high-school diabetic can become a Crossfitter, you have no excuses—to Europe and Asia. Froio said that Reebok intends to open up Reebok CrossFit boxes on both continents but will not be supplanting the current affiliate system.

Would Crossfitters at the Games welcome or reject the immense presence of Reebok? A valid answer to this question will take another year or two, but one thing was immediately sure: There was no boycott of the Reebok booth.  A half a day into the Games Reebok reported having already sold $70,000 worth of product. Throughout the weekend, the booth, selling mostly a new line of Crossfit apparel and shoes, was clogged with shoppers. While the Crossfit.com forum in the preceding months didn’t hold back with outrage at the idea of a Reebok CrossFit t-shirt for $50, prices didn’t slow down the crowd in Carson.

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