Let’s get to work!
On Dec. 15, 2010, I landed in San Francisco and limped off the plane and into the SFO terminal. Like every walk for the previous six weeks, pain jackknifed through my right knee each fourth step or so and the joint would collapse, hyper-flexing, my leg buckling beneath me.
People stared. I probably looked like I’d been shot, or was leaving the scene of a bus-smashes-other-bus collision.
In 25 years of being a distance runner I have collected all of the classic injuries—Achilles tendonitis, piriformous sciatica, hamstring pulls, iliotibial band syndrome, runner’s knee. But with rest and ice they usually disappeared in a week or two.
The patella tendonitis (as it was hypothesized) of late 2010, however, was unshakeable. I feared being destined for surgery.
It was then that Brian MacKenzie, the founder of Crossfit Endurance, told me this: “Bro, you need to go see Kelly Starrett.”
My appointment was at 10 in the morning at Crossfit San Francisco, the gym Starrett and his wife, Juliet, have been running since late 2004 in the Presidio, and according to my directions was behind the Sports Basement and adjacent to Crissy Field.
A taxi dropped me off in front of the big box store, then I followed a mud path around the building, pausing a moment to take in the Golden Gate Bridge, shrouded in fog, that looms over Crissy Field.
Once in back I looked across the broad lot at the loading docks, metal storage containers, dumpsters and a rack of yellow kayaks. I did not see a gym until I looked at the southwest corner of the lot.
It was an outdoor gym with standard Crossfit gear: metal racks, tractor tires, large rubber mats, kegs, a punching bag and kettlebells.
I limped toward a group of athletes dead-lifting, stretching and hopping up and down on boxes.
While Starrett finished up an appointment I spoke to one of his coaches, Robert Tuller, a local ultrarunner in his 40s.
He pointed to a box that stood at 36 inches off the ground and, from a standing position, flicked up straight into the air and nailed the landing. He turned to me with a huge grin and arms in the big victory V and I got the implied message: “When was the last time you saw an ultra-runner do that?”
Never, I thought, knowing that most longtime and beat-up runners like myself can, if necessary, break out of our lug-and-slug shuffle and occasionally lurch onto a curb. Just then Starrett wrangled me by the shoulder and said, “Dude! Let’s get to work.”
Starrett is six-foot-three, 37, and has a raw-boned, youthful intensity. His nickname is Cape Buffalo but in the Crossfit universe he goes by “K Star.” His 220-pound body is spring-like, molded by years of the high-intensity mix of power lifting, gymnastics and anaerobic conditioning of Crossfit, combined with his previous career as a national-champion kayaker. The wear-and-tear from the 13 kayak workouts per week he performed for years sparked his romance with movement and how it relates to performance.
“There was a day I couldn’t turn my head. That’s when I was done as a pro,” he said.
His physical therapy practice is a cornerstone of his gym, and he’s worked with Tour de France cyclists, Olympic-gold medalists, military elites, extreme skiers and ballet stars, but hastens to point out the gym is just as much about “moms and dads.”
Family is a powerful theme for Starrett. His wife, Juliet, earned world champion honors in whitewater rafting and was a lawyer before the couple went into the Crossfit business. Starrett is the head coach of the gym and Juliet the chief executive officer. They live in Marin, Calif., with their daughters, Georgia, 5, and Caroline, 2, and two dogs from a rescue shelter. In the backyard are a hot tub and a trampoline.
The idea for the gym took root when they lived in San Francisco and tested out Crossfit exercises on their friends.
“When we opened the gym we had 40 members,” Starrett said. Now with 250 members, he estimates they’ve coached athletes through about 60,000 workouts.
“What I’m really proud of is that we built it in a grass-roots way. All of our coaches started out as members. I honestly like everyone who belongs to the gym. They’re all good people.”
I wasn’t the first runner to come to Starrett with a knee injury. Those 60,000 workouts have allowed him to easily identify sources of injury when he looks at a broken runner.
“Crossfit is a perfect medium for exposing your weaknesses and problems,” he said. I waited for him to ask me where the pain was. He never did. Nor did he ever ask me how it happened, how long it had been bugging me or what I’d been trying to do to it. He never even asked me which leg it was. He just had me do a basic knee-bending squat while he checked the flow of my movement for dysfunctional clues.
“By looking at how you move,” he noted, “I know what’s going on.”