AROMAS, Calif. -- Think of it as Bonnaroo with deadlifts and handstand pushups. Or Burning Man with kettlebells, and without all the acid. Okay, I can't vouch for everyone there, but if one of the competitors managed to get through the first day with a brain pulsing with Doc Ellis' dinner mints, then they are capable of any physical feat they choose to tackle, up to and including swimming the Bering Straits buck naked covered in chum in January.
Crossfit is a cult, or a fitness movement, and possibly a sport. It could be all three, or if you throw in a lifestyle, all four. An all-encompassing open-source fitness movement involving gymnastics, Olympic lifting, aerobic work, and if the mood is right, whatever "coach" feels like putting on the website as the workout of the day. It is all done very quickly, and with great intensity, and if you are not prepared, it will kindly help you remember what you had for lunch by forcibly reintroducing it to you. If that doesn't happen, then you will likely end up on the floor praying for oxygen.
The fire-breathingest of fire-breathing Crossfitters met in Aromas, California on Saturday to test their ability to do what Kenny Powers does not want to do: to be the best at working out, albeit in a competitive way, one that almost resembles ... a sport? At the least it's a sport-like substance with definite overtones of contest, and with a single wrinkle no other competition I can think of entails: the competitors have no idea what the format is until the day before the games themselves.
Competitors arrived at the scene at 7 a.m. -- a ranch just off the 101 in rolling California coastal hill country surrounded by the tawny hills, oak trees, and a beautiful contoured landscape very pleasing to the eye. It looks like the setting for Of Mice and Men, but with an encampment of tents and RVs surrounding it. It's beautiful, really, as long as you're not running 7.1 km across its most hill-acious parts. Hey, wouldn't that be fun to make people do? Crossfit's mysterious HQ thought so. It was the first workout the contestants faced on Saturday.
I sat on the backside of the course at the top of the ravine watching runners polka their way down. Coming around the corner they looked like sweaty, confident ponies in full lather. On the way back up they looked like this:
The run sent some to the tents, where a platoon of massage therapists and assorted entourage members took the 40 minutes in between events. If this were a pro event, I wouldn't be able to just waltz around the area where the athletes were receiving treatment, watching them pound fresh California produce they bought on the way in or play with their dogs. No handlers, no security guards, no barriers: all positives for the media. Negatives? None for the media, mind you, but for the athletes the ice tubs could use an upgrade.
The second event was a deadlift sequence. Forty minutes after running four miles. Through a ravine and over hills. Then a sandbag hill climb. Then a rowing/sledgehammer workout, then a three-set/90-rep couplet workout of hang power snatches and medicine ball tosses against a wall, and then a good bleeding, a dose of water torture, some strappado, and whatever other torture you'd like to throw into the sequence. The competitors would have eaten it up happily, and the 3,000 plus who showed up to drink the $3 beer and enjoy what has become, in only its third year, the surprisingly entertaining mutant hybrid of the World's Strongest Man and the old Survival of the Fittest.
For the viewer, it was the kind of compelling blend of unblinking physical horror you get from watching the last mile of an Ironman, but with the "Festivus Feats of Strength" curiosity and creativity of the aforementioned competition full of dudes named Magnus. I joked with one of the competitors that that the games would be on ESPN2 in five years. He shook his head. "Three." At the very least, as a spectator sport, it has raw potential, especially if they continue to serve three dollar beer and keep the whole low-carb carnival feel to the whole thing.
Scandinavians, by the way, were out in force and proud with it. Mikko Salo of Finland won the men's division, Annie Thorisdottir of Iceland placed 11th in the women's division overall, and the Danes provided moral support from the stands.
When competitors were cut in stages throughout the day to winnow down the field, one of them was Andy Petranek, the oldest male competitor at 42, a former Marine, and owner of a Crossfit Affiliate in Los Angeles. He's in unreal shape, can run for days, and he didn't make the cut for the final event of day one, the horrible turning point in the day when the spectacle of struggle turned into outright sado-masochism. The remaining competitors were grabbing backs, staring at medicine balls on the ground hoping they'd pick themselves up, and unable to hide the strain of the day's ridiculous workload on their faces. For Petranek and the others who didn't make it out of the first day -- only 16 men and 16 women advanced to the second day's tortures -- the disappointment was cut by the relief of not having to ask dead legs to do live work for a second straight day.
I asked him if he was happy with the results as the last round of the day began and the remaining competitors balled through the fifth and final round of punishment. He laughed, and said "Yeah, I am. Being cut means I don't have to go through the rest of it." Being the best at exercising does have its downsides, it seems, at the Crossfit Games: namely, pain in frequent and intense doses.