“You do not know what things you set in motion, he said. No man can know. No prophet foresees. The consequences of an act are often quite different from what one would guess. You must be sure that the intention in your heart is large enough to contain all wrong turnings, all disappointments. Do you see? Not everything has such a value.”
– The Crossing, Cormac McCarthy
When asked why we started Fairwinds CrossFit, I don’t have a ready-made, Ted-talk-worthy answer. As I wrote about last week, I’d like to believe that I have a larger reason behind the choices that we make in the gym, but as I started thinking about it for this week’s blog, I struggled to come up with a succinct answer.
Perhaps I should go back to where I first heard about having a legitimate “garage gym” as we know them today.
Greg Glassman started the CrossFit Journal in September of 2002 with an article that detailed just how easy and how important it was to start doing CrossFit in your own garage. Glassman begins the article by describing the CrossFit-enthusiast’s picture perfect gym:
The ideal gym would be located close to home or work, well equipped, clean, and manned by knowledgeable helpful staff. Our ideal gym would also not be overly crowded yet available to friends and family that we’d like to workout with. An ideal gym would be supportive of hard-core fitness, a la CrossFit. As long as we’re dreaming it might also play only the music that we want to hear.
He goes on to describe building this ideal gym in a space like a garage. The place would require minimal equipment, inexpensive farm supply matts, and enough room for gymnastic equipment, olympic lifts, and running. You could hang some motivational posters on the walls but it’s not required. In the end, you want a place that lets you get loud, isn’t too expensive, and doesn’t mind sweaty, grunting people running around throwing things. This invariably led people to warehouse spaces that were usually associated with construction projects and industrial purposes.
Unfortunately, this ideal gym model did not permeate into the large commercial sector. CrossFit affiliates as we know them today were not a thing in 2002 when Glassman wrote his first article nor in 2005 when he wrote his follow up article, Garage Gym II – The Revolution. What did exist were large, machine-dominated, Gold’s Gym and 24 Hour Fitness-style facilities that did not support nor tolerate the type of workouts CrossFit.com programmed and continues to program today.
So the garage gym/home workout revolution that was the precursor of the CrossFit affiliate explosion of the last few years started in Southern California and then spread across the country on the backs of products and programs like Tae Bo and P90X.
Spoiler alert: I did both of those programs…a lot. I accumulated the tapes and DVDs and I even started to get a few dumbbells and other odd objects. I messed around with almost everything out there, but nothing stuck. I gained a little more weight and lost a little bit more speed each year, and kept looking for that next exciting program or diet to make it all better.
And then there was a moment in 2009 when it all came together for me. I “found” CrossFit, I started doing it consistently, and all the parts and pieces that I had been collecting over the years let me do about 80% of the CrossFit.com workouts. I even assembled a pull-up bar out of galvanized steel piping that could hang over a 2×4 or 4×4 ceiling stud and on which I could get a pretty significant kip. I had become the garage CrossFitter that I had read about in that article.
So is that my why – to be a garage CrossFitter…not quite. I think we need to go back to the beginning of my coaching journey, before I even really knew what I was doing. When I got my Level I certificate and started coaching other people, I think more than anything, I just wanted others to enjoy this stuff as much as I did. I threw myself into figuring out how to get them to that place and I was horrible at it. I had no actual knowledge, I was all enthusiasm and presence, and I think I legitimately hurt people. Luckily, a lot of them were 18-22 year-old college students at the Naval Academy so they recovered quickly.
But coaching stuck and I did get better. I eventually chose this path as a second career after retiring from the Navy because I was ready to be independent. I didn’t want to be beholden to some large institution. And I wanted to do something that would keep me interested for as long as I wanted it to be interesting. For me, what makes CrossFit so compelling is its ability to deliver exponentially more potent results the simpler it becomes.
I think back to when I read Nassim Taleb’s Antifragile and how I quickly saw its relationship to my understanding of why CrossFit works. That book also informed much of how I imagined I would run a gym if I ever opened one. In Taleb’s work, he defines an antifragile system as something that increases in capability or thrives as a result of stressors, shocks, volatility, noise, mistakes, faults, attacks, or failures. In other words, things that are robust or strong will at some point fail if you apply enough force. Antifragile entities, like the mythical beast Hydra, actually get stronger the more stress and tension you place upon them. To me, this is at the heart of what makes CrossFit successful, and why I wanted to open a gym with this type of mentality.
My understanding of the CrossFit garage gym model was that the less equipment you had, the better it would be. Globo-Gyms thrived on having all the state-of-the-art gear, the beautiful facilities, the elite personal trainers. But no elite athletes were coming out of those places. The CrossFit garage gyms were producing Chris Spealer, Jason Khalipa, Mikko Salo and eventually Rich Froning.
Imagine the scene from Rocky IV. Ivan Drago trains in a million dollar facility, with lights, and gadgets and every imaginable piece of technology. Rocky trains in Siberia, chopping wood in the snow, pulling a sled and a horse, and runs to the top of a mountain. It’s obvious that whatever the Russian hits, he destroys. But, unfortunately for Drago, he can’t destroy Rocky, because, as Drago quickly finds out, “he’s not human, he’s like a piece of iron.”
Like Rocky, the CrossFit ideology embraces the less is more approach and that felt very antifragile to me.
When I first started coaching out of my garage, we didn’t have enough equipment. I had a few dumbbells, a rig with a pullup station and a squat rack, a few barbells, and 2 rowing ergs. By the time we left Ervin Court as Fairwinds CrossFit, all of our equipment fit in one medium sized trailer and we had grown from 2 of my neighbors as part-time clients/full time workout buddies, to 15 legitimate full-time members. We still didn’t have much but what we had worked.
In those 2 years in that little corner of Kitty Creek, I had to figure out how to make classes work in a 400-square-foot garage, sometimes with as many as 8 people in a class, on a slanted driveway where the barbells often rolled down the hill into the drainage ditch. It was because of those stressors, those failures, those unforeseen shocks to my beautifully designed system that I got better as a coach and built some of the strongest relationships I have ever had. These were the types of people who, for some reason, shared my enthusiasm for doing exponentially more with so much less than expected.
So as I look back and try to find my bigger “why,” I guess what emerges is that I come to Fairwinds because this is the place in my life where all the other people I see in the box are there because they not only enjoy figuring out how to make things work despite the obstacles that confront them but thrive doing it. I love being with people who welcome challenges, who are willing to start on their journey despite the absence of perfection, and who, on some days, are even willing to pick up a ball, filled with sand, stuffed in a sack, and held together by a makeshift rope.
The roads I have taken are not the roads I initially imagined. But as McCarthy’s quotation at the beginning of this blog suggests, I think the intention in my heart was and will always be large enough to weather any wrong turns, missteps, or unforeseen pitfalls. I started doing CrossFit in a dust covered Quonset hut in Iraq with a duct tape-covered bag of sand as my wall ball and a Pelican case for box jumps. I learned how to move, see, teach, correct, and coach with the most basic and rudimentary setups. Today we work in a 3000-square-foot waterfront paradise and continue to improve our equipment and facilities as much as possible when we can. But to be honest, my heart often calls me back to the garage.
Perhaps I am romanticizing my memories at the expense of reality. Perhaps. But perhaps that romantic ideal is also what continues to keep the intention in my heart large enough to withstand the mundane and never ending tasks of payroll, cleaning, taxes, permitting, license renewal, programming, lesson planning, billing, membership management, and all the other things no one really wants to do.
And perhaps that romanticized ideal will be the thing that also reminds me to take a step back and appreciate the look of terror, apprehension, fear, and eventually excitement that I often see in the eyes of the new member, or even the long-time member, when they see what I have written on the whiteboard for that day’s WOD. That romantic ideal allows me the chance to be a beginner again, and again, and again.
Having the ability, the chance, or even the fantasy of ditching it all and just going back to the garage is often enough to positively influence the day to day tone of what we do now. It informs the programming. It influences the coaching. And it keeps us honest with who we are and what we do. And sometimes it even gets us out of the box or back to the basics of a ball, stuffed in a bag, held together with a rope. It that doesn’t make you smile, then I got nothing for you.
So why did we start this? I don’t really know. But I know I am a cheap son of a bitch and since I don’t like paying for working out and I don’t plan on quitting this CrossFit thing any time soon, I guess I’ll just keep opening the doors and turning on the lights down here on the Creek at 5am.
See ya in the box.