Every Rep Counts – CrossFit Open 2016

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james

This year more than three hundred thousand athletes of varying ages and backgrounds signed up for the Crossfit Open. Maybe like me you’ve avoided it in the past. As an older guy starting CrossFit a couple of years ago, with zero background in sport and a mangled left knee, I just didn’t fancy the struggle. I used to watch the competition team with that look on their faces, like they’d eat a small baby for an extra rep. I couldn’t bear the thought of falling at the first fence.

I think it was Coach Mario who first asked me if I was entering. So then I couldn’t avoid it any longer. You can’t enjoy the tribal benefits of WODing on a Saturday without being curious as to the communal effect in the Open too. So I signed up.

I had a look at the Website for the Open. I started looking at workouts from previous years. The five or six WODs are designed to test the competitor with varying kinds of movement over different times. Two things really struck me. Firstly, none of the WODs were impossible if you got the chance to properly scale (reduce the demands of the exercise pattern). Secondly, in my age class (50-54 yrs. old), if you want your score to be at the top end of the leaderboard, there’s no scaling. Old gits like me lift the same and do the same reps as young bucks.

Let me explain the CrossFit Open leaderboard for the uninitiated. For every WOD, you get a score. Maybe it’s the number of reps or maybe it’s a time. That score is then turned into a Rank or Placing for each WOD. 1st place = 1 point, 257th place = 257 points. So the guy with the least ranking points over the five or six WODs is the winner. After the Open, qualification for MASTERS is different to RX. Basically the top 200 athletes in the world from each age group go through to the next stage. There aren’t any Regionals. There’s one more Qualifying stage and then the Games.

I started looking at the leaderboard from prior years just to see how sh!t I could be without falling off the map. I came to another conclusion.

What occurred to me was that the top 200 athletes didn’t come 200th on average. Think about that for a second. They were actually scoring an average rank of only 342nd or better over the whole Open. Huh? How does that work?

Well, it kind of makes sense to any CrossFitter. The top 200 guys weren’t brilliant at everything, but they were good enough at most things. Many of us are like that in the Box. You have a few things where you think, ‘right, this movement is my jam – I got this. I can nail it’. Or, it’s like, ‘Bollocks, it’s snatch again. I can’t even ladies’ RX this shit. I am crap at this. I hate it, etc.’ And we all have that going on to some extent, but that is partly the essence of CrossFit.

The first WOD was published on Thursday night (Feb 25th)/Friday morning to be completed by the following Monday.

WOD 16.1
25-ft, overhead walking lunge, 8 burpees, 25-ft, overhead walking lunge, 8 chest to bar pullups
Men lunge 95 lbs / 43 kgs

I took one look at this and thought ‘OK, movements seem reasonable, left knee might hurt a little’. Then it dawned on me just how heavy 43 sodding kilograms is while lunging. Overhead? Lunging? Really? It’s fucking heavy.

I came into the Box on the Friday morning to WOD, thinking that afterwards I’d have a little go at seeing what 43 Kg overhead felt like. Err, yeah. It felt impossible. I loaded the bar and tried to get it up over my head with a wide grip. My shoulder mobility and spinal shape is poor, I knew my arms just had to be spread wide to have a chance of not leaning forward all the time and simply falling over.

I couldn’t get the sodding thing up and over my head. I had to press the bar up then slide my hands wider. I tried a few steps. I looked like one of those daytime TV, American drunk driver tests. I wobbled all over the place, took three paces and chucked the bar down in disgust with myself. Who was I kidding? Why did I sign up? This is impossible.

16.1

Saturday, 27th Feb – 16.1 WOD day
Perpetua had an amazing atmosphere. Loads of people were there. Most importantly there was a very positive feeling. Everyone knew this would be tough – There was fear, excitement and adrenaline. Whether you were an experienced CrossFitter needing to crank it out, or you just wanted to register a score, this was going to be the most demanding thing you’d done in months. No doubt about it. That’s what makes CrossFit unique. You’re in this together.

I skulked around the timings board and shifted myself to as late a time as possible. Because the WOD required quite a bit of space, it would take till mid-afternoon to work through the sixty or so athletes taking part at Perpetua. If I was going to crumble, it might as well be at the end when everyone had gone.

I watched the RX guys and gals go early. Damn. I saw the look on Popey’s face – sheer effort after three walks of 25 ft. Amazingly, he avoided breaking up the lunges. I looked at Adam Giles straining. Gilesy is super strong and even he was having to focus to keep the bar overhead. Everyone’s burpees looked like the guy on death row – exhausted, beaten, unenthusiastic. Going through the motions. That’s part of it though – getting through each bit mentally. You break it down, complete the movement and pick up that bar again and move forward.

It got to my turn. I started that internal conversation that I have before any tough, long WOD – ‘Why am I here? Why am I doing this? This is going to be shit. I can’t finish it’. Becky Bond was judging me. She asked me what my strategy was. I was knocked over by the question. ‘Ha, fucking ha! What strategy? Err, getting it done at all?’. But from that point on, whenever I judged someone in the Open I always started with that question. It’s actually a brilliant notion. It doesn’t need to be a complex answer, but the Open is as much about mental preparation as it is about fitness. And, when your ‘plan A’ goes to rat shit, having a process to put one foot in front of the other, metaphorically speaking, is going to keep moving you forward.

The timer started, I hoicked the bar up and started my drunken sailor walk. The key thing is, having tried the weight the previous day, I knew what to expect. I managed a couple of rounds of unbroken lunges. The burpees were dead or dying, but then the gymnastic element of pullups was ok. I can’t remember much else, other than Ren (Renata O’Donnell) screaming in the background – in a former life she was a U.S. Army Drill Sergeant. I wanted it to be over, but I just kept going. After 20 minutes I fell to the floor.

Result – 4 full rounds plus 8 burpees and 6 pullups – 128 reps, 1069th position

I signed the judging sheet and entered my score on the website. I was straight in to the top 200 of my age group! This is awesome – looks like everyone found it tough. The deception was that the leaderboard isn’t populated very much by the Saturday afternoon. Maybe only a quarter of the CrossFitters had entered their score. And that’s how I learned another major point about the Open leaderboard. As the weekend wore on, more and more scores got entered. At first I thought, ‘that’s OK, I can be 500th or something and just make it up on the other workouts’.

Then on Monday night there’s a huge flurry of gamesmanship. Basically any decent 50-54 yr old guy sits and watches the leaderboard fill up with scores. They then take or re-take the WOD with a really good idea of the target score they now require to get a certain rank. When you know how other people performed in your peer group, it’s much easier to strategise about how you’re going to beat them. If you don’t know, it tends to be balls to the wall and go for it. That can get really messy in a twenty minute WOD, when you’re knackered and you feel like if you do another burpee you might barf up a lung.

WOD 16.2

-Announced Thursday 3rd March/Fri – Scores in by Monday 7th March
Beginning on a 4-minute clock, complete as many reps as possible of:
25 toes-to-bars
50 double-unders
15 squat cleans 135lb / 61kg
If completed before 4 minutes, add 4 minutes to the clock and proceed to:
25 toes-to-bar
50 double-unders
13 squat cleans 185lb / 84kg
If completed before 8 minutes, add 4 minutes to the clock and proceed to:
25 toes-to-bar
50 double-unders
11 squat cleans 225lb / 102kg
And so on… You get the picture. Stop at 20 minutes, if you haven’t already stared at the impossible for several minutes.

Ok. Toes-to-bar – tick. I have a ludicrous kip and good grip – no problem. Double Unders – skipping with the rope going under you twice – tick. Squat cleans, Round Two at 84kg!!!? Really? Are you kidding me? Here was another WOD where I was going to stop dead after the second round of double unders and stare at an 84kg bar with zero chance of lifting it.

Here’s an amazing thing about the Open. ‘In the pressure cooker of the Open, athletes often achieve personal bests’. People say it all the time and I used to think ‘Yeah, right, whatever. If you can’t do something, you just can’t do it. I’m not going to sprout wings and learn to fly and I’m not going to lift 84kg ’cos it’s just not possible’.

But they do. It’s incredible to see all levels of contender cranking at max work rate and producing lifts and movements they never would have done in class. The room is at fever pitch towards the end of a WOD and everyone is screaming, urging the competitors to complete each part and make it into the next four-minute section. So could I pull out that personal best necessary to do 16.2?

16.2

Saturday, 5th March – 16.2 WOD day
I judged a couple of rounds and I hid out my turn until the back end of the day again. Just didn’t fancy that 84kg lift. But here’s what I did know from the leaderboard of previous years’ Opens. Lots of athletes get stuck at one point – it might be a tough lift or a new movement like muscle ups, but if they can’t do it, then completing just one more rep than the next guy puts you loads of places ahead of them. These are crunch points. You have to get past them to move up. Just that one rep could make all the difference.

I got through the second round of double unders and stared at the 84kg bar – I had another minute and a half on the clock. I got down for the lift. Jeezus, it was heavy. I popped it up to waist height and dropped it again. I was beat. Fuck it. One minute on the clock – take your time. I tried again. Same thing happened. Nope, this ain’t happening.

With twenty seconds to go, I bent down and decided to rip that motherfucking bar off the floor and get under it as fast as possible. Boom. In a heartbeat I was in the nastiest, most collapsed squat known to man, with my left kneecap (which is permanently dislocated) sticking out at a really ugly angle and 84kg hanging precariously from my front rack position. I’d never even managed to front squat 80kg before. I just tried to stand it up slowly. It must have looked hilarious. If I’d shat a chicken or had an aneurism from the strain, it wouldn’t have been a surprise to anyone watching. But there was that one rep. Done.

Result – 166 reps, 355th position

This time my position didn’t slip too much as the leaderboard populated. In fact, the amazing thing was the effect of that one, single 84kg rep. The guys who finished the second round of double-unders and didn’t lift the 84kg bar at all, scored 1 rep less than me (165 reps). But because there were so many at that level, they ranged from position 583rd to 390th. Man, that extra rep really made a massive difference in terms of position.

I knew from before, that an average position of 350th overall could qualify in the top 200 overall. If 16.1 was my worst performance, I really needed to do as well as I had just done and pull something special out of the bag at towards the end.

So now my overall position after two WODs wasn’t too bad. It seemed that the first two WODs had favoured completely different types of people. There were many like me, who’d been crushed by the first one but made a comeback in the second. Conversely, some of the heavy hitters in the first had struggled with 16.2.

I started to realise that this is really interesting mathematically. Is Dave Castro a genius? Had he figured out a way to structure workouts that specifically targeted certain strengths and weaknesses consecutively? In maths, if you have functions that bear little resemblance to each other but are complementary, they’re termed orthogonal. So there you have it. Dave was clearly weeding us out by targeting specific movement and time-domain types in a very orthogonal way. Exposing every weakness and forcing you down the leaderboard in whichever WOD you found tough. I also started dreaming about what was coming up next…

WOD 16.3

-Announced Thursday (10th March)/Fri – Scores in by Monday 14th March
Complete as many rounds as possible in 7 minutes of:
10 power snatches
3 bar muscle-ups
Men use 75lb/34kg

By this time, I was starting to wish for the more gymnastic, gassy WODs. What I was dreading was the Holy Grail of CrossHit – The Muscle Up. A pull up with a lift of the body above the bar or rings, it’s a movement that requires strength and technical expertise, plus it engages a huge range of muscles. It demands you achieve different parts of the move in the right order with impeccable timing. I could do them last year – no prob. Thing is, my muscle ups had vanished through lack of practice.

There was one upside – they were on the bar rather than gymnastic rings. If you can do a kipping pull-up with a big enough leg swing, you have a chance to propel your body up and above the bar. I’d done them in the past. Unfortunately, they made my arms feel like they were being pulled out of my shoulder sockets by a 36 ton truck and drawbar trailer.

Once more, on the Friday before, I tried a few bar muscle ups to see how they felt. I managed about two out of ten attempts. Here we go again. I brooded on how tough it all seemed. How impossible it was to find a WOD I could ‘do’ at RX, with no need to scale or struggle on each movement. If there was a WOD for whingeing about WOD structure, I’d be up there, Worldwide Number One.

Saturday, 10th Mar – 16.3 WOD day
Coaches Baz and Mike were going around trying to teach people muscle ups with minutes to go before the WOD. They proposed a ‘mixed grip’ pull, one hand facing you and one facing away. Then as you yank yourself up you switch one hand around and do a push up above the bar. Several people were getting their first muscle ups a quarter of an hour before the Open. It was incredible.

At least the WOD was simple in structure. The 34kg weight felt light. I ripped it up. It wasn’t pretty. A light dip and it was over my head. The power snatches were not going to be a problem. I then switched to the bar for my first muscle up. I could hear James Osborn, my PT urging me on. I knew I had to get this first one. I jumped to the bar and did a massive kip – leg kick. I shot up and with a little chicken wing (one elbow after the other), I was up and over the bar. That was the deal. Just doing the most almighty kip for each muscle-up and up I’d go. Cranking them out, coming off the bar after each one.

Result – 4 Full rounds plus 10 snatches & 1 bar Muscle Up 63 reps, 393rd position

So again, almost qualifying performance. Just one more rep would have got me to 358th place – lesson learned, every rep counts. Two more reps would have got me to 329th place, that golden, sub 350th which on average gives you a shot at qualification.

By now I was starting to surf the leaderboard seriously. I’d moved up my average position over the three WODs really well, but that first WOD was a standout bad performance. I was starting to wish that I’d worked a bit harder on overhead strength in class. I was starting to wish I’d gamed the system and retaken it on the Monday that scores were due.

On the leaderboard, if you click on an athlete’s name you can see their bio and some of their stats. I looked at the guys in the top 200. Some of them were fucking monsters. What’s interesting, is that some were not. It goes back to that whole point about CrossFit. Some were no bigger than me, couldn’t lift more than me and certainly couldn’t crack out the gymnastic and cardio components such as rowing as well as me. They’re also real, normal people with a story. It struck me how open they were – having a laugh and enjoying Crossfit at 50+ years of age. I was hooked.

WOD 16.4

-Announced Thursday (17th March)/Fri – Scores in by Monday 21st March
Complete as many rounds and reps as possible in 13 minutes of:
55 deadlifts
55 wall-ball shots
55-calorie row
55 handstand push-ups
Men deadlift 225 lb/102kg and throw 20-lb ball to 10-ft target

I had now got to the point where I woke in the middle of the night to check out the release of the next WOD. I looked at my phone at 1am, realised I could do the movements and fell back asleep. I dreamt of handstand push-ups. Against a wall you do a push up – simples, right? Yeah, not so simple when you are knackered at the end of a WOD.

As per usual I came in on Friday. I wanted to try the handstand push-ups (HSPU’s). Another crushing blow – I had read that Masters were allowed to use a mat for the head to touch the floor – it’s both more comfortable and makes the movement a little easier. In fact, I’d been doing them with two mats thinking I was the shit and I could do them no problem. The prescribed movement was without any, which I tried – it wasn’t the same planet. In fact, it wasn’t even the same fucking universe. I struggled to get one HSPU and realized this would be another show stopping point in the Open for me and maybe a few other guys too.

Saturday, 19th Mar – 16.4 WOD day
I started out by judging Gilesy’s WOD. Popey was standing behind him. Gilesy is this man-mountain and he cracked off the deadlifts like they were a couple of shopping bags on a Saturday afternoon. I could see Popey trying to keep up, getting put off by the pace. You have to stick to your own plan so often in CrossFit. If you try and hang on to someone else you can get burned up so easily. At the row, Gilesy was rowing at a rate of 900-1000cals/hr. I thought, I’ve got this. I rowed a little at University and I know I can crack out 1800 cals/hr in a WOD. If I do that in my WOD, I may get time for some HSPU’s.

It got to my turn. The deadlifts were tough but I dropped each lift to the floor to conserve energy. Everyone whinges about wall-balls. Throwing a 20lb ball at a high target kills me. I can do 15 and then my world turns upside-down. I broke the 55 wall-balls into three sets of 15 and one of 10. The guy next to me was already on the rower. I got distracted as he pushed on but had to focus on the task in hand.

I sat on the rower and opened up at 1700 cals/hr. My legs were jelly. I’ve never really relied on my legs for rowing strength. A lot of it is arms and body movement. I gutted it out, dipping to 1400 cals/hr. I came off the rower at 10:45 with just over two minutes to go. I had planned on 20 seconds for each HSPU. I did the handstand up to the wall and cracked two out with a ton of effort. In the remaining minute and a half, I had endless failed reps, managing just one more. Lesson 17 – don’t fucking row like you’re in the Boat Race ‘cos you end up paying for it later, twit.

So this is where I got tactical. It wasn’t a great score. And by Monday morning it looked like it would get me to 700th place for 16.4. It became clear to me that I needed to re-do the WOD. I knew I could hold onto the row. I just needed a bit more time eked out of the deadlifts and wall-balls, then I should be able to do more HSPU’s at the end.

I had started talking to Jasper Broberg about my Open. If you don’t know Jasper, he’s this softly spoken, Danish guy in the competitors’ team at Perpetua. He also breaks every WOD into its tiniest detail. As most of us have figured out, the strategy is all important. Jasper knows how many deadlifts per minute you should do and how to break up the intensity of wall-balls. I scurried back and tried to look at my timings – to ‘make time’ in 16.4. Here’s a picture of my spreadsheet–

Screen Shot 2016-05-05 at 17.22.54

I retook the WOD on Monday afternoon. All I needed was 9 reps of HSPU’s to get a decent score. That meant coming off the rower at around the 10 minute mark. It’s a very different setting when you retake – the atmosphere is gone. Just a few folks hanging round the gym. James Osborn, my PT, judged me. I came off the rower at 10:14 – and died again. But I managed six HSPU’s, compared to three in my first attempt.

Result – 55 deadlifts, 55 wall-ball shots, 55 calorie row, 6 HPSU’s – 171 reps, Position 431st

Not the end of the world but I was still a long way off the top 200 with one WOD to go.

WOD 16.5

– Announced Thursday (24th March)/Fri – Scores in by Monday 27th March
21-18-15-12-9-6-3 reps, for time, of:
Thrusters
Burpees
Men use 95 lb/43kg

Ok so this was tough but it was do-able. It’s all about how quickly you can get it done. What’s more, the first few rounds of 21, 18 and 15 constituted the lion’s share of the work. If you’re an experienced CrossFitter you’re going to go unbroken.

This time I came into the Box on Friday and looked at the timings. How long does it take to do sets of 7 thrusters and then take a break? How long do 21 burpees take? I made a note of when I needed to begin each new set.

Oh, and this time I had a plan… to get me to a time of 17:20…

Screen Shot 2016-05-05 at 17.26.41

Saturday, 16th Mar – 16.5 WOD day
As usual, I judged a few rounds early in the day. This was a ‘gassy’ workout. People were working at maximum effort for the whole time. By the end, you could see the intensity on their faces as they raced through the last few reps with almost nothing in the tank.

Top competitors in my group, who looked likely to make the top 200 cut, had already posted times of less than 17 minutes. I watched some of the stronger, younger guys at the gym barely scrape that time. This was going to be tough. I also had one more thought in the back of my mind. If all those other guys were gaming the system by having a second go on Monday, then I could do the same. I’d treat today, not even as a real attempt, but as a tester – to see what it felt like so if it all went to shit I knew I was going to try again.

The clock started and I got going. Thrusters are exhausting – a squat and a push of the bar overhead. My dodgy left knee was screaming with every dip, but my rep scheme of 7, then taking a breather, seemed to work. I looked at my timings-sheet by my side. I was in good shape. I started taking breathers as my heart was going crazy with the work load. For the burpees, I tried to do one massive step-up to the bar each time. I’d seen it on YouTube the night before. It had looked like a good idea, but I hadn’t really tested it. It was only towards the end, I realised I’d screwed up. The time I thought I should start each new set to stay on target, was the time I should finish it! The whole thing took just over 18 minutes and I was beaten.

Fuck. Not only was that time not going to be good enough, but I didn’t think I had any more in me. It had killed me. Renata had judged me. She’s amazingly positive. We talked about where I’d gone wrong but also that she felt I could speed up the thrusters. I wasn’t so sure. I felt like I had more chance of being hit by a meteorite on the way home.

I went back to my spreadsheets and planned for a retake on Monday, watching the leaderboard fill up. The top 200 all looked like they were going to comfortably get under 16 minutes.

I re-took on Monday. Jasper Broberg was judging, Renata cheerleading – which is more like screaming like a demented banshee. Rosie McKenzie from the Competition team was also completing the WOD. I felt humbled to be doing it at the same time. She’d had an amazing Open, ultimately coming first in England for every single WOD and 29th Worldwide. She was very gracious, waiting for me to get my shit together so that we could start at the same time.

I started, daunted by the task ahead. Every time I put the bar down to rest, Renata would scream ‘Pick up the fucking bar, Vagina Face’ and Jasper’s calm voice would be ‘In 3 -2- 1, go again’. Renata has given a delightful moniker, such as ‘Vagina Face’, to everyone in the gym. If you think you’ve gone under the radar and not been spotted, you’re sadly mistaken. When it came to the burpees, I ditched the stupid one-step-up to the bar after watching Rich Froning.

I looked at my new timings sheet – I was miles ahead. But I was hurting badly. I knew exactly where I had to be – and one thing I realise that’s key for me – Ask me to attack a WOD without direction and I’ll blow up after a few minutes. Gimme a plan and I have a chance of keeping up.

They say that in sports competitions the last parts of a race can be a blur. I can’t remember much about the 9-6-3 bit at the end. I was desperately hanging on to the bar and the pace I’d set. I looked at the clock. I’d finished in 15:31

Result – 15:31, Position 183rd

Best result so far, by far. I was just getting into the swing of things!

After 5 WODs, this was my final result –

327th Worldwide
22nd in Europe
6th in England

At the end of it, I didn’t make it to the qualifiers. That first workout, where each extra rep was worth 20 places on the leaderboard, was the killer. I figured out that on the first WOD I was about 35 reps from a qualifying score. The rest of the WODs were balanced out by my final performance in 16.5. In each of the later WODs each extra rep was worth at least an extra 5 places.

Of course I didn’t deserve to qualify. I hadn’t even thought about placing before I started. But, as many people find with CrossFit, you get sucked into the competitive nature of it. I loved taking part. I think it’s something primal and fundamental to us as human beings for us to experience and test our physical abilities. That’s why so many people from outside look upon CrossFitters as cultish or tribal. We are, and it’s a very natural thing. That’s why it’s so amazing. You were genetically programmed to do this stuff – it’s in your DNA.

A big thanks to the Coaches, Judges, Competitors & Crossfit Box members, who give of their time and focus to make the experience so transformational.

Written by Perpetua member James Rice

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