Rep Number 36 Goes Up / photo courtesy Christi Clark Photography

Three days ago, I participated in the CrossFit Springfield’s 2nd annual Guns & Hoses Team Competition a fund raising endeavor aimed at benefiting the Wistrom Family Foundation, a truly worthwhile cause aimed at helping children with cancer. ALMOST as important, though, was the chance for military service members, cops and firemen to compete against one another, a chaotic stew of testosterone and nerves and borderline projectile vomiting. At age 36 and years of bad choices behind me, the concept of competing in athletic endeavors (outside of ice hockey) holds little appeal; I’m too old, the NHL ain’t calling, I gotta work tomorrow, my kids have beaten the spirit out of me, the list of excuses goes on and on as to why I don’t take up the chance to compete in much of anything anymore, outside of an ongoing chess match with my liver.

So when I was approached by some younger firemen from Station 2 about putting together a team for this competition, my first instinct was to duck and cover and pretend I didn’t hear them. But there’s only so many hiding places in a firehouse. Eventually, I had to give them an answer, and after several rounds of me saying “really? What, you need a John Candy-type on your team?“, I relented and made them promise to give me a decent burial when I inevitably died on the competition floor. As the days ticked down to competition time, my nerves begin to fray and unravel at a record pace. I’m old, man, and there’s really no need to humiliate myself any further in a public forum, especially as I do it on a regular basis just fine.

And then it was time. This was the time where Rocky theme music was supposed to cue up in my mind, shadow boxing in the mirror as I took one final shower before the event, setting my mind right, right? No. Clearly, I’ve watched far too many movies, and the reality of the whole time leading up to the competition was absent of motivational music, save for the screaming torrents of Dropkick Murphy tunes cranking in the bathroom. It’s a quiet desperation of sorts, really. I’m not in the best shape in the gym, knowing that I’m a relatively weak link on the team, and about to risk some real injury, both to my body and what is left of my self esteem. That sets up a morose cloud of doubt lingering over your personal skies, but, then, what are ya gonna do? Backing out at this point is the equivalent of backing out of a house fire: that shit will follow you for the rest of time.

As the events were described and teams assigned heats, I began crawling out of my head with nervous energy. These guys were serious, Marine Corps guys strutting about, cops from different towns all giving the eye to one another, firemen nervously joking about needing an ambulance on standby (okay, that was me), and a general tension that always precedes competitions of strength and stamina. I just needed the thing to start, already. Get me in the game, and this sensation of dizzy nausea may pass. Too soon, the race had begun. I’d describe the various events, but if you’re not familiar with the CrossFit lingo it’s just gonna come across like the cult mumbo-jumbo that it is. The exercises consisted of lifting of heavy weights, swinging of other heavy things, jumping up and down and over, lunging with random heavy objects over your head and tossing heavy sandbags over tall bars. You know, stuff you might never, ever encounter in your life. Ever.

To sum it all up let me just say this: in all my life, in whatever endeavor I’ve ever undertaken, I’ve never been pushed so hard physically to the point of a breakdown. It was set up as a team effort, so to quit or give up was to force three other people into forfeiting all of their efforts. I can insert all types of trite, catchy athletic “dig deep”-style phrases here, and you know what? THEY WOULD ALL BE TRUE. To force yourself to continue when all logic and reason demands you give up defies the physical imperative of the body, and it becomes a war of wills. To confront that wall and slog through the marsh of oxygen deprivation robbing your body of rational thought is a scary, and emotionally draining experience. This competition demanded slamming into this wall repeatedly to the point of sheer exhaustion and near collapse.

It sucked. Plain and simple.

Each time I reached down to grab that bar for another lift, when my back and legs and arms and lungs screamed for sweet release, my teammates, the people who’d come to cheer people on and the sheer force of will were driving forces compelling me to continue. I wish I could say that I was mentally strong enough to conjure up images in my mind of continuing in honor of some hero, or a sick kid or that bully in third grade who pretty much ruined my grade school experience, but I’d be lying. At some point there was no more room for thought, no more room for cliched imagery to motivate. Nothing was left but that most basic of drivers: instinct. The voices in the background were muffled, eyesight was clouded by sweat and chalk, and it was a lonely place to be left. Instinct to finish what I’d started was the only push left. Ridiculous faces and ridiculous amounts of sweat and stupid grunts all in the name of instinct.

Countless hours (or, like, two) later we staggered across the finish line, somewhere in the bottom of the rankings of the ten teams that entered. That didn’t matter. Three friends and I finished. We went to the bottom of our wells of will and extracted every last bit. I’m so proud of them, so proud of us for laying our guts and souls out there on the floor. I’m thankful to the coaches and staff and volunteers from CrossFit Springfield who offered their free time to guide us through the pain. I’m grateful for ThunderChicken who had the dubious honor of being my assigned coach, dutifully counting out the reps, vocally shoving me further and further out of my comfort zone, just like he has since the first day I set foot in the box. These people showed us, showed me, what was possible if you push yourself over the edge.

It’s a hell of a place to find yourself, at the bottom of that tank.

It’s quite another to crawl back out of it.