What Really Happens Inside a CrossFit Gym

Courtesy: Lynda Shenkman

An excavator sits outside the ashen structure awaiting the command. A welcome sign still hangs above the door. The garage, once home to our local CrossFit gym, now a cement cavity of memories will soon be demolished, replaced by apartments.

On the last day of class, each attending member took a minute to reminisce during an icebreaker. I was absent, but watched the video on Instagram. The stories shared never highlighted the achievements of self. Members wanted to talk about their classmates; who made them smile, who broke through barriers, whose shirtless chest turned heads.

I replayed it a few times. With every rerun, my heart swelled. Change is bittersweet.

Nonmembers sometimes ask, What goes on inside those CrossFit gyms? I hear it’s a cult. I can assure the skeptics no one is fixing alters from barbells or sacrificing protein shakes to the fitness gods. Not yet, anyway. But a lot does happen.

Dreams happen

A man in his twenties left a budding corporate job to pursue a passion for training. He opened a CrossFit gym. Honed his skills. Built a team. Expanded a business. Stayed humble and kind. And in doing so, inspired clients to achieve little goals and big dreams.

Millennials quit secure careers to do what they loved. Young athletes competed alongside elites. A determined high schooler proved to her soccer coach she was good enough to make the team and an unsure peer found himself wrestling and winning. Many embraced healthy choices and most found their voice.

Baby Boomers and Gen X-ers learned to squat, clean and jerk. They climbed ropes for the first time, stood on their heads and jumped up on a box. They completed races, joined rock bands, sported bikinis, founded companies, sat for tattoos and concluded that age doesn’t define ability and intimidating does not mean impossible.

Love happens

As a new member, my friend was surprised at how fast she warmed up to people from the gym. “Is this normal?” she asked.

“Pretty much,” I told her.

Amid the pull up rigs, weight racks and wall balls, there’s no time to fear vulnerability. When the clock counts down, social norms go out the window. Strangers are thrown into a mental and physical predicament with a common goal; get it done and support a neighbor.

It started with fist pumps and cheers. Small talk came easy; CrossFit’s a built in conversation starter. Together, we rehashed workouts, movements, personal bests and rough spots until the non CrossFitting community told us to shut up.

In time, we stopped squawking about fitness, opened up and asked about a sick parent, a new job or a cranky toddler. And it didn’t take long before we were offering hugs, helping a teen find an internship, editing a college essay, buying from a buddy’s local business, sharing professional expertise, moving boxes, supporting a cause, hosting a dinner, celebrating a milestone or lending an ear.

We met for 4 years in the same space, during the same hour, several days a week. Friendships developed, spouses connected, siblings bonded, relationships bloomed, babies grew and grandchildren were born.

Fun happens

In an interview at Harvard Divinity School, CrossFit CEO Greg Glassman explained how CrossFit gyms emphasize camaraderie, which was once described to him as “agony coupled with laughter.”

I am inherently lazy. The first four decades of my life were spent avoiding exercise. But even when I’m feeling uninspired, CrossFit keeps me coming back because the people make it fun.

Beyond the crazy tights, silly tanks and occasional costume, our gym is a safe, happy escape. I can let curse words loose, chuckle at a double-entendre, lip sync to my heart’s content, whip out dance moves and laugh alongside friends who brighten my mood and let me be me.

Struggle happens

We failed lifts, lost to a workout, questioned our strength and ran out of gas. We agonized through divorce, mourned death, endured surgery and disease, emptied our nests and fought mental illness. But we did so side by side.

Perspective happens

We learned. To teach, coach and manage. About different cultural and spiritual traditions. To leave political divides at the door. To be students again. We learned about decency, respect and gratitude. That we are better as a team.

We strived. To find balance. To do our best. To try and to not be too tough on ourselves.

We recognized. The benefit of breathe, pace and letting it out of the tank. The value of stretching, the stupidity of sugar (even though we may indulge) and how, when done right, food is fuel.

We grew. To rethink Beauty, Age and Limits. To ignore scales and diets. To complain less and smile more. We grew to believe in ourselves. To know our bodies can generate power, that we can do anything for a minute and what it means to be a champion.

The closing doors were not a goodbye. The owner moved us into new, spiffy digs. Right up the block. With an open floor plan. Natural light. Fresh paint. Even showers. Just in time for the New Year.

The parking’s different. The entrance is different. The setup is different. But the faces gathered around the white board to receive the daily challenge are the same.

It’s during this accepted routine our surroundings seem to fade. As the coach speaks and we listen, one thing is clear – family happened.

The Hovel

cherry blossom tree pic

Here in the Northeast, the mourning doves are cooing again.  The sound reminds me of the spring I was pregnant with my first son.  That year, a couple built a nest in a cherry blossom tree outside the window of our soon to be nursery.  When we brought him home from the hospital, two eggs hatched from the nest.  The family took a liking to our Urb-Burb neighborhood and set up permanent residence.

Each season, after the first buds appeared my son, Bubbe and I would sit in his rocker, peer down onto the pink and red blossoms, and watch for the doves.  When the birds returned, much like my growing boy, they were a little bigger, bolder, and wiser.  Our rocker time evolved into a game of I Spy for him and a welcomed mother and son tradition for me.

This spring things are different.  One year ago our family said goodbye to the doves, that glorious tree, and our home of two decades; The Hovel.

The Hovel was originally my husband’s place.  Mac purchased the quaint, turn of the century Victorian style house in the late eighties using money his father had left him in his will.

For a dozen years, he rented out spare bedrooms to supplement mortgage payments to, as a friend described, “a parade of cretins.”  Rock stars, sparrow heads, and a couple of regular guys made up the crew.  Together they enjoyed poker games, Tyson fights, dates, beer, and general shenanigans.  It was good fraternity house fun.

Around the time Y2K threatened to destroy our technological way of life, domesticity disrupted The Hovel’s rhythm.  I moved in.  Newly engaged, moderately enthusiastic, and abundantly neurotic I immediately commenced The Hovel’s fumigation.

Curtains went up.  Neighbors took notice.  The family to our right, who had yet to acknowledge my husband, invited us to go for ice cream.  When I planted flowers in the front yard, the elderly lady across the street yelled, “It’s about time!”  And after single handedly de-jungling overgrowth that swallowed the side yard, the father to our left said, “Whatta ya know, you have nice property.”

My newly betrothed begrudgingly went along for the ride.  Mac eventually got over the domestication hype; but so did I.  As projects piled up, responsibilities ensued, and my husband’s stubborn connection to The Hovel became evident, my enthusiasm waned.  I wanted out.

Then Bubbe was born, followed a few years later by The Skootch.  Our children breathed life into The Hovel.  She started to feel more like home.

But as they grew, her quaintness became claustrophobic.  I felt burdened by the upgrades and upkeep.  I wanted out again.  Each time I suggested a move Mac repeated the mantra, “People live with less.  We know what we have.  It’s a good house.”  I cursed him and The Hovel.  He was gum stuck in a sneaker groove and I resented it.

Well into my seventh year of scraping, Mac finally caved when my tune changed from lack of space to lack of confidence in the schools.  We prepared the house and put her on the market.  Two weeks later I received a new lease on life; The Hovel sold.

The evening before we closed, I stopped by to finish cleaning.  Our home stood empty; a hollowed, lifeless shell.  I went up to the nursery, looked out the window and for the first time, cried at the thought of losing her.

Too sad, I avoided that Urb-Burb neighborhood until recently when I had to pick up a package that was accidentally delivered to The Hovel.  The new owner offered to give me a tour.

With the exception of a fresh coat of exterior paint, a stately historic house plaque, and some thoughtful, decorative touches the house was more or less the same.  My brain rewinded like a mixed tape of greatest hits.

There was the living room; home to cushion forts, flying sessions, and makeshift mini-golf holes.  The kitchen countertop where the boys took their first sponge baths and Bubbe sniffed spices, always tasting the cinnamon.  The familiar nicks in the floor cabinet that The Skootch emptied daily to make drum kits from pots and skillets.

We walked through the dining room that hosted two brises, several Seders, countless birthdays and our first Christmas tree, and across the pine wood floor where my little guy took his first bowlegged steps.

I peeked in the narrow, upstairs bathroom where the boys innocently called from the window to their friends below to let them know they were out of the bath and naked, stepped around the iron floor registers whose ducts no doubt still housed my big guy’s marble collection, and admired the dent in the attic carpet where his bed once stood.

Outside, I gazed at the corner of the driveway where Bubbe and The Skootch shot hoops with Mac and smiled at the garden hose that fed a cascading irrigation system that always seemed to run long after I told the boys to stop wasting water.

The owner and I said our goodbyes at my favorite place, the front porch, where Mac and I spent endless evenings just trying to figure it all out.

It was strange to be in a space that I knew intimately, looked similar, still felt a connection with but knew didn’t belong to me.

But it was okay.

It was okay to mourn the loss of my house.  The lack of the tangible did not erase the intangible.  I no longer have the setting, but I still have my stories.  Thankfully, those memories will live for as long as my brain allows.

Leaving The Hovel behind was not a sad occasion but a passing of the torch.  She will always be the first home Mac and I made; the place where our children spent their first night after coming home from the hospital, and the place where we loved, laughed, grew, built friendships, and became a family.

To the new owners; as you welcome your newest addition this spring, keep an eye out for those doves.  Embrace the blossoms.  Write your stories.  Cherish your memories.  Love The Hovel.

We know you’ll take good care of her.