Nothing Gold Can Stay by Thomas Hawk

Nothing Gold Can Stay

Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf,
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day
Nothing gold can stay.

Robert Frost

Nine days after my 40th birthday, I attended my first Crossfit class.

Eleven weeks and a day later, here I am, writing this post.

My body is a special kind of tired. My calves are still sore from jumping rope on Tuesday. My left wrist feels creaky. I smell like menthol from the icy-hot patch on my back (though that has nothing to do with Crossfit… I sneezed funny this morning and tweaked a muscle in my back that gives me trouble a few times a year. I wish I was kidding).

Some people might consider these to be reasons why I should quit Crossfit. On the contrary, these are the reasons why I absolutely must continue down this path.

Eleven weeks and a day ago, I was motivated to join Crossfit for the same reasons I was motivated to start running half marathons in 2009. It was the same motivation that has gotten me up off the couch countless times in my adult life: fear of all of the negative health issues my body might succumb to if I continued to neglect my health and fitness. I have this vision of sitting in a doctor’s office receiving some sort of irreversible bad news that could have been prevented by eating clean and getting off the couch. What an awful reason to suffer a life-altering consequence – because I was too lazy to properly take care of myself.

But as life ebbs and flows, so does my focus on health and fitness, and each time I came to find myself in a valley, that fear of the point of no return spurred me back into action.

Crossfit has entered my life at a time when the calendar is slapping me in the face with truths that I’m not quite ready to embrace. I don’t have any issues with my health, but my spending on anti-aging serums and peels has grown exponentially in the past few years, and the snail’s pace at which I’m regaining previous fitness has been humbling, at best. I can still get away with dying my hair funky colors to avoid looking my age, but even my trusty Doc Martens are betraying the golden era of my youth. (As one of my undergrad students put it, “They’re like platform shoes from the 90’s!” Yes, dear. Yes they are).

My first Crossfit workout destroyed my body but ignited my spirit. Subsequent workouts early on challenged me physically and made me face several fears head-on. The physical struggle was so fierce that it drowned out any and all voices in my head. In the past couple weeks, I’ve finally started to feel like I can do this. The downside of my body starting to catch up, though, is that it leaves me room to think.

It’s not that thinking is bad. I’m definitely a natural born thinker. I love to absorb information, sort it out in my head, and analyze the heck out of it. I like to store bits and pieces of things just in case I ever need to know them. I enjoy diving into a topic that interests me and studying it from all different angles. I love data and statistics and trends. The act of learning Crossfit movements and philosophies plays very well into my affinities for thinking and learning.

The conflict arises when the facts point to truths that can be a tough pill to swallow. I came upon an article last week that laid out plans for the next Crossfit Open competition. I am too far down the scaling totem pole to consider competing, but I was interested in learning the lay of the land for future reference. That’s when I learned that I would be in what’s called the “Masters Division” – the over-40 crowd. So, that’s it? Year #40 draws a line in the sand between youth and those still fighting to hang on. My first thought was, “How can that be me? I’m just getting started!”

Well, I’m getting started at age 40. That’s the reality of the matter. Tough luck, kiddo.

I read an interview with rocker Pat Benatar once. She was talking about her book, and how she didn’t want a perfect face, because her laugh lines and scars were badges to display proudly. I respect that, and more so marvel at it, because I’m just not there. I’m not ready to wear the life that I’ve lived, because I feel like I’m just getting started.

It’s ironic to me that just as I reach a point in my life where I feel comfortable with who I am and confident in my work, my body becomes a traitor. Think about it. We finally gain the life skills and earn the wisdom of experience to tackle most days with grace and hard work – and in most cases, succeed – but that same grace and hard work applied in the gym will at some point forever offer diminishing returns. We all know this to be true even in our twenties, but I suppose some of us just think it will never happen to us.

I know it is happening to me, against my will and much to my chagrin. I woke up this morning with no idea how I would make it through today’s workout. This week felt brutal, but I also felt like I had to show up and put in the work and let the chips fall where they may. So I went to the gym and set up for the workout:

Every Minute on the Minute for 20 mins:

3 power cleans
3 front squats
3 jerks

My 1 rep max clean right now is 65#, and I’ve only done a few reps of jerks at 55# in strength training, but never in a workout. So I started this WOD with 40#, knowing that I’d probably end up stripping off the extra 5# and using just the bar. The first 5 or 6 rounds went well, and surprisingly, I was keeping pace with the rest of the class, finishing each round in about 30 seconds, and resting for 30 seconds. As the next 5 rounds progressed, I was getting slower at the reps, taking 35-40 seconds to complete them, and that wasn’t leaving me enough time to catch my breath before the next round started. In round 11, I was having trouble getting the bar overhead for the jerks, and after round 12, I knew I had to strip down to the bar (35#). That helped, but I still couldn’t get my heart rate under control.

Rounds 14 and 15, I started 10 seconds into the minute because I couldn’t breathe, so the rest of the class was finishing all 3 sets while I was still in the middle of doing squats. I felt the workout getting away from me. I couldn’t keep up. I grunted my way through the jerks in round 15 and then set the bar down and looked at the clock. It was already time for round 16. This just wasn’t going to work.

Coach Lauren told us up front that because this workout was scored by rounds missed, if we didn’t think we could get through all of the reps in a round, to just skip the round and take the breather, because either way, it would count against us. A month ago, I would have accepted at face value that the breather would very likely be part of my strategy. Today, though, as I’ve started to feel stronger approaching these workouts, I viewed it as a last resort – and damn, did it make me mad that I found myself in last-resort territory.

I sat out round 16 and fought back tears. I was angry at my body. I just kept thinking, I show up. I work hard. I study. I practice. I’m doing everything I’m supposed to be doing, and I still can’t get through this workout. It stung. I really thought that I would get my lungs and stamina back much faster. Last year and the year before, I was swimming miles and running half marathons. Just a couple months before starting Crossfit, I was doing 7, 8, 9 milers on the weekends with a combination of walking and running. 3 hours out on the trails – how could I not finish a 20 minute workout that let me rest half of the time?

But that’s the reality of 40. Fitness is harder to gain and harder to hold on to than it was even a few years ago. I’ve never been a natural athlete, but it still hurts the ego.

The clock marched on to round 17, and almost miraculously, that one minute of rest turned me into a whole new human. The remaining 4 rounds were hard, but I was able to knock them out on pace. I finished the workout with a score of 1, meltdown avoided.

I know that the only way I’m going to succeed in this area of my life is to embrace my age and look at Masters status as a gift. Be glad that I wake up every day able to do these incredible things. Trust that I have the wisdom and the intimate familiarity with my body to avoid injury in the process. Know that I will, as a result, become stronger and more fit than at any other point in my life. I cannot let fear of disease be my primary motivation, as then I’m forever running away. Instead, I will embrace the pursuit of strength as my motivation, and continue to march headlong toward it.

Nothing gold can stay, but there’s always another crack at dawn tomorrow.





Photo by Thomas Hawk.