Coaching Kevin Cunningham at the CrossFit Games

Coaching Kevin Cunningham at the CrossFit Games

Kevin and I met through Crossfit in 2015, the two old guys learning the movements and drawn together because everyone else was so much younger.  The “Silverbacks” they called us; the old gorillas laughing and recovering in the corner after the class.  We were only in our mid-50’s at the time.  Nevertheless, we would compete in the warm up, learn the weightlifting techniques together, and try and kill each other on rows, on running, or anything cardio; even burpees!  Kevin has a wealth of experience in endurance from Triathlon and Ironman training, as well as being a serious rugby player.  I’m just dumb enough to try anything and always love a challenge or a race. Kevin qualified this year for his first Crossfit Games, qualifying 10th of 2000+ athletes world wide in the 65+ age group.  With our shared Crossfit experience as athletes, as well as doing the Level 1 Coaching together last year, I had the privilege of being invited to help coach Kevin through his first “Games”(World Championships of Crossfit!).  We faced 8 surprise workouts over 3 days; Kevin was one of two rookies in an impressive field of experience and skill.  It smacked us in the face on Day 2. 

Day 2 was always going to be a challenge; while Kevin had mentally planned for the stress and frustration, trying and failing at Single Leg Squats for at least 8 minutes in the Coliseum; being surrounded by the broadcast voices, spectators, and his fellow athletes, was a low point.  And there were more challenges to come.  Otherwise it was a manageable Test with Box Jumps, GHD sit-ups, Toes to Bar and a Handstand Walk.  Nothing was going to get around those two sets of single leg squats.  In class we comfortably benefit from the coach’s substitutes for the movements we can’t do.  It is another thing to stare at something impossible and fail and fail and fail.  The Games rules say that athletes must continue to try or risk elimination from the competition.  I was even worried he would hurt himself in the trying.  If you read his bio you know he thrives in the mental darkness of extreme challenges.  How would he react and bounce back?

The two of us were wide eyed newbies to the Games with all the excitement and nervous energy of two kids in a vast playground.  Neither of us knew what to expect and we drew on fitness friends, acquaintances who had gone before, and our experience facing the stress of physical exertion.  Ultimately they are just WODS on a bigger stage with really strong athletes around you.  As a coach, I made sure that Kevin had a good warm up; he already knew how, but it was helpful for him not to have to think of everything.  We strategized workouts, mentally going through pace and transition timing.  I carried the gear bag, made sure he cooled down post workout, and that he refuelled.  To be clear, he was the center of attention and had the real work to do. The facilities were amazing. The gear to warm up with, the stretching and taping support, and the organization were first rate.  As the pro’s started to arrive and we were warming up amongst them it was humbling and inspiring.  Everyone was just trying to do their best.  

When you read books like Michael Easter’s “Comfort Crisis”, listen to podcasts such as Dr Peter Attia’s “Drive” or Micheal Gervais’ “Finding Mastery” you become familiar with the science behind what you feel in class.  Motivation, physical success, health, there is a wealth of information.  But how does that help me be better?  It is all learning ultimately but physical learning feels very different from book learning.  

The second workout of Day 2 looked better but the rope climbs would be the biggest challenge.  We did a good job of warming up the Deadlifts.  At 275 lbs the 10 deadlifts were going to be spicy; but, adrenalin and the helpful cues from Kevin’s Olympic lifting coach would get him through that piece.  The sled pull, two sets of a 42 foot pull with a 190 lb sled on the turf, in the sun, would be a new challenge as he wasn’t allowed to move his feet or wrench backwards onto the ground.  All the athletes were in the same boat and it turned out that Kevin’s upper body strength made it smoother than expected.  It was just those darn Rope climbs.  Rope climbs are about core strength, saving your grip, and most importantly getting a good foot squeeze so you can use your legs more than your arms.  Kevin’s enthusiasm and strength allowed him to use his upper body for the first three climbs.  It came back to bite him on the second round with accumulation of grip killing sled pull and deadlifts.  He just couldn’t get his feet right and would get three quarters or half way up the 17 foot climb and have to slide back down.  It felt like standing in mud as the crash pad absorbed any attempt to jump.  The last 3 minutes of the allotted time were a revisit of the frustration of the single leg squats; just trying to get that last climb.  Frustrated silence accompanied us as we walked back to the Athlete’s warm up area.  A soothing ice bath, yes he did full immersion, brought back some life.  The knowledge that we would finish the day with a 5 km run was a lift.  He was back on familiar ground.  It was just a run and he loves to run.  His results from the Helen workout on Day 1 showed that a simple strategy of keeping in touch with the leaders would play to his strengths.  

Sean and Michelle did a Podcast (Redleaf Fitness Podcast) on #KeepGoing as a phrase that came out of member tenacity through COVID as well as a mantra they emphasized for a personal approach to challenges; mental and physical.  You will recognize in your experience that physical stress creates a loop back to mental stress; something that Sean and Michelle get at in the Podcast (I think #34, but they are all good).  In the last year I’ve tried to evolve my self-talk away from the Eeyore approach of super negative to something more positive.  It hasn’t been easy, and historically it has worked well for me to anticipate the fail points and dark points and acknowledge that they will be there.  On a ski hill, on a bike ride, in a workout; I’m always looking out for the danger zone or the breakpoint so I’m not overwhelmed.  What it doesn’t do is set me up to come out strong on the other side.  I can, sometimes, sit in that darkness and survive.  But that means just surviving.  When Sean and Karen power up a hill on their bikes, I roll back to a grind speed and just ride it out to the top.  What I want and need is the positive self-talk that knows it hurts but reminds me that it is time to push hard to keep up. It will only be a few minutes.  Look past the fear of failure to the deeper effort available in all of us.  Kevin is a master of this, in the phrases he uses, and a wealth of experience in dark moments of physical stress.  It isn’t naive self-praise, it is encouragement and tapping into strengths we know we have when called on in crisis.  It does take practice and I have to remind myself that the class workouts are a great laboratory for testing phrases, remembering how and when those moments come, and visualizing pushing a bit harder until I am through.

Day 2 ended with the 5km run at 7:30pm.  The idea was to stay in touch with the David Hippensteel, the current leader in the competition.  He was probably the best runner and if Kevin could hold on to him he would place well.  It turned out that David had pulled a hamstring on the deadlifts and could barely run.  The two lean and lanky guys, one from the altitudes of Colorado, turned out to be good runners.  Kevin looked comfortable on each lap; and if he had started his kick a bit sooner, he could have chased down Mark Peters for second place.  Nevertheless, finishing Day 2 on a high note reinforced the positive self-talk and brought back the glint in Kevin’s eye.  We bubbled with enthusiasm strategizing for Day 3. 

In hindsight Day 1 was a familiar and yet distant experience from the other two days.  You might say a gentle introduction as the athletes started with the traditional Olympic movements of Snatch then Clean and Jerk.  This was followed by a Farmer Carry, Box over burpees, more Farmer Carry, Wall Balls, and then reverse the Farmer Carry and Burpees back to the start/finish line.  The Wall Balls had the nuance of being on turf, which disrupted foot stability a bit.  If your feet went forward in the turf as you caught the ball and squated, you risked the bellow of a “NO REP” from the judge.  Kevin was not happy to have done more Wall Balls than anyone else; but he was fast on the burpees and the farmer carry.  With that out of the way he was looking forward to Helen; because, as you know, it has running!  Three rounds of 400m run, 21 Kettlebell swings, and 12 pull ups.  A classic Crossfit workout that suits Kevin’s cardio and upper body strength.  The athletes ran out of the park, did a circle and came back to their lanes for the Kettlebell and Pull up.  It was fun to watch Kevin trot back to his lane with a calm focus and attack the Kettlebell swings with pace.  The plan was unbroken swings and to do the pull ups in 2 sets (7 then 5).  He held to that for the whole workout and managed to increase his run pace each round.  A third place finish in Helen threw down that Kevin could move.  

At this point the routines are settling.  We arrive an hour before the corral time.  Kevin stretches and gets some taping done, and we work towards the movements or weight we will need for the next workout.  The camaraderie amongst the athletes builds quickly with the common challenges.  They compare notes, training schedules, and their paths to the Games; but I didn’t hear of any specific advice or strategies for the coming workout.  The competitive spirit is alive.  Lots of talk about David Hippensteel’s injured hamstring.  It was evident in the run.  He was tied for 1st place after Day 2, but the first workout of Day 3 is going to be stressful for him. Nevertheless, he was very helpful with tips as Kevin tried to learn muscle ups right before the last workout.  Then again, Kevin wasn’t a podium threat.  There was a very different feel with the coaches.  Friendly but a bit more territorial, especially as the standings tightened up.  There was so much knowledge, it was fascinating to just listen and ask questions; about their Affliate’s business style, how their athlete trained, and their experience with previous Games.  There was a comfortable balance between pure coaches and friends or partners.  One coach was a day late as their camper suffered a broken axle on the drive from Colorado.  My twelve hour drive seemed like an urban commute in comparison.  The ritual was that the athletes were called to a corral area to have their timing chips put on.  They were then escorted to the secondary warm up area to wait for 20-30 minutes until their heat times.  The athletes were escorted on the 10 minute walk with the coaches escorted just behind.  It felt very gladiatorial and everyone chatted nervously.  Coaches were then escorted to our spot in the event space about 10 minutes before the heat time.  It was very regimented but we had certain freedom to move around the event spaces to get close to our athletes.  I lost my voice loudly encouraging Kevin during the Helen workout.  When Kevin enquired about my voice and I explained my enthusiasm, he asked me what I said?  I stopped screaming!

Kevin was both wound up and relaxed going into the first Day 3 workout.  Another cardio workout with a slight twist of double under skips.  They can be petulant and show up sometimes and hide behind you other times; slapping thighs and ankles as the height and timing of jumping fights for dominance with the wrist whip. Smooth coordination is key.  The workout had two 50 calorie movements, skiErg and Echo bike, followed by 75 double unders.  Then more skiErg and bike, 50 calories each, and one more set of 75 double unders.  If you have done double unders you know they are doubly (pun!) hard if your heart rate is elevated.  Hence the challenge of the 100 calorie effort.  What is also exciting about the Games is how they build in the drama of a race.  Yes you are racing each other and the clock but you don’t just sit there.  Each movement has the athlete progress down the floor.  Do the first skiErg, then advance the echo bike. After the echo bike, advance in your lane to your skipping spot and complete the skips.  The strategy was to not be too gassed going into the first double unders.  Our experience struggling with certain movements meant a bit of caution to make sure Kevin got through the first set of skips.  He went out pretty hard but cardio is his thing and he felt very comfortable.  Three of the athlete’s emerged quickly to their double unders including the now current leader Daniel Miller.  Kevin and Daniel probably started the second set of ski/bike at similar times but Kevin put the hammer down as planned.  Whatever was going to happen on the second set of skips, Kevin was going to push the pace as hard as he could to try and give himself a cushion; and hopefully stress the other competitors to push themselves harder than they wanted.  Kevin emerged first from the skiErg onto the Concpet2 bike ( a regular stationary bike).  He pushed even harder.  You could see as more of the men got to the bike that Kevin was just pushing harder.  This gave him at least a 30 second advantage into the final double unders.  It was incredible to hear his name from the announcers calling the event.  They were a bit taken aback by the size of his lead.  In every event there is the finish line drama.  Daniel Miller got off his bike and threw down 75 unbroken double under skips and managed to beat Kevin by a mere 5 seconds.  Daniel would win the overall competition.  Only 4 of 9 athletes managed to finish the workout before the time cap.  It was an incredible effort to witness.  Going back to my comments on positive self-talk, look what you can do with confidence and optimism.  Even though the double unders were a bit of a challenge, the determination on Kevin’s face was almost a smile. 

The final workout of the event was a surprise with a sprint of bar muscle ups and dumbbell snatches.  Like the single leg squats, bar muscle ups are not yet in Kevin’s tool box.  The relief of being the last event and the inevitability of the outcome took away some of the stress.  I did feel helpless; I had no advice or tips for Kevin.  There was advice all around us and Kevin’s improved attempts landed a ripped hand.  Quickly taped, he was ready for the arena.  I shouldn’t discount it.  Kevin worked very hard for the full six minutes, and managed his first bar muscle up!  He also ripped the heck out of his other hand.  He was done!  His rookie games were complete and he finished ahead of his initial ranking. He didn’t articulate it but you could see the sense of relief.  We didn’t linger.  He grabbed his signage and we headed to dinner.  For the first time, in a very long time, Kevin didn’t have to anticipate the next workout, the next test, the next stress.  This had been an all out effort since October and really years in the making.  

What did we learn?  It is easy to reflect on the tried and true phrases that we read about to help us build resilience, strength, and capacity.  It is about having a goal, being persistence, being consistent, and supporting your foundations.  Even if we aren’t trying to go to the games, every day we want good rest, good fuel, and a good state of mind.  With those foundations our capacity to meet challenges grows.  The strength of Kevin’s achievement is as much about proving that you can improve as it is about his specific accomplishments.  The courage is in having even a small ambition and understanding that you can make it happen.  It is impossible to convey the breadth of appreciation and wonder from being an up close witness.

Why I love riding in the Spring

Why I love riding in the Spring

We excitedly shed coats and gloves as spring advances.  Yet fields are still muddy with spring rains, and the farmers are nervously idling equipment, ready to catch the first waves of warmth to jumpstart the growing season.  We will ride by these fields each week now, watching the progression of tilling, seeding, and the explosion of ordered shoots.  Adolescent whiskers of earthly growth in corn, soybeans, and mustard.

Bikes are unloaded in the post-dawn shades of orange and yellow, shadows being washed out with waves of light.  We run through mental checklists.  Such a simple machine once you get going, but you hate to forget snacks, water, the computer, and all the little bits you might need.  More than once, I’ve ridden away to then remember the car is unlocked.  A short ride of shame, then off we go.

I am always a bit tense early in a ride. How do my legs feel? Did I fuel properly, get enough rest, and of course, will I be able to keep up?  We settle into a “modest” warm-up pace, and you start to pay attention to the details around you that are missed from the comfort inside a vehicle.  Grit on the road, dampness, bumps and imperfections of the shoulder.  And then it hits you; the smell of earth.  Fecund, pungent, dirty brown/yellow soil.  The smell creeps high into your nostrils; the fragrance penetrates your brain.  Damp Earth waiting to share its nourishment with the crops to come.  Not much to look at just yet, even if the field has been seeded.  But gone is that inert smell of cold; the ground has awakened as we spin by.  You feel alive; it’s an uplifting transition to the work ahead.  All sensations are assaulted early before your rhythm settles you down.  Smells, sights, and sounds surround you as your mind narrows from the stimulus around you to what your body is doing.  How do my feet feel on the pedals? Where is the tilt in my back? How do my hands feel on the grips?  We become intimately aware of all the points of contact with the bike and how that will translate into power moving forward.  We do it so much we barely notice the transition from excited anticipation to the efficient spin of pedals and hum of tires on the road.  

We are immersed in the world around us.  The immensity of the sky and the proportions of the surrounding landscape accentuate our smallness and fragility.  A ride at pace lets you feel the smell and texture of the air you are passing through.  In spring, the low dark parts of the road put up a wall of frigid air that slaps you as you ride through, causing a temporary shiver.  You ride on through a climb to a higher exposed road, the heat from the sun offering a quick blanket of warmth.  You reach for water as your inner heat from the effort challenges your choice of layers.  We are less willing early in the year to begin cold, not yet the summer heat, to demand minimal layers, desperate to shed the heat we hold onto in May’s crisp mornings.

Our causal attitude is shredded on the first hill that bumps heart rates; the first challenge to pace, downshifting to meet the climb and hold as much speed as possible.  There will be many more climbs on this ride. This is the first taste of adversity and spreads the group out.  We regroup quickly, still warming up, still sorting out the group pace.  Before our ambition becomes the discipline of effort, we smile and giggle, the world is wonderful, and the land around us shares its intimate texture of detail hidden by the comfort of a car.  We see we smell, and we hear each meter.  We are so lucky to feel alive in this way.  The effort is the reward, and our surroundings cheer us on.