Many of you have asked how things went for CrossFit TT athletes Bear Stitzer, Andrew Mercier, and Coach Meghan Barnes at the 1st Annual Vermonster CrossFit Challenge this past weekend, hosted by our friends at Green Mountain CrossFit. And yes, I’m fully aware that posting an ‘update’ 5 days after the event doesn’t necessarily constitute as an ‘update’. But as both Meghan and Stacey will attest, the delay hasn’t been for a lack of effort. Rather, it’s because I’ve found it exceptionally difficult to capture the emotion, energy, and pride all three conveyed in words. I’ve done my best below – I hope you enjoy.
Beauty and the Beasts.

CrossFit TT’s ambitions for this event were exceptionally modest, for several reasons. For one, we haven’t been making a conscious effort to design our programming for a competition like this. Above all else, we (the coaching staff) have employed programming that’s consistent with our mission: give everyone who comes through our doors the best preparation they can receive for any and every conceivable athletic activity they’d like to pursue. Just like the website states, “We make elite fitness accessible to those without a specific athletic goal;” Nothing more; nothing less. While it is true that that we primarily employ the CrossFit methodology in achieving this aim, that doesn’t necessarily mean that we’ve been preparing members of our community for CrossFit competitions. Remember – CrossFit isn’t just a methodology; it’s also sport. A sport that – as many of you have come to learn – can be EXCEPTIONALLY challenging in practice, and typically requires a fairly specific preparation program for competition. By contrast, we program in such a fashion as to prepare members of our community to excel at a broad range of activities. And although it is also true that we program for several elite athletes who’re preparing for something very specific, like BUD/S (Basic Underwater Demolition / Seal) school, a spot on an Major Junior Team or AHL roster, the upcoming riding/skiing season, or a collegiate national championship, only one such athlete is preparing specifically for the sport of CrossFit…and she had a prior commitment. In fact, the principle reason why the athletes in attendance had decided to participate was to determine if they might like to start training for CrossFit competitions.

This, when coupled with the fact that:

  • One of the W.O.D.’s involved maximum repetitions of a single movement  … which none of us had ever performed;
  • Another of the W.O.D.s called exclusively for the use of two different ERG machines, one of which none of us had ever seen, and the other we’ve yet to use in our gym;
  • Yet another called for running with a sandbag, another fun toy / exercise which I’m sorry to say that we haven’t employed;
  • Yet another called for 32 Dead-lifts at a weight Bear had yet to lift once;
  • Andrew and Bear’s combined weight was almost eclipsed by not one but two of their competitors (I know I’m prone to exaggeration, but not this time. Neither of them weigh appreciably more than 160 lbs, while none of their competitors weighed below 200 with at least two of them were close to eclipsing 300);

I for one, only had only one objective for our motley crew: to use the event to help Andrew, Bear, and Meghan – all of whom had expressed some interest in competitive events similar to these – see for themselves if they’d like to further pursue the discipline.

Talk about your all-time miscalculation.

It didn’t take long before Meghan, Bear, and Andrew took turns feeding me healthy doses of a concoction that’s best described as “Coach Tyler is a complete-and-total-dumbass when it comes to managing expectations.” In fact my first Big-Gulp™ sized-dose was issued before the first of the four W.O.D.’s had even concluded. In my defense: Consisting of a 1k sandbag carry through a wooden-plank laden obstacle course, the first W.O.D. was the event I’d suspected would yield our best result. Andrew, Meghan, and Bear were/are all strong runners, are light on their feet, are comfortable dragging awkward lumps of weight around, and generally speaking, don’t fall down unless pushed. Despite such optimism, I’ll admit that I was still bit surprised to find that Bear had won the event on the Men’s side, and that Meghan had placed third in the Women’s.

Bear, showing everyone the PROPER way to club a baby seal.

Impressive as their performances were, the victory felt a little hollow for all of us. Going into the competition we’d all known that the 1st event would play to our collective strong suit. We’d also known that the second event had a high probability of sending us all home in time for lunch. Appropriately titled Atlas Shrugged, the W.O.D. gave each competitor 4 minutes to lift an Atlas Stone – a smooth, perfectly round, 140lb (Men’s weight) or 90lb (Women’s weight) concrete ball – from the ground to shoulder-height. Given that none of us had ever seen – let alone lifted – an Atlas Stone before, we’d accepted the possibility that the event may not go all-that well for us.

It’s tough to say whether we left an impression on the Atlas stone…or if it left one on us.

While a single repetition for each of us would’ve constituted a significant victory for our team and affiliate, unfortunately such numbers weren’t likely to further the momentum we’d built up in the first event. Most competitors in both divisions were perfectly capable of putting up double-digit scores, while other looked as though they were capable of either:

  1. Putting up a triple-digit score;
  2. Being strong enough to lift their stone along with all of our stones without too much difficulty. No joke. Some of these guys were so big they more closely resembled a Yeti palming a basketball than they did a 250lb dude lifting a big-ass rock.
“Yay! We’re on top! Can we go home now?” Enjoy it while you can, Bear…

Making matters worse, seeing the stones in person gave us reason to suspect that even our modest ambitions of a single-rep might’ve been overzealous. I can’t help but wonder if we looked to others like Bill Murray playing Hercules in the Classic  Saturday Night Live skit Il Returno de Herecules. For those who don’t immediately recall the skit, a surprisingly old and flabby Hercules (played by Bill Murray) can spare the life of the fair maiden Helena only by passing a feat of strength involving a boulder lift. Rather than embracing the challenge, Hercules – who’s clearly unfit for any feat other than perhaps eating a healthy sized piece of chocolate cake – instead attempts to negotiate the terms of the feat of strength with his captors, asking for everything from an extension on the assignment, to a modification of the movement. I was about to quote lines from Bill Murray’s character, like “That boulder?! I cannot lift that boulder. Perhaps a smaller boulder like one of those over there,” or “Must I pass this test of strength right away?”, but I didn’t think anyone would get the reference. Least of all Bear or Andrew, whose collective knowledge of mundane pop-culture trivia is slightly below that of our 21 month-old son Maddox.

“I have not exercised much since the last Olympics. And I have learned, to my sorrow, that when you stop exercising, the muscle turns to fat.”

Plus, I was concerned that Bear may not have been ready to make light of the situation. After all, we’d only barely convinced him to move from the Recreation Division – which featured a more manageable 90lb stone – to the more stringent Open Men’s division a few hours prior, a fact that he’d undoubtedly recalled during his first attempt with the stone. Needless to say, the 15-minute interval between the conclusion of the first event and the beginning of the second didn’t leave us much time to celebrate our hard-fought accomplishment. Thankfully, Andrew gave us cause for another one.

“…Perhaps I can lift one of those smaller boulders over there?” Note the size of Bart from Champlain Valley CrossFit in the background, and you can begin to get a sense of what it must’ve been like to be in Andrew’s shoes.

Our plan for both Andrew and Bear was to have each of them slowly work to complete their first rep for the first three minutes, thinking that if they were unable to get one during that time, they’d still have one minute to furiously work towards a rep with on a relatively full tank of gasoline. Given such context, you can imagine my surprise when, after the first 20 seconds of the workout, Andrew had successfully completed not one, but two reps. Apparently, we needed a new game plan. With no time to develop a new strategy, Andrew simply began listening for Tempo callouts, and I began screaming them. After one minute, we were at four reps; after two minutes at 7, and by the end of the W.O.D., 12. Not only did his performance inspire Bear and Meghan to put up similar numbers, but also they drew the attention of some of the other competitors at the event. One competitor in particular watching Andrew’s heat mentioned to Bear that it “was great to see a little skinny kid hold his own against the strongmen.”

In case you were wondering, THIS is why we ride you all so hard to get your three points of extension. Hips open + on toes + big shrug = big weight.

Meghan: 14. Andrew: 12. Bear: 6. Although our final scores for Atlas Shrugged may not have been impressive by World’s Strongest Man or CrossFit Games standards, they were nothing short of spectacular for three individuals who’d never worked with such movements or weight. While I couldn’t begin to comprehend the satisfaction that each of them must have taken from their performances, I was quite sure that it was nothing compared to the pride that I had as a coach. After such a moral victory, we probably could’ve been content if we’d packed-it in right then and there, but at that point, we were so amped that it probably would’ve been easier to put lighting back into a bottle. Plus, we were about to head into the W.O.D. where we could conceivably have a slight (and I mean slight) advantage relative to some of the other competitors. Featuring both a 750 Ski-Erg (a fancy machine that simulates the double pole movement used in competitive Nordic Skiing) and a 750 sprint on a rowing machine, the third event appeared to favor folks with stronger metabolic conditioning backgrounds. Additionally, we had strong suspicions that Bear’s background as a Collegiate Division I Nordic Skier might uniquely qualify him to be one of the few competitors who – at least theoretically – knew what the hell a ski-ERG was, and how it should be used. Admittedly, such hopes weren’t all that substantive, especially given that we’d neither:

  1. Used either of the devices in the last six months;
  2. Used one of the devices before at all;

Then again, if the day’s events up to that point had proven anything, it was that we were pretty capable doing things we’d assumed we had no business doing. And the event had the added benefit of not including Atlas stones. What could go wrong?

If you’re an astute reader of this blog, or have gone on to Green Mountain CrossFit’s site to see the workout descriptions for yourself, you’ve probably noticed that I’ve neglected to mention the third element that was sandwiched between each of the 750m ERGs. While certainly more manageable than Atlas stones, the third discipline, a casual game of beanbag toss to a wooden box 25 feet away (a sport better know to Vermonters as ‘Cornhole’) – had the potential to inflict just as much harm to a competitor as a 140lb concrete sphere, albeit in a much more devious way. After completing the ski ERG, participants had to lob five 1lb beanbags at their target box. For each beanbag that landed on the box, a point was awarded; for each that found the hole that had been drilled on the surface of the box, two points awarded. Each point allowed the athlete to reduce the distance they’d have to row by 50 meters, which sounds cool initially, until you realize that it could really, really suck if you miss. Imagine finishing first on the Ski ERG, only to miss all five beanbag tosses, and have everyone else in your heat immediately surpass you. Congratulations! You had the fast time of the day… and you’re in LAST PLACE.

It should be noted that this was probably the only point in the competition when I’d wished I’d been competing. I may not be the athlete I once was, but I’m nothing if not an excellent Cornhole player. I’m an even better Cornhole player after a few Paleo-friendly Margaritas, or a whole boatload of Coors Light. Even though I would likely have had to have gone without such libations (I’d imagine that they wouldn’t have made the ski ERG all that pleasant), I’m pretty confident that I wouldn’t have been rowing nearly as much as most other folks in my heat.

I digress. Needless to say, the game of Cornhole introduced a unique strategic element to the workout. Pause to take careful, calculated tosses, and you’d run the risk of burning significant time with each miss; rush to get on the ERG, and you’d run the risk of someone flying past you. To mitigate the risk of senseless delays, we decided that we’d go all-in, one-way or the other.   CFTT athletes would either take the time to make crisp, accurate throws, or they’d blindly heave all the beanbags at the target at once in order to get on the rower as quickly as possible. Meghan opted for the former, Andrew and Bear the latter. Meghan’s choice proved to be less effective. Not only did her throws miss, but also the competitor immediately ahead of her – Kristie from Champlain Valley CrossFit – managed to land two of her tosses on the target. Before she even was able to get on the rower, Meghan found herself 100 Meters behind a fantastic athlete (and person to boot) who’s exceptionally difficult to keep pace with, let alone put time on. Nevertheless, Meghan started chipping away, taking long, driving pulls on the ERG. With 400 meters to go, Meghan had managed to make up 40 meters; with 250 meters to go, the gap had closed to 30 meters. Kristie managed to hold on for the win, but Meghan’s impressive effort allowed her to leapfrog ahead of some of the other competitors, pushing her up the leaderboard into third place. Andrew and Bear also managed to put up impressive numbers; Andrew’s impressive 1:38 pace on the rower was good enough for second place in the event, while Bear’s Ski ERG time was amongst the fastest posted that day. Unfortunately, their performances weren’t enough to give them the same vault Meghan had experienced. With only one event remaining before all athletes outside the top eight were eliminated from the competition, Bear and Andrew found themselves in 9th and 11th place, respectively. Without herculean performances in the 4th and final event, Andrew and Bear would be watching the final from the sidelines.

Steady, complete pulls yield fast times. Just ask Meghan.
Andrew, proving that size is no measure of strength, power, or tenacity.
In case there was any confusion, Bear was the Beauty we were referring to in the first picture. Even when he’s going full throttle, his hair stays perfectly coiffed. We still aren’t sure what’s more impressive: the fact that he posted such a great time, or that he looked so good doing it.

Appropriately titled the The Nor’Easter, the 4th W.O.D. delivered a virtual hurricane of horrible movements. Featuring 4 rounds of Deadlifts (225/155) and toes-to-bar, followed immediately by 4 rounds of kettlebell swings (32/24) and burpee stump-jumps (think burpee-box-jumps, with exceptionally wide stumps serving in lieu of plyo boxes), the workout had something that was sure to expose a relative weakness in each of the competitors. We were no exception. Although he hadn’t tested it for quite some time, Bear’s one-rep-max for the deadlift had last been 225lbs. He’d be hard pressed to complete 4 sets of 8 in a timely fashion. Similarly, Andrew often struggled to control the 32kg kettlebell. While he’d be able to do them, it was questionable whether he’d be able to do them fast enough to be able to keep pace with the event’s top eight athletes. And all of us – including Meghan – often struggled to string our toes-to-bar together as quickly as would be required within the W.O.D..

Ironically enough, this was the first time that I’d begun to really, really like our chances for advancing to the final. After three exceptionally challenging W.O.D.’s, the rigors of the event had begun to take their toll on many of the event’s competitors. Movements that normally wouldn’t have been too taxing for many of the event’s exceptionally strong athletes began to appear labored; rather than sprinting from station to station, competitors were jogging with purpose. It appeared that few were looking forward to the last W.O.D. prior to the field reduction, and that others were starting to face challenges similar to those we’d been dealing with earlier in the day. Color me ‘Contrarian’, but it finally felt as though the playing field was beginning to level, so-to-speak. What’s more, if there was one thing I was confident of, it was the ability of ALL of our athletes – not just those at the competition – to deliver exceptional performances when they’re tremendously fatigued. We’d seen it time and time and time again in the gym; why should a competition be any different?

For the first time that day, my assertions were proven correct. Meghan may not have been first off of the deadlift bar each round, but she was close enough to the leaders to stay competitive, thanks to her resolution to link all her toes-to-bars. Coming into the second half of the workout, she’d moved into third place; by the ¾ mark, she’d moved into second…and was beginning to speed up. On the last round, Meghan pulled ahead of the leading female athlete – again Kristie from CVCF – a lead she wouldn’t relinquish for the remainder of the workout. Andrew and Bear’s performances unfolded similarly, and may even have been a bit more spectacular, given the size differential between them and the other competitors. Standing a full head shorter and a great deal lighter than everyone in their respective heats, Andrew and Bear occupied so much less space on their platforms than any of the other competitors that one couldn’t help but root for them.

“One of these things is not like the others…” We can’t explain how Andrew was lined up next to Bart in almost every single event, other than to say that he always managed to keep himself in fast company.

Just like Meghan, neither set a blistering pace with their deadlifts. Then again, neither of them needed to – all they needed to do was keep up. And keep up they did. Andrew went into the kettlebell swings in third place in his heat, Bear in 4th in his…and then – just like Meghan – both of them began to accelerate. Each round became faster than the previous, until they’d passed everyone they were competing against, save the top two overall competitors of the day. So intense were their efforts that they left them hobbled and rolling on the ground for several minutes post workout. The effort easily compromised their training for a good chunk of the upcoming week (it’s Thursday, and Andrew still isn’t quite ready to get back after it), but such efforts weren’t for naught. When the dust settled, Bear had advanced to seventh place, Andrew to eighth. Just like that, everyone had qualified for the finals.

I’ve got to be honest – the finals were kind of a blur. Not because there weren’t that many memorable or remarkable moments, but rather because there were so many of them, and not just on behalf of CrossFit TT athletes. Take the final in the Female Master’s division. The final movement of the workout – a 150’ overhead carry of a 4” x 4” landscaping beam with weighted chains hanging from either end – proved to be too much for one competitor. Her shoulders gassed from the days festivities, she was clearly struggling to successfully position the weight over her head. Every time she tried, she’d move three or four steps before the weighted chains started to sway, throwing her off-axis, and bringing the apparatus crashing down in front of her. Making matters worse, each subsequent lift drained her shoulders further, making subsequent attempts exponentially more difficult. Enter the CrossFit community. Everyone – and I mean EVERYONE – began shouting words of encouragement, screaming for her to finish, and hollering for her to endure. Mind you, this was no ‘pity-clap’ that’s so often received when an athlete is in a race that’s clearly not going according to plan. This was different. Way, way WAY different. The energy created by the crowd was so potent, so strong, so inspiring that it was almost as if it became a living, breathing manifestation that literally picked the competitor off of the ground, helped her place the post over her head, and whispered encouragement in her ear. This was the type of energy, support, and enthusiasm that you’d expect to see when someone’s about to break a world record, win a world championship, or come from behind to capture the gold. In fact, this is exactly what was happening: an athlete was transcending the fitness level that she thought herself to be capable of, in front of an audience who recognized exactly what she was about to accomplish, and who wanted to support her in any and every way they possibly could. When she crossed the finish line, there wasn’t a dry eye in the place, including the author’s.   I love CrossFit.

CrossFit TT’s athletes were no less inspirational. Hard as it might be to believe, the videos below say more than I ever could: rather than drone on for another four pages, I’ll let them speak for themselves. I won’t even give you a spoiler by posting the final places. If you want to know how they did in the final, you’ve got to watch the videos.  All I’ll say is this – my ability to manage expectations went a perfect 0-for-5 for the day. In fact, the only thing that pooped-the-bed all day was my credibility (that, and Andrew and Bear’s collective knowledge of any pop-culture factoids. Who’d have thought that in this day in age, there are people out there who still haven’t seen Fletch, Caddyshack?!?).

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Back to the initial question: how’d they do? Honestly, you’re asking the wrong question. The question that needs to be asked is ‘How did WE do.’ We should all be proud of the efforts Meghan, Andrew and Bear put forth last weekend, not only because they spectacularly represent the community and affiliate that you’ve all helped build, but also because their accomplishments are a direct reflection of the hard work you’ve all put in over the last few months…and the capabilities such efforts have afforded. As an affiliate, our goals have involved getting stronger, leaner, faster, and healthier. We’ve used CrossFit TT’s methodology of general programming to work towards these aims. Over the course of the last three months, we’ve worked so hard in pursuit of these goals that we’ve well surpassed almost all of them. In fact, we’ve progressed to the point where almost all us are capable of not only completing an event like the Vermonster Challenge, but also very competitive in each of our respective divisions. What’s more, we’ve done so without compromising our ability to participate in other sports; as evidenced by the relatively diminutive size of Andrew and Bear, we’ve done so without bulking-up, adding weight, or ‘getting bigger. ‘

We’re not trying to use this opportunity to encourage all of you to run out and sign up for the next competition you see. Although we’d love to see more of you give such contests a whirl, we also appreciate that such competitions are of NO interest to many of you. Rather, the events of this past weekend illustrate several key points that we want to make sure you all hear. First, they’re a reflection of the progress you’ve all made since you joined our community. Not only are you ready for most anything, you’re also competitively fit for most anything. Second, we want to make sure that credit is given where credit is due. Some have commented that our accomplishments are a direct reflection of the programming we’ve prescribed. While it’s nice to hear, we’re pretty confident that such success is correlated to something else entirely: YOU.  You’re all the ones who’ve put forth all the hard work that’s brought you to this point; we just provide the medium. Third, we want to encourage all of you to take the time to recognize and celebrate your progress. Andrew, Bear, and Meghan had this opportunity last weekend by participating in a competition. Over the long holiday weekend, we’d like to invite all of you to reflect on how you might want to evaluate your progress. What are you going to do to evaluate and celebrate the progress you’ve made? Keep in mind that your evaluation doesn’t need to be a physical challenge. The simple act of watching or supporting peers complimentary to your fitness level participate in an event can give you a sense as to what you’re capable of; perhaps you want to come offer support those who elect to use their newfound fitness in a competitive setting.

Sorry about being coy about how we did. “I did not lie. I intentionally mis-led.”

Finally, we want to thank you. All of you. More than anything, this past weekend made us realize how lucky we are to be able to have so many incredible individuals attending our affiliate. You’re helping us create what we’ve always dreamed of creating; a community that makes elite fitness accessible to everyone in the greater Burlington/South Burlington/Vermont/New England community. We’re proud to be working with you; We’re incredibly grateful for your continued support.

Keep your eyes peeled for upcoming events.

Coach T.