Cameron Cline warned me not to trust GPS before I set out to visit Firebreather Fitness, a CrossFit “box” in St. Albans.
“It’ll take you to the post office in Scott Depot.” The gym co-owner added, “I’ve been fighting with Google to get that fixed.”
I could relate. A couple of weeks back, I’d been blown off course by my GPS while trying to visit Mountain State Force CrossFit in Hurricane.
It seemed like technology had it in for CrossFit, so I followed Cameron’s emailed directions to the letter and turned up on time, for a change.
Firebreather looked a lot like the other CrossFit gyms I’d visited through January. It had the same basic gear — rowing machines, stationary bicycles and free weights — but it also had a about a dozen cement globes of varying sizes, something I’d never seen before, except on Instagram: Atlas Stones.
“We get strongman competitors who use them,” Cameron said. “Atlas [Stones] are sometimes used in Spartan races, too. You carry it up a hill — that or a bucket filled with rocks.”
Cameron showed me how to crouch down and then slowly get one of these stone balls up to my shoulder.
I could work with the 80- or 90-pound ball with no problem but couldn’t do more than make the 250-pound ball wiggle.
Cameron told me Firebreather Fitness has been around just under 10 years and was oriented more toward strength-training than the other CrossFit gyms in the area.
“That just fits in with who we are, but,” he added with a laugh, “you’d be surprised at how much cardio you can get from dumbbells.”
I was not surprised at all, really. I’d been doing this for a couple of weeks and had found new ways to sweat almost every other day.
What surprised me was how Cameron warmed up the class.
Before every class, everyone is instructed to stretch and warm up, which helps reduce the chance of injury. Like the workouts, the warmups change daily, but often include a little running, rowing or jumping rope.
Cameron had us grab abdominal mats — little padded wedges about the size of a medium pizza box used for situps and crunches. The trainer had us move around, carrying the mats, one-handed, resting on an open palm.
Dropping the mat meant five burpees. The objective was to keep your mat off the ground, while encouraging everyone in your path to drop theirs.
It was a lot of fun.
We laughed and chased each other around like kids on a playground, even when one of us had to drop and peel off five more burpees.
Then we got to the Workout of the Day (WOD), which required a partner.
First, one partner hauled a pair of kettlebells across the room and back eight times, while the other partner did a series of pullups, pushups and squats.
They kept doing this until the first partner finished the exercise. Then they traded places.
After that, the first partner carried the same kettlebells overhead, the same distance, again eight times, while the second partner kept up with the pullups, pushups and squats.
When the first partner finished, they switched again, and then repeated the same drill with 200 double-unders with a jump rope (that’s when a jump rope passes twice under your feet per jump).
If you were like me and couldn’t do a double under, you could just skip rope like normal. You just had to do two-and-a-half times more jumps — 500.
You finished with 500 meters on a rowing machine.
If this sounds complicated, I thought so, too. I managed to mix up the distances, which meant my partner, Jackie Thornton, got a little more time doing pullups and pushups than she signed on for.
I didn’t figure out that I was doubling our workout until I was almost finished with the second kettlebell exercise. Then came the jump rope, which I’m not great at.
I can’t do a double-under, and I skip rope like one of my shoes weighs 10 pounds more than the other, plus I stop — a lot.
“Just break it down into chunks,” Cameron told me. “You can do this.”
And I did. But it was a long haul, which resulted in even more pushups and situps for my partner.
“It’s all good,” Jackie said. “Just a little extra fit today.”
She was exceedingly gracious about it. Cameron said he had a good gym, but it’s the people that make it a success.
“I think that’s true of any good gym,” he said.
The fine print
Over the past month, the question of cost has come up some. The managers of the gyms have mentioned it because it’s a sticking point with some people.
CrossFit is not cheap.
A single membership runs around $100 to $150 per month, depending on location, services, etc. This is three times as much as a single membership to the local YMCA, which is a bargain if you use it, and doesn’t come with a swimming pool, a sauna or racquetball courts.
But that’s also a matter of perspective. CrossFit gyms are comparable to various “boot camps,” and they’re generally less expensive than one-on-one time with a personal trainer.
I’m not knocking either.
I would argue, however, that CrossFit is cheaper than all the weight benches, stationary bicycles and other gadgets I’ve paid hundreds of dollars for over the years. All of them eventually ended up at the curb or were traded off for beer money.
Of course, you don’t necessarily need a health club membership or special equipment to get in shape — you just need a good pair of running shoes, a library card and a metric ton of determination.
But most of us lack at least one of the three, and we just don’t bother to do anything — except endlessly talk about doing something.
I think a lot of us want to make a change, but we get discouraged. It’s been so long since we’ve run a mile or done a pushup, we stop believing any of that is possible anymore. It’s just too late, we tell ourselves. We need to accept who we are now.
Where I was, where I am, where I’m going
It was probably during my second visit to CrossFit WV that trainer Caroline Price tried to get me to do a handstand pushup, basically a handstand braced by a sturdy wall, that becomes a pushup.
I balked. Big men do not flip on top of their heads and live.
Caroline told me I didn’t have to do that.
“We can modify,” she said.
Instead, I did a pike pushup, which looked like a yoga move gone terribly wrong.
Trainer Nick O’Reilly, who can walk on his hands, told me if I stuck with him, he thought he could have me doing a handstand pushup by Valentine’s Day.
I shrugged. I had bigger hurdles to get over, like having my ego bruised on a daily basis.
It’s one thing to finish five minutes behind a kid just out of college. It’s another to finish two minutes after a mom who also brought her toddler to class.
Still, something happened as I kept showing up.
I got faster. I got stronger. I got better. And while I continued to bring up the rear at every class, one night, I planted my palms on a mat, kicked my feet up and rested my heels six feet up a sturdy wall.
I stood on my hands, elbows straight, and then, just because, I lowered myself and did one, lousy, wobbly pushup.
Nick, grinning, yelled, “Well, alright. That’s one!”
It felt amazing.
Later, Caroline told me, “That’s part of how this all works. You do the work and learn these little exercises — tricks, if you want to call them that — and you gain confidence.”
Confidence becomes the courage to believe you can be more than you think you are right now.
Even before I stepped foot in the building on Brooks Street, a lot was changing for me. I’d already shed 40 pounds and was working on getting my blood pressure under control.
Since I started with CrossFit WV, another eight pounds have melted away, and my blood pressure has improved enough that my doctor told me I can put my medicine on hold — for now.
I can’t say it’s all because of the burpees, but I do believe the exercise has helped quite a bit. It’s given me a little confidence, and I’ve registered — once again — to run the West Virginia Spartan Race in August.
Maybe this time I’ll get to the starting line. Maybe I’ll even finish.
In the meantime, CrossFit WV has graciously extended my guest status, which lets them follow along with my progress — take some credit, if they want. It also maybe gives me a way to break the ice with the broader fitness community in the state and get to know them, too.
At the very least, I hope it will help me try and keep up.