I pulled into the pitted and busted up parking lot next to Valley Gardens in Charleston.
To my right were railroad tracks running parallel to a chain link fence that ran parallel to old warehouses on Smith Street. To my left and up, there was the highway, which was busy in the middle of the afternoon, the week before Christmas.
Through the windshield of my parked car, I looked at the square, unremarkable converted warehouse that was CrossFit WV building and felt nothing but dread.
It was a good start.
How we got here
Four years ago, I started “One Month at a Time” around a really easy concept. Each month, I’d pick a topic — something I knew little to almost nothing about — and spend four or five weeks learning what I could about it, describing the process as I went.
My first topic, which kicked off the column and became my first yearlong project, was becoming vegan. I gave up animal products (as best as I could), first for a month, and then for the entire year, just to see how much it would change my life and my point of view.
I learned a lot, though ultimately didn’t remain vegan beyond what I signed on for.
Through the following seasons of the column, I’ve looked for larger projects to work on as I went from monthly topic to monthly topic. But I haven’t really found much I could make work, even though I’ve sometimes continued on with something after the month is over — like self-defense classes, barbershop singing or reading to elementary school kids.
Then a couple of months back, I had a modest health scare. I needed to make some adjustments, so I put myself on a diet, tried to get to the gym on a more regular basis and, gradually, I became lighter.
Not fantastically lighter, mind you, just somewhat lighter.
According to all the healthy weight charts, I am still a very large American, with about a quarter of my weight being composed of pure cookie dough.
Medical experts believe a man my height and age should weigh around 150 pounds, a weight I haven’t seen since the ninth grade.
My doctor said I shouldn’t worry about weighing as much as a teenager, but that I could stand to drop a few pounds and work on my blood pressure.
For as long as I can remember I’ve always been impressed by people who run long distance, do triathlons or barrel through obstacle course races like Spartan Race and Tough Mudder.
I’ve always been impressed by physical strength, by endurance and agility; though I haven’t done a lot to cultivate much of my own, really.
Sure, I hit the YMCA a couple of times a week to lift weights, but I’m always slacking off. I get injured, I get bored or I decide that I’d just as soon sleep in on a Saturday morning as go hit and kick a punching bag for an hour at the gym.
In the warmer months, I avoid the outdoors. I don’t play team sports, I don’t hike much, and I generally prefer to drive rather than walk if the trip is longer than two blocks.
The most exertion I get during the summer is when I break out my push mower and cut grass, which — depending on the weather — sometimes I can get away with only doing that every other week.
I am capable of doing a lot more. I just don’t, usually.
During the first year of “One Month at a Time,” I took on a minitriathlon, busted my butt training and managed to get across the finish line.
Of course, once that project was over — once I stopped training for race and went back to running Netflix marathons — everything I’d gained gradually disappeared.
I want to change that.
A fitness resolution
This year with “One Month at a Time,” I’ll be working a little more with fitness, which includes getting to a healthy weight, maintaining it and improving my overall fitness.
I’d also like to take a second stab at the Spartan Race — one of the “One Month” projects that ended in failure. A year and a half later, it still sticks in my craw that I didn’t even make it to the parking lot of the event. I pulled an abdominal muscle almost three weeks before the race.
The doctor offered to write me a note.
This year’s race in West Virginia is Aug. 24, once again at the Summit Bechtel Reserve.
There is no knowing if any of this will work out. First of the year resolutions always sound grand but often unravel in a matter of weeks or a few months.
Not all of the monthlong projects I have lined up sound particularly conducive to maintaining a healthy lifestyle.
To be honest, I could be back on my couch stuffing my face with Fritos by the first week of February, but for now, I think my heart is in the right place. I want to make this happen. I want to change — and that starts with CrossFit.
Short description of CrossFit
As with most things I take on, I don’t know much about CrossFit, except what I’ve heard from other people. It’s sometimes referred to as “the cult of CrossFit,” because from the outside it looks like a weird club that gets together after work to suffer.
CrossFit workouts include all the exercises most people hated in high school gym class: pullups, situps and running as if being chased by a naked clown waving a meat cleaver.
It’s not a fitness program for the lazy.
I met Caroline Price, a trainer and manager for CrossFit WV on Brooks Street. She was friendly but had a wide-eyed intensity that made me nervous.
“CrossFitters are crazy,” she told me. “We like the pain.”
I’m not as big a fan of pain. My least favorite part of working out is the inevitable soreness and stiffness that follows a 45-minute session lifting weights.
At CrossFit, they learn to get over it. “Embrace the suck,” they say.
Caroline explained that, while there are many CrossFit gyms, including several just in the Charleston-Huntington area, no two are exactly the same.
“We share the same terminology,” she said. “We know the same exercises and probably have the same or similar equipment, but we operate independently.”
CrossFit is a larger company, brand and philosophy. While the company is very 21st Century — it was established in California in 2000 — the methodology is old-school.
Unlike the YMCA, Nautilus or the 24-hour fitness places that have cropped up in shopping centers in recent years, CrossFit WV doesn’t keep a lot of fancy machinery around.
Inside the building, a couple of low-tech exercise bikes are shunted off to the far wall. In a small back room, out of sight, there’s a row of about 15 rowing machines fitted with plain, digital devices that only keep track of the time and measure distance traveled.
You can’t watch Netflix or YouTube while you work out. There are no televisions, no screens, just open area filled with the pounding sound of aggressive rock music.
“We don’t allow earbuds,” Caroline said. “That would interfere with the trainers being able to talk to you to help correct a movement.” She grinned. “That means you have to listen to our music.”
The wide-open space is important for CrossFit. You need it for the free weights, kettlebells and jump ropes. You need the room to pull yourself up on black, steel bars and to jump on top of scuffed wooden boxes.
“We believe in functional fitness,” Caroline explained. “We believe in fitness and strength you can use in your day-to-day life.”
The machines will help you build muscle, she said, but you might not get the kind of strength to help you get through an afternoon of tossing bags of mulch in your backyard or help you keep up with your children or grandchildren.
“We have a surprising number of grandmothers who come to classes,” she said. “And that’s why they’re here. This helps them chase and play with their grandkids.”
A big, dry-erase board dominates one wall.
This is where trainers write out the WOD — the Workout of the Day. The individual rankings of different CrossFitters for various sessions is also posted.
“CrossFit is competitive,” Caroline said, “but in the best possible way. You want to do better, but you celebrate what everybody else is doing.”
There are always plenty of high-fives to go around, she said.
Caroline said most CrossFit gyms are going to look similar — that they are related by a shared philosophy — but that there are variations in mission.
Her gym, she said, focused very much on endurance. Other CrossFit gyms might pay more attention to strength-building or to training for competition.
CrossFit has grown alongside the popular obstacle course races like Tough Mudder and Spartan, which shares some of the same ideas about functional fitness.
Caroline said differences were normal, though the core vision of health and fitness for the individual is the same.
“I think we all tend to follow the needs and wants of the people who come to the gym,” she said.
As a business, it’s customer-driven, but as a fitness center, CrossFit is very social. Along with the daily group fitness classes, CrossFit gyms like CrossFit WV plan gatherings outside the building where CrossFitters can get together, mingle and meet.
“We have so many classes,” Caroline said. “You might be coming to the gym for months or years and not know everyone. There might be people you knew in high school or college doing this and the two of you just didn’t connect.”
Through the month of January, I planned to use CrossFit WV as my home base. Partly, this is because of proximity. The gym is inside Charleston and only a few blocks away from where I work, but CrossFit WV has been around for a while.
The gym, owned by attorney Rachael Carrico and trainer Ashleigh Woods, was started over 10 years ago by Rachael’s brother, Daniel Stickler, a bariatric doctor who used the principles of CrossFit to treat his patients for weight loss.
The exercises used in CrossFit can easily be modified for whatever your fitness level, adapted until a participant is able to do the full movement.
She said she and Ashleigh took over the business when her brother began focusing on other ventures, though he’s still active with CrossFit.
I’ll also be visiting other CrossFit groups, meeting their communities, and diving into a workout or two with them, but before I could do any of that, I had to complete the CrossFit On Ramp program.
On Ramp is kind of an introduction to CrossFit. Over the course of about six visits or two weeks, trainers teach the basic movements and assess the fitness level of the new gym member.
“On a scale of one to 10, how fit do you think you are?” Caroline asked me before we began.
“Can you run a mile?” She asked.
“Nope,” I said.
I could probably run about half a mile, but not quickly, and I wouldn’t put money that I could even do that much without slowing to a walk.
“So, let’s say you’re a three,” Caroline said.
It was hard to argue with that.
At 5'7" and 209 pounds — approximately 50 to 60 pounds heavier than what is medically recommended — and on blood pressure medication, I was in sad shape.
I was better than I was six months ago, but still lousy.
The low side of average sounded just about right.
Then, we began. Caroline sent me out of the building to run a quarter mile. I briskly jogged around the block and then came back inside to do a series of pushups, situps and box jumps.
A box jump is simply jumping up on a box and then stepping down.
The exercises were performed in a sequence and then repeated, I think, four times. I can’t be certain. At some point during the 10- or 15-minute workout, I lost track of time and was just trying to keep going, even as my heart rattled like an industrial paint mixer.
At the end, when I finished the last set or when Caroline called “time,” I got a high-five and the words, “Day One down. Only five more to go.”
And this was before I even went to the first, real CrossFit class.