Cancer at 34 Part 11 – I’ve got cancer, but what’s your excuse?

I’ve talked about how invaluable family and friends have been during this process, and it’s still true. Rev. Mitra and members at St. John’s Unitarian Universalist Church have also been very supportive. I’ve also talked about my experience with Cross Fit before, but I’m revisiting it today because I just finished competing in the 2017 Open.

I started Cross Fit when I lived in Pittsburgh last year and I joined Cross Fit Blue Ash when I returned to Cincinnati. It has been a great source of continuity during the last three months as I began my treatment for stage four lung cancer. Cross Fit provided a respite by giving me an hour each day where I couldn’t think about anything but finishing the workout. If you missed my initial post about Cross Fit you can read it here.

I decided to participate in the 2017 Open, even though I was afraid of embarrassing myself. The Open is the first stage of the Cross Fit Games and any athlete can participate. The competition spans five weeks and each week a new workout is announced. Participants must report their scores online and are ranked according to how quickly they finish the workout or by how many repetitions they complete.

I’ve never been very fast or strong, so even before I was diagnosed with cancer my performance probably would have been mediocre at best. Ten days before the 2017 Open began, I underwent thryoplasty in order to restore my voice.  Afterwards, the doctor told me to avoid any strenuous activity, including Cross Fit, for 10 days. So, my first day back at the gym would be the first day of the 2017 Open. That really put me behind the eight ball but I decided to go through with it. The workout for 17.1 featured an increasingly difficult progression of dumbbell snatches and burpee box jump-overs.

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I really struggled with the scaled 35 pound dumbbell snatches, and I only managed 122 reps during the 20 minute time limit. I was sore for days, but I came back for the next Open workout.

17.2 included a 12 minute AMRAP (As Many Rounds as Possible) workout with 50-foot weighted walking lunges, 16 knee raises, and 8 power cleans. I couldn’t even manage the scaled version of 35 pound lunges so I ended up doing 15 pounds instead. Even then, I only completed 78 reps before time ran out. For days after, my knees were raw from rubbing against the ground.

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The gym had organized four different teams that all competed against each other and talked trash, good naturedly, on a Facebook page. Most members finished the workouts during the gym’s “Friday Night Lights” event each week. Everyone brought food and cheered each other on as they sweated and strained.

Until 17.3, I had done the workouts during morning sessions at Cross Fit Blue Ash. Steve Hollowell and Sam Spice dedicated the “Friday Night Lights” session for 17.3 to me, and their effort was very moving. Steve had already paid for wristbands that honored me. They even created a flyer for the event that featured a true-to-life photograph of my amazing physique.

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This photo is 100 percent accurate.

I had originally planned to be out of town the night of the 17.3 “Friday Night Lights” session, but I could hardly skip an event held in my honor. For most people, the workout was over quickly because few athletes, myself included, made it past the first checkpoint at 8 minutes. It featured a progression of increasingly difficult jumping pull-ups and squat snatches. The weight on the squat snatches quickly increased from 45 to 75 pounds, which overpowered me. I lack the stability and strength for heavy overhead lifts, and I was only able to complete two of the heavier squat snatches, even though Steven, my team captain, was cheering me on.

In addition, my parents and brother also attended the 17.3 “Friday Night Lights” event and talked to Steven after. My parents were terrified that I might hurt myself at Cross Fit or somehow damage my voice. But as time was running out, I looked up at my mom as I got ready to try one final squat snatch. I had to summon all my strength and concentration, but I managed to do it. My mom’s face burst into joy and pride as I lifted the barbell above my head. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen her be so exhilarated before. It was great to have them there, and I think it also made Cross Fit seem less threatening and dangerous to my parents.

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In the end, I only managed a paltry 45 reps, but from then on I made sure I went to the “Friday Night Lights” event. Afterwards, many of the participants went to the Firehouse Grill in Blue Ash. It was a great opportunity to get to know some of the other athletes, especially those whom I never saw in class.

The workout for 17.4 included sets of 55 deadlifts, wallballs, rowing, and hand-release pushups. However, I only made it half-way through the rowing for a total of 134 reps. My lower back was sore for days, and when I repeated the workout the following Monday, my score was even lower.

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The final workout, 17.5, was a timed competition that called for 10 rounds, each with 9 thrusters and 35 single-unders with a jump rope. Thrusters are one of my least favorite lifts and 17.5 was no exception. I only managed to do half the workout on the scaled 65-pound requirement, although I did do well when it came to single-unders. I eventually finished just shy of 20 minutes.

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Most of the participants again went out to Firehouse Grill after the workout was finished, and I enjoyed socializing. I know it’s a crude measurement, but during the last few months the number of connections I have on Facebook has grown from about 100 to more than 170, and many of the new friends are people I met at the gym.

I finished the 2017 Open with a ranking of approximately 11,000 – hardly a great accomplishment. But I did finish, which many people keep telling me is a great victory in itself. However, it was frustrating and humbling to see other athletes, even those much older than me, record much better performances.

The end of the 2017 Open was bittersweet. I will miss the challenge and competition it inspired, but I won’t be sad to return to regular Cross Fit workouts (which are challenging enough on their own). Again, I am extremely grateful for what the athletes and coaches at Cross Fit Blue Ash have done for me, and I plan to continue strengthening my connection the Cross Fit Blue Ash community in the months to come. I also hope to improve my performance at the 2018 Open.

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