On a Saturday in January I spent the day competing in CrossFit — “the sport of fitness.” I pushed as hard as I could, mustered every bit of strength I had, left everything out on the floor. Without question I did terribly, placing 29th out of 32 competitors in the scaled division. To put it simply, I was out of my league.
A few months prior my home gym, CrossFit Klew in Somerset, New Jersey, announced that it would hold its first ever competition. I’d been training six days a week for six months, quickly igniting an obsession with the feeling after a tough workout and the lure of progress under expert supervision. I’d grown stronger, faster, more confident, and I had deeper reserves of energy and stamina. Excited by the prospect of competing on my home turf with a guaranteed cheering section and no pressure, I signed up and trained with more focus and intensity than ever.
The weeks leading up to the competition raced by, and a nagging ankle injury slowly healed. The workouts were posted, and though they were going to be difficult they were all within my reach: a mix of things that I do well, such as rowing and pull-ups, and things I don’t do so well, like push jerks and overhead walking lunges. But with all the coaching I’d received, and the encouragement from my ever-supportive, very strong, also-competing girlfriend, I was confident that I could do it.
Early morning darkness on a cold Saturday in January. Taking a few deep breaths on the edge of the bed, knowing that if I stand up it will be a long time before I lie down again. And there is so much unknown between now and then. Breathe in. Finding comfort in a routine I learned years ago to combat stage fright, a top-down mental check of every muscle, consciously relaxing them one by one. Breathe out.
Stand up to a whirlwind. A hurried breakfast, a last-minute check of the gym bag. Pulling in to the crowded parking lot. The gym already buzzing with pre-competition activity. The familiar barbells and rowers, the unfamiliar faces. The tentative stretches and wishing for someone to tell me how to warm up. The first heats of competition I’m up next Starting line 3, 2, 1, GO!
Afterwards my friends and fellow competitors asked how I felt, how it went, what I thought. I feel sick, it went bad, I suck at this, I thought. “I had fun,” “115 pounds overhead was too heavy today,” and “this was a great event,” I lied, trying to sound positive.
Close friends, perhaps sensing the cracks in my positive attitude, comforted and encouraged me. They reminded me that I started CrossFit just eight months prior, that this was my first competition, that at least I got to work out all day and now I could go eat whatever I wanted.
They were kind and true, and I appreciated it. But something just wasn’t right, and I don’t mean the tightness gripping my lower back. I tried to brush it off, but it was unbrushable. I tried to push it out of my mind, but it was unpushable. I clung to the words my friends had said, convincing myself that I had had fun that day.
I had fun, but to be honest I hated it.
I hated it.
I hated it.
That day will stick with me for a long time, quietly stoking a fire, just like another day almost 20 years ago.
In the Fall of 1999 I was a 15-year-old sophomore at the School for Creative and Performing Arts (SCPA) in Cincinnati, Ohio. It is among the finest arts-focused high schools anywhere, and I had just transferred in from a private school.
Brimming with confidence in my academic and musical abilities, I walked into the imposing hundred-year-old building. I had four years’ worth of private lessons on violin and clarinet, and I showed enough talent on the latter instrument to be a section leader or principal player in local, regional, and state bands. But when I walked into that building I’d never played the violin in an orchestra, and I was registered for the top orchestral group at the school.
I was the new kid, untested, unheard. The conductor hadn’t even heard me — he wasn’t at my audition earlier that summer. He had no way of knowing where I should sit, so when I walked into the orchestra room that first day all he could do was scratch his chin and point me to a random empty seat. It happened to be near the front of the first violin section.
That didn’t last long; to put it simply, I was out of my league. I didn’t have the technique, the ear, or the basic sound quality to hang with some of the most talented kids I’d ever met. So one day in class I had to move. Standing up from a seat at the front of the hushed orchestra, with my violin and its case with the noisy handle, and walking around to the back of the second violin section — last chair second.
It wasn’t a big orchestra, maybe 30 kids. But it was a very quiet room for those endless seconds. I could feel their eyes on me as I walked to my new seat in the back of the room, sat down, and fidgeted with the hair of my bow. I felt like an impostor who’d been discovered. I realized I was an impostor who’d been discovered.
I hated that feeling.
It could have made me quit, could have extinguished whatever motivation I had to play such a difficult instrument. I could have walked down the hall and played first clarinet in the wind ensemble and been perfectly content. Forget about that feeling sitting there in the back of the room.
But it had the opposite effect. It lit a fire, a flame of motivation that would drive me to get better. Push me to finally learn how to practice, to spend every free period at school in one of the practice rooms, to count the minutes until the next time the violin would be in my hands. The fire would grow with every step forward I took, intensifying my dedication to practice, feeding on progress under expert supervision.
It started to pay off. I remember the first time someone saw me leaving a practice room, having overheard me practicing but not knowing it was me, tell me I sounded good. Soon after, I had moved up a few chairs in orchestra. By the end of that year I was near the front of the second violin section. The beginning of the next year I was in the back of the first violin section. The year after that, my senior year in high school, I was sitting in the same chair the conductor had scratched his chin and pointed to on my first day two years prior. But this time I’d earned it.
A year after that I was sitting in the back of the first violin section of a college orchestra, having received a full scholarship to study music.
The Fire is Back
CrossFit is an obsession, and I feel about it the way I did about music 20 years ago. That feeling after the competition in January was devastating, but it was not one of defeat. I recognize it as a flame of motivation to keep getting stronger and fitter. Counting the minutes until I’m back at the gym with a barbell to lift, meters to row, ropes to climb, balls to wall. Putting in the extra time and trying to absorb as much as possible, from a coach’s corrections to the beauty and power of my fellow athletes’ Olympic lifts. Stoking a fire that feeds on progress and personal records and chalky fist bumps. I’m a man who knows that last chair second violin is not a dead-end, but rather just a good place to start a fire. 3, 2, 1, GO.