The morning is crisp, and the dew-covered grass slips quietly under the feet of a woman with fiery red hair. Dressed in her work clothes, she has woken up early to care for her herd of 2,500 ewes and 150 cattle alongside her husband.
Their 600-acre farm spreads up from the small town of Riverton, on the southern coast of the South Island of New Zealand. Less than 2,000 residents live in town, most making a living off of fishing, farming, and providing safe harbor.
The woman with the red hair, Ruth Anderson Horrell, is a sheep farmer, small animal veterinarian, and CrossFit Invercargill affiliate owner. She is also a 2011 CrossFit Games competitor. In a little more than a week, she will leave the verdant coast of New Zealand to compete in the Home Depot Center.
Two years ago, just months after she started CrossFit in her sister’s partner’s garage, Ruth crossed the Tasman Sea to compete in the 2009 Australasia Regional. The experience opened her eyes to what women are physically capable of, and how far she still had to go. “I couldn’t do a ring dip and unfortunately we were required to do 45,” Ruth said. “I was amazed that the girls could do them!”
Ruth, a former multi-sport competitor and triathlete, got hooked to the intensity of CrossFit competition. “Competition helped me find a pain threshold far beyond what I had found in training. I thought I had good mental strength and that I could keep pushing when I train, but I found when I compete I reach whole new levels of pain,” she said. “It was deeply satisfying, beyond a ‘runner’s high’ to come away knowing that you had absolutely nothing left to give.”
After the 2009 Australasia Regional, Ruth returned to the South Island, started training the Olympic lifts, and bought her first kettlebell.
In 2010, Ruth came to the Regional a different athlete. She held the top three for most of the weekend, but dug too deep into her reserves early in the competition. Ruth “didn’t have enough left” on the final workout and missed the cut for the Games by one point. “It was devastating to know I had been so close.”
2011 Games Season
Between the 2010 Regional and the 2011 Open, Ruth “took some time out to reflect.” She knew that to make it to the Home Depot Center, she’d need to work on her skill in gymnastic movements and the Olympic lifts.
As CrossFit competitors know, sometimes the most effective way to improve on one’s “goats” is to set a timeline. The due date is competition day. Ruth took that approach to her Olympic lifting. After the 2010 Australia Regional, she set her sights on the fall National Olympic Weightlifting Competition in Invercargill. Throughout the summer and early fall, Ruth trained through shoulder pain and went on to take gold in the 69kg weight class with an 117kg-combined lift.
After the competition, Ruth took six weeks off to let her AC sprain recover. She avoided “throwing weight over [her] head or hanging from the bar.” During that time, she also took time out of her small animal veterinarian job. The demands of farming 2,500 ewes and 150 cattle, starting an affiliate, training, and waking up at all hours of the night for veterinary work had taken their toll. For those six weeks, Ruth replaced barbells with sheep, and veterinary work with opening an affiliate.
When she started training again, last Christmas Day, she got her “arse kicked” by her sister Helen Horrell and felt weak. “I couldn’t do a dead hang pull-up, and I felt incredibly weak through my whole upper body.” It put a fire in her belly.
Just a three months later, Ruth had returned to form. She took 83rd in the worldwide standings in the Open, finishing two positions behind 2010 Games competitor Lauren Plumey, and one position ahead of the Open Workout 11.2 worldwide winner Martina Barbaro.
At the 2011 Australia Regional, Ruth was determined not to let a berth to the Games slip through her fingers as it had the year before. Although competitions require giving one’s all, Ruth knew that she needed to keep something in the tank for Day 3.
Ruth stayed at or near the top in each workout leading up to the final chipper (Run/HSPU/Row: 6th, Thruster Ladder: 3rd, Deadlift/Box Jump: 3rd, 100s Workout: 5th, “Amanda:” 7th). Australia’s Eve Neville was within range in the point score to clean up well if Ruth tanked on Workout 6.
On Sunday, Ruth was exhausted from the workouts and sleeping poorly each night. Nerves, adrenaline, and the time zone change had kept her up. “All I wanted to do was lie down and sleep.” But the memory of losing her berth to the Games in the final workout smoldered within her.
When she walked out into the stadium for the final chipper, the sound of the wildly cheering crowds gave her the fire she needed to make it through. “My crew was right beside me as I clawed through the toes-to-bar,” she said. “All I can remember is every time my hands came off that bar, my sister exploded, telling me to get back on.”
Ruth made it through the lunges and sprinted into her father’s arms. She earned third in the final workout and second in the region. “The elation of finishing the weekend and getting to go to America was – I don’t know, I’m speechless – just cool.”
The main changes in Ruth’s training between 2010 and 2011 were:
- Reducing her long distance running.
- Adding a greater strength component and more volume (double days).
- Paying closer attention to her diet.
- Targeting weaknesses with a reps/minute approach.
Focusing on recovery and mobility.
- Massages, true rest days, sleeping for longer, daytime naps when possible, and mobility work (MobilityWOD.com).
While reading the CrossFit Journal, Ruth came across an article that suggested performing a skill for a certain number of reps per minute. The approach, she says, has helped her focus on the technique and improve on her “goats.” By following a set rep scheme within a time parameter, she is forced to slow down and use the time for technique work rather than metabolic conditioning.
Secondly, Ruth’s warm ups are “a lot longer and more involved.” She says she has learned a lot from Kelly Starrett’s Mobility WOD website, and that she has seen improvements in her body position during the workouts.
Her main goal, she says, “Is to come out of every Games workout feeling like I have given all I have to give.” Since “Every workout at this level will take you to some dark places,” Ruth says, “Whether it’s my strongest or weakest event, I just want to throw everything at it.”
Ruth’s training partners, Maria and Bruce Mackay, and her husband, Chris, are all traveling from New Zealand to Los Angeles to support her at the Games. “I have the best fan club, it’s a bit more than a bus trip to get there,” Ruth says, “and to them I truly credit my success so far.”
After the Games, they will spend a week traveling through the Southwestern US. They hope to see Disneyland, Las Vegas, and the Grand Canyon. “It’s going to be the trip of a lifetime. Thank you to Reebok, their contribution has made this trip possible.”