"I live in my box. I put all my life savings in here, so when I say CrossFit is my life, literally, it's my life," John Fortune said.
While most of the small city of Geneva, Ohio slept, John Fortune pulled the last few strokes of a 10,000-m row. Moonlight streamed in from the bay doors of A-County CrossFit and glanced off the clock. It was just after 1 a.m.
Working 60 hours per week as a firefighter and paramedic, running an affiliate and training for the 2014 Central East Regional, Fortune can’t afford to waste time on luxuries like sleep.
“My friends call me ‘Petri Dish,’” Fortune said. “They say I was genetically engineered because I don’t sleep and I’m so energetic.”
He kicked out of the straps and called it a night. Thankfully, his commute was short—the CrossFit athlete of just more than a year sleeps in a 12-by-12-foot, bare concrete room tucked behind his affiliate’s storage closet.
“I live in my box,” he said. “I put all my life savings in here, so when I say CrossFit is my life, literally, it’s my life.”
The 26-year-old started CrossFit four months after watching the live broadcast of the 2012 Reebok CrossFit Games on ESPN. A former collegiate baseball player and lifelong gym rat, CrossFit was the perfect marriage of his love for both competing and working out.
“I thought, ‘Holy crap, that looks badass,’” he said. “It was the best of both worlds.”
Just three months after joining NEO CrossFit in Perry, Ohio, he signed up for the 2013 Open.
“It was just a fun thing to do,” he said. “I had no idea at that time that it was gonna take over my life.”
With a 365-lb. back squat and a 405-lb. deadlift before CrossFit, he had strength on his side, but he had never done an Olympic lift or even heard of a muscle-up. Still, in Open Workout 13.1, he snatched the 165-lb. barbell 20 times. Two weeks later, he got his first bar muscle-up before class, following it with 15 more on the rings in 13.3.
“It was all heart and strength, there was no finesse,” he recounted.
Fortune finished the 2013 Open in 60th place in the Central East, narrowly missing qualification after the second wave of regional invitations were extended.
At first he was crushed.
“But then it turned into that fire and drive,” he said. “I thought, ‘I’ve got 365 days to get this thing down, and next year, it’s gonna happen. I’m not going to be 60th and hope for people to decline.”
Though Fortune didn’t qualify for regionals last year, he didn’t finish empty-handed. What began as a hobby had become his passion, so he opened his own affiliate in August of 2013.
“I like coaching and I like helping people,” he said. “I thought this could be right up my alley.”
His first location was a bust. In a strip mall sandwiched between a Subway restaurant and a tanning salon, he was reprimanded daily for the loud music and clanging barbells.
“It was a nightmare,” Fortune remembered. “(The salon owners) were complaining that the walls were shaking and that the clients in the beds thought there was an earthquake.”
Taking a $15,000 loss for breaking his lease, he moved his 21 athletes a mile down the road and re-opened A-County CrossFit in a 5,000-square-foot former auto body shop. The building’s old storefront houses a sofa and Fortune’s “kitchen:” a fridge, microwave and George Foreman grill.
“It’s what I can afford,” he said. “I’m trying to make do with what I got.”
Between shifts saving lives on the squad and coaching the air squat, Fortune has spent the last six months training to qualify for the 2014 Regional.
“My cardio was great,” he said. “But I knew if I wanted to get to regionals … I definitely needed to get stronger.”
To build strength, Fortune practiced every-minute-on-the-minute doubles at 92 percent of his one-rep max for the front squat, overhead squat, back squat and deadlift. Over six months, he increased his deadlift from 405 lb. to 485 lb., his back squat from 365 lb. to 415 lb., and set snatch and clean and jerk PRs of 215 lb. and 308 lb., respectively.
He also refined his pull-up technique.
“I didn’t know how to butterfly or even kip that well during the Open last year,” he said. “I was more like a flopping fish getting up to the bar.”
His efforts paid off with a top-40 Open finish in the Central East this year. The key to his success, he said, was his methodical approach. He would repeat each Open workout after scrutinizing his video for ways to get more reps or shave seconds off his time.
Fortune performed 14.1 three times before he met his goal of 390 reps in the couplet of snatches and double-unders.
After setting an initial score of 368 reps, he timed each stumble, calculating that another six seconds on the rope would earn 22 reps more. On his third attempt, he got to his rope with 15 seconds left after eight rounds, hammering out exactly 30 double-unders in the remaining time.
His game plan of “do, critique, repeat” saved his skin in the final Open workout.
In his first run at the descending ladder of thrusters and bar-facing burpees, he posted a time of 11:33. While watching his video, he realized he failed to meet the standard for the burpee, landing on one foot instead of two.
“That could have cost me the whole year,” he said.
Because of tender traps and screaming quads, he was forced to wait until Monday to try again. In his second attempt, Fortune took care to land on two feet and reduced his rest time to finish in 10:46. His 48th-place finish put him in 37th overall, earning him a place on the regional floor in Cincinnati, Ohio in May.
“Up until the deadline I was frantic,” he said. “It was a nail biter to the last minute.”
Now, after just more than a year of CrossFit, Fortune is preparing for his regional debut.
“I don’t sleep, bottom line,” he said. “There’s no sugar-coating it.”
Because of his constantly varied shift schedule, Fortune cannot train consistently each day. Making up for missed training with multiple sessions when he can, he averages 14 workouts per week, and three to fours of sleep per night.
The goal, he said, is to get comfortable lifting heavy loads while short of breath.
After a strength and technique session, he might do five rounds of a 250-m sprint on the erg before hitting triples of a deadlift or Olympic lift at 85 percent of his one-rep max.
In a recent test of last year’s Regional Event 5—21-15-9 reps of deadlifts at 315 lb. and box jumps on a 30-in. box—he finished in 6:05. The score would have been good enough for 34th place at the Central East Regional; however, Fortune performed it while wearing an altitude mask.
“(At the regional) you don’t go into heavy deadlifts fresh,” he said.
In just a few weeks, Fortune will compete alongside the fittest in the Central East.
But as he works toward his goal of finishing 37th or better at the regional—to match his Open rank—he looks to a more lasting goal of someday coaching CrossFit athletes full time.
“It’s my passion,” he said. “I don’t have a lot of top athletes, but people who are just trying to get in shape. To help them get there is an awesome feeling.”