August 21, 2013
Visions of Big Sky
By Chris Cooper

When you leave Montana, the world seems two-dimensional again. The rise of CrossFit worldwide still seems a surprise to many on the fringe, but the answer to all of it was on display in Big Sky ...

Montana is about as real as it gets.

The air is lighter and clearer. The mountains are harder and higher. The CrossFit athletes, untouchable through Games season, are just a barstool away. Coach is fun and easy to talk to, and you realize HQ is made up of real people after all. All these simple truths are revealed at the Big Sky affiliate gathering.

CrossFit concerns itself with real fitness, Dave Castro reminded attendees at the Friday morning workout. It’s about application, not aesthetics.

Calamity Jane

"We all train with barbells and pull-up rigs, and we come out here and want to do that same stuff,” Castro told the crowd. “But we're going to test our fitness in the real world."

With that, he revealed Calamity Jane: a two-mile climb beginning at 7,500 feet and ending at 8,600 feet — straight up.

Castro didn't have to ask anyone to climb that mountain. Instead, we stood around smiling, enjoying the peculiar hedonism of the very fit: the joyful anticipation of an extreme physical test. As Jon Gilson said to me later at lunch, "My worst nightmare is someone else's dream come true."

Put another way, our fun is not fun.

A team of Games competitors attended the gathering, entertaining the crowd through competition at elevation. Dan Bailey, Garret Fisher, Scott Panchik, Alessandra Pichelli, Stacie Tovar, Elisabeth Akinwale and Michelle Kinney would take on events all weekend in hopes of coming out on top.

Bailey led the warm-up to the climb (“Y'all come over here. Follow the bicep.”) Then we trotted off. Many walked up the steep climbs. Nearly everyone stopped; most to breathe, some to puke. It was hot and dusty in the tracks of the leaders.

Any travel above 7,500 feet negates a sprint. Our goal was a mere 1,000-foot gain over two miles; hardly the stuff of Sir Edmund Hillary — but then, we were doing it in tennis shoes, some carrying grinning toddlers on their backs, on sliding shale and shifting sand.

If a runner were to look up from cataloguing little quartz rocks, they would see a solo tanned figure ascending the final climb. It was Jon Glancy, a video producer on the HQ staff. He summited in just over 31 minutes.

"I think I know how Rich Froning must feel right now," he said.

He was only half-joking.

Most finished in under 50 minutes, but anyone who waited around would have seen two remarkable things: Games athletes pushing onward up the mountain to Lone Peak and, far below, Kate Foster working her way up the treacherous slope.

Foster, in baby blue, would step up, then pull her prosthetic leg after her. Step, lift. Step, lift. Over small boulders upon which I'd slid for 40 minutes, she was propping herself, over and over, all the way up. It took her two hours, but she made it. While I'd been afraid to stop for five seconds for fear of talking myself out of it, and turning around, she never considered turning back.

Better Than Hockey

Buffet tables surrounded the plaza all weekend, filled with meat, vegetables, nuts and seeds. It was fantastic food, but the crowd was even more engaging, and many plates were forgotten in favor of conversation. Despite its size, there's still one degree of separation in CrossFit: If I don't know you, I know someone who does. New friends are made almost by accident, and as hugs are the currency of CrossFitters, trust is absolute. Some left their wallets, cameras or laptops on tables to hold their spot.

On Friday night, attendees were treated to a max snatch event. Akinwale opened with a weight close to my max. If you've never seen Akinwale snatch, watch her hands. She pulls with a narrow grip, and allows her hands to slide out as she drops under the bar. It's scary as hell, but terror turns to thrill after the second beer, and I cheered myself hoarse. Half of the athletes hit a PR on the cracked concrete.

The crowd wound up as the weights went higher. Not in a tennis stadium of 15,000, but on a grassy slope surrounded by perhaps 15 dozen, Bailey asked for some noise. And by God, he got it. We hollered the way one does in Montana, pumped our fists in the air (many clenched in a hook grip) and banged our toes on the pull-up rig.

Slapping my thigh to make noise (and still keep my beer) I had an epiphany: This is better than hockey. For anyone from Canada, this is not a common thought. It might be blasphemy.

Hearing From Coach

On Saturday, Founder and CEO of CrossFit, Greg Glassman delivered his speech at 10 a.m., and the room was jammed. He spoke about affiliate growth, told new stories about old times and fielded questions. One of the best came from Marty Cej, who noted the overwhelming success rate of CrossFit boxes and then asked, “Of the very few who haven't continued their affiliation, have you noticed a commonality?”

Greg didn't hesitate. “Yes, they're no fun,” he said.

He explained that affiliates who fail to make their gym welcoming, warm and full of laughter tend to not do as well, with a few exceptions. In short, coaches who don't care about their clients on a personal level just don't make it. Then, he reminded affiliate owners of their duty to create meaningful employment for their coaches, and to reflect on why past staff members have left to open their own gym.

Coach also spoke at length about initiatives in cognitive fitness, including a chess program for CrossFit affiliates, the SAT Initiative and the CrossFit Kids’ Hope for Brains program.

At the close of the talk, the crowd piled outside for a picture and were treated to the sight of a hotel guest running from a bear on the slope opposite the conference center.

The announcement of the next workout for the athletes was exciting. At the lake down the hill, they would swing kettlebells in the sand, and perform push-ups and overhead squats on a floating paddleboard. Many watched the event while others went off to explore on their own, horseback riding, climbing, zip-lining and rafting.

Maxing Out the Mountain

A max clean event brought a few surprises. Fisher pulled out of the competition after twisting an ankle on a PR snatch attempt. But Matt Chan showed up, and Castro also invited Calamity Jane winner Jon Glancy onto the platform.

Glancy's clean was good, but not in the league of Bailey, Panchik and Chan; that made him the fan favorite. Here was a guy who started in the crowd on Friday, earning a spot in the limelight on Saturday night.

Glancy hit a PR at 235 lb. The fans went wild. He went for more weight.

The lift rotation went clockwise around the square. The weights went up every round, until some athletes began to miss their attempts. Castro announced PR attempts and the crowd loved it. Chan caught his first 355-lb. clean, and after three deep breaths, jerked the weight.

Bailey answered with his own PR at 335. Glancy hit 245 and kept going, riding on the crowd, the noise and the chance to play. He caught 255 — a 20-lb. PR — and slowly stood it up. My voice cracked from yelling. When you're this close, they hear you.

Bailey asked the crowd to make noise during his final attempt at 345. He set his stance, grabbed the bar and then cracked up when Castro announced he was attempting just 245. He stood up, turned a tight circle, squatted and crushed the weight. The crowd exhaled for the first time in almost an hour, and wandered down to the bar.

If Bailey had us in the palm of his hand during the max clean event, he closed his fist on us when he brought out his guitar. With general counsel of CrossFit, Dale Saran accompanying, Bailey sang to a young girl for her birthday. Bailey continued to serenade the crowd throughout the night. We all stayed up late together.

When the Dealing’s Done

By the end of the weekend, a remarkably fit Bailey was rewarded with $3000 and the hearts of a few dozen women. Panchik, who appears to have already improved since the Games, got personal bests in the snatch and clean and a check for $2000. Fisher, an unknown beyond NorCal until this year’s Regionals, didn’t even have to muss his hair for his $1000 third prize.

Pichelli, a pleasant surprise at the Games, won $3000 through consistent performances in Big Sky. Kinney, who was Kate Foster’s coach throughout the young CrossFitter’s last bone marrow transplant, was rewarded with $2000, and Stacie Tovar split $1000 with Elisabeth Akinwale. Other top athletes, like Miranda Oldroyd, Gretchen Kittelberger and Chan, found their reward in the joy of competition and intimacy of the crowd.

When you leave Montana, the world seems two-dimensional again. The rise of CrossFit worldwide still seems a surprise to many on the fringe, but the answer to all of it was on display in Big Sky: participatory competition, heroes on barbells and guitars, the man among the people and smiles everywhere. This is CrossFit.