The CrossFit Games Northeast Qualifier (NEQ) Day One workouts were announced a week ahead of time, on the Albany CrossFit site. The first included thrusters and burpees - an evil combination that I have programmed myself many times. Maybe not the sexiest of CrossFit exercises, but certainly classics. And, again, brutally effective in their capacity to leave you sweating and panting and broken on the ground. But the second workout of the day stole all the attention, and not in a good way. Just five little letters was all it took for the virtual crowd to start buzzing.
I'm not going to talk about the NEQ organizers' strategy in programming this workout. I won't even begin to speculate the science-y analysis that went into choosing the movements, the reps, the distance. What I will say is this... what I heard on Saturday morning, was, "BORING." The crowd at Albany thought the idea of rowing 2,000 meters as one of only three qualifying events was, well, kinda boring. I mean, you just row. No heavy weights, no range of motion criteria, there isn't even any counting involved. Athletes strap in and, like, row for a few minutes. Between, maybe, six and nine minutes, which is kind of a long time to watch the same damn movement. So from what I gathered, spectators weren't thrilled about the prospect of watching people row. The general crowd consensus was that Saturday afternoon would bring heat after heat of the CrossFit equivalent of watching paint dry. Boring.
I'm here to tell you, people... it was ANYTHING BUT. The row was, for me (and I think many of my fellow spectators), the most exciting part of the qualifiers, hands-down. The. Most. EXCITING.
We rolled 20 C2 rowers into the competition arena and lined them all up in two rows, facing each other. As an athlete, should you so choose, you could look directly into the face of your competition as you battled for points. To have so many competitors in such a small space, all lined up in order, meant that the crowd could watch the field as a whole. It was kind of like a horse race - one clumped mass all moving fast and hard, straining to come in one meter ahead of the next guy over. The athletes' tension was palpable, and the crowd fed off the perceived intimate competition - athlete squaring off, literally head to head, against athlete.
At the beginning of each heat, the competitors stepped up, strapped in, grabbed the handles... and then waited, tense and twitchy, like shirtless, sweaty thoroughbreds at the starting gate. Their coaches stood behind them, just as anxious, waiting for the signal to begin. And in that moment, the crowd was quiet.
The horn would blow and the athletes would begin to pull. And it was clear, immediately, who could actually row. Because the event was more than six minutes long, it gave the crowd a chance to walk around, checking out each competitor. Technique flaws were readily apparent. Pacing mistakes were easy to spot. (I don't know a lot of people who can maintain a 1:20 pace for a full 2,000 meters.) But for those athletes that got it right... it was poetry in motion. Literally.
There were a few rounds where I was just a spectator, not judging. Dallas, my sister and I scoped out different vantage points during one of the women's heats. I stopped him at one point, and pointed to a ridiculously fit woman wearing a green bandana. (Edit: I have since discovered she is Jessica Dunn, a trainer at Albany CrossFit.) "Um, Dallas... what, exactly, is she doing?" Her technique was so different than anything I'd yet to see that day. She was moving, for lack of a better word... slow. It was the opposite of what EC Synkowski calls the "CrossFit Hustle", that rowing motion that takes you backandforth-backandforth as fast as humanly possible. She was... slow. Her recovery was slow. Her drive, while the perfect display of the legs-body-arms that EC taught us, was also kind of slow. But then, Dallas pointed out one thing. This woman had a MONSTER pull. Her technique wasn't slow. It was efficient as hell, because she was producing so much power with each movement. The longer I watched, the more inspired I became. She was, in a word, gorgeous. She made me want to be stronger. She made me want to be a better rower. She made me want to be HER. And she made me want her to WIN.
Because of the way this event was organized, we had the perfect opportunity to stay put and watch our girl while still monitoring the rest of the pack. Before the event, the organizers gave all the judges four different colored cards, each signifying a different meter mark - one when the athlete was down to 1,000 meters, the next when they reached 500. They instructed us to hold each card up in turn as the athletes got closer and closer to finishing the event. The last card was to signify the final 250 meters, as a signal to the crowd that the athlete was almost done.
I thought this was really dumb. I mean, I'm supposed to remember which card to hold up, and the crowd is going to be able to figure out what each color signified? Dumb. Except IT WASN'T. The crowd went wild each time a judge's hand went up, signifying a new milestone in the row. We watched breathlessly through a sea of pink cards, waiting for the first hand to come up blue. It told us who to watch, how close they were to finishing, who was in contention for winning the heat. The card system allowed the crowd to fully participate no matter where they were standing, and gave us incentive as spectators to fully invest our cheering potential in "our" athletes. It was brilliant, and I'm sorry that I called it dumb, Jason, David and Neal.
Anyway, back to my new girl crush Jessica. We were able to monitor where she was in the field because of the card scoring system, which meant I could stay right where I was and just watch her row. She was, in my mind, flawless. Her technique never deviated, her pacing was rock solid and damn if she didn't make every hard-fought meter look HOT. With the last 250M to go, her pacing sped up a little, but the power of her pulls never diminished. I whooped as her blue card was raised, watched as Caitlin Fabian pulled in first, and then yelled myself hoarse for the green-bandana-clad Jessica to finish strong. In the end, she pulled her 2K in 8:02, and finished sixth out of all the women for that event. She may not have won, but as a spectator, she made that heat. And as both a spectator and a judge, the 2K row was the most exciting part of my weekend.
I did not hear one rumbling of "boring" when that event was done. Not one. The crowd was charged, amped, pumped. Everyone was talking about how exciting it was, how much energy was packed into one small event area, how each heat, start to finish, was non-stop screaming and cheering. And if the crowd felt it, I know the athletes felt it, and I'd like to think that helped to drive some PR-worthy performances. So I don't know if a 2K row was the best choice to test a well-rounded athlete. I don't know if it perfectly balanced the demands of the other workouts, or if it truly measured enough of the ten aspects of fitness in an appropriate manner. But I do know it was as exciting as hell. If you were there with me, you know exactly what I'm talking about. And if you weren't... you missed out on some of the best that CrossFit has to offer, from an athletic perspective and a community perspective.
Also, have I mentioned CrossFit New England's Bern fell off his rower mid-event? He swears it's okay if I talk about it in this very public forum. And it's a story worth re-telling, so I'm going to check in with Bern to make sure I've got the details right first... but you'll hear all about it next week.
Addendum: Make sure you read NEQ Organizer David Osorio's comment regarding the thought process behind programming a 2K row as one of the events. I love that he dropped that particular brand of genius on us. Thanks, David.
Unfortunately, I can't find a single picture of Jessica actually rowing. Not that it would have done her justice. Trust me, she was beautiful. (Photo courtesy of Albany CrossFit.)