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The Role of Virtuosity

2 Feb

The best part of my Crossfit Level 1 certification was the half hour we spent discussing the role of virtuosity. It’s a word used often in gymnastics, which explains why it is relevant to a Crossfit class.

But its a part…maybe the most integral part…of Crossfit that I think is relevant for every aspect of life.

Virtuosity is defined as “performing the common uncommonly well.”

Isn’t this what we want to teach our kids in school and our direct reports in business and our students in music programs and our athletes on the field?

When it comes to any skill, technique, movement, or art form, we must begin with the fundamentals.  Eventually, we move onto originality and risk, although constantly reemphasizing fundamentals.  But virtuosity is, according to my Crossfit training guide “the mark of true mastery (and of genius and beauty).”

One of the ways I live a life that is rooted in the present and full of joy is by choosing something to study each week.  It helps keep work and gym and home life intertwined and enjoyable.  This past week, I observed people “performing the common uncommonly well.”  What better way for me to learn virtuosity than from those I interact with daily?

There is the Crossfit champion who performed the same shoulder to overhead movement as everyone else…but with an amazingly impressive cycle time and the ability to push 120% in the last crucial minutes.  The speed at which he moved such a heavy weight made people gasp.

There is my boss at work, meeting with employees on big issues and small issues and handling divorces and mental illness and child trauma with a grace and wisdom that I can only hope to attain a piece of someday.

There is the coworker who writes computer code for me – and does so brilliantly. Efficient, logical, fast, yet he puts his own “handwriting and style” as it were into the code in such a way that everyone else can tell it was his work.

There is the guy at the gym whose box jumps are so lithe and graceful, I am convinced that he is part wild cat.  It’s really hard to jump on your own box and not destroy your shins and still watch him jump on his but it actually (stupid as this sounds) feels like an honor to watch him jump.  That kind of mastery of something ordinary (don’t we all step up on stuff daily) is rare.

There is the former coworker who juggles work and school and three little sons, who is severely handicapped.  She has an amazing sense of humor, a deep love for those little guys, and a hard life.  Yet she, and my friend who just kicked some cancer ass, both approach their lousy odds with a masterful humorous approach and a desire to love life – even the bits that completely suck.

Sometimes its easy to want to skip steps at work (will the auditor really notice?) or skip movements at the gym (is someone else really counting my 75 burpees) or skip chores (will my clean apartment be enjoyed by anyone but me?) but the desire to practice virtuosity – to take the ordinary and mundane and make it uncommonly wonderful – as well as my ethics and personal honor code, always win out.

At the end of my Crossfit training guide, it says: “It is natural to want to teach people advanced and fancy movements. The urge to quickly move away from the basics and toward advanced movements arises out of the natural desire to entertain your client and impress him with your skills and knowledge…[But] If you insist on basics, really insist on them, your clients will immediately recognize that you are a master trainer. They will not be bored; they will be awed. I promise this. They will quickly come to recognize the potency of fundamentals. They will also advance in every measurable way past those not blessed to have a teacher so grounded and committed to basics.”

It is this statement which makes me happy I insisted that all my 7th and 8th graders show all their work on math homework or it was automatically wrong.  Basics matter.  It is this statement that makes me grateful for everyone: the teachers and pastors, my parents and siblings, my gym coaches and running partners, my bosses and coworkers who has taken the time to teach me basics. To insist on basics.  To not rush to anything showy and flashy and impressive but to help me build a solid foundation with the right skills.

Because, before you can perform the common uncommonly well, you have to commit to knowing and doing and finding joy in the common first.  Virtuosity is only a seasoning, not the whole meal.



Living Out of Our Depths

20 Jan

“I don’t think it is always necessary to talk about the deepest and most private dimension of who we are, but I think we are called to talk to each other out of it, and just as importantly to listen to each other out of it, to live out of our depths as well as our shallows.” -Frederick Buechner

My last blog post was about burying the pain.  Or, more precisely, not burying the pain. Which is fitting because this weekend brought up lots of painful and prickly parts I wasn’t quite prepared to deal with.

First, there was an accident at my local Crossfit throwdown, where a large guy holding a 235 lb barbell in the front rack position held it to close to his windpipe (according to his partner) and passed out.  When he passed out, he fell backwards, onto the guy I was judging in my lane who was maybe half the size.  So tiny kid ended up on the floor with his legs bent behind him touching his butt, and two 235 lb barbells on top of him (one on his neck, one on his core) as well as a large guy.  Both of them appear to be fine, maybe a knee ligament tear.  The time it took for them to get the barbells off, check out that they weren’t paralyzed, call the EMTs, etc. seemed to take an hour.  It took me 9 hours to fully stop shaking.

Why?  I think part of it can be traced back to the Boston bombings – athletic event, people in pain, unexpected loud noises. And part of it can be traced back to my shame guilt  whatever emotion it is that makes me think I should have done something. Since I was the closest.  Either to prevent it OR immediately after to fix it.  Same with the suicide I saw happen – I still wake up some nights thinking I should have known what that stranger was going to do, or just run a little faster and smiled at her, or jumped in the water after her.  Intellectually, I know that none of these accidents had anything to do with me. And I don’t really have a superhero complex and think its my responsibility.

Living out of my depths means acknowledging that somehow, after years of being the tough little kid who didn’t cry and wasn’t ticklish, I transformed into an adolescent/adult who does experience hurt and pain. Thank God I’m still not ticklish. And I care about other people’s hurt and pain, too. Maybe that’s a normal progression into adulthood?

“We are all of us adolescents, painfully growing and groping our way toward something like true adulthood, and maybe the greatest value we have both to teach and to learn as we go is the value of what Walter Brueggeman calls amazement – the capacity to be amazed at the unending power that can be generated by the meeting and trading of lives, which is a power to heal us and bless us and in the end maybe even to transform us into truly human beings at last.”

The second incident that happened was that I read a book called The Art Forger over the past two weeks.  It was a fun read – set in Boston with places I am very familiar with, based on the true art heist at the Isabelle Stewart Gardner museum (a few blocks from my apartment) which is the largest unsolved art heist in history.  The book was about the forgery of the famous Degas picture After the Bath that was stolen.  I like art, I like Degas, I like forgery, I like reading about crime and it all reminded me of the tv show White Collar, which didn’t hurt either.

But there was one character, named Nancy Sinsheimer, that kept rubbing me the wrong way.  As in, the first time I read that name, I had a physical reaction.  I got tense and cold. It took me a while to figure out why.  That was the last name of the defense attorney in the trial I was in this summer.  (I know, I know, I swear I’m moving on, really.)  I’m sure he’s a fine person but he was quite a bulldog, rude to the police officers, rude to us jurors, treated us like unintelligent babies most of the time.  His antics and tactics were probably par for the course when it comes to criminal defense lawyers but it wasn’t an act that I appreciated.

Boston is a small city. Really.  Because I reached the end of the book, and saw that the author personally thanked this particular lawyer for his help in writing her book.  Then it dawned on me – she had clearly used his last name in her novel in order to honor him.  It made me mad. Mad that I hadn’t figured that out earlier. Mad that being an adult means accepting that there are people I don’t like who other people will be best friends with.  Mad that I can’t even read a random book without it triggering a reminder of a trial I would like to move on from. Mad that in some way, reading and enjoying that book, meant reading and enjoying something that he had helped create.

So I spent today choosing to live full of amazement.  The meeting and trading of lives.  Embracing the power and joy in humans being human but also humans being good.

  • The woman offering a Charlie Card to my friend on the bus who had lost hers.
  • Seeing a friend do her first kipping pull-up.
  • Remembering the judge in the lane next to me on Saturday squeezing my shoulder whenever he passed and making sure I was clear of the area before his athlete lifted anything heavy.  His speech on “We’ll watch each other’s backs, this won’t happen again” which calmed me down.
  • The coworker/Crossfit friend who gave me a paleo pizza (grain-free) recipe which tastes just as good as real pizza.  (In case you don’t understand how happy this makes me, after my initial bite, I wanted to bike to his house and hug and kiss him…to thank him for a pizza recipe.  Yep. It was that good.)
  • Baby Hudson’s huge smile when he saw me.  His sign language of “please” which can roughly be translated as “Put me down, Daddy! I need her to hold me right now!”
  • The man in the grocery store letting the elderly woman go ahead of him in line because she looked tired and taxed.
  • My coach keeping an eye on a very packed Crossfit class today, ensuring everyone had space so no one got trampled by a barbell. Maybe no one else cared…but I did.
  • A friend teaching me how to wrap my Rogue wrist wraps correctly. Especially when he incorporated the phrase “wax on, wax off” which gets me every time.

Maybe I’ve had it all wrong. Maybe it’s not the bombings and the suicides and the barbell accidents in life that make us who we are. Maybe the pain is only one piece of our depths, not the whole ocean.

Maybe its this

the shoulder squeeze
the gift of a Charlie card
the perfect pizza recipe
a baby’s smile and unfiltered want
a grocery store Boy Scout
a considerate coach
a helpful friend

that transform us into truly human beings.

The Couple that Deadlifts Together

16 Oct

A few weeks ago, I found myself working on my one rep max clean at my Crossfit gym. The guy in front of me hoisted heavy weight after heavy weight and then said to the coach “I’ve never lifted this much before.” He was a bundle of excitement and nerves. Mostly nerves.

Then he turned around. “Liz, I’ve never lifted this much before. I don’t know…” And I had to cut him off. Although I don’t believe in the hokey “believe in your mind and you can achieve anything” I do believe that you can be strong enough, warmed up enough and skilled enough, and let your mind hold you back.

“Look at this weight,” I said. “This is about to be your new one rep max. You’re about to PR.”

And he did. It was fantastic. Particularly when he realized he’d done his math wrong and not set a 10 lb PR but a 20 lb one. How good does that feel?

This is one of the reasons I love my Crossfit gym. Much as I love encouraging others to run, it’s still a constant challenge to be happy for their successes and not feel bad about myself if my own PR times don’t match up. It’s definitely a work in progress. But I feel differently at Crossfit and I find myself celebrating with each new strength, gymnastic, endurance or other skill that is improved on. By anyone. Even those I’ve only met that day.

So when I woke up yesterday and knew it was a deadlift day and I hadn’t done a 1 rep max since August, I figured it was time to try for a PR. And I also knew I owed it to myself to twist any negative thoughts into positives. Replace every “I’ve never done this” with “I’m about to do this.” Then, if I fail, at least I know it’s because I’m just not strong enough yet and not because I doubted myself. Self-doubt always wins. If you tell yourself you can’t do it, you can’t. Simple as that. (Not that people who don’t yet have the skill and instruction to do it correctly should try for heavy Olympic lifts that they’re aren’t prepared for yet.)

As I biked to the gym, I thought about the Deadlift Couple at my last gym. “The couple that deadlifts together, stays together” we used to joke. Until they broke up. They deadlifted every day. And they only deadlifted. In an hour, they would lift 5-12 times total. And they videoed each lift and watched each one over and over. It was a little strange as neither one appeared to be an Olympian or anything. In fact, the female looked quite unhappy most of the time (she got critiqued a lot). And she often commented “I don’t know why I haven’t lost any weight or gotten stronger with all this lifting we are doing.”

One day, they broke up. It was sad to see him deadlift alone but it also made me happy to think that maybe she was doing other things – growing a stronger healthier body with a diversified exercise program. Hopefully the next time she deadlifts, without the harsh words and the videos and the 5-10 minute rest in between, she will see progress.

I am not part of a deadlift couple. But I do work out in a community that watches my form and pushes me to get stronger and cheers me on whether I fail or succeed.

Today, I succeeded. Maybe it’s because I’m stronger than when I last tested my one rep max before the half Ironman and the recent marathon and half marathon. Maybe it’s because two coaches were standing there watching my form and my fellow classmate was cheering me on. Or maybe it’s just because over time, if you train correctly, and if you train in something you love, you will see improvements. And you don’t need videos of yourself to get there.


I PRed at 195 lbs. Excited to hit 200 next! And then I was kept humble when our workout was 8-6-4-2 deadlifts at 80%, 2-4-6-8 push-ups, and 10-10-10-10 lemon squeezers and my coach lifted double the weight and finished in 2/3rds of my time. Nothing like celebrating a PR with a visual reminder that there’s no need to rest here – always more to accomplish.

That First Step Away

15 Oct

There we were, running the BAA Half Marathon, and I noted that nearly everyone was running with a portable device for listening to music. Except me. I’m sure there were others but we were few and far between. It made me think: When did I decide I was brave enough to run without music? Without distraction? With just my own thoughts?  I’ve run a smattering of marathons now and not a single one of them with music. Is it easier to take the first step out of a comfort zone when you don’t know its a comfort zone, when you don’t know that what you are doing is going to be unusual?

In Crossfit this week, I PRed in a few lifts. None of them as scary as when I finally committed to trying both the push jerk and the split jerk and actually jumping forcefully enough to bring my feet off the ground.  I know, I jump all the time. But a 24″ box jump can’t compare with the sheer terror of jumping while simultaneously pushing heavy weight over your head. And granted, a few hours later, while watching the Crossfit Games, I saw men split jerking 355 pounds.  I was only trying for 85.  Not even in the same ballpark.  But anytime you try something new, that is slightly dangerous, its hard to take that first step.

We are running now through crowds thick with spectators, after a 2 mile hush where the only sound was pounding feet and heavy breathing as we labored up a hill. And I see a lot of children and think – maybe that’s the first time we ever do something that scary – when we take our first step away. Often away from the couch. Or a coffee table. Sometimes a hand.  We learn to stand, then to shuffle around holding on for dear life. Gradually, our legs grow stronger beneath us and we learn to balance. We get a little cocky and land on our padded diaper butts and then we get up and do it all over again. But that first step – that first attempt to strike out on our own without the protection of a firm grip on something solid is frightening.

And empowering?

Most often we are not just stepping away from security but also stepping towards something we want – an encouraging parental face or an enticing object we probably shouldn’t have.  There is danger of failure but also potential reward in victory. And at some point, the desire for victory succeeds the risk of failure and we look at the giants around us, walking around with seemingly no effort and we decide its time to join them.

I think of a baby’s first steps often during this race – not because its a new race to me or a particularly challenging one. But because I am attempting to take my first steps in areas that I never would have previously imagined. Areas that will challenge my desire to stay quietly hidden in the crowd, areas that will require me to meet new people, even areas that will require jumping with heavy weights over my head. Each new skill – each new recipe tested – each day at the office – each hour of exercise is a chance to push our boundaries and test out legs. Can we stand? Can we balance?  Ok, let’s get moving then. It’s just one step…

Energy Is Not Inexhaustible

30 Jun

It felt as if he’d asked me to sell my firstborn child, disown my parents and swear off sweet potato fries. As soon as he said it, I felt defensive. I was “doing too much and had to choose?” How could he, a guy who consistently trained at not one but two gyms on a daily basis and was often referred to as the “Beast” think that I was doing too much? Even worse, I sensed some disappointment in his tone – that my stadium running that morning had tired me out and I wasn’t able to fully throw myself into the workout. And I don’t like disappointing people.

It didn’t help that our conversation had an audience. We had been paired up for one of the classic Crossfit workouts, one in which speed is imperative. My partner was one of the four guys in a class of 7 with the same name. He was happy when I suggested he do the workout first while I counted reps and cheered him on. And I did…count reps…coax him into breathing…then jumping back into the intensity. But it was when we switched places, and he counted reps and yelled at me, repeatedly (in the good sense – egging me on) that I started to feel I had let him down by not treating him similarly. It’s bad enough to be the only girl in the class…and to feel bad for the guy stuck judging/cheering on the only girl…but to realize I had coaxed and cheered while he had yelled and pushed (and we probably both thrived better with yelling and pushing) made me feel bad. Like a disappointment.

And then we were sent out to run. Nothing clears my head and helps me decompress like a run. I’m a decent runner, especially when in a group of non-runners, and I easily outpaced the guys. Which meant I arrived back at the gym alone, with a few minutes to spare. If I’d talked to the coach before the run, I would have been frustrated. I would have detailed how I’ve cut back on exercise by at least half, how I don’t overtrain, how I should be able to lift what he thinks I should but sometimes, for inexplicable reasons, some days I am weaker than others. Maybe the truth. Maybe excuses. But post run, my tone was different. I thanked him for his concern and then said “But I don’t want to stop running or biking or swimming” and I must have looked particularly sad because he turned around quickly and said “I didn’t mean you are doing too much in general and have to choose to cut stuff out. I’ve been in the same place as you – I used to run endurance events. I mean, you need to choose, on a day to day basis, where your energy is going to be used. You can do both but not every day without feeling frustrated and losing ground.”

* * *

Fast forward a few weeks later and we were back in class. Back lifting heavy things. After instructing everyone else in the class, he made his way over to me. “How’s it going, Liz?” he asked. “Fine.” I said. “Show me” he responded. Ugh. Am I the only person who respects the need to be watched for good form but resents having someone else watch me lift heavy things? It’s a constant battle with me. I worry that others will think I am rejecting sound advice, thinking I don’t need a coach. When the truth is simply that I am used to lifting without an audience, used to being alone in my exercise and this adjustment is taking time.

And we talk about form and stretching to help with hip mobility (mine grows better and better from Monday until Thursday, until I can squat as low as anyone else while hoisting weighted barbells and then, the weekend of extra cardio reduces my squat to that of a sedentary octagenarian). And his comments make sense because they are wrapped around the premise that “he has been in my position and knows what he is talking about.” And then he smiles and winks and says “Every minute we spend talking is a minute you spend not lifting. Now stop thinking. You think too much. Get on it.” And I do.

* * *

Saturday night, I find myself with a free evening until 11pm and a concerning weather report for Sunday. I decide that I may as well do my training run (9-15 miles) in the cool of the early evening rather than waiting for Sunday morning, hoping the expected rain doesn’t appear. To be clear – I don’t really want to run. I want to sit on my couch and do nothing but I also know that won’t leave me feeling very good. Whenever I get into this mood, I know that either I need rest or change. In this case, I’d taken an early afternoon nap for 1 1/2 hours. So I knew I needed change. An unplanned route, an unplanned pace, just me and my headphones and my apt key. I didn’t even bring water.

And it was perfect. I stuck to well-lit well-traveled streets crowded with dinner dates and birthday party-goers and I saw parts of my city that I’d never seen before. And as I ran, I thought back on my week and where I’d chosen to expend energy: welcoming the new hires into my company; a fit of apartment cleaning before my relatives visited, a friend stayed the night and I hosted a vodka-drinking, going-away, MBA-surviving hangout; running stadium steps; holding babies and writing snail mail and listening to a friend who felt inadequate in a new job; tackling an outstanding work project; squealing in horror while watching Travis Pastrana’s Nitro Circus on Netflix with friends; attending Bible study and work meetings and responding to emails and throwing weighted medicine balls back and forth with a friend at the gym.

It’s easy to dwell on the things that didn’t get energy this week: the half hour I listlessly sat at work unwilling to start a new project, the veggies and fruit I meant to eat but the yogurt I grabbed instead, the jury duty paperwork I haven’t filled out because there isn’t a single black pen in my home (I searched), the passport renewal photos I still haven’t taken and the wetsuit I should be training in but haven’t purchased yet.

Energy is not inexhaustible. We are human. Which means we are not superhuman. We need to eat and sleep and relax and shower and cry and laugh and change clothes and blow our noses and look before we cross streets. Each day we are given a daily dose of energy to match our daily dose of time and when its used up, its gone. Some days, I invest more energy in work, others in friends, others in workouts. Life is a constant juggling with pressing needs rising to the top and the list of “what I should do but haven’t” always drowning out the list of “what I’ve managed to accomplish.”

We are told to do more. Have more. Be more. Want more. Look better. Eat better. Sleep better. Love better. Work better. Relax better.

But when I run, it all falls away. I can look back at what I did well in the week, and what I did not. I can think back on conversations I had and if apologies need to be made. I can weigh where my week was out of balance and make sure the next week, I concentrate more on whatever was lacking. Some people do this while driving, or out loud with a spouse, or while showering. I analyze myself and my life and the channels I’m exerting energy in while running.

And then…when I often realize I’m too hard on myself, I remember “Stop thinking. You think too much. Get on it.” And I ease back into my run, shocked to see how many miles have clicked past, pleased to see how steady my pace has been, relieved that the aches and pains have worked their way out and I feel light. And then I enjoy the rest of my run, stopping myself when I try to think, concentrating only on each foot as it lands lightly, each arm as it swings, each breath as it pushes out. Grateful that sometimes the energy you expend produces more energy.


Crossfit Mayhem

18 Jun

In running and biking, I have learned to love the hard days – the days when things don’t go as planned and runs don’t feel easy and my legs can’t sustain high watts on the bike. I accept these days because I know that not every day can be a good day, not every day can be a record-breaking day, that I build mental strength and endurance on the hard days and eventually, there will be a payoff.

Until now, I had managed to avoid this line of thinking when it comes to Crossfit. Sure, there was the Fran workout 2 hours after I beat myself up running stadium steps and I didn’t particularly feel like pushing myself…but I managed to see it through. One of the coaches said the other week “remember when she (pointing to another gym-goer) beat you at the workout?” I’m not sure why he said it…an attempt to get me annoyed or mad or competitive? Yes, of course I remember that day. But I don’t remember being upset someone else was faster…I just remember being proud that I pushed through the workout.

Then today happened.

I did not make my bed in the morning. I forgot to bring lunch to work. I always make my bed and I always bring lunch.

At the gym, I prepared for the workout, focused on myself, until my friend motioned towards the guy setting up behind me…he was new. It was his first day. The guys had been told to lift 95 lbs for the prescribed workout…this guy was setting up 135 lbs. Never a good sign. We glared at the coach silently for a long time (somehow expecting him to know what we were worried about) but the problem solved itself – the newbie tried to hoist the bar. Failed. Lowered the weight. Failed. He ended up doing the workout with a 45 lb bar, no weight.

The problem with no weight is that when you drop the bar, there are no rubber weights on it to allow the bar to bounce. If you drop a 45 lb bar, it doesn’t stop until it hits something. Unfortunately, in my case, it wasn’t the floor. It was my ankle. Multiple times. When you are working against the clock and lifting heavy weights and being cautious of the person in front of you and the person to your side, its frustrating when the person behind you is causing you pain.

The coach tried to help him. Then the coach tried to help me. He said “Listen, Liz. The only way you’re going to finish this workout without the guy behind you snapping your ankle in half is if you speed up…finish this next set while he’s doing pull-ups, then speed through the last set and finish fast.”

So I did.


This is me. This is me speeding up, losing my grip on the pull-up bar, falling to the ground, getting my arm stuck in a band which snaps violently and gives me a welt. This is the entire class (and the next class waiting around) looking at me with horror as I fall. This is me, literally, on speed. In the words of one classmate “my life is a cautionary tale.”

Luckily, I managed to land okay. So only the welt and my pride were smarting after the incident. And I managed to escape without further abuse by the wayward barbell behind me.

But biking home…in the thunder and lightning and rain-laced streets, it was hard to not feel depressed at how clumsy and slow I can be. How much energy I devoted to worries about the newbie behind me, how fearful I felt every time he dropped his bar. I worked out hard enough that this morning my arms are nicely sore and my welt is turning into a simple very black bruise.

And by the time I got home, soaked and starving, I had come to grips with the fact that not every workout is a good one. I tried to do 15 unbroken pull-ups and paid the price by falling. I worried too much about the guy behind me and slowed myself down in my attempt to beat the clock. And sure, falling from a 10 feet pull-up bar isn’t fun but at least I was there, doing pull-ups, trying to do them unbroken and unbanded. Sometimes failing just means you tried. And its only after trying that you will succeed.

So I had to laugh when I got home and there was a package waiting for me. Return Label: Crossfit Mayhem. I met a guy at a church a few years ago who did Crossfit. We got along well and had some decent conversations. We stayed in touch. Fast forward a few years: he’s the best Crossfitter in the world. No, that’s not just my opinion. He is. And I’m 2 months into enjoying my own CF journey. After a quick chat with him the other week, and rattling off a couple of my silly little breakthroughs, he had put some stuff in the mail to me:


“Keep going, keep growing, keep experimenting. So proud of you. – RF” was the note on the package.

Tomorrow I will write a thank you note. I will mail it to Crossfit Mayhem, and describe my personal mayhem, including how I managed to fall off the pull-up bar. But I will also let him know that I got right back up, welt and all, and finished the workout under the cutoff. And maybe that’s how I will label success today. No yelling at the barbell bumbler behind me. No cursing my sweaty hands for losing their grip.

Today I made my bed. And I packed my lunch. And I don’t plan on falling/tripping at the gym. But I still believe that hard days are necessary, imperative, required in order to enjoy the easy days, the sweet days where things align, the fun days where speed and endurance blend. One hard day down….more mayhem to follow.