When the Weekly put CrossFit on the cover of its annual Health & Fitness issue in 2010 with "Fit for Change: Much of CrossFit’s exploding global movement was first flexed locally," it was still a novel concept to most everyone in the country—and the county, even though its inaugural competitions were held right here, in lil' ol Aromas, and it was famously founded in Santa Cruz.
(The mini brief on its beginnings: Founder Greg Glassman was a former collegiate gymnast obsessed with cross training and tired of bodybuilding being confused with fitness. His philosophy: The fittest individuals aren’t those ones who can put up the most weight or run the longest distances, but those who can manage whatever comes—“The unknown and the unknowable,” as CrossFitters say.)
In the half decade since, it has exploded in popularity well beyond the military and public safety populations it began with.
Local, regional and national gyms have multiplied.
The CrossFit games moved from rural Aromas to giant stadiums and earned national TV exposure.
And Reebok came on as an enthusiastic partner that now designs CrossFit-specific shoes.
In Monterey County, the CrossFit Monterey outfit I profiled has moved twice (at least) and changed owners.
Pacific Grove witnessed the arrival of Systematic CrossFit.
First City CrossFit also emerged, drumming so much buzz and growth in a new space over by Monterey Regional Airport in its first year alone that I had to go check it out.
This really shouldn't be much fun.
Abnormally athletic and upbeat Kiara McBain has led our class through a gauntlet of lunges, broad jumps, duck walks and "pigs on rollerskates," a challenging crouched waddle that works the quads and glutes intensely.
A nonstop cycle—20 situps, 20 "Supermans"—follows for minutes at a time, and this is just a warmup.
Next everybody does their max back-squat weight, highlighted by a burly oak of a bearded man slamming eight plates up in the corner.
The "workout of the day" (aka WOD, which enjoy endless permutations and very close quantifying) ensues, a ruthless whirlwind of as many pull-ups as each participant can handle, 500 meters of rowing and 30 kettlebell swings overhead, repeated as many times as possible for six minutes before a three minute rest.
And then another round.
Even before I finish the first set my legs go wobbly and my mouth runs dry.
Mysteriously, I'm not completely miserable.
I'm more empowered than anything, partly because I'm watching fellow aspiring athletes with physiques nothing like McBain's sweat through the same thing, often encouraging one another as they do.
When I show up the next day the noon class's coach, Connie Keathley, wears a slight look of glee when she discovers I'm a newbie.
“Tomorrow,” she says, “you’re going to be smoked.”
She's partly right. I will be.
But I am already.
Just mounting and descending stairs has been hard all morning. When I find out squats will be involved today—"they are a fundamental of life and CrossFit," she admonishes—I almost go to the bathroom and never come out.
Another workout whirlwind gathers momentum.
The most telling moment comes 40 minutes in as I try to keep up with the three women in the class as we take on wall walk-ups, double-under jump roping and power-clean weightlifting—followed by five three-minute sprints through a nonstop circuit of power cleans, pushups and squats: When I look at the time I can't believe how much time has flown by.
After a career with Gold's Gym doing personal training, Keathley understands what I'm observing as well as anyone.
"You can't walk into a gym and have this much fun and do this much work in an hour," she says.
Having visited 12 CrossFit gyms across five states, coaching at four of them, she's also qualified to interpret why First City has grown so quickly in its first 11 months.
She believes it's owners Frank Foehrenbach and Erica Mirich that take the CrossFit mantra—of welcoming all fitness levels and providing the structure to get more functionally fit—and take it further.
"They're just very accomodating," Keathley says.
Foehrenbach certainly makes me feel welcome—even when I can't do anything right.
On the first workout, I perform sit-ups with a dangerous neck grab, bend my back way too much while rowing and don't have, shall we say, the best squat technique.
His simple tips not only make me less likely to injure myself, they make my movements much more efficient.
In that way, I'm stronger before I complete the workout.
But there are other things at work here beyond a welcoming vibe. (Classes run $15 a class with a punchcard; memberships start at $99/month for students; more pricing here.)
The wall paint is cool, but more importantly the gear is cherry: Few gyms have eight rowing machines, as many pull up bars or as many mint-condition weights. I took my crazy-ripped colleague and 10-year CrossFit vet there to size things up, and she agrees it's about as well-equipped a gym as they come.
All the increasingly slick CrossFit measurement programs to track improvements and compare workouts with other athletes mounts to a handy flat-screen TV for even more tracking.
The stereo system bumps, though my favorite soundtrack comes when a song stops and all I hear is the rhythm of our group's breathing.
Other lifestyle enhancements routinely appear. Classes are available for kids (largely children of participants), as are weekend yoga classes in the sunny courtyard and things like a current "clean eating challenge" for those inspired to abandon grains, dairy, alcohol, sugar and legumes for 30 days while measuring changes in body fat and performance.
Foehrenbach gained so much from their experience with CrossFit in Lake Tahoe that they felt compelled to import a similar experience here when they moved to the area where Mirich grew up and worked.
"We wanted to share it," Foehrenbach says. "We loved the community around it. Great people show up—I don't know if it's because like personalities attract or what, but it makes me happy we started."
"It's been amazing the diverse types of people we never would've had the opportunity for our paths to cross, people who are open to improving everything. It's a neat population to be around.
"It's really grounded us to the community."
Foehrenbach adds that his peak satisfaction comes when accomplished athletes cheer on the beginners.
"I'm inspired by people," he says. "Not natural athletes."
I'm not sure if he's saying that for my benefit, but I'm relatively sure that I've honored the ethic stenciled on the wall above the same bathroom where I considered hiding.
As it says in capital letters: STRONGER THAN YESTERDAY.