Hi, I’m James Ruckley and I’m a vegan, gluten-free Crossfitter.
Well no, that’s a lie. But I did try Crossfit yesterday and damn, it was epic.
I’m, perhaps, better known for my ‘engine’. I think nothing of an 8 hour 9000 rep workout, long rides out on the bike followed by hours in the gym or climbing and free running all day. I back myself in most workouts and think nothing of winging 2000 pull-ups and 1000 pushups in a day or 3 marathons back to back. So why was I nervous about heading to the superhuman games?
Crossfit has a reputation for being unsafe fueled by constant videos of individuals throwing around serious tin with little consideration for their body while officials allow some questionable reps. I’m that guy you find in the gym who is as strict as he can be with almost all movements. A chiropractic student nothing is more valuable to me through any movement than my spine, and so I’ve always viewed at Crossfit at arm’s length and Crossfitters without any real understanding of what they do, or how.
So, when I received a message from Laura Dudley at 10 pm on a Saturday night asking if I’d step up and fill a space on her team for the following morning it’s probably a good thing I was tired and not thinking straight. 7 hours later and I was in the car meeting the other 2 members Joanna and Nathan who completed the team ‘3 injuries and a physiotherapist’. In hindsight, we should probably have changed that too ‘4 injuries and a chiropractic student’ but hey the name wasn’t important here.
I’d spent an hour Saturday night questioning Laura on clothing and nutrition as I entered my first event. The former I had nailed thanks to a generous delivery from Virus Performance Clothing the previous week and as I dug out my accidentally purchased cross fit socks I searched for an appropriate shoe. Ah damn, they’re all on the island. Never mind, I was kitted out and ready to go, even if my shoes weren’t ideal. With kit sorted talk turned to nutrition, the fuel for my ‘engine’. I’ll be honest, it was in tatters as the John Lewis Island Life approach to feeding its staff continues to put all staff on the 5:2 diet. I’d eaten maybe 7 meals in the 7 previous days with scraps pushing my calories intake towards 1500 if I was lucky. Micronutrients? Yeah, don’t even go there. I doubt I’ve hit my RDA in anything other than oil and salt in the last 3 weeks.
So, I nailed a tray of fondant fancies and headed to bed.
Arriving at the venue for the showdown it dawned on me who we were competing against. Quattro had attracted man mountains and with traps thicker than my torso they towered over me. I didn’t belong here but that’s what I enjoyed the most about it all. My partner Nathan, who I had to match weight withstood nearing 100kg and shorter than me with a hideously low body fat % for someone so big! Demigod. A high-level powerlifter in his first Crossfit comp he had a similar attitude to me, albeit he knew he could move the weights and spoke their language. Laura and Joanna had been here before but similarly weren’t training specifically for the event.
We registered and chatted as I bumped shoulders with many friends I’d met from the OCR world including Paul Croft the owner who expressed disbelief at seeing me there. I was in disbelief too. What am I doing!? I’m no superhuman.
We strolled through to the arena as I ate my breakfast, a mars bar and bottle of Dr Pepper. I struggled to take it all in as the atmosphere engulfed me. I was expecting a small-scale event with maybe 20 teams, not an arena packed with over 100 teams, sponsors and a central workout zone. Worse so our team was assigned to A5, one of the outer workstations meaning I couldn’t hide, I was on display. Great.
We mulled about burning time before we began in the first heat. The team ran though tactics as I stood there auto-nodding to their language, one I needed to study badly. With Laura suggesting we break the thrusters down into mini sets I questioned why we needed too, how hard can 42 hip thrusters be and how do we hold the weight? Thrusters weren’t what I was expecting and made up of a front squat and shoulder press I was already struggling!
I can’t back squat. It’s not a joke or opinion but a fact. My balance is terrible, so terrible I’ve never even tried to vary my squat technique. That’s my way of subtly saying I’VE NEVER FRONT SQUATTED BEFORE. However, shoulder press I can do no issue so there was a saving grace. A plan was hatched with comments such as ‘Okay if we have to start in Front Rack where do we get a rack from?’ littering the team's complicated talk. The only other issue I was facing was the overhead squats due to my lacking shoulder mobility and awful squat technique.
We finished our talk and headed into the warm-up area as the guys tried to teach me anything they could. Front squats I picked up fairly quickly whereas overhead squats never looked likely in the slightest. We’d tackle those when it came to it.
And so, with more time to burn, I wondered. Chilled and chatted. Catching up with a good friend and Crossfit legend Fran on the Nocco stall while meeting her equally incredible sister Lauren. I spent most of my day drifting between my team and the Nocco stall, picking their brains, talking training and preparation while learning as much as I could from these two legit athletes. In OCR, we put even mediocre athletes on a pedestal and praise them. We congratulate people for the most pathetic of achievements and reward them with medals and sponsorships. I’m all too often put up there and know full well I shouldn’t be, but here I’m surrounded by real athletes and it creates a different, more realistic atmosphere. Nearly everyone here had trained to be so, knowing that made this event for me. There were no participation medals only trophies for the winners and that drove the competition. No one could hide, blame the cold or rain. It was an honest to god straight-up competition with natural fitness being of little help.
9:45 came and we were up. I was chosen to start our workout which I found a bizarre tactic as I had no idea at all what I was doing. I stood opposite my team made Joanna as we tackled the Syncro Thrusters. The previously mentioned Front Squat into Shoulder Press completed at the same time with the bottom of each squat having to match up in fear of being no-repped. With my bar weighing in at 50kg and Jo’s at 35kg I was unsure how I was going to fare, but after a few iffy reps to begin and a couple of no reps I was glad to say we completed our numbers as a rotating team. I struggled with power as my strict gym form has left me strong for my size but lacking speed in the movements. I also failed to combine the explosive front squat into the shoulder press and instead did the 2 exercises almost exclusively and both with strict form. It didn’t look very CrossFit and it definitely wasted time and energy but I got through them.
Hopping a box 30 times before the guys demolished the lunges without a need for my help I wondered to the box for a drink and to rest. I must have been F***ed because looking to the guys I said ‘How are they (another team) still on thrusters? We’ve smashed them!’ To get the reply screamed at me ‘It’s an AMRAP. Get up, we have to go again!’ Sorry, what!? This is an AMRAP? Ha, funny. Oh, no joke?
My shoulders were burning from the previous shoulder presses, legs heavy from those box jumps and lungs filled with a metallic taste as my head span and span. I stumbled on my first of 5 thruster reps before digging into a grove and completing the set. Handing over to the powerlifters Nath and Laura they shifted those bars as if they were empty while I tried to hide every reps strict struggle and protect my back. Recovery between sets was almost nonexistent with the other pair in the team completing their reps in seconds while I strained for what felt like minutes.
I crushed through the box jumps in this second set trying to make up for my previous failings in the thrusters only to further my dizziness and empty my fumey tank. My engine was stuttering already and we hadn’t even finished the first of the three workouts. I’m guessing the leaders had enjoyed more than a mars bar that morning…
We completed the 15min AMRAP of thrusters, box jumps and front rack lunges 2.5 times which left us towards the low end of the pack but ahead of our goal. Undoubtedly I slowed the team down on the weights but made up time on the box jumps. Either way, the guys were extremely supportive and I had a run in the next event knowing I could pull back some time.
It was 10 am, and I had almost 2 hours before the next event kicked off. Having collapsed onto the floor back at our kit the legs made it up the wall and I went about trying to breathe. A few minutes passed and grabbing all the sugar, salt and water I could find I headed out to find fresh air, rolling in the wet grass and raising my legs as I attempted to steady my wavy world.
I must have been outside for a good 30 minutes changing position and fighting my own body and its cardiac conditions that leave me prone to passing out in situations like this. The legs were again raised, the stimulants came in 2 by 2 as I super-setted Nocco with coffee while the cold floor sapped the heat from my body. Feeling remotely human I went live on Fb which you can see here:
Emerging from my hibernation I returned inside feeling slightly more human even if still overheating. I chatted with Paul and the team. Raided the Nocco stand and went in search of shortbread and coffee. Times a blur here broken only by the occasional memory of a foam roller, massage from Lu and shot after shot of Nocco Pear.
Before I knew it, it was time for Jo and me to run and so I changed into my Virus gear and headed towards the track still feeling slightly woozy and with a large Starbucks Caramel Coffee only recently downed. There was a strong chance of me puking or passing out if I pushed too hard so I looked at Jo and said I was planning to take the first few laps easy and see how I felt at the end. My parkour shoes performed as ice skates as some of the other runners lined up on the hard rubber track in their spikes, I had to tell myself it’s the legs, not the kit.
The long countdown began and my Garmin found GPS just as the air horn filled the arena. Choosing to lead with my left leg my right immediately slipped and before I’d even passed the start line I had a hand on the floor while the others ploughed on. I recovered fast and in that split-second confusion, my race plan was gone as I cruised into a lead deciding I’d rest in the last half of the run if I was able too. I completed my first lap in 55s by my watch which remains some way behind my seasons best but I was happy with it. I had a lead. I completed the first 1km in 2:58 by the timing team and in 3:00 by my watch. Take a guess which one I’ll be working off…
While fast and uncomfortable on the lungs I knew, the pain would subside as I shifted through the energy systems and gears as the laps unfolded. With lap one leaving me around a 15s lead I was able to just enjoy laps 2-5 at a comfortable pace conserving energy for the later events. On lap 2 I managed to overtake more than half the field still on their first round and as soon as I had a 300m lead on the chasing pack I settled into a 3:15km pace where I’d stay for the remainder of the race. Entering the 6th and final lap my thoughts returned to the final event a few hours later. I decided to enter a slow jog along the back straight and corner, conserving energy and not risking my calves which historically blow up on tracks with little warning. Finishing strong but fresh I was happy and with my incredible teammate Joanna not far behind in second place for the Women we were flung to the top of the leaderboard for most of the day. We were later dropped to second place, both beaten by a matter of seconds but neither of us bothered, you can only race what’s on the track.
Another long rest ensued before the final workout. 50 Strict shoulder presses at 40kg for men and 30kg for women, 15 synchro squats at 20kg for men, 15 for women and then the overhead lunges.
I volunteered to try and take the main bulk of the shoulder presses, suggesting I avoid the overhead squats in the second workout. There was no way I could to any without being no repped and with Nath such a monster it made sense he went heavy and got us some serious points. That he did.
However, my shoulder press party was ruined by tweaks in form and my lack of power. Bringing the shoulders back past the ear was a problem for me, as was locking out my elbow. Both are issues I’ve struggled with since that infamous Toughest Ice incident where I basically shattered my wrists, elbow and right shoulder. I was happy repping the bar out but unable to do them at any real speed and so after 10-15 reps I was burning out and the others would take up my slack again, completing some before I finished off the set.
The Syncro squats were a great team exercise and thankfully with no reps being avoided we flew through and I was soon back under that 40kg bar. Which by now was feeling more like 70kg.
Through the last 2 rounds I pushed my shoulders into a zone I rarely go summed up brilliantly by Jo on the way home as she stood opposite scared to look into my rage face in fear of laughing…
The guys were phenomenal in everything they did that day, in support, teaching and competing themselves. No example more so than in the overhead squats where Nathan took my efforts himself and Joanna had to clean the bar of blood after every set. Laura similarly was an absolute powerhouse all day breaking several PB’s while I was out jogging.
And so, my day of Crossfit was done. The Superhuman team had beaten me up in the most spectacular fashion and again reiterated to myself that I need to improve in so many areas not least squatting and explosive power. I’d always looked at Crossfit as an unsafe sport, one that would later pay my bills as I moved into the clinic but I’ve learnt a lot recently both inside and outside of that arena, and the levels of mobility, strength and self-awareness these athletes have is beyond what I’ve seen in any other sport. There are those who demonstrate iffy techniques for sure, but the wider competition displays a technical masterclass in fluently moving extreme weights with raw power. It’s poetry in movement personified.
It’s been months since I last had true DOMS and not through laziness. But today my traps are a mess and I begin to understand why all the athletes I met yesterday had slapped on their necks and shoulders.
I went in unsure. Unprepared. Undernourished. Unfit. Untrained. I came out in love with the pain I endured, the burn on my lungs and dizziness through my eyes, the haze in my mind and DOMS on my traps. Oh, the trap DOMS are something else.
The Superhuman team ran a flawless event with impeccable timing, equipment and judging. The facilities were sublime providing everything I needed from a café, shops, toilets and an arena worthy of the titans it held. Well done to Paul et al for guiding me through an education, a schooling of brutality and a masterclass in function. With plenty to learn, improve and mobility a forefront in the mind I can’t wait to get to the Superhuman Games later in the year and test myself with a better understanding of the sport. I can’t wait. Crossfit really is head, neck, traps and shoulders above anything else I’ve tried.