Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Scandinavian Crossfit Challenge, The Experience

I left Leiden at 12:00 pm on Friday afternoon. After changing trains 5 times, twice unsuccessfully, I arrived in Kiel, Germany at 8:40 pm. Nightmarish doesn't quite describe this initial leg of my travel experience. In addition to the extra time and effort required to rework the mistakes I made, I had the added stress of thinking I had missed my Berlin friends in Kiel due to my incompetence. Thankfully, they were still there, only having arrived 20 minutes prior. Needless to say, it was a relief to not have been left behind.

From there we drove 6 hours to Halmstad, Sweden, crossing a few monstrous bridges and traversing the Nordic coastline for much of the voyage. We arrived just after 3 am. That's roughly 15 hours of travel, for those of you keeping track. The return leg of the journey provided more of the same, with us missing a ferry, and my having to stay the night in Berlin rather than trek back across the continent in the dead of night. All told, I think I logged 32 hours of car/train time on this trip. I mention these details only to place my overall feeling for the weekend in the proper perspective. It's a testament to how well the event was organized, how great the people were, and how much I enjoyed the experience that I emerged so happy in spite of my travel woes.

The hospitality of my German travel mates having already been elaborated on in previous posts (their legend only continues to grow), I will try to focus the reflections for this trip on the new friends I made and the impressions I found most lasting.

First, the spread was impressive. The Eleiko facility was beautiful, large, and nicely tucked away on the edge of town. For all events we were using state of the art equipment (incredible bars, brand new kettlebells, chrome plated bumper plates, etc). The place was, in a word, loaded.

Equally prepared for our arrival was the staff, supplied mostly by Crossfit Nordic out of Stockholm. These guys, led by Mads Jacobsen and Martin Altemark, were organized, friendly, professional, and incredibly encouraging during every event. They set the tone for the entire competition with their enthusiasm, intensity, and welcoming demeanor.

The competitors covered a broad spectrum of nationalities, with representatives from Sweden, Germany, Denmark, the Netherlands, and Belarus. All told, I think there were somewhere in the neighborhood of 30-40 competitors, male and female combined, all of whom I found to be very interesting, kind, and dedicated people. I’m actually looking forward to spending time with many of them in the coming months when I visit Copenhagen and southern Germany.

The combination of these factors (facility, staff, and competitors) created an atmosphere that permeated the competition, an atmosphere that reminded me very much of the Mid-Atlantic Qualifier I went to last April in Virginia Beach, and of the Games in Aromas this past summer. People were motivated without hostility, focused without stress, driven to achieve but also interested in other's success. This is very different than the environment you encounter in most competitive arenas, and it is, in many ways, the defining memory I took with me from Sweden.

In total, this weekend consolidated my previous experiences with Crossfit events, and enabled me to distill the essential characteristic that I find redeeming therein: The most important victory is not that of the individual over the competition, but of the individual over the event. This is not meant to be a cheesy, rah rah, “find true strength within” kind of statement. On the contrary, it is meant to be an empirical observation of the collective strength and the unique standards for appreciation present at these competitions. Take an example from this past weekend…

The second WOD on Saturday was 50 double unders, 30 overhead anyhows with 60 kg, and 50 double unders, for time. I did well in this event, performing the movements smoothly and cleanly, finishing in 3:46, and posting the best time by over a minute. By every known competitive standard, it would be logical to assume that my performance in this event was the most “impressive” turned in. Not so. Not even close.

Two heats before me, an individual failed to complete the WOD in under the 15-minute time limit, yet put my performance to shame. His technique on the double unders was sloppy. His clean and jerks were a downright struggle from the first repetition. Five repetitions in, I could see the pain on his face as the idea of not finishing crossed his mind. A few spectators rushed to his aid, encouraging him to continue. Then, an astonishing fact circulated the room: prior to the event, he’d never done a clean with more than a broomstick. A BROOMSTICK. Because his affiliate didn’t have access to a bar, his experience coming into the competition was limited to technical practice with a weightless wooden handle.

Needless to say, the entire audience became captivated, inspired by, and invested in this individual, for obvious reasons. For the remaining time, he was flooded with coaching tips from staff members and showered with cacophonous applause from the crowd. The place went absolute bananas every time he completed a repetition. I can’t imagine a more concerted effort by a group of strangers to propel someone to whom they have absolutely no allegiance. Collapsed on the ground after the 15 minutes had expired, having fallen just 20 double unders short of completion, he was congratulated by every single person there and looked truly triumphant. When I finished the event, I got one high five and a thumbs up.

Some might explain the diverging standards for success displayed in normative competitive athletics and this example by pointing to the relative degree of difficulty the event represented for each of us. True, but I think it’s more. This wasn’t just an appreciation for individual effort. Such an appreciation is, after all, no unique phenomenon. In traditional sports, there’s a long history of respecting an opponent who fought hard, didn’t give up, and lost while giving maximum effort. Coaches preach this idea to kids all the time. If you put your effort and concentration into playing to your potential, to be the best that you can be, I don't care what the scoreboard says at the end of the game, in my book we're gonna be winners.”

Norman Dale

However, anyone who’s played competitive sports knows this to be merely motivational rhetoric. While the message is true and integral to playing the game correctly, the bottom line in sports is still, and always will be, winning and losing. Just ask the defeated party whether the fact that he played hard made him feel any better about losing the game. His reaction will be far less positive than that which I witnessed in Halmstad.

Such is not the case at Crossfit events. Honestly, past a certain point in any WOD, I don’t think anyone truly cares about anything besides being done. All competitive concerns fade away, leaving a contest between the individual and the workout, a fight between will and pain. This is the new competitive standard. It’s what the audience recognized in Sweden, and it’s why they chose to applaud the struggle.

I think it’s this unique element that keeps Crossfit competitive without devolving into the absolute, win/loss world of traditional sport (in fact, I don't see it as a sport at all). It’s the element that I see saving the larger program from the runaway success of the Crossfit Games. Without it, I think it would be very easy to lose sight of the primary goal of the model (fitness for every challenge in life) and to focus on other, less important aspects (fitness as a measure between individuals).

I want to say thanks again to those responsible for the facility, organization, and running of the Scandinavian Crossfit Challenge in Halmstad. It really was an incredible weekend.

From Nov 1, 2009_2


  1. Bravo, Blair. This is outstanding.

  2. So very "planes, trains, and automobiles" of you. Sorry the travel wasn't more pleasant. But you prevailed. Good job you!

  3. Blair - it was an honour to meet you and your party. All of you are welcome to visit Sweden any time you want. Hope we meet again sometime!

  4. You really wrapped it up Blair. This was my first time as a referee and I was pretty nervous before the first wod. But after experiencing the crowds cheering and the friendly atmosphere I was confident in succeeding my job when I approached my appointed athlete. I guess it´s not only the athletes who benefits on events like this the refs will to.

    You performed awesome but next time you compete you´d better look over your shoulder because the europeans are coming for you : )