Dean Karnazes, Michelle Obama and the most inspiring CrossFitter I know

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Yesterday I had spent some time with ultra runner, best-selling author and ambassador of fitness, Dean Karnazes, at his home in Ross, Calif. I interviewed him at length for an upcoming article in Competitor Magazine.

As I told Dean at the outset of the interview that I was there for the Competitor assignment first and foremost, but also I had a selfish motivation. Dean ignited his ultra career on his 30th birthday (detailed in his first book, “Ultra Marathon Man: Confessions of an All Night Runner” with a 30-mile run around San Francisco) in the early 1990s. He’s been going strong ever since, with multiple appearances in classics like the Western States 100 and Badwater (winning it in 2004) but also with mind-numbing feats like running across the country or running 350 miles in 80 hours. He just keeps going. I can’t imagine it.  I have not recorded a fraction of the overall mileage that Dean has on his odometer so I had plenty of questions about his durability.

Dean is a soft-spoken, truly friendly guy that reminds me of a lot of the ultra running world except for the underground, anonymity part of course. There’s little doubt that many people had no idea that 100-mile trail races existed until the likes of “60 Minutes” helped put his story on the map, along with the ultra great Pam Reed.

Dean turns 50 later this month and I asked him what he had planned for his 50th birthday. He laughed and said, “I’d tell you, but then I’d have to kill you.”

One of the subjects we spent some time talking about was the diabetes epidemic in the USA. According to statistics cited on Let’s Move, one in three kids between the ages of 2 and 19 are clinically obese. Karnazes told me he makes frequent trips to schools and speaks to kids on the subjects of diet and exercise. He says in some of his travels the number of obese kids he’s seen in the audience at his talks has been nothing short of shocking.

“It’s as if they’re trapped in their bodies,” Karnazes said, adding that is his general impression is that an alarming percentage of our nation’s youth just doesn’t know the fundamentals of what constitutes good nutrition and a healthy exercise routine.

At a function at the White House Karnazes says Michelle Obama–who as First Lady leads the “Let’s Move” initiative intended to address the childhood obesity epidemic— had supportive words for his work as a role model.

“We’re never going to legislate our way out of this problem,” Michelle Obama told Karnazes. “Keep doing what you’re doing.’”

On the drive back from the interview, I thought about one of the most inspirational role models I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing, a woman who I think kids should learn from for a lot of reasons. Her name is Irene Mejia, who I met and became friends with after I joined CrossFit Elysium a year ago. Mejia told me that she felt like she’d tried everything to help her battle the obesity that she had struggled with since being a kid. She was over 400 pounds when she first contacted the coaches at Elysium about whether she could do CrossFit or not.

Irene in the early days of joining CrossFit Elysium.

Morbid obesity is nothing to be taken lightly when you start prescribing exercise so it was fortuitous that one of the co-owners of Elysium is Dr. Leon Chang, an MD. His wife, Alessandra Wall, Ph D—a psychologist with expertise in eating disorders and nutrition, is also a coach and CrossFitter at Elysium. Both worked carefully with Irene so that she had a safe journey into CrossFit.

It was a few months ago that Irene made a huge breakthrough in weighing in under 300 pounds.

Irene in a photo taken this past spring.

But it was more than just weight loss—meet Irene and you’ll meet a young woman who exudes health and vitality. As she’s steadily lost body fat over the year and a half, gained muscle and developed fitness and mobility, she’s been able to do more and more work in the gym. When I was last living in San Diego (this past February) and training at CrossFit Elysium, she had just achieved the breakthrough of being able to do burpees and was close to being able to do interval runs (rather than scaling to the rowing machine for workouts that included running).

What’s Irene’s secret to health and fitness? In part it’s that she has fully adopted a “No Excuses” policy. She shows up every day and she does the work. Irene’s courage and personality go farther than that, however. Host a local CrossFit competition or throwdown and she’s the first one to sign up and the most vocal in working to get others to sign up. I also remember a humbling moment for me when I was talking with Chang about how I’d been visiting other CrossFit affiliates when I travelled for work. I recall telling him that I’d been to about 12 at that point in time. He turned and looked over his shoulder and told Irene, “Hey Irene, watch out! T.J. might catch you how many boxes you’ve visited!”

There was some laughter and I was confused. I soon found out: Irene was well on her way to achieving a goal of visiting and working out at 50 other boxes. A number she achieved in June. This includes a visit to the gym of CrossFit’s sage of Olympic Lifting, Mike Burgener, owner/operator of “Mike’s Gym.”

So I’m just trying to keep up with Irene these days and not even coming close. I’m hoping that CrossFit Elysium will host another “Rumble in Paradise” competition this November so I can pay a visit to the gym and once again be one of Irene’s teammates.

In Inside the Box, veteran journalist and marathoner T.J. Murphy goes all in to expose the gritty, high-intensity sport of CrossFit®. From staggering newcomer to evangelist, Murphy finds out how it feels, why it’s so popular, and whether CrossFit can fix his broken body.