Embracing Discomfort

“It was this feeling of dissatisfaction I had in my life. There was no intensity. Everything was safe. I recall feeling, ‘I’m so comfortable I’m miserable. I want to be in pain. I want to hurt.’ I wanted  all the things you go through when you run.”

This was Dean Karnazes, author of “Ultramarathon Man” and the world’s best known ultrarunner, answering an interview question (for the November issue of Competitor Magazine) on why he took up distance running on his 30th birthday. He was a successful advertising executive, happily married and on paper his life couldn’t have been going better. It was after some drinks at a bar with friends that Karnazes slipped out and without planning or preparation stripped down to his underwear and went running until 4 a.m. Since then he has ran the classics like the Western States 100-miler and the Badwater Ultramarathon (135 miles through Death Valley in July) as well as his own concoctions like running across America and 48 hours on a treadmill.

I had brought this up because I was curious about what his fans tell him at book signings and the like. Did they read his book and identify with this same dissatisfaction? This state of being so comfortable that they’re miserable? He told me that this was the case for those in their 30s, 40s and older. (and interestingly enough MBA students, he added).

Gretchen Weber, my girlfriend who has been a member of San Francisco CrossFit since it’s inception in 2005, was discussing this vary same sort of itch. Her background includes being an Outward Bound instructor and mountain climbing and apparently it’s been a while since she’s got a good dose of suffering in the great outdoors as she seems to be plotting for a new adventure. As much as she says tells me she hates cold weather it’s evident that it’s more of a love/hate relationship—that ultimately the discomfort of a harsh physical challenge is it’s own reward and it’s something she covets if not hungers for. (I then seem to recall her suggesting this adventure as a thing we do together. She might have mentioned mountain climbing in the same sentence she made a reference to me joining her; although some part of my brain seems intent on pretending she didn’t say anything of the kind and that I imagined or dreamed it and this suggestion was never truly made).

Last night at CrossFit San Francisco I was doing some post-WOD stretching and coach Pat Griffin was talking to a group of newbies. It was their first on-ramp class. I overheard Pat ask the group, “What do you think CrossFit is? Who here has an impression of how CrossFit is defined?” There was a beat of silence until one of the group responded.

“CrossFit is something that hurts a lot when it’s over.”

The moment immediately following a met-con at CrossFit Southie in Boston last year. It was over 100 degrees that day. No one was shying away from discomfort here.

There was a nervous laugh among the group and Pat said, yes, that definitely happens. “Sometimes it also feels good!” he added with as much sincerity as he could muster…I suspect this addition had something to do with calming some of the fears of the unknown that were likely stirring in the eyes of the new group wondering what they might be getting themselves into.

“Making the Uncomfortable Comfortable” is a common buzz phrase used in CrossFit. Many who gravitate into CrossFit and stay there are the ones like Dean, Gretchen and the newbies in the on-ramp class last night have been drawn by an impulse to break out of the comfort zone that is easy to slip into in modern, information-age/cubicle/thermostat-controlled times.

I was relayed an interesting story about a 40-something CrossFitter in northern California who has started to pitch in coaching a girls volleyball team. Girls about 12 years old. She was apparently startled when watching how easily some of the girls broke down crying during practice. One of the girls would make a mistake in a drill, bumping or passing the ball, and just couldn’t handle the mistake emotionally. Tears would burst forth. The girls also didn’t want to sweat, the CrossFitter said, and when asked to make athletic efforts that required a bare minimum of stamina, they broke down (in tears again) because of the oncoming discomfort and said, “I can’t do it.” To which the growingly-troubled 40-something CrossFitter replied, “Look. I can do it and I’m more than three times your age!”

An article in the June issue of Psychology Today“A Nation of Wimps”— talked about how this very phenomenom might be growing into a national-level crisis:

No one doubts that there are significant economic forces pushing parents to invest so heavily in their children’s outcome from an early age. But taking all the discomfort, disappointment and even the play out of development, especially while increasing pressure for success, turns out to be misguided by just about 180 degrees. With few challenges all their own, kids are unable to forge their creative adaptations to the normal vicissitudes of life. That not only makes them risk-averse, it makes them psychologically fragile, riddled with anxiety. In the process they’re robbed of identity, meaning and a sense of accomplishment, to say nothing of a shot at real happiness. Forget, too, about perseverance, not simply a moral virtue but a necessary life skill. These turn out to be the spreading psychic fault lines of 21st-century youth. Whether we want to or not, we’re on our way to creating a nation of wimps.

As I mention in my book, I became a big fan of a number of the athletes at CrossFit Elysium–the first time I was a member of a CrossFit gym. In getting to know the men and women I worked out with–Sam, Irene, Miriam, Bill, Ben, Karla, Dave, Karen and other great people—some had never done a sport at all until they found CrossFit. On a daily basis they were suffering through some just narly workouts.  In my last couple of months in San Diego a new gal had joined, Alex Toomes. She was 21 and had some fitness background but the CrossFit world was completely new to her. I had watched how the cycles of on-ramp classes served as a mechanism to gradually expose newbies to the discomfort that CrossFit can produce. Some would stay on and some would vanish after they realized how hard it was. Alex was proof that there are distinct exceptions to this idea that we’re raising a generation of a Nation of Wimps. She threw herself into CrossFit full throttle. Once I talked with her about her intensity before a workout and it was clear: one of the reasons CrossFit had such a grip on Alex was that there were so many skills and athletic capacities involved and she had an internal need to drive toward learning them all. “It’s driving me crazy,” she said with a smile. I keep tabs on my former training buddies at Elysium through their Facebook page and I haven’t been surprised to see Alex continue to progress at a rapid rate.

Alex Toomes vividly personifying the concept of intent at the Left Coast Invitational.

Note the above photo of Alex competing at the Left Coast Invitational held at CrossFit Mission Gorge recently. Dean Karnazes would understand this young person perfectly.

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.