When I first show up to Flex on the Beach, a daylong, four-event, team-based CrossFit competition in Long Beach, NY, the first thing I see is another team warm-up their snatch lifts with the same weight I normally use for my one-rep max.
This four-event slugfest has attracted 175 teams, each with two men and two women. Sixty-four teams comprise the most challenging division, including mine ("Marriage Material") and the team paired with us for the day, “Tropic Thunder Thighs,” which consists of four impossibly jacked humans who are still loading plates on their barbells by the end of the warmup.
To be fair, I've done CrossFit competitions before. My home gym, CrossFit Virtuosity, hosted a "Subway Series" contested between a few Brooklyn boxes. And while it's immediately obvious that Flex on the Beach is another monster entirely, little do I yet realize how grueling the next eight hours will be.
But in the process of snatching, squatting, sprinting, and burning in the sun, I'll learn myriad important lessons for my next competition. Here's the event-by-event breakdown.
Photo: Derek Godwin and Moran Dankner of team "Marriage Material" compete at Flex on the Beach in Long Beach, NY. Photo credit: @hai_intensity and @antlucic.
Event One: The Snatch Complex
For the past few weeks, I've been practicing my technique for this first event, which I know will be my weakest. I recently cleaned 200lbs but haven't been able to transfer that same power to the snatch, so I've been working on high pulls and dropping below the bar. In training, the best I've done is 115lbs, and I'm hoping for 125 today. To make sure we're hitting clean reps, Tropic Thunder Thighs will judge us, and then we'll switch.
The four members of our team have 20 minutes to hit our one-rep maxes. I open at 95lbs, hit it, and then snatch 105 and 115. A little too buzzed with adrenaline, we're moving at a frantic pace, and within eight minutes, everyone's hit a personal best. Collectively, we take a deep breath, and then I do the complex at 125. I shout and pump my fist. The musclebound members of Tropic Thunder Thighs do not look impressed.
When I load 135 on the bar, I talk myself through the lift: Drive through my hips and move quickly. I pull from the ground and get it overhead: a new snatch PR. Then, I drop it to my waist, lean over, re-grip, and hang snatch it. The overhead squat is fairly easy, leaving only the last hang snatch. I readjust my grip again, but when the bar gets to eye level, I'm too slow dropping below it and fail the complex. No rep.
A coach from my gym is watching, and he pulls me aside. "On your hang snatch, you keep pushing your knees forward instead of your hips back," he tells me. "You can't get any power that way." I try the weight again, but fail. I'm too burned out, but am stoked with a new one-rep max. When the next heat starts, a guy on Tropic Thunder Thighs opens at 185, hits 205, and barely misses 225 twice.
Lessons learned: On the snatch, push your hips back—not your knees forward—and drop underneath the bar.
Event Two: The AMRAP
9-minute AMRAP of:
10 single-arm kettlebell snatches (53lbs)
10 burpees over the bell
Then a 2-minute rest, followed by:
9-minute AMRAP (divide the work between partners) of:
30 deadlifts (225lbs)
20 alternating pistol squats
We have about 40 minutes between the first and second event, and I try to eat an Rx Bar, but have no appetite and can't take more than a few bites. I'm glad that my weakest event is over, but my back is unreliable, and I'm nervous that it won't survive the second part of the next workout: deadlifts, on the sand, at 225lbs. Since pistols are one of my strengths, my partner Derek and I divide up the work accordingly: We'll each do sets of six deadlifts, but he’ll start and finish (and do six more). I'll make up for it on the pistols by doing seven at the beginning and end, leaving him with six in the middle.
First, though, we have to do the kettlebell snatches and burpees. Since it's only nine minutes and we're alternating rounds, we say we'll sprint the whole way. I make Derek go first, and as soon as he finishes, I grab the kettlebell. When we practiced this workout a week earlier, Derek told me to swing the kettlebell so it wouldn't rotate at the top and hit my wrist, but I ignored him, which I regret as soon as the kettlebell slams into my arm. As I rest in-between rounds, I try to spit out the sand that's now living in my mouth, but there's no moisture left in my body.
Finally, the nine minutes end, and what feels like a few deep breaths later, but is really two minutes, Derek starts the deadlifts. My back feels good as I begin my reps, but my legs are more tired than I expected. Soon, I’m gutting through each rep one at a time, and when I drop the bar at the top of the deadlift, it makes the divots in the sand even deeper.
The pistols are unpleasant but bearable, and since Derek's wobbling on his (and since he's doing six more deadlifts each round), I switch to doing 16 of the 20 squats. By this point, it'd mid-afternoon and at least 80°. When the round finishes, I feel dizzy, leave the women on the team to judge, and go eat ice under a tent.
Lessons learned: Rotate your grip on the kettlebell to save your wrist; never do deadlifts in the sand. Also, hydrate.
Photo: Brett Ferguson of team Tropic Thunder Thighs competes at Flex on the Beach in Long Beach, New York. Photo credit: @hai_intensity and @antlucic
Event Three: The Relay
4 rounds, 100-meter relay sand sprint
After event two, I'm not in a good place. Derek brings me an ice pack to put on my chest, but 10 minutes later I'm still lying on the sand, overheated. Nicky, one of my teammates, brings me a banana, which I choke down, and Moran, our fourth teammate, delivers frozen blueberries, which are surprisingly delicious. We all take a salt pill for the electrolytes, and I try again to wash the sand out of my mouth. Thankfully, we have another 40 minutes or so until the next event: four rounds where we each sprint 100 meters on the sand.
We debate whether it's best to run on the sand with shoes or barefoot, and opt for the former. I volunteer to go first, and when the buzzer sounds, I sprint the first 50 meters, touch the tape, and turn to run back. During the last 50, I feel myself slowing down. But, as hard as I will my legs to move faster, they only sink further into the sand. It's startling how the first two events have crushed my fast-twitch muscles, and on each of the next three 100s, I go slower and slower. We finish the mile in 6:19.
After the event, I talk to Katie Harper, one of the women on Tropic Thunder Thighs and a coach at CrossFit South Brooklyn. She ran track in college and gives me some advice for the next time I sprint: "Focus on keeping the shoulders back and down, away from the ears, and pinch the ribcage down toward the hips. Use your arms to counterbalance your stride, not to produce force, and swing them freely, with the fists pointed forward."
Lessons learned: Running technique is worth learning, and make sure your CrossFit training has enough volume. Also, frozen blueberries are the ultimate mid-event snack.
Event Four: The Serpent
50m walking lunges while carrying “The Serpent” (Rogue Worm for two people)
40 serpent thrusters at 70lb
10 bar muscle-ups
50m Serpent walking lunges
40 serpent thrusters
60 ring dips
50m Serpent walking lunges
40 Serpent thrusters
60 chest-to-bar pullups
50m Serpent walking lunges
40 Serpent thrusters
60 box jump-overs at 24"
After the sprints, I drink some more electrolytes and finish an Rx bar. Shockingly, I feel better now than I did after the deadlifts and pistols. We have over an hour to rest and only one workout left to complete. No matter how painful it is, I tell myself, it'll be over in 20 minutes.
We know we need to be smart about dividing up the work, and decide that one pair will lunge 25 meters down, the other will lunge back, and the first will start the thrusters. We'll switch off sets of 10, and then tackle the gymnastics.
Nicky and I need about 10 meters to synchronize our lunges underneath the bulky weight. When we start the thrusters, we need to stop after each shoulder press to make sure we're together, which adds an extra second or two to each rep. Because we have the strongest muscle-ups, we each do five after the thrusters are complete, and we start lunging again.
By the third round, I'm entering the pain cave. My shoulders are roasted not just from the snatches earlier in the day, but also from the thrusters, muscle-ups, dips, and the fact that we have to hold the Serpent while our teammates do the gymnastics. If I were on my own, I'd stop, but Nicky isn't slowing down, so I can't either. The Serpent is also grinding sand into my sunburnt shoulders, but the pain from that is helping to distract me from the pain everywhere else, so I don't mind.
When we finally get to the box jump-overs, I can barely breathe. Instead of taking them laterally, I face the box, which means I have to do a half-turn after every rep—a huge mistake. Because my legs are essentially useless at this point, I skim the top of the box, almost tipping it over a few times. After I finish my 15th rep, though, my contribution is complete. A few seconds later, Derek hits our 60th, and we collapse on the ground with a time of 18:10.
Lessons learned: Practice the movements (with the implements) ahead of time; don't pause on partner movements; take the box jumps laterally; wear a shirt (but only under exceptional sand-related circumstances).
Out of the 64 teams, we take 34th. Tropic Thunder Thighs takes 11th.
A few minutes after our team finishes, we take a swim in the ocean, which stings our shoulders but feels great everywhere else. For the first time that day, I don't have sand covering my body.