UnScared: In Spite of Self-Preservation

By Patrick Cummings

I UTTER THE FIRST OF MY COMMITMENT to run the Wapack Trail Race to Stacey after a workout in late May. I know once I say out loud my intentions, my only options are to do it, or choose not to. Keeping it to myself, as I've been doing for a few weeks now, was far easier.

With only three months to train, I have a long way to go. I've never run anything longer than a 5k in my life, and signing up for 18 miles over four mountains is admittedly a slightly asinine entrance into the activity of trail running.

Even moments after verbally committing myself to the task, I am trying to back out of it.

COACH GREG GLASSMAN, CO-FOUNDER OF CROSSFIT, stands before a group of athletes in the middle of a Level One seminar. We're in Orange County, California. The year is 2007.

He's talking about the overhead squat, talking about the role of the shoulders in stabilization, and says, "You know, why don't we just hear it from the good doctor." Kelly Starrett, fresh off his doctoral studies at Samuel Merritt College, emerges from the group. Among those in attendance is Brian Mackenzie.

"I had just been kind of introduced as the endurance guy--they had made their decision," Brian remembers.

Listening to Kelly present, the eventual founder of CrossFit Endurance recalls an almost instant connection to the material. "It was the first time I really heard anybody who was kind of speaking the same language to the degree that I was speaking.”

That night, at an invite-only steak dinner with Coach Glassman, Brian and Kelly talk. As Brian recalls, Kelly "was just blown away that there was somebody teaching endurance the way I was and that I figured something out with it. It was this complete paradigm shift, and he was just happy to hear about it and happy to hear that I taught running because he hated running."

Amongst the rest of the ten people around the table, the conversation turns to endurance training. Dave Castro, the head of training for CrossFit and a Navy SEAL, concedes to an appreciation for endurance training, but a complete disrespect for arm warmers and the cyclists he sees wearing them. As Brian recalls, Dave asked, "Why wouldn't you just wear a jacket?"

"He was on this rant, and Kelly kind of cocks his head and Kelly, just sitting upright the way he does, looks sideways at Dave like a puppy would look at a weird noise," Brian remembers. "And he goes, 'Well Dave, I live in San Francisco, and my gym is outside. It's cold all year round. And I like to wear arm warmers because I can just roll them off when it gets warm.'" Dave remains incredulous.

Still laughing about it four years later, Brian retells it: "And Kelly goes, 'Well, Dave Castro, I'm going to get a pair of pink arm warmers and I'm going to write the word unscared on them,' and he goes, 'because I'm unscared of you, Dave Castro.'"

A few weeks later, Brian presents Kelly with a pair of pink arm warmers, the word unscared printed on each. "It was really the first time the word had actually been written down or printed on something," says Kelly.

THE INVENTED WORD HAD BEEN AROUND FOR A WHILE, an inside joke between Kelly and his fellow white water kayackers. It was, as Kelly says, "About being afraid, really, really afraid, but doing it anyway."

He continues, deepening the meaning. "I have a kayacking camp for kids that are really sick, you know, terminally ill kids. One of the things we tell the kids is something like, 'I'm going to ask you a question, and you have to say the word nothing. So I ask the kids--we're about to go kayacking. It's terrifying. I'm like, 'What are you afraid of?' And they go, 'Nothing.' And no one has to believe it. They just have to say it. That's what sort of started that idea, that this unsacred is a conscious choice that you're going to have to act in spite of the pressures of self-preservation."

TWO WEEKS BEFORE RACE DAY, I fumble with my iPod as I make my way down the stairs of my apartment building and outside. The August sun is falling.

In the past three months, I've introduced myself to idea of running longer than 800 meters at a time. I've incorporated two interval sessions and one longer run into my training every week, and my consistency in the gym is the best it's ever been. Having something to train for is making all the difference.

A far more experienced friend has decided to join me for the race. While we don't train together, I keep an eye on Eric's programming, which comes primarily from CrossFit Endurance.

Recently, he's run a 3x5k. I hate him for this.

Almost out of guilt, I decide I must as well. It's quite honestly the most daunting thing I could think of doing, short of running 18 miles through the woods of New Hampshire.

I run down Beacon Street, past the sleeping Fenway Park and into Kenmore Square. I cross over to Commonwealth Avenue and climb the slow, long hill past the countless buildings owned by Boston University. I make the turn down Babcock Street, through Coolidge Corner, and back to Longwood Ave.

I do that two more times, with ten minutes of rest between each, slowing only a minute each subsequent attempt.

EARLY IN THEIR FRIENDSHIP, Kelly and Brian share programming and compare results from opposite ends of California. Brian remembers, "They'd be hellacious fucking pieces that we would put together. And then we would just start to say, 'I'm unscared,' you know, 'I'm just--I did it and I was unscared.'"

There isn't much conversation about the meaning of the word, or about why it resonates so strongly--the word carries everything needed to understand. Says Kelly, it's "one of those central concepts. I don't have to explain love to you. You just know what it is."

Across his knuckles, Brian gets the word tatooed in dark ink. He's not the last person to permanently etch the word into their skin.

We're in the days of the underground. The days before ESPN2 and Reebok. Before sponsored athletes and international affiliation. The tattoo, the philosophy, the training, to Brian, is like "that middle finger up at the rest of society or the people who are saying, 'You're crazy for what you're doing.'"

The philosophy infiltrates life at Kelly's gym in San Francisco. Starrett and clients begin entering, training for, and finishing various endurance events. Events, according to Kelly, that "destroyed our sense of self-importance, destroyed our sense of ego."

The physical and mental challenge of exposing oneself to the strain and discomfort of a race is key to living the unscared ethos. "I think performers do it. I think artists potentially do it. I think it's kind of trans-platform, that performance consummating in the experience of potential failure is what this is really about. We tell people all the time, 'Look, if you're a musician, you've never played publicly, you're not a musician.' If you train like an athlete but never compete, you're not an athlete. You're just exercising."

THE FIRST AIDE STATION IS ABOUT FIVE AND A HALF MILES IN. Up until now, I feel fine. The day is humid and the temperature are in the low 80s. Talk at the start line was of rain, but as of yet we've seen none.

The terrain becomes and remains flat for a stretch, but I am unable to sustain any amount of speed or consistency. I walk for the majority of the next twenty-five minutes. I have the lungs for it, just not the legs.

The course is a nine mile out-and-back, starting in New Ipswhich, New Hampshire and climbing south into Ashburnham, Massachussets. The total climb and descent of the course is roughly 5,000 feet each.

The final downhill of the first leg is by far the most technical and difficult to maneuver. I cross paths with Eric somewhere near the base and he's in good spirits, having made the turn and pointed himself back toward home.

I am able to move quickly and get to the turnaround two hours and ten minutes into the race. Despite everything, it isn't far from my goal coming in.

I arrive just behind a man named Richard, probably in his early sixties and a veteran of four previous Wapack's. He tells me the year prior he ran a 2:10 first half and a 3:50 second half, laughing at the memory. He was supposed to run slower from the outset this year to avoid a similar breakdown, but the plan appears to have been moot. We eat a few slices of oranges, joke with the volunteers filling waters bottles, and take off with a pair of other runners who have come in behind us.

Richard and I walk for a few, then trot to the base of the mountain we had both just flailed somewhat wildly down.

It becomes clear this climb will make or break the day. If you can get up mentally and physically unscathed, the remaining eight miles or so should be within your grasp. It breaks me.

Halfway up, for the first time, I have to stop completely. The summit is still beyond my line of sight.

By the time I get to the top, my hip flexors are on fire, especially the left one, and I begin to feel them every step. Climbing only makes it worse.

The rest of the race is a hike for me. I run in spots, but they are short lived and frustrating. My legs are simply not ready for the task. Training on the flat roads of the city were no match for the eight different ascents on the trail, and of course I should have known that.

Once I pass the final aide station, about six miles from home, I have no real conception as to how far I've gone and how far I have left. My wrist watch churning, I watch the four hour mark tick by and try to do the math, but it's all guesswork.

The course, generally well marked with small yellow triangles nailed to the trees and spray-painted across rocks, gives me pause the farther I go. My concentration falters until I realize I haven't been looking at anything but the ground for I-don't-know how long. I backtrack until I find a marker to be sure I haven't wandered off-course. The thought of being stuck out here as the sun starts to fall creeps in, unlikely as it is to happen.

The final climb is slow and arduous, made more painful unconvinced am I it is the last climb. Negativity has crept in, grown stronger and more resolved. It feels out of my control now.

I try to concentrate on my breathing. I try to think about why I am doing this, what I want out of it. I try to think about the pizza at the finish line. But my mind wants to focus on the way every step I take hurts. It wants to focus on my inability to run when I want, on how people twenty years my senior are churning up these hills and out of sight.

About five hours in, I pass a hiker who tells me the finish is about a mile away, and checks to make sure I don't need any water. He might as well have said five miles. All I want is to be done.

I run the last 200 yards, seeing the end and hearing those who remain at the finish line cheering me in. As I run, it doesn't hurt as bad as it had. As I make the final right hand turn, the voice in my head that has been telling me I should stop, that I should never have tried this, is telling me I could have run more.

out in the great loneliness,
and it can be reached only through suffering.
Privation and suffering alone can open the mind of man to all that is hidden to others.
--Igjugarjuk, Caribou Eskimo shaman

This passage is tattoo'd from the base of Brian's neck to his mid-back. In a tshirt, all you can read--The only true wisdom--is like a secret he's keeping.

He says of it: "When you're without material constraints, when you are without all this shit, maybe you're out there running, maybe you're out there suffering in some workout, you're finding out what it is you're actually made of. At the end of the day, you're the only one who you're answering to, and you know exactly who you are. Everything you are, you reek of."

One of Greg Glassman's most shared lessons is that the greatest adaptation to CrossFit happens "between the ears." For Brian, adaptation happens in the loneliness of a difficult workout or the suffering of an endurance event: "You're going to need to understand that you have to find something positive in it, and you're going to have to wrap your head around the fact that you're going to go into that negative space and when you start to go there, you have to say, 'Okay, this is me figuring out who I am right now, and can I wrap my head around the fact that I'm doing something positive for myself, and that I'm doing something to change."

He uses Lindsey Smith as an example. Lindsey is a three-time CrossFit Games competitor, finishing 5th in 2009 and 16th in the most recent event last July. Since then, she's been working with Brian, and he calls her "one of the most evolved athletes" he's ever trained. The reason? "Because since she came to me, she's really explanded her mind and opened her head to the fact that I'm just going to tear her apart on everything she does and make her move better. And only with that can she train in this new manner."

MONTHS AFTER THE RACE, it's easy to explain away what happened: I was too inexperienced to try and run that far. I had never run trail with that much elevation change. My shoes were too new.

It isn't until talking with Brian and Kelly that I realize where I truly went wrong.

In the three months I trained specifically for the race, I had only one goal: Finish. So I did what I thought I was supposed to do. I did CrossFit, and I ran three times a week, mixing it up between intervals and longer time trials. I was putting in the time and hoping it would prove to be enough.

Here's Brian: "It's a big battle of people not wanting to deal with reality. People are so fucking vanitized--is that even a word?--they're so fucking focused on the vanity or the 'I need to look good' or 'I need to finish in this time' instead of just, 'Hey, what's the reality of the situation here?' Like, can you actually even fucking maintain form for five kilometers? Oh, you mean you lose any postural control when you run 5K? Interesting."

He isn't talking about me here, but he could be. When I ask him if it's an issue he comes across often--too much attention being paid to the finish line--he reminds me: "Every day is a new battle."

It shouldn't be overlooked, the prescription Brian and his coaches at CrossFit Endurance hand out. It's simple in principal, but difficult in execution. First, can you move correctly? Second, how hard can you go while maintaining the gains made by skill work? Lastly, how much high intensity work can you handle while still moving efficiently?

Much like endurance, mobility doesn't come without significant patience and resolve. On his website, MobilityWOD, Kelly presents viewers with a new workout daily. There are no rest days and never the mention of a finish line, simply a presentation of the day's task.

Success at both requires patience and a laser-like focus on the notion your race isn't forty-seven days away, it's today, everyday. It requires an almost uncomfortable level of internal truth telling. Without these things, Brian often can't make the progress he wants with an athlete, and has on occasion fired them from his stable. (It's of interest that a term familiar within CrossFit--that of one's "goats", or things you're particularly bad at and should consciously strive to improve--is also the result of a semantic collaboration between Brian and Kelly.)

The implication of both disciplines is that it isn't about the race. It isn't about showing up and having a transformative experience like I expected. The race is the reward more than anything. Or, as it was for me, the revelation.

"It takes practice to be courageous," says Kelly. "I think that's the bottom line. It takes effort and diligence and practice to be good at being courageous."

The takeaway for me wasn't that I didn't succeed on race day, it was that I didn't succeed in my training. My 3x5k was perhaps my only moment of courage, the only real effort I made in spite of my discomfort and in spite of my fear. And it should be of no surprise it was instigated by somebody else.

I did what I'd always done in my training, but I expected my commitment to this race to change something. It didn't. My legs were still not very strong and my hip flexors were still incredibly tight. I didn't train enough on hills, and I didn't train enough off road.

I wanted the growth without any of the sacrifice, I wanted the courage without any of the bravery. But it doesn't work that way.

KELLY TELLS A STORY ABOUT A NOTORIOUS STRETCH OF WHITE WATER within the Grand Canyon called "Lava", saying it's always just ahead of you, even if you've just pulled through it. The truth, he says, is the only time you're not above the rapid is when you're inside it. "The only time you're really not scared is when you're doing the thing that makes you not scared," he says. "It's a moving target."

"And here's the dirty secret we don't tell people," he continues. "People are like, 'Does it get easier?' I'm like, 'It sucks less, but it's way, way harder.' That blows people's minds. The faster you go, the faster you can go. So, the bigger the risk you take today, the more you're going to risk tomorrow, the harder challenge you're going to put yourself into, and subsequently, you end up in this perpetual loop of, 'Oh my god, I had no idea I could accomplish that.'"

Patrick Cummings is the Editor-in-Chief at Again Faster. Photo courtesy of David Foster.