Becoming the Fittest Woman in 21 Days

While form and skills are important, there is more to the CrossFit world than the eye can see

Words by Mia Simone Rush
Photos by Brooke Haesemeyer
Graphics by Lauren Manecke

Everything hurts. It’s the morning of Day 3. I lie in bed paralyzed at the thought of having to move. My muscles feel inflated — sort of like bubble wrap. If I could pay someone to burst my bubble, I would. But that’s not going to happen. I want the pressure gone, but there’s no relief.

I’ve never felt a pain like this before. All I want to do today is cry — combust into tears to make it all stop. But there’s no stopping, and the day has to go on whether I’m comfortable or not. And I’m not. Stairs are the enemy. Sitting is like kryptonite and standing is tiresome. I’m just hoping that no one notices the look on my face — the one that says, ‘Don’t touch: fragile.’ So I sit as still as a statue. One move too soon will trigger more pain — pain I am not ready to handle.

I decided that once I get home, I’ll find one spot and not move. That doesn’t work. The discomfort carries on even while lying face down on the floor. I try to relax my muscles, but it’s not working. I figure I should stretch. I count to three to roll over. I count to three to sit up. I give up.

Then my alarm goes off: “Workout in 30 minutes.” Why, I wonder? Why was I doing this to myself? It was only Day 3, and everything hurt.

The Warm Up

For 21 days, I embarked on what I considered to be the hardest fitness challenge of my life: CrossFit. The fitness regiment was created in 2000 by Greg Glassman where the original CrossFit gym was opened in Santa Cruz, California. Based on the premise of intense functional movements. Movements range anywhere from squatting so sitting in a chair to deadlifting, picking up a heavy box from the floor. CrossFit can be modified for anyone, and that’s one of the beautiful things about it, explained Matthew Henry, former assistant manager at CrossFit 8035 in Des Moines, Iowa. What it really is: hard.

I didn’t want this to turn into another weight loss story, so my goal was to build up enough endurance and skill within 21 days to complete a CrossFit workout without the feeling of dying. Let’s be honest: That feeling is unavoidable, but it’s rewarding after.

“I felt like I was going to die my very first (workout),” said Jack Aagesen, an athlete at CrossFit 8035. “Literally felt like I was going to die. But somehow it’s addicting and I stuck with it.”

Aagesen said he originally saw the CrossFit games on television back in 2011. The CrossFit Games are the world’s ultimate fitness competition. Comprised of three different phases — The Open, Regionals and The Games — it brings together 40 males, 40 females, 40 teams, 80 teens and 240 masters, each among the fittest people in the world, as they battle to win the title of “Fittest on Earth” within their respective classes.

At the time, Aagesen was looking for a way to get fit. While he thought what the athletes were doing was cool, it wasn’t enough to convince him — until he saw The Games again the following year and decided to give it a try.

I watched as many CrossFit competitions as I could. I learned what they did well, and how they did it well. I learned what they struggled with and how they were able to bounce back. But even after all the research, I still had one unanswered question: Why did those 324,000 CrossFit athletes around the globe love the sport so much? I wanted to know within 21 days. The answer I got was not what I was expecting.

The CrossFit world can be quite intimidating to start, but knowing a few terms will help along the way.

The WOD

On Day 1, I decided I would go to the Bell Center on Drake University’s campus and take a Progressive X class. Instructed by Hannah Chesley, who has been involved in CrossFit for the past four years and has competed in it for two, the class covers the fundamentals of lifting and other functional movements while progressively getting harder week after week.

Little did I know I was starting on a tough day, and the 45-minute class would turn into what felt like the longest workout I’d ever done.

The class was separated into three sections: the warmup and form, work out of the day (WOD), and cool down. The warmup was nothing crazy — and quite unnecessary, in my opinion. I hate warming up. But then it was time to go over form. “Form is the most important thing of the workout, because without it, you will injure yourself, and we don’t want that,” Chesley said. We definitely didn’t want that.

“Keep your knees soft, and let your body bend like it’s on a hinge,” Chesley said. I focused in on all the little things, going over in my head the information I had gathered from watching YouTube videos weeks prior. But no information from those videos could prepare me for the WOD I was about to endure.

Sweat? Check. Loss of oxygen? Check. Wanting to stop mid-workout? Check. Not wanting to seem like a punk? I didn’t care.

Here’s what I had to endure: 55 dead lifts, 55 weighted squats, 55 sit-ups, 55 line jumps, 55 push-ups — then repeat as many rounds as possible within 13 minutes. With no time to think, we began. I tried to set a standard pace, only dropping the weight or taking breaks when I could no longer complete reps. Midway through the workout, I knew there was no way I would finish. Hell, the first round had already killed me.

The sit-ups were getting the best of me. Every time I completed one, my breathing got shorter and shorter. Forty-five. Deep breath. Forty-six. Halfway there. Forty-seven.

I continued to push through. Maybe I had a little something in me. I saw line jumps—jumping back and forth over a line because you have no jump rope—as a way to catch my breath. I was at the mercy of the clock, but there was a little piece of me that began to believe I could finish.

That part of me was wrong.

“Time! That’s the workout,” Chesley yelled. I was 25 reps short on push-ups.

Unlike Henry would loved being buried by his first CrossFit workout, I did not. Later that night, I walked home with her. I could barely feel my legs — a sensation that I would become very familiar with over the next few days.

I was determined to make the next 20 days worth while and decided it couldn’t get worse. I just had to keep at it. I even sought out advice from another CrossFit 8035 athlete, Kyra Hawley.  She said, “give it a month and then after that I don’t think you’ll look back like I don’t think I’m going to like this. Everyone comes for a different reason and everyone stays for different reasons too.”

Before we parted ways, I asked Chesley if she had any advice that might help me get through the next three weeks.

“Reach out to as many people as possible to really keep you motivated and going,” Chesley said. “Maybe after 21 days you’ll drink the Kool-Aid and be sucked in.”

Barbell plates sit near a lifting platform for easy access.

Enlisting Help

On the days that I didn’t attend Progressive X or workout with Chesley, I was left to program workouts on my own. I would go back to notes from the previous workouts I had done, take bits and pieces of them and make them my own.

Sometimes I would overestimate the workout, like on Day 4: five rounds of 40-second planks, 80 sit-ups, 20 vertical arm raises and 60 push-ups. I didn’t even make it past the 80 sit-ups without calling it quits. I jogged on the treadmill instead. But other times I could have gone harder, like on Day 7: six rounds of running 50 meters and doing 50 squats.

By Day 5 nothing hurt anymore. It was a glorious feeling, but also a scary one. I was beginning to equate soreness to the difficulty of the workout. And if I wasn’t sore I assumed I wasn’t working hard enough. I needed someone to work out with, to push me, motivate me and make me work harder — especially when I was working out alone.

I didn’t try to keep my 21 days of Crossfit a secret. I used my Snapchat to keep a running log of what was going on in my workouts and a hashtag — #21daysofcrossfit — on Twitter as a way to write notes about them. When people would ask how my 21 days were going, I often told them everything was fine and encouraged them to work out with me. While others were skeptical, I found one friend that was down for the challenge — Haley Davis.

I met Haley Davis through school a year ago. We had gone to a few Progressive X classes together. She thought it was cool, but didn’t have the motivation to continue. Now, here I was in April, taking the class again. She had seen my tweets and brought it up. To be honest, she probably thought I was crazy.

We were in class together, and I was complaining about how sore I was. While it was only Day 2, I didn’t want to workout alone — nor did I have time in my schedule to, at least until midnight.

I asked her if she would join, and to my surprise she said yes. That night we completed three rounds for time of 20 pushups, 20 squats, a 20-second plank, 20 alternating lunges, a 20-second plank again, 20 jump squats and another 20-second plank.

She hated me after we were done, but no matter what crazy workout I had come up with, she gave it a shot. I could only hope to carry that same commitment with me the next few weeks.

Over the past 21 days I completed a series of workouts. If you’re ready and willing try them.

The Cooldown

I began falling into a routine. Progressive X: Monday and Wednesday. Workouts with Haley: Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Sunday: rest day. Well, not really.

By Day 14, taking a rest day was hard. I didn’t have any motivation without working out. It focused me, and I enjoyed it. Who was I becoming? I was finding that I was no longer working out for the sake of completing 21 days, but for myself. CrossFit was about the community I was forming with Haley and Progressive X classes. I loved it.

On Day 21, I revisited the workout I had done on my first day. I finished it with ease.

It was Day 22, and I heard my alarm go off: “Workout in 30 minutes.” I was hooked on the Kool-Aid.

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