"Put on your game face."
That old coaching sentiment was certainly heeded in Albany for the Northeast Qualifier. The event opened with the women, who stood in the caution-taped parking lot for the first challenge: as many rounds as possible in 12 minutes of five 95-pound thrusters and 10 burpees. Many athletes smiled nervously and even giggled. Others, however, had their heads on, and after the "Three, two, one... go!" pulled away from the laughter.
Within three minutes the leaders were established. Those who didn't fly out of the gate set a driving pace that allowed them unbroken sets and consistency. Others missed pulls or bailed from overhead. Some lay on the ground for the briefest of seconds during their burpees. The workout was not kind to the weak.
By the eight-minute mark in every heat, the women either looked as if they wanted to kill or be killed. Those who kept their endurance, strength and co-ordination and came out on top: Stacey Kroon (8 rounds), Elaine Polito (7.12), Jennifer Hunter (7.11), Heather Keenan (7.03) and Shanon Morris (7.02).
Men generally do not pace as well as women in sports or life, and WOD 1 proved the point yet again. Numerous competitors charged out like MMA fighters headed into a sprawl and crushed two rounds within a minute in a valiant display of power and strength--but it was not a strategy that could be sustained.
The men who whipped the workout remained efficient, pulling135 pounds into a full squat clean and then transitioning directly into the first thruster. They jerked overhead if needed and did not bail the weight. The top male, Derek Mohamed, completed 10 rounds and was the only one in double digits.
The second workout of the day was a two-kilometer row, a popular choice among the other qualifiers. The beasts of the Northeast met it with the same trepidation, respect and disdain. The Northeast Qualifier organizers seemed to be cognizant of the fact that every athlete needs a push to go beyond what the body will allow, so each was allowed a coxswain to offer pointers, change the damper setting, scream, berate and help in any way to beat the lactic acid into submission, especially during the painful plateau that sets in during the 500-1500 leg.
The rowing strategy was the same for both sexes: go as fast as possible without hitting the wall. Time and again, the athletes strapped into the C2s and slid into their zones. For the women, Caitlin Fabian pulled a 7:38, and Dave Lipson ripped out a 6:31 with the damper at 10. Without fail, every heat forced athletes to flop from rower to ground like so many fish desperate to escape a boat. Many needed someone to un-strap their feet to allow them the freedom to writhe in pain.
The Northeast Qualifier bucked a CrossFit trend by allowing all competitors a piece of the last workout. Organizer Jason Ackerman decided to let everyone tackle a WOD featuring a 10-to-1 descender of power cleans, pull-ups and kettlebell swings. The women handled 105 pounds for the cleans and one pood for the swings. The men's weights were 155 pounds and 1.5 poods.
The top 16 female and the top 15 male (one competed early) went last, setting the stage for heat after heat of one-upmanship. However, only three of the underdog women finished the workout. One heat produced a goose egg among the competitors--all DNF.
The results were similar for the men. By Heat 7 only two people had barely completed the workout. The gut-checks ensued and three men finished in 12:36, 12:50 and 12:57. They suffered for it, though. Most clipped out all of the initial 10 reps without pause but by nine took the power cleans as singles, the pull-ups as they came and the swings as brief pauses before the continuation of suffering.
"If your athlete opened up, please clean the bars," the organizers asked the judges. This was repeated for all heats following. Maybe it was the damage from Day 1, or maybe it was because the pull-up station was brand new, but whatever the answer, the men's hands were torn, with bloody flaps of skin from mid-finger to palm.
The heats continued and the speed amped up. One point became obvious: holding onto the bar was paramount. Athletes who managed a set of two or three cleans amidst the singles after the initial round pulled ahead. If they held onto the bar for pull-ups and only rested briefly, they out-kipped the pack
The final heats for the men and women were electrifying. The women were called in with We Will Rock You playing in the background, and the explosive energy of the crowd visibly unnerved some of the athletes. The Top 5--Kroon, Fabian, Keenan, Cynthia Brown and Lauren Erwin--embraced the shrieking crowd and hit a deadly pace with touch-and-go reps for the cleans. The first round of pull-ups and swings seemed effortless. The race back to the bar became a common signifier of who was leading.
In Round 5 the women looked frenzied and angry, unwilling to yield but determined not to be outdone. Keenan went for her pull-ups and hesitated. She looked at her hand, obviously torn, and then to her boyfriend. He seemed to shrug. She shrugged in turn and gripped the bar, banging out her reps without hesitation.
In the end the bars were smattered in blood, chalk covered the ground, and sweat moistened the blacktop. Erwin won with 13:26, followed by Kim Malz (13:33), Kroon (13:43), Keenan (14:12) and Lauren Plumey (14:28).
The final men watched and realized that DNF was not an option. Jason (Rhabdo) Kaplan's 11:47 loomed over them. The same pacing and necessity of remaining with the bar applied to the men as well. The top athletes squeezed out twos and threes in the cleans and then promptly breathed, re-gripped and pulled another. There was no rest. It was a battle of reps, and there was no hesitation for ripped hands, bleeding shins or fatigue.
Mental errors crept in. Multiple times athletes had to ask for rep counts. Those who kept their progress in check came out on top. Only six seconds separated No. 1, James Hobart, from No. 2, Brad Posnanski.
The men and women of the Northeast Qualifier are a testament to the principles and beliefs of our community, and in Albany the athletes highlighted our values and reinforced an understood truth that can only come from within.