H-Town Diary

Perpetually a Pukie, Thanks to CrossFit

Too much of a workout fad can do more harm than good.

By Nick Esquer January 5, 2016 Published in the January 2016 issue of Houstonia Magazine

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Image: Dan Page

It had to be one of the lowest moments of my life. There I was at Houston Methodist Hospital, hooked up to an IV, the steady stream of fluids entering my body becoming a steady stream of urine exiting my body. I looked like a human pincushion, with arms so swollen that my elbows and wrists were imperceptible. Nurse Mama—that was her actual name—tried to comfort me, asking me questions to keep me distracted until I passed out. Hours later, I came to and looked around my hospital room with dismay. How did I get here?

I soon learned that I’d suffered the cheesiest of all sports injuries: rhabdomyolysis, a condition that plagues the sleeve-tattooed, bearded adherents of the cult that is CrossFit. Athletes contract rhabdo by overworking certain muscles—the result of pushing it too hard after not exercising for a while, or being dehydrated. Skeletal muscle tissue suffers rapid damage, and blood clots start to form, usually inside the arms and legs. In half of cases, the kidneys are affected as well—mine were fine, thankfully—and in a few rare instances, it’s fatal.

It was hard to resist feeling sorry for myself. Of course this would happen right before I started my new job—and right before my health insurance kicked in. Of course I had a disgruntled ex who worked at the hospital. Of course I was laid up at the same place where I was born, fearing I’d leave the world from the exact site where I’d arrived. Propped up on my pillow, I thought back through my life, to past mistakes, things unsaid, girls that got away…

Growing up, I wasn’t really teased, but I was a pipsqueak, the smallest of my classmates. Still, that didn’t stop me from playing football, basketball and baseball, and running track, through high school. While I eventually started growing and caught up with my peers, my main asset was always speed, not strength. It was only later, with the age of 30 fast approaching, that I decided to try weightlifting.

I’ve never been one to stare at myself in the mirror by the free weights (you know who you are), but I couldn’t help but become fascinated when, after a few months, I started seeing gains. I was reminded of nothing so much as that scene in Spider-Man, when Tobey Maguire’s Peter Parker somewhat dubiously admires his newfound physique after being bitten by a radioactive arachnid. I loved the feeling and—fine, I’ll say it—the way I looked. I became obsessed with the gym.

And there I stayed for a couple of years, until the day I realized that hitting the weights wasn’t enough anymore. This was 2013, right around the time CrossFit was burning up my Twitter and Instagram feeds with people posting their personal bests, posing with their sweaty, muscled peers at their non-air-conditioned gyms.

So I joined a CrossFit box in Montrose, and before I knew it I was mastering the butterfly pull-up, keeping up with burly guys at back squats and running circles—literally—around other newbies. Soon I heard about a more hard-core box downtown, so I joined up there. This new place was run by two best friends with boulders for shoulders, tree trunks for legs and somewhere around 1 percent body fat between them. They had been to the CrossFit Games. This was the big leagues, what I had seen on YouTube. I was intimidated.

The atmosphere, loud and fast-paced, felt like a cross between a revivalist Pentecostal service and a company weekend retreat. The athletes were serious. With each workout, I could feel my mind changing, mirroring what my body was doing, becoming a sharp and new thing. I got my butt kicked day after day, always ending on the brink of vomiting, wondering how I was going to top myself next time. I’d befriended the other members by then, and they gave me constant encouragement.

I began to feel that CrossFit was made for me, that for once in my adult life, I was getting something right. The proof was staring back at me in the mirror. The veins in my arms stuck out like a junkie’s. I began prepping my week’s meals on Sundays, following the recommended Paleo-centric diet of low carbs and high protein. I spent more time than I care to admit watching videos of CrossFit workouts and competitions on YouTube, and I proselytized to my then-girlfriend to the point that she joined in with me. Yeah, I was that guy.

One thing about CrossFit, though, is that it’s expensive. After 10 glorious months, at the end of last year, I’d left my job and was on the hunt for another one when I found myself having to choose between eating three meals a day and paying for my membership. I decided to take some time off. Five months later, right as I was about to start my new full-time gig, I stepped on the scale and realized that I’d gained five pounds. I’d also—gulp—softened up a bit. I decided my break was over.

So it was that last Memorial Day, I strode up to the downtown gym with the confidence of a seasoned veteran. The plan that day was for participants to run a mile, pump out 100 pull-ups, 200 push-ups and 300 squats, then run another mile. A cakewalk, I thought. And it was, at first; I was making amazing time. Then, around two-thirds of the way through, my arms wouldn’t straighten. It felt like someone had put a vise around each elbow and was tightening it while simultaneously poking it with a large needle.

Idiotically, even though I knew something wasn’t right, I plowed through and finished the workout. I asked for a VooDoo Band—an elastic rubber band that can be wrapped around your limbs to help release tension—but that didn’t do the trick. Embarrassed, I scurried off to my car, using just my fingertips to open the door and manage the steering wheel.

For the next few days I couldn’t put my shirt on without cringing or lift anything heavier than a few pounds. With my swollen arms, I looked like a gorilla trying to intimidate visitors at the zoo. When things didn’t get better, I found myself at Houston Methodist, listening to Nurse Mama. During my five days there, a nurse sampled my blood every few hours to make sure my levels of creatine phosphokinase were going down—they’re supposed to be at around 1,000, whatever that means, but mine were at 100,000: stroke level.

As I thought about the danger I’d put myself in, I got a little angry at the CrossFit community. Rhabdomyolysis is no joke, yet I remembered that CrossFitters would sometimes speak of the condition like it was a badge of honor. At one point, my gym had even offered T-shirts featuring a character named Uncle Rhabdo, a battered clown depicted standing next to a heart monitor, his organs spilling out onto the floor beneath him. While somebody must have realized the shirts weren’t funny—they were eventually pulled—the fact that they’d existed at all seemed to reveal something disturbing about CrossFit culture. Today the company has replaced Rhabdo with Pukie, another clown (for whatever reason), drawn with vomit spewing from his mouth after a hard workout. Throughout the entire world, Pukie is the default image for members who have yet to upload a profile photo to the CrossFit site. Subtle.

At the hospital, my arms started deflating, my creatine levels began to drop, and I was given permission to leave. By that time, I knew all the nurses’ names, not just Mama’s, and I’d decided never, ever to work out again. The skinny-fat look? That sounded perfect.

But—surprise—after I started work and got healthy again, I began to feel the old pull back to the exercise world. I watched joggers go by and felt actual longing. I decided a yoga session at Lululemon wouldn’t hurt, especially since it was free. I couldn’t get injured from watching workouts on YouTube, so I started that up again. And I guessed a brisk walk through my neighborhood wouldn’t absolutely kill me. The next thing I knew, I was pumping out burpee after burpee at my local YMCA.

It was only a matter of time. A few months later, not unlike a former smoker giving in and buying a pack, I joined back up at CrossFit. I’d missed the workouts—when else would I get to flip a tire or throw a 225-pound barbell? I’d also missed the competition, the community and, honestly, looking like post-bite Peter Parker. I was welcomed back like the prodigal son, given a new T-shirt and a bunch of backslaps and high-fives.

Since then, I’ve been careful, glugging gallons of water every day and taking a day off if need be, always with an eye out for the symptoms that plagued me last spring. Will I ever escape? Probably not. Have I learned my lesson? Kind of. Do I identify with Pukie? Absolutely.

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