June 16, 2024


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‘Why I Did 24 CrossFit Hero WODs in 24 Hours’

a man holding a frisbee: With almost everything left to do, our man takes a moment to compose himself

With almost everything left to do, our man takes a moment to compose himself

I would be lying if I claimed there wasn’t a touch of Groundhog Day to all this. A few months ago, I took on my last challenge as the Adventurist in lockdown: an ultra-duathlon broken down into laps of my house and a mind- and glute-numbing stint on a stationary bike. It was my first attempt at such a distance, and I had a lot of time to think about our current reality.

My latest mission – to tackle thousands of press-ups, pull-ups, muscle-ups and squats, lift ton after ton of iron, and run an accumulated marathon-esque distance, all in 24 hours – wasn’t a new undertaking for me.

This was my annual attempt at WODvember, a month-long fundraising initiative that raises money to send injured military personnel on far-flung adventures and expeditions. I’ve spent much of my life surrounded by veterans and serving soldiers. Honouring those who have made life-changing sacrifices for the rest of us is a cause I’m passionate about. I looked forward to my chance to do my bit for Pilgrim Bandits, the organisation that WODvember supports.

But like most events in 2020, things didn’t go as planned. An abbreviated time frame in which to prepare, a lacklustre season of training, a painful injury and social distancing all conspired to make a tough task all the more difficult. Perhaps impossible.

text: 'I Did 24 Hero WODs in 24 Hours'

‘I Did 24 Hero WODs in 24 Hours’

The goal of WODvember is to complete a CrossFit Hero WOD daily throughout November. Each Hero WOD is dedicated to a member of the armed forces who died in the line of duty. Some are based around movements that he or she was known to have regularly performed; some incorporate rep schemes related to their story. They all have one thing in common: they’re brutally difficult. Among the hardest workouts dreamed up by the masochistic CrossFit community, Hero WODs are designed to give you pause for thought, and are visceral reminders of what you’re doing, why and for whom.

a man wearing sunglasses: The trial: 24 Hero WODs in one day for charity. Mad or inspiring? We’ll let you be the judge

© Provided by Men’s Health UK
The trial: 24 Hero WODs in one day for charity. Mad or inspiring? We’ll let you be the judge

After a few years of taking part in the month-long slog around work, life began to catch up with me. I was travelling the country with increasing regularity, trying to get by with limited kit and making substitutions and adaptations that often took away from the intended strain of each WOD. In 2018, inspired by the motto of the Pilgrim Bandits – “Always a little further” – I decided to complete six of the 30 workouts when I could throughout the month, then tackle the remaining 24 in a single day.

Train Hard, Train Often

I’m in an unusual position for an Adventurist: as Men’s Health’s fitness editor, I’m both the expert and the guinea pig. I’m often asked how best to train for such an extended effort and, despite over a decade of coaching experience, I always draw a blank.

This year threw a curveball in my direction. Several, in fact. The event was brought forward, leaving me with less time to prepare – a situation exasperated by the fact that my training had lately been tame at best and lazy at worst. After a cancelled attempt at an Ironman and a boredom-induced breakdown towards the end of my last Adventurist stint, I had pretty much resigned myself to lifting heavy weights at a medium intensity with a low level of interest for the rest of this weird year.

text: 'I Did 24 Hero WODs in 24 Hours'

‘I Did 24 Hero WODs in 24 Hours’

Then, a particularly mindless set of 200kg deadlifts left me in agony with a slipped disc. The deck wasn’t stacked in my favour. I contemplated making my excuses and bowing out.

The first step towards any goal is to make a plan and stick to it. I needed to fully grasp the task at hand. Hero WODs largely consist of bodyweight exercises, such as muscle-ups, pull-ups and press-ups, often in a weighted vest. There’s also usually a hefty dose of running, a peppering of barbell work and a dash of rowing. Knowing this gave me an indication of where to concentrate my efforts. Another important factor was that I’d be tackling workouts designed to be completed on a “one-and-done” basis. Ordinarily, weight training is a pursuit to which we devote, perhaps, an hour per day, several times per week. It’s supposed to be hard. How could I, in effect, prepare to run at a 200m sprint pace over a marathon distance?

My calendar was full, making 12-hour sessions to condition myself impossible. So, I adopted a “little and often” approach, spreading an hour of training across my working day throughout the week. Each morning, I saw in the day with bodyweight circuit work and running. It was a simple yet effective routine: 10-20 rounds of five pull-ups, 10 press-ups and 15 squats, each chased by a 200m lap of my house. I did this daily, sometimes with a weighted vest, sometimes without.

At lunch, I’d load up a barbell and work through a variation of one of the WODs I’d be facing. It was part training, part familiarisation: I wanted to learn the best places to rest and step on the gas.

Late each evening, after a full day’s work and travel (and often still smarting from previous workouts), I’d go again, having another run at a Hero WOD, or another traditional CrossFit benchmark workout. I was preparing myself to simply go when the clock says so, regardless of how my body felt. (Continued below)

'I Did 24 Hero WODs in 24 Hours'

‘I Did 24 Hero WODs in 24 Hours’

The Longest Day

The big day rolled around quickly. I woke up and got to work. The first two workouts hit me like a freight train: a grip-sapping circuit using a barbell that weighed almost as much as I do, followed by 100 muscle-ups. Within the first 90 minutes, my hands were torn to shreds – less than ideal when you have more than 1,000 pull-ups ahead of you. By lunch, I’d clocked up five miles and 300 palm-shredding muscle-ups, pull-ups and dozens of handstand push-ups, and shifted over 10 tons of weight. I was acutely aware of every inch of my body.

Despite having a few friends jumping in on the WODs with me, the workouts began to feel more solitary as the hours wore on. As I approached halfway, a brutal combination of dumbbell squats, presses and lunges left me with a bitter taste. Looking down at some weights I’d tossed to one side, I had the feeling that I might not see this one through.

a man wearing a hat: 'I Did 24 Hero WODs in 24 Hours'

‘I Did 24 Hero WODs in 24 Hours’

Night Crawler

It was time for a barbecue. After some laughs, a few stern words with myself and some reflection on what it would mean to quit, I set off again feeling oddly invigorated. I was exhausted, but I felt like I’d made the hard, steep climb to the top, and all I had left to do was stomach the roller-coaster ride back down.

I kept on pace surprisingly well through the night. Between workouts, I started to count my ever-slowing breaths, occasionally dropping into semi-consciousness, before being rattled to attention by my alarm. I snacked on sugary sweets but, as anyone who has ever partaken in a 24-hour event will tell you, your digestive system goes haywire once you reach a certain point. I attempted to fuel each round as well as I could, often stirring to find a wine gum stuck to my face. Reps, sets and rounds melted into a training montage cloaked in darkness. (Continued below)

a close up of a person holding a tattoo: 'I Did 24 Hero WODs in 24 Hours'

‘I Did 24 Hero WODs in 24 Hours’

MURPHy’s Law

Sunday’s 6am offering was a combo of a few hundred kettlebell swings and burpees. I felt bizarrely wakeful afterwards. The anticipation of the final challenge ahead, the one I’d been trying to push to the back of my mind all night, dragged me into a state of alertness.

The Murph WOD was named after Lt Michael Murphy, a Navy SEAL awarded the US military’s highest decoration, the Medal of Honor, for actions that led to his death during the Afghan war. It’s the most infamous Hero WOD of them all: two one-mile runs, split down the middle by 600 reps of bodyweight movements, all in a weighted vest.

Placing Murph, the hardest WOD, last was a conscious decision. I often think about how the men and women to whom these workouts are dedicated never had the option of giving up. They didn’t get to choose what to work through first, or how to structure their workload. They didn’t get to decide when the session was up and head to the sauna. They just had to react to what came their way. They couldn’t get their Murph out of the way while they were still fresh. So, I didn’t want to, either.

I pulled on my 10kg weighted vest – similar to the body armour used by the military. But I was aware that with my gym shorts and hi-tech running shoes, this wasn’t even close to the weight that forces personnel are expected to endure. After a one-mile loop, I circled back into the garden and stared up at the pull-up bar: 100 pull-ups, 200 press-ups and 300 squats were all that stood between me and the final one-mile run.

Even broken down into sets of five, I hesitated before each jump up onto the bar. My hands were raw. I could barely hold my weight, each rep tattooing a grimace across my face and shooting pain down my biceps. Round by round, one heave at a time, I ticked off the reps, just as I had in training. Eventually, the last mark was chalked and I was just a mile away from completion.

Anticlimactically, the distance rolled by. With 15 minutes to spare, I crossed the finish line. Not a PB but not bad, considering the 23-hour warm-up. I hugged those I could, gave my socially-distanced gratitude to those I couldn’t, and slumped into a garden chair.

We often talk about the body being capable of so much more than we know and “getting out of our comfort zone”. But then we head to the same gyms and do the same workouts with the same people. As I unbandaged my hands, I wondered if we weren’t just creating new comfort zones for ourselves.

Working out is hard. But it’s also a privilege, one that you can call time on at any point. Not every challenge has that luxury, and perhaps that’s where true discomfort begins. Every year, when this adventure ends for me, I’m reminded of that.

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