On Honesty and Narcissism

By Deane Barker

I talk about CrossFit a lot. Some people tell me I’m obsessed. A lot of my friends on Facebook have only heard about CrossFit because I won’t shut up about it.

But here’s the truth – for all my talk about CrossFit, I’m a slightly above-average CrossFitter, at best.

I’m strong, but I’d trade that for more cardio. I do pretty well at sprints, but anything longer than 7-8 minutes will make me fade quickly. My Fran time is over eight minutes. I’ll be in the bottom half of any WOD by the 12-minute mark. Longer chippers will have me a couple minutes off the pace. Despite training specifically for it, Murph took me over an hour this year.

The list of movements I can’t do is longer than I’d like. I’ve gotten a couple of bar muscle-ups, but I’ve never gotten one on the rings. I’ll likely never be able to do a pistol. I can stand on my hands for maybe 5 seconds, but don’t ask me to pick up one of those hands and walk. My rope climbs are only accomplished through some unholy combination of fear and luck.

Some of this is because I’m not a young man anymore – I turned 44 a few weeks ago. I’m also tall, which doesn’t help. At 6’4″, leverage and weight are problems because my knees are maddeningly far away from my hips. Movements like burpee box jumps will cause me to fold like a cheap suit. Wall balls are not my friend. Putting Karen on the whiteboard is a great way to watch a grown man cry.

But I find solace in this fact: even though I’m not the greatest CrossFitter in the world, I will always be relentlessly honest about it. If the reality of a WOD means I come in last, then that’s what I do. If I get behind, I’ll make it up at the end. I’m often the guy still doing burpees while everyone else is putting their gear away.

This can be hard on the ego, but getting older has given me the perspective to understand that life is better from a position of raw honesty, especially about fitness. The truth is this: it’s hard for anyone to get better if they’re lying to themselves about where they’re currently at.

Moving forward is about constantly facing up to my limitations – bouncing against my upper limit again and again. If I’m scared to find that upper limit because it might not be as spectacular as I hoped for (or, ahem, not as good as I might have led people to believe…), then I’m never going to expand the box I’m performing in. Getting humbled by a WOD or a movement is the first step to getting better at it.

I’ve learned that, for all our posturing about numbers, not nearly as many people as I think really care about my performance on the whiteboard. Respect at CrossFit Sioux Falls is earned by two things: consistency and effort. Do you come in to the gym regularly, and do you push yourself to your personal limit when you’re here? If the answer to those questions is yes, then that earns more respect than any number you could put up.

You might squat 500 pounds or do a sub 4-minute Fran – and believe me when I tell you that you’re one magnificent son of a bitch for that – but if you want to humble me, find me someone who’s fighting a lifelong battle against something and still picks themselves up off the floor every time they get knocked down. Find me someone who fights on in the face of zero positive feedback. Find me someone who knows exactly how high the mountain is, and who starts climbing it anyway. Find me someone who understands that the only real starting point for long-term improvement is an often lonely place of humility and authenticity about their own performance.

Over the years, I’ve learned to own my situation, instead of exaggerating the good and minimizing the bad – which, let’s face it, is how a lot of people get through life. I try to constantly and intentionally stare reality in the face. Often, it’s humbling. And sometimes, I’m naturally tempted to flinch and retreat into denial as a coping mechanism.

But I’ve done that before.

Five years ago, I found myself at 300 pounds. I had just become diabetic with an A1C of 10.6 (if you’re not a medical professional, believe me when I tell you that’s bad). My doctor would talk to me with a sad mixture of anger and resignation. He knew I was killing myself, and knew I was in denial about it.

But in my head, I was thinking that I had just gained the weight recently. I could solve the problem if I really wanted to. It was just matter of putting forth the effort, and I really couldn’t be bothered. This was nothing but a temporary setback. It wasn’t as bad as it looked. No worries.

In truth, I was terrified. I denied reality as a defense mechanism. I lied to myself because it was the only way to survive. I was scared to try because I didn’t want to confront how hard it was really going to be or how far I had let myself fall.

I remember New Years Eve 2010. I was up watching the Ball Drop after stuffing myself with food all day. When it was time to go to bed, I realized to my horror that I could barely get up off the couch. I kind of had to lean to one side, shift my hips, and stand up backwards.

At that moment, for reasons I’ve never quite understood, I was totally honest with myself. My physical situation wasn’t a temporary condition. I hadn’t been in decent shape for 15 years – almost half my life at that time. This was normal for me. This was what I had become through sheer laziness and self-contempt.

For the first time in over a decade, I took total ownership of all of it.

From that moment forward, I approached my fitness from a position of humility and honesty. I started moving forward, and celebrating new achievements instead of comparing myself to some figment of my imagination and trying to catch up to it. It was liberating to admit that I wasn’t getting back to where I was, as much as I was breaking new ground. I learned to be thankful for every inch I struggled forward.

It’s been a long road from there to here, and part of being honest about where I am today lets me appreciate how far I’ve come. To pretend that nearly eating myself to death was just an abnormal blip on my life would be to deny the fact that I overcame it.

Equally true: to pretend that I’m better than I actually am, would be to marginalize how far I’ve come. I’m not the best, but I’m certainly better than I was. Fran may take 8-something, but she gets done, dammit. I stand by my fitness level, unapologetically, because whatever it may be, I’ve worked hard for it.

I will suffer every rep, every pound, every inch of the movement standards. I’ve placed last in a lot of WODs, but I’ve never cheated one to make myself feel better.

And of all the achievements that get thrown around at CrossFit, coming in last every once in a while might weirdly be the one I’m most proud of.