Just a few years ago, Todd Newell was 130 pounds heavier and unable to run 100 meters. The idea of participating in a competition for "The Fittest on Earth" back then?
"I would have ridiculed it," says Newell, 39, of Catonsville, Md.
So, it's pretty remarkable that earlier this month, that is exactly what he was up to. I met Newell, who now trains at CrossFit BWI in Glen Burnie, Md., just as he'd completed the workout that's the first hurdle in securing a spot at the 2014 CrossFit Games.
If you're unfamiliar with that televised spectacle, it's essentially the Olympics of exercise, with athletes testing their dominance in a series of surprise (and often borderline sadistic) events. Last year's challenges required endless reps of handstand push-ups, legless rope climbs and weighted one-legged squats.
Don't expect to see Newell attempting those moves on ESPN this summer. His score for the workout put him in about 94,000th place worldwide (or, more precisely, in a tie at about 94,000th place).
That won't be nearly enough to qualify for Mid-Atlantic regionals, let alone the Games. But he's perfectly content where he is.
"Having (contestants at) all of these levels of fitness together is encouraging my own road to fitness," he says.
Newell's attitude is representative of what the CrossFit Open has become -- a competition that's more about achieving experience than victory.
The five-week-long showdown, which was launched in 2011 to winnow the field of competitors for the Games, is open to anyone who pays the $20 registration fee. A new workout is posted each Thursday night, and participants have the weekend to get it done under the supervision of a certified judge. (Anyone aiming for regionals has to have it videotaped as well.)
In 2011, just 26,000 athletes signed up worldwide. In 2012, it was 55,000. Last year, registration soared into six figures. And this year, there are some 200,000 folks involved.
The rising numbers have given CrossFit affiliates, known as "boxes," more of a reason to celebrate. That's why a DJ blasted tunes earlier this year for the Open kickoff at CrossFit Balance in downtown Washington, which has more than 75 athletes participating. Before the first heat got down to business, there was a New Year's Eve-style countdown, which ended with a whole lot of screaming and clapping. And then came the exercises.
For the debut workout of the 2014 Open, competitors had 10 minutes to complete as many rounds as possible of this two-move combo: 30 double unders (getting a jump rope under your feet twice in a single hop) and 15 power snatches (with a 75-pound barbell for men and a 55-pound one for women).
Jessie Albert, 27, battled the butterflies in her stomach. Every time she shows up at CrossFit Balance, there's a tough workout to complete. But there normally isn't a judge standing a few feet away, studying each movement. Even more pressure: Scores are posted on Crossfit.com for the world to see.
There was no reason to be nervous. Albert turned in a solid performance that brought her closer to her goal "to do better than last year." But her work for the night wasn't quite finished -- she needed to stick around to support her gym buddies as they took on their double unders and lifts.
"More people are cheering on than doing the workout," noted Albert, who marvels at how inclusive CrossFit is. "You could show up anywhere and do this workout -- the same workout as the fittest women in the world."
Normally, if the workout of the day calls for something that seems like too much of a reach, the move is simply modified. During the Open, that's not an option.
"You have to do the workouts as prescribed. If it's supposed to be a muscle-up, then a pullup won't count," says Steve Dolge, owner of Second Wind CrossFit in Washington. (A muscle-up is a pullup plus a dip performed on a pair of rings.)
"You have no choice but to use a particular weight, or do something a particular way. If you're going to set a personal record, it will happen then."
No matter who you are or how fit you are, this stuff is hard work, added CrossFit coach Christa Giordano, 32, who's part of that tiny percentage of athletes actually striving to make it to regionals. She has qualified the past four years, but there's no guarantee she'll get there again.
"Every year gets bigger, better and stronger," Giordano said.
By the end of that first round, however, she had already won something: a bet with Todd Newell. He had lost all that weight and made incredible athletic progress, but he still wasn't sure he was ready for the Open.
The way she persuaded him to sign up on the last possible day? Cash. Giordano promised to reimburse Newell's $20 if he didn't take away anything positive from the competition.
His smile after that first workout proved that her money is safe -- and that maybe in a few more years, he'll be gunning for regionals, too.