When Crossfit comes to the mountains | SummitDaily.com

When Crossfit comes to the mountains

Summit County native Ariel Strickler (left) gets rowing instruction from coach-in-training Gary Nichols during an acclimation session at Crossfit Low Oxygen in Frisco. Before joining, Crossfit Low Oxygen hosts mandatory intro sessions for all new members to go over the basics of lifting technique and cardio workouts like rowing.
Phil Lindeman / plindeman@summitdaily.com |

Find your box

In the Crossfit world, gyms are known as “boxes.” Go figure.

Crossift Low Oxygen, Frisco

719 Ten Mile Drive, Unit D


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Crossfit Breckenridge, Breckenridge

1805 Airport Road, Unit B


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It’s the second day of acclimation at Crossfit Low Oxygen when our coach admits he’s a sucker for ‘90s pop, and that’s why he cranked it during our first workout the night before.

“Backstreet Boys, N’Sync — all of that,” said 30-year-old Nick Keene, the acclimation coach. “I’ll play any of it.”

Our group of two coaches and five Crossfit newcomers was standing in a circle near the back of the gym (known as a “box” in the Crossfit world), chatting and stretching and otherwise unwinding before the hour-long session. Like so many Crossfit boxes, the Frisco one is basically a gutted-out industrial garage, inconspicuously tucked away behind a bank and a few office buildings right off Summit Boulevard. The front wall is a massive rolling garage door, while the rest of the blue-tinted space is lined with all sorts of toys: Sandbags, squat racks, boxes (the exercise variety), upright rowing machines, medicine balls, weight bars, kettlebells, jump ropes. About 10 feet up, written in blocky black, are words like “drive,” “agility” and, well, Crossfit.

“What about Hanson, then?” asked Matt Coleman, a Las Vegas native who played soccer in college and is a year younger than Keene. The group laughed. Like the rest of us newbies, Coleman balked when the coach started blaring Backstreet Boys. Nearly everyone in the group was the same age, between 25 and 35 years old, and so, we grew up listening to young Justin Timberlake on the radio. But it’s hardly the first thing we associated with pull-ups and pushups and big, bad, intimidating Crossfit.

“See, I don’t do Hanson,” Keene says, then launched into a quasi-lecture on the merits of boy bands and ‘90s pop in general. See, he knows that Nick Lachey was in 98 Degrees, not the other bands, because he played high school football against Lachey’s younger brother back in Ohio. According to Keene, Hanson just doesn’t rock the way that boy bands do. He’s so convincing that I’m inclined to agree — if I didn’t already have a soft spot for N’Sync’s “Just Got Paid.”

Keene, a former collegiate swimmer who must still shave his head with a Bic, is the last person I’d peg for a ‘90s pop fanatic with a soft spot for boy bands. But it gets better: At the sixth and final acclimation session, he outright banned Metallica.

“Honestly, I will get up and change the station if Metallica comes on when I’m coaching,” he told me, and he did when Metallica edged its way into the Pantera playlist. So much for Crossfit stereotypes.

After a few more thoughts on the Backstreet Boys, Keene clapped his hands to officially launch the session.

“Everyone, grab your PVC,” he said, and we started passing around white, hollow piping roughly the length of a weight bar. “Today, you’re going to feel awkward.”

Crossfit in the Rockies

Crossfit is far from a new trend. At this point, it’s nearly made it past the trend stage to become a recognized fitness discipline, like yoga, or Olympic weightlifting. After starting in California as a well-rounded alternative to strict lifting, it won a huge following across the nation and globe, leading to the annual Crossfit Games and Crossfit-inspired events like the Spartan race. It’s now an international brand with a reputation. Chances are you either know someone who has tried Crossfit — Q: “How do you know someone is in Crossfit?” A: “They already told you.” — or have at least heard of it.

Like any trend, Crossfit is polarizing. Since college, I’ve consciously avoided it for one reason or another. I never enjoyed lifting or even running with other people, because to me, a workout isn’t social hour. It’s time to get work done (it’s right there in the name), then beers and bull sessions can come later.

But for many, from Keene to his assistant, 68-year-old Gary Nichols, the social aspect is part of the Crossfit appeal.

“Yes, I’ve drank the Kool-Aid,” said Nichols, who first tried the Frisco box three years ago when his son gave him a gift certificate for a month of sessions. “People call Crossfit a cult, but it’s as much of a cult as playing mahjong or skiing or mountain biking. This is just something I fell in love with.”

It’s the sort of passion you just find at a community rec center or swimming pool. And, cult jokes or no, the people — not the amenities or location or even the cost — play a major factor in Crossfit.

Just look at the other Summit County box, Crossfit Breckenridge. It was launched in 2009 by Scott Ferguson, a lifelong fitness junkie with a master’s degree in physical education. He was introduced to the Crossfit brand around 2005 in California, right after it started gaining momentum, and, like others, was immediately hooked.

“Fundamentally, the fact that Crossfit is grounded in functional movement and the human kinetic — not machines — that is a huge selling point to me,” said Ferguson, who’s box was the first in Summit County. “That’s the ground level of athletics.”

At Low Oxygen, founder and elite-level Crossfitter Dave Tittle now works for the corporate Crossfit offices. He’s rarely in Summit anymore, and instead travels the country, launching boxes in other high-altitude towns and otherwise passing out the Kool-Aid.

“He’s a very infectious personality,” says Keene, who was drawn to the Frisco box by Tittle. “He’s the sort of person you just want to be around, hang out with.”

When Tittle left, he handed the day-to-day reigns over to Adriana Gillett, another longtime Crossfitter. She spent time at several Front Range boxes before coming to Summit County, and she was immediately drawn to Tittle’s philosophy.

Here’s the thing: Not every box holds mandatory acclimation sessions for new members. But, since Crossfit occasionally gets a bad rap for poor and even harmful technique — think herky-jerky pull-ups and cleans — Tittle demanded it be part of the Low Oxygen culture. Now, before joining a single Workout Of the Day (or WOD), everyone goes through a six-session acclimation course to learn proper technique and form, plus get a taste of a WOD for about 15 minutes with every session.

And so, that’s how the culture works at Low Oxygen: Community, correct form and Backstreet Boys.

More than heavy lifting

For the third session, Keene was busy playing the final two games of men’s softball league, leaving Gillett to fill in. She was insanely busy most of the week between the box, her kids and plain old life, but she didn’t mind picking up a session so her coach could play beer league ball.

“Besides,” she told the group, “I heard Nick was playing ‘90s music yesterday.”

We laughed, then jumped into the next round of instruction. We had learned the push jerk at the second session, one of nearly 20 weightlifting exercises at the core of Crossfit. It’s named a push for the movement (the bar goes up) and jerk for the beginning location (the bar starts at your waist, not the ground, and ends over your head). Keene took us through the admittedly “awkward” process of learning each and every movement, from a weird mini-jump off our heels to the titular jerk, which can sometimes wrench your elbows into an odd position.

But, Keene and Gillett and Nichols are all sticklers for form. It’s how people become better athletes in everything they do. Crossfit champions functional movements — squats, overhead presses, core stability — and all can benefit mountain athletes. Skiers and snowboarders rely on strong legs, sure, but they also rely on strong knees and ligaments. Through every session, the coaches made sure us newbies were keeping our knees aligned. They even explained how letting the knee torque inward is the root of most ACL and MCL tears — the bane of any ski racer’s existence.

And, much like snowboarders and skiers, Crossfitters get stoked when another Crossfitter gets a new personal record, or simply masters a movement they’ve never tried before. The culture at the box is built around weights and kettlebells and, yes, one hell of an intimidating pace, but after giving it a try, I found it’s really no different than hanging at the top of the terrain park.

“Unless you’re one of our coaches, you don’t just want to be great at Crossfit,” Keene said. “Everyone I’ve come across wants to get better at something else, and that could be snowboarding, skiing, mountain biking — anything.”

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