CrossFit, the Gay Fitness Hell That Destroyed My Body Before I Healed My Mind

"I was finding it difficult to walk, but when I stood still, I really was quite something to behold."

I am an unmarried gay man who lives in a constant state of trying to fix myself. I don’t mean in any deep or meaningful way—I live in Los Angeles!—rather, I’m always trying to get better looking. Of course, this is all in the service of meeting someone who might finally put an end to the endless marketing campaign that is being a single gay man in L.A.

One of my more successful, if ill-fated, attempts at beautification occurred during a two-year stint of near-constant drug use, when I joined a CrossFit studio. CrossFit, if you’re living under a treadmill, combines a variety of exercise approaches, few of which I can define: plyometrics, calisthenics, Olympic weightlifting, and “strongman,” to name a few. Each class is led by a god-like instructor, who mixes together a bunch of inadvisable movements to be performed by a group of people lacking any basic sense of self-preservation. At the end of every class, you’re scored, more or less, on how quickly you’ve done the routines, which typically involve throwing a 100- or 200-pound barbell in the air and catching it in one way or another—you know, the kind of thing you ought to be doing as fast as possible.

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The place I joined was a West Hollywood outfit I’ll call Endure. The overwhelming vibe at Endure was one of intense gay masculinity: lots of beards, muscles, and tattoos—think sexually fluid prison yard. I, in contrast, am a Jew with a spray tan. The prospect of even loosely resembling these people, however, was tantalizing. (It should be said that about a third of the clientele was female, but gyms are a place where I am particularly oblivious to anyone who doesn’t fill me with longing.)

Endure pulsed with the prospect of romance. For the first half of every class we’d pair up to share a barbell, on which we’d practice various “skills,” like squats, or “cleans”—a classic CrossFit move in which you haul a barbell up from the floor and rest it on your shoulders, over and over, until you die. The moments leading up to these partnerings, when we’d stand around listening to the instructor, were always a careful dance: I had to place myself close enough to the father of my children (whoever he might be that day) that when the time came to break off I could present myself to him as simply the most inevitable suitor. Sometimes he’d say he was already sharing a barbell with someone else, and I’d marvel at the chutzpah it would take to have asked for such an arrangement ahead of time.

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The most maddening of my crushes was a tall blond adonis named Jonathan. He was everything I look for in an infatuation: physically flawless, intermittently friendly, and overall uninterested. We once partnered up for a workout, which he blazed through and I attacked with an energy level bordering on the funereal. At one point he barked at me, “This is CrossFit, not art class!” Derision being the key to my heart, I took this as a clear sign that he was in love with me. I later strolled up to him while he was pacing the room holding a giant kettlebell above his head and said, “Remember, Jonathan, you have nothing to prove.” He kept walking, giving no indication he’d heard me. The boy drove me absolutely wild.

The torment of being surrounded by eligible bachelors was second only to the agony of the workouts. You always knew things were going to be particularly awful at Endure when the workout had a first name. If they told you to do a “Cindy,” you were in for 20 minutes of pull-ups, push-ups, and squats, supposedly without stopping. If you were doing a “Mary,” you did everything in a Cindy, but upside down and on one leg. If you were doing a “Grace”—oh Christ, who cares? Who were these women? What had they done to deserve being associated with any of this nonsense? I hoped one day they’d name a CrossFit routine after me: the “Ben,” which would be four push-ups, six crunches, and a sandwich. I’d be everyone’s favorite workout.

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There was also an aversion to irony at Endure that prevented me from ever quite feeling at home: I quit once in the middle of a particularly awful workout, prompting the instructor, Cliff, a sweet boy from Oklahoma who looked like an Aryan superhero, to ask how he should record my score. Feeling in that moment vastly, innately inferior to Cliff, I lightly suggested he “just put a swastika.” When I looked back at the board, I found that Cliff had indeed drawn a small orange swastika next to my name. I rushed to erase it, warning Cliff that he could have really gotten himself in trouble.

“No way, really?” he asked, with an innocence that made my heart flutter.

“Yeah,” the girl behind the counter assured him, nodding sagely. “Especially in Los Angeles.”

This remains my favorite thing to have ever happened to me.

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Before long, I started noticing definite improvements to my body. I was turning into a trapezoid between my neck and my shoulders—fantastic! And I was developing that phenomenal hip-adjacent V that signifies a true preoccupation with one’s looks. In only a few short months, I’d gone from a West Hollywood 5 to easily a West Hollywood 7, which is a heterosexual 8, which is a Fresno 9.

Around town I started getting noticed by people who’d previously never given me a second glance. Did I fall in love? No. But someone from a kickball team I was on once called me “CrossFit,” and for a moment, despite my being at the time drunk, stoned, and hopped up on amphetamines, I felt like I didn’t need to change anything about myself.

This was shortly after I’d nearly dislocated my shoulder doing a CrossFit movement called, for some reason, a “snatch,” which is when you hold a barbell with your arms wide apart and hoist it above your head. It is a plainly reckless maneuver, but really, who needs a shoulder? Get enough beautiful people suddenly giving you the time of day and you quickly discover what really matters in life.

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But it was my knee that finally took me out. I don’t quite know what happened, but I was finding it difficult to walk more than a few feet at a time, which gave me a pretty geriatric aura. When I stood still, however, I really was quite something to behold. I wasn’t getting out much, unfortunately, as there was something about the motion of stepping on the gas pedal that was sending shooting pains up my leg. But anyone who came to visit me would remark, from my bedside, that I looked magnificent.

The end of my association with Endure happened to coincide with the beginning of my sobriety. It was at a sober convention, in fact, that I entered a fundraising raffle and won a free gym membership, which I took as a sign that it was time to tone it down a bit. Now I go to Gold’s, where I am free to languidly roam the premises, occasionally picking up an object or two.

Several months ago Jonathan spotted me in a movie theater lobby. I’d been recently painted at the tanning salon, had done eight bench presses that afternoon, and was wearing my good shirt. Perhaps that was why he called out my name and gave me a hug—a bewildering gesture, and one that might have invited later interaction. I might have said, “What are you doing after the movie?” or “Want to get coffee this week?” or even the transparently coy, “We should hang out sometime.” I said none of these things, instead opting for a quip about how CrossFit had destroyed me. When in doubt, I say play up your physical weakness.

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Maybe when I next run into him I’ll be a little more daring. I’ve come to wonder if the thing standing between me and Jonathan—between me and any of them, really—has much at all to do with exercise. Some people I’ve met in my new drug-free existence have given me the idea that self-cultivation can also take place outside of a gym. I have my doubts, but it could be an idea worth exploring.

At any rate, there’s a new man in my life. The folks at Gold’s recently sold me on a personal-training package by showing me a photo of my trainer. Now every week I work out with an aspiring Instagram model I pay $50 an hour to flirt with me. He’s also got all sorts of loony ideas about having the confidence to go for the things you want in life.

He might just fix me.

A Los Angeles-based writer/comic, Kawaller's essays have appeared in The Advocate and Salon, and he creates video content for Los Angeles Magazine and Wehoville.
@benkawaller