I’ve done some silly things to fly the men’s health flag over the decade and a half I’ve worked for the brand. I have swum, cycled and run an Olympic distance triathlon, gotten my extremities deeply numb in a 4.5 degree Scottish loch, discovered my torso as it has changed over the years and i fought (and lost) a professional MMA bout that was shown on Sky Sports.
That’s why, when another athlete in the starting paddock asked me 30 seconds before the start of my first HYROX race if I was nervous like him, I replied, “What’s the point? We’re all going to do it anyway.
Looking back, maybe I should have been at least a little nervous. Conceived in Germany, growing in continental Europe and reaching extreme maturity in the United States, HYROX is the largest indoor fitness event in the world. The concept is deceptively simple. The competition begins with a 1 km run, followed by functional training. You repeat this eight times, with a different workout after each 1km lap. In order, these are: 1 km SkiErg, 50 m luge push, 50 m luge pull, 80 m burpee wide jumps, 1 km row, 200 m farmer carried kettlebells, 100 m of sandbags, then 100 wall balls.
The distances and the order of the movements are always the same. From New York to Hanover, from Los Angeles to Maastricht, every race is consistent, allowing the normal competitor to improve and elite athletes to rank on a global leaderboard.
I wasn’t going to worry the best athletes in the world. But I had trained, of course, by completing the 4-week PDF plan available on the HYROX website, barring an odd session. And I had the expertise of elite coach and competitor Jade Skillen at my fingertips. I had practiced my pace on the tracks and tackled the various elements of the event as tired as possible, to replicate how I imagined I would feel on race day.
The day before the event, I meet Jade at the venue for Saturday’s big show, the Manchester Central Convention Complex. Formerly the city’s main railway terminus, the cavernous space is already primed with all the equipment, PUMA hoardings, spectator areas and a small vendor village. All that’s missing are the other 2,499 registered competitors. MH Elite Coaches Faisal and Gus, who are the MCs for the event, do their sound checks in the background.
Jade and I run through some of the moves in the warm-up area, so she can give me some last-minute cues. We establish my rhythm on the ski and the line, which seem quite comfortable to me. I push the sled with more weight than necessary to make 125kg the next day feel easy. Everything looks awesome. I set myself mentally, secretly, the objective of completing the 1h20 race on the way back to my hotel and going to bed. I sleep terribly.
TIME FOR ROX
With my wave starting at 1:10 p.m., I have plenty of time to watch a lot of very fit people running, doing reps, and generally training extremely fast. I decide to start slow and pick up speed in the second half of the event. Aiming for negative divisions seems professional and fair, after all. I want to be professional about this.
Seconds after my words of encouragement to my nervous compatriot, we pull from the starting pen in the first 2.5 laps around the outside of the hall which is the first 1km. I run slowly, maintaining a 5:15 pace. Or at least I think so. When I reach the first station in the middle of the athletics track, which is a 1000m ride on the SkiErg, I huff like one of the steam trains that once blew into an exit from this same building.
Once the ski is over, I try again (and fail) to slow down in the second run. With a timing chip around my ankle, a giant scoreboard halfway through the course tells you what stage you’re currently on; which lap of which race and, when you’re about to complete your 1km loop, which of the eight workouts you do next. Fail to cover the full distance before entering and you receive a five minute penalty. Complete the workouts in the wrong order and you get a five-minute penalty. I fear now, already worryingly exhausted, to get a penalty. So I look at my feet and hope for the best.
The sled push, all things considered, is going pretty well. The lanes on the mat here feel noticeably more “sticky”, or I’m noticeably weakened from the first 15 minutes of running I expected. It’s probably a bit of both. But I have no problem getting it moving and walking halfway through each 12.5m length before pausing for a few seconds and then starting again. I pass quite a few competitors who push full lengths but then rest longer. It looks like the plan is working.
Then I start running. Or rather, I wobble on the track on wobbly legs that refuse to do what they’re told. I keep staring intently at the white line that separates the “fast” lane from the “slow” lane, which seems to help. I am aware that having your head down is not the most motivating posture. But persist nonetheless.
With the sled pulling delightfully more a case of taking the strain with your arms and rolling it back a few feet before picking it up again, the next run is slightly Easier. But wide burpee jumps loom large in my mind as I watch my line. Of all the moves I’ve done, the 80m burpees and lunges kicked up my heart rate the most.
It’s worse than in training. I clear the first 20m of the serpentine 80m track at a measured but decent pace, moving towards the middle to pass a slower athlete on either side. Above the barrier, a man coming back the other way gasps every time his chest hits the floor and moans when he gets up. Oddly enough, the distraction of its noise rhythm is entertaining enough that I keep repeating it over and over again. And it seems endless.
Finally, my running pace slowed, albeit out of cardiovascular necessity rather than a measured athlete’s choice. The Farmer’s Walk with two 24kg kettlebells is another welcome break for my posterior chain, being a test of grip and core strength, both of which seem to hold up. During the 1km row I feel my quads starting to clack the first chords of cramp but I’m holding my pace pretty well.
At this point, the races are happening with me, a sleeping passenger sitting on increasingly far apart legs. The car accident that is the crack in the sandbag wakes me up with a start, however. With the 20kg bag on my shoulders, me and my red lantern the comrades meander back and forth in agony, each touch of the back knee on the floor a screaming temptation to just kneel there for a little while.
But go on, we do. The final move before crossing the finish line of HYROX, 100 wall balls, is known to crush competitors when awfully close to the
reprieve from the finish line. As I begin my eighth and final run, the beacon of positivity that is Faisal announces on the microphone, to everyone, that they are waiting for me and that they have reserved a wall ball target for me just in front. The 2.5 laps go very, very slow.
Standing there to death, my t-shirt thrown away after burpees, squatting and throwing the ball to hit the target rep after rep, HYROX comes to life for me. With Faisal and Gus pleading with me to go for another set of 10 through the speakers, onlookers at the barrier a few feet away are suddenly crisp and full of color and noise. I do the last 20 repetitions without a break and I almost get there. With 5 reps to go, Gus counts them down as the music blares. I drop the ball and try to cross the line in triumph, but in truth I walk with the slump of a fortunately defeated man. Once across the line, I collapse to my hands and knees in what is evolutionarily the pose of deference and submission for animals like us.
I do not care. Moments later, I’m up and getting high fives from friends and strangers. After another little stretch to eat some sweets and start a battle against dehydration, I feel pretty good. I know the DOMS are on duty but they won’t arrive for 48 hours, so for now I’m relishing that I’m done and walking around barefoot trying to cool off.
I finish HYROX in 1 hour and 35 minutes. Not far from my goal of 1h20 but, at the same time, at an age to reach it. My Apple Watch reports that I burned 1650 calories in total. My WHOOP stress score for the day is a new high of 20.7. Funniest part, my WHOOP app tells me I spent “57 minutes at 90-100% of your max heart rate” which is “57 minutes longer than I normally spend in this heart rate zone during exercise” .
Parameters aside, HYROX is a feel-good event. Considering there are waves of 20 competitors starting from 8:00 a.m. until almost 8:00 p.m., it’s as smooth and seamless an experience as you could hope for in a competition of this scale. The judges and stewards around the course don’t hover over you, but they don’t allow shortcuts in terms of movement standards either. This is what you really want, isn’t it?
Some parts were difficult for me. Very difficult. But there was always a light at the end of the tunnel, even on wide burpee jumps and sandbag lunges. You decide to go after each fight. Then you put it behind you and look to the next challenge as a chance to do better. Which is a good way to live your life.
I didn’t realize it while I was running the race. There was no endorphin-ravaged epiphany. I just looked at my white line and continued. For this reason, I will be back in that starting paddock at the end of April for the London event. And I will hold my head high.
HYROX will conclude its first season in the UK at the Excel Arena in London on the 30thand April 2022 Register here.
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