The #Coronavirus chronicles, part 24: Coping with the stress #COVID19

I’m not going to lie. The mental stress of being out of a job (ten months, and counting) is affecting me in many ways. I’ll talk about the mental stress (which is what this article is mostly about) in a minute, but before I get into that, let me talk about something that has been affecting me physically.

Last year, gyms were closed down due to the pandemic. As a result, I wasn’t able to attend CrossFit classes. For me, one of the biggest benefits of CrossFit classes was that it created a routine. I tend to be a creature of habit, and as long as I stick to a routine, I’m generally okay. With the gyms closed due to the pandemic, that routine was broken. I didn’t stay active at home as I would’ve liked (although I did attempt a Couch to 5K program). I started developing issues with my back and my shoulder (which continue even as I write this), enough to require physical therapy. Now, the gyms are back open, but I’ve been dealing with physical issues that prevent me from working out as I’d like. Thankfully, PT seems to be alleviating these issues, and I’m hoping to become active again soon.

That said, the past year has affected me mentally and psychologically, and I’ve fallen into some bad habits. I haven’t been as active with my business as I should be. I’ve been moody, and I seem to have mood swings easily. The constant battle of looking for employment has been extremely taxing and frustrating. A lot of activities that I normally enjoy haven’t been giving me much pleasure as of late.

I could keep going, but the last thing I want to do is write a woe-is-me article where I feel like I’m trying to solicit sympathy. I’m not (at least I don’t think I am, anyway — maybe some of you might disagree, but I digress). Rather, I’m laying out the scenario so that I can write about coping strategies (and I’m writing this for myself as much as any of you who might be in the same boat). In my job hunt presentation, I talk about making sure that you take care of yourself. This article is about practicing what I preach.

Before I started this article, I sat in my home office, thinking about “what should I do to get back on track.” I thought about a number of things, and I’d like to share them with you.

First of all, I revisited one of my hobbies: songwriting. I’ve been working on an idea for a new song, and I opened my notation app to revisit it. I’m finding that doing so is pleasantly distracting; it gets my brain working on something productive. Doing this makes an adjustment to my mental activity which, I believe, will improve my mental and psychological state over the long run.

I was also fortunate enough to be contacted by a friend of mine who said he might have a project for me. We spoke, and I told him I’d look at it. It’s not gainful employment per se, but it’s another productive distraction to get me going again. On that same topic, I also have other projects for my clients that I need to revisit as well.

Other friends have other coping ideas as well. I highly recommend Steve Jones‘ series of articles about daily coping. His suggestions make a lot of sense, and I find that they improve my mood (I’ve even told him as such).

I need to do something physical as well. My doctor recommended that I do a minimum of five minutes of physical activity per day. At the time of the recommendation, I was in serious pain (directly related to the conditions I mentioned at the top of this article) so I wasn’t able to do this right away, but now that they’re somewhat better, I feel like I can partake. I do have an exercise bike; I will be making use of it. Additionally, I will be investing in some resistance bands and PVC pipes (to do pass-throughs).

And, if nothing else, I’m also trying to come up with ideas for ‘blog articles.

You need to take care of yourself before you can take on your responsibilities. These might sound like small moves, but small moves add up. Things like this can reinvigorate yourself and get you back on track. And once they do, you can be productive again.

Goals for 2021

So, for my first post of 2021, I figured I should list my goals (I refuse to call them “resolutions”) for the new year.

  • First and foremost, above everything else, find new employment. I have been unemployed since May 1. For those of you keeping score, that’s eight months. 67% of my 2020 was spent in unemployment. Getting a new job, for me, is priority number one above everything else.

    I do have a couple of relatively promising leads, but I’m not out of the woods yet. Hopefully, things will be turning around very soon.
  • Do more with my business. In 2020, as a direct result of my losing my job, I started an LLC. I managed to pick up two clients. It’s good experience, but not enough to pay my bills (hence why I’m still looking for employment). I haven’t done a lot with it in the last few months of 2020. I want to devote more time and energy into it in 2021.

    I readily admit that I slacked off on this as the year went on, and I don’t want to let it slip in 2021. I intend to keep this endeavor going, even if I do land new gainful employment.
  • Get back to the gym. COVID-19 kept me from getting into my CrossFit gym more than I would’ve liked, but the pandemic wasn’t my only issue. I developed back and arm issues that kept me from being more active than I wanted to be. Simply getting out of bed without pain is a chore for me right now. Hopefully, I can get back to being as active as I was before the pandemic.

    Speaking of the pandemic…
  • Travel. The pandemic is my biggest (but not the only) roadblock for this goal; my other major roadblock is making sure I have the money to do so (see “find new employment” above). I enjoy traveling, and I wish I could do more of it. Since the pandemic began, I can count on one hand the number of trips I took away from home (trips to the grocery store don’t count).

    Trips for SQL Saturday have satisfied my desire to travel for the past several years, but now that PASS will be no more, I might need to find another outlet for my out-of-town speaking engagements (more on that in a minute). I also told my wife that I want to take a relatively significant vacation somewhere once the pandemic is over. She and I have both encountered a lot of stress this past year, and I think we both need to find a way to relieve it.
  • Find speaking engagements. One thing I’ve discovered about speaking for SQL Saturday is that I enjoy presenting. I’d like to do more. My last in-person speaking engagement was SQL Saturday in Rochester last February. I was also scheduled to speak at SQL Saturday in Chicago (which would’ve been my first SQL Saturday where driving was not feasible), and I had applied to speak at a local code camp. Both of those were wiped out by the pandemic.

    My friend Matt Cushing encouraged me to sign up for the Idera Ace Program, which would provide funding for me to take part in more presentation opportunities (not to mention that it would look good on my resume). Since I first started presenting regularly, all of my in-person speaking engagements (with the exception of 2019 PASS Summit) have been within driving distance of my home in the Albany, NY area. There is a reason for this: traveling costs money. The Idera Ace Program would provide more opportunities for me to speak at nonlocal events (pandemic notwithstanding, of course).
  • Do more house projects. These past several months at home made me realize how much I want to do with my house, and how little I’ve done to attain that goal. (I’m talking about “fun” projects, as opposed to chores.) Money has been a major detriment (again, see “find new employment” above) as well as energy (see “get back to the gym”), but time has not; since I don’t have anywhere to really go, I have no shortage of time on my hands. There’s a long list of projects I’d like to do, such as finish my basement, build a backyard patio and entertainment area, build a porch, and so on. While I don’t necessarily expect to finish these in 2021, I’d like to at least take steps toward those goals.

There are a lot of other things that I’d like to do, but I think this is a good list for now. (I reserve the right to amend it.) In general, I’m hoping for a better year, and 2021 supersedes the dumpster fire that was 2020.

The #Coronavirus chronicles, part 13: Running for my life #COVID19

I’ll admit that the COVID-19 crisis has had me fall into some bad habits. This morning, I decided to address one of them.

Since gyms have been shut down due to the crisis, I have fallen off the wagon when it comes to my CrossFit workouts. I’ve been doing a lot of sitting on my duff. Since I work in IT, it’s the nature of the beast and a job hazard. I woke up this morning to a sunny morning (for once — we’ve had a lot of rain, sunny days have been few and far between, and it’s directly affected my mood, not to mention my motivation), and decided to do something.

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It may not be much — I just went around the block a few times — but you gotta start somewhere.

I went to the Couch to 5K website and did a little reading. I’ve toyed with the idea before, but never pulled the trigger on it. For whatever reason, this morning was different. I downloaded the C25K app to my phone, put on my shirt, shorts, and CrossFit shoes, and followed the instructions for Day 1 as I went around the block several times. Day 1 is essentially a 20 minute AMRAP (or maybe EMOM might be more accurate — I’m not sure) that alternates between 90 seconds of walking and 60 seconds of jogging (not including a 5 minute warm-up and cool-down walk at the beginning and end). It sounds pretty easy, but I was still winded by the time I was finished.

Will I keep this up for eight weeks? We’ll see. Right now, the jury’s out. For all I know, I might wake up tomorrow morning and decide that I want to stay in bed. But hey, we all need to start somewhere. Maybe at the very least, when the COVID-19 crisis is over and I’m allowed to go back to my gym, I won’t cringe when the coaches tell me that the WOD is a 5K run.

Memorial Day Murph — crossing the finish line

Yesterday, I did the annual Memorial Day Murph workout. I’ve written about it before. For those of you unfamiliar with CrossFit, the Murph workout consists of a one mile run, 100 pull-ups, 200 push-ups, 300 air squats, and another mile run. Needless to say, it is a LOT of work!

For those of us who aren’t professional athletes, many of us scale it down. Some people reduce the length of the runs. Many others reduce the number of reps. I set a goal of running (well, okay, “running”) the entire one mile lengths for each run. I broke down the reps into ten rounds of 5 ring-rows (since I can’t do pull-ups), 10 push-ups, and 15 air squats. I had every intention of doing the full twenty rounds, but when I reached round 6 and realized how much time had elapsed, I came to the realization that “twenty rounds isn’t happening!”

As you can see in the photo above, I had a nice cheering crew waiting for me as I crossed the finish line! I finished the workout in 1:04:31.

I started doing CrossFit to get into shape. I still continue doing CrossFit because of the great friends I’ve made and all their support. Find something that works for you, and you’ll keep wanting to go back for more!

The CrossFit Open 2019

This morning, I registered for this year’s CrossFit Open, which starts tonight. This is the third time in four years that I’ve signed up for the Open. (I was unable to participate last year due to commitments and subsequent time constraints.) Thousands of participants from around the world, representing many age groups and skill levels, participate in the Open. The best of them go on to the CrossFit Games. (The Games are represented by world-class-level athletes, of which I’m not even close, so don’t expect to see me participate at a regional anytime soon!)

Why participate in the Open? For one thing, it’s an opportunity for pseudo- couch potatoes athletes like me to take part in such an amazing event. Think of it as a Little Leaguer competing on the same field as, say, Aaron Judge. For another, it’s a measure of how far I’ve come in CrossFit since I started doing it over four years ago. When I first started, I couldn’t hold a squat without falling over on my backside. Now I can hold one almost indefinitely. Granted, I still have a long way to go — I still am unable to do anything involving pulling myself up (pull-ups, rope climbs, etc.) — but I continue to keep at it. Maybe someday, I’ll get them! It’s also a measure of how you do against your peers. You’ll get an idea as to how you stack up against similar athletes.

Other reasons? Well, let me, once again (as I’ve done several times before), quote one of my favorite song lyrics by my favorite band

“Gotta run a little faster, gotta reach for the sky, gotta come a little closer, even if I lose, I gotta try…”

“Inside Of Me” by Kansas

If you want to see how I do over the next five weeks, click here to check out my Open profile. We’ll see how this goes!

Wish me luck!

There’s a first for everything

“The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.”

Lao Tzu

Take a moment and think about your career — where you are now, how far you’ve progressed, and so on. Do you like where you are?

Okay. Now, if you do like where you are, take a moment and think about how you got there. How did you get your start? When was the first time you did (insert the first time you did something to advance your career here)?

For whatever reason (don’t ask me why; I don’t know), I started thinking about first steps in my career. I especially thought about my involvement with SQL Saturday and the steps I took to get here. I’ve written before about how I got my start with SQL Saturday. There were several “first” steps that I took to get to this point. There was my first idea for a presentation. I wanted to take it for a test-drive, so to speak, so I first presented it at a user group meeting. That led me to my first submission to a SQL Saturday event. I enjoyed it so much that it prompted me to submit to my first SQL Saturday out-of-state. I knew almost nobody at this event, so this was stepping out of my comfort zone. (I’ve since become friends with many people I met at this event!) And as they say, the rest is history. That was more than three years ago. I’m still submitting, and now, I’m even getting asked to speak at other events. I’m pretty happy with where this endeavor has taken me so far, but I’m still in the middle of this journey.

First steps don’t just apply to your career. They apply to everything you want to accomplish in life. For example, I’ve been doing CrossFit for over four years now. I’ve come a long way in that time, but there are still a lot of things to accomplish. I wouldn’t be where I am had I not taken that first step into that gym one day.

I’m sure you’ve heard the age-old quote: “there’s a first time for everything.” I’ve taken countless first steps to get to where I am now, and I’m still going. I probably won’t stop taking them until I’m six feet under.

So where do you want to be in your career, or, for that matter, your life? Do you like where you are? What first steps are you going to take to get there? Wherever it is that you want to be, the only way to get there is if you take that first step.

Don’t fear the CrossFit

(Photo source: https://www.endlesscrossfit.com)

“I gotta run a little faster; I gotta reach for the sky; I gotta come a little closer; even if I lose, I gotta try…”
— Kansas, “Inside Of Me”

“Try not.  Do.  Or do not.  There is no try.”
— Yoda

Every Saturday, my CrossFit gym invites friends to join members for workouts (“Bring A Friend Day,” as it’s called).  It’s a little bit of a misnomer, as guests don’t necessarily have to be friends — as one coach likes to describe it, “bring your friends, neighbors, coworkers, colleagues, enemies, ‘frenemies,’ whomever.”  It doesn’t necessarily have to be by invitation; anyone interested in trying CrossFit can come to these classes — a type of “try before you buy” session, if you will.

I’ve tried to get friends to go to these sessions, with mixed success.  Those who do enjoy the sessions, but I have yet to have one friend (other than my wife) try it out and join the gym.  (Admittedly, there are fringe benefits for me to get someone to sign up — a month of free membership, for example.)

What’s interesting is those who don’t try it and outright refuse my offer to join me.  (As I tell people, joining me in these sessions pretty much guarantees that I will work out on Saturday!)  I tried to tell one friend that I thought CrossFit might benefit her.  Not only did she outright refuse to take me up on it, I got the impression that she was actually scared to try it.  She would not even keep an open mind about it; she just said, “I will NOT do it.  Don’t ever ask me about it again.”  End of conversation.

My question: why???

I would never twist anyone’s arm into trying it (well, okay, maybe friends with whom I know I can get away with it), but what I don’t completely understand is why people fear it.  I get why people won’t do things like go bungee-jumping (disclosure: I am deathly acrophobic), eating exotic foods (I’ll try almost anything, although I draw the line at anything that has more than four legs, shellfish excluded — Andrew Zimmern I’m not!), or do something on a dare.  But why are people afraid to try CrossFit?

I think part of it is that it’s human nature to fear what you don’t know.  People will see these images of CrossFit (I often post what I do on Facebook) and immediately get the impression that they’re expected to be able to lift large amounts of weights, be pushed to do double-unders, or be able to do pull-ups right off the bat.  The fear of “gymtimidation” comes into play.  People who fear it are likely afraid of being embarrassed or injured.

First, one of the selling points of CrossFit is that anyone can do it.  I’ve seen people as old as eighty (and even more!) in the gym.  I once saw a guy who had the use of only one arm in a workout (it was interesting watching him on a rower and an Assault bike).  I’ve seen newbies who struggle with weightlifting form.  Even I have my own struggles; I can’t (yet) do any moves that involve pulling myself up (pull-ups, muscle-ups, rope climbs, etc.), I have trouble with movements that involve squatting (I was diagnosed with osteoarthritis in my knees), and I’m not exactly the fastest runner (for me, there’s almost no difference between a jog, a sprint, or a fast walk).  Heck, even some warmups can sometime leave me out of breath.

However, one of CrossFit’s selling points is that it is scalable.  You are never asked to do anything you are not capable of doing.  If you have trouble with pull-ups (like I do), you can do barbell pull-ups or ring rows.  Unable to do a certain type of weightlifting movement?  Don’t worry about the weight; instead, use a lighter weight, an empty bar, or even a PVC pipe, and practice your technique.  Whatever movement gives you trouble, there is always a way to scale it that will allow you to perform it to your capabilities.

I’m sure the fear of being injured comes into play.  As I just said, you’ll never be pushed to do what you’re not capable of doing.  But one of the selling points for me is that CrossFit emphasizes technique.  If you are not sure about how to do a movement, coaches will teach you how.  If your form has issues, coaches will tweak it so it is better.  Technique is key to anything: the better your form, the less chance you’ll be injured.

I also think the intensity is a factor.  CrossFit can get very intense.  Admittedly, there isn’t a lot that’s enjoyable about working your tail off to the point where you’re gasping for breath and end up lying on the floor.  That’s something that can scare people off.  However, how hard you work out is up to you.  Intensity is what you make of it.  But why is it so intense?

I think it’s because the majority of people who take CrossFit seriously want to improve.  People push themselves because they want to get better at what they do.  Did a deadlift weight of 305 pounds?  Next time, I’m going to try 315.  Run 5,000 meters in under ten minutes?  Next time, shoot for nine.  CrossFit is about making yourself better.  While you are not asked to do anything you can’t do, you are asked to challenge yourself and push the limits of what you can do.  Even my own gym’s motto is “(Be)tter” (as in, “be better”).  I wrote before that you have to get uncomfortable in order to improve.  Making yourself better involves going out of your comfort zone.  How much discomfort — intensity — you decide to put into it is up to you.

Finally, there’s the phenomenon that Planet Fitness refers to as “gymtimidation.”  People are embarrassed by their lesser skill level and are often intimidated by performing in front of other people who are in much better shape.  This attitude does not exist in CrossFit.  Everyone — even the elite athletes — roots for everyone else to succeed.  I remember one time watching the CrossFit Games on TV and hearing the commentator say, “CrossFit is probably the only sport in which the person who comes in last gets the loudest cheers.”  Even in events where athletes are finished, they will often go back out into the field to cheer on and encourage those who are still working through the event.  Here’s a secret: everyone, at some point in their lives, was a beginner at something.  Someone once said that one of the worst phrases ever coined was “do it right the first time.”  It’s almost never done right the first time.  Fear of embarrassment should never be a factor in trying something new.

I wrote before that CrossFit is a supportive community.  I have made a large number of friends in CrossFit, and even though I look more like a couch potato than an elite athlete, I feel as comfortable with this group as I do as any group in which I’m involved.

Although people have their reasons why they don’t want to try CrossFit, fear should not be one of them.  CrossFit can be a fun and exciting way to keep fit.  Give it a try.  Who knows?  You might just get hooked — like I did!

And if any of my local friends are interested in hitting a Saturday “Bring A Friend” WOD, hit me up!

Memorial Day Murph

A few of us in the office were discussing plans for the upcoming Memorial Day weekend.  I mentioned that I was doing this thing on Monday called Memorial Day Murph (those of you who CrossFit know what I’m talking about).  I tried to describe the workout, and I couldn’t remember the movements and rep scheme, so I looked it up.  In doing so, I came across this article that talks about “surviving” Memorial Day Murph.

First, I want to talk a little about the article.  Doing Murph as prescribed (“Rx’ed,” in CrossFit parlance) is not for the faint of heart (literally — it’s a pretty intense cardio workout).  I generally make it a point to make sure I’m hydrated (I do this, anyway) and to make sure that I’ve had something to eat before I attack it.  I also make sure that I scale.  I am not in the class of Mat Fraser, and likely never will be.  (When I was a kid, I had a dream of playing for the Yankees, too.  You probably can tell where that went.  But I digress.)  I have yet to run a full mile; I have enough trouble running a fraction of that.  I don’t remember how I scaled it last year; I might have done something like an 800m run (admittedly, I usually end up walking a good chunk of it), ring-rows instead of pull-ups (I still can’t do a pull-up to save my life — I’m working on it), and a reduced number of push-ups and squats.  Nevertheless, even scaled down, it still makes for a pretty serious workout.  But I will say that if a longtime self-admitted couch potato like me can do it, so can you.

I also want to talk about the spirit of “Murph.”  Murph is what CrossFitters refer to as a “hero WOD” — that is, a WOD (Workout Of the Day) that is named for and to honor a hero — in this case, Navy Lieutenant Michael Murphy, who was killed in Afghanistan in 2005.  (Memorial Day Murph was even made into a fundraiser.)  Hero WODs tend to be intense — moreso than the typical CrossFit WOD.  Every Memorial Day, CrossFitters around the country do Murph in the spirit and honor of this fine man who died for his country.  It is a way for CrossFit athletes to honor this hero, but it’s also a reminder as to what Memorial Day is about.

And, of course, Memorial Day is known as the unofficial start of summer, and is usually accompanied by barbecue, burgers, hot dogs, and beer.  My CrossFit gym is no different; Memorial Day Murph is followed by a cookout, along with plenty of camaraderie.  Our gym members are a close-knit group, and I’m sure other CrossFit gyms are similar.

So, I’ll be spending my upcoming Memorial Day holiday hanging out with a bunch of CrossFit athletes while trying not to exhaust myself from a regimen of running, pull-ups (likely ring-rows for me), push-ups, and squats.  And a good time will be had by all.

The CrossFit family

The other day, a thought popped into my head for no reason (that happens occasionally — doesn’t it happen to you?): “I feel like hanging out with my CrossFit family.”  I don’t know why I started thinking about it, but I was thinking about the great times I’ve had hanging out with my CrossFit friends outside of the gym — bowling night, playing poker to raise money for charity, going out to dinner, and so on.  I’ve been a member of my CrossFit gym for over three years (and counting) now, and I’ve made a lot of great friends in the process.  Who would’ve thought that I, a longtime self-admitted couch potato, would happily be spending his free time hanging with a bunch of athletes at a gym?

Ever since I started doing CrossFit, I’ve heard a lot of people refer to “their CrossFit family.”  This term, much less, concept, is nothing new.  Among all my activities, I’ve heard references to “my music family,” “band family,” “SQL family,” and so on.  As it’s been often said, “family” is more than flesh and blood; it’s about people to whom you’ve gotten close and learned to trust.  We as social animals thrive on these relationships.

The fact that I’ve managed to stick to a fitness program for more than three years is a huge deal, and I believe that the support system — all these friends I’ve made — is a big part of that.  A support system of friends can make almost anything pleasurable.  I’ve met a lot of great people in CrossFit, and one of the big things is that these people make me want to go to the gym.  When you have great friends and a solid support system around you, anything is possible.

Albany CrossFit on the local news

This is an addendum to my CrossFit article from Thursday!

I got home this evening, turned on the local news, and whose face did I happen to see on TV?  None other than Shye Evan, whom I mention in my earlier article!

WNYT (the local NBC affiliate) did an article about the CrossFit Games East Regional being in town, and they featured Albany CrossFit, my gym!

Watch and enjoy!