Outside the Box: Candace Karu makes gains inside and outside the Crossfit gym

There’s no point in wearing makeup. Candace learned that early on.

Between the sweat-inducing snatches and deadlifts, the box jumps and the burpees, cosmetics are no match for a CrossFit workout. “I couldn’t leave the house without wearing makeup,” says Karu, who lives in Cape Elizabeth and leads 3C Media Group, a marketing company she founded eight years ago. “CrossFit has cured me of that.

It’s an easy tradeoff for all Karu has gained since she was introduced to CrossFit—the popular fitness regime that mixes aerobic exercises, body weight exercises, and weightlifting—four years ago. She is stronger than she used to be, able to lift more weight as the weeks and months pass and her training accumulates. She tracks her stats—her personal records, her goals—in a smartphone app, the numbers a continuing narrative of her progress and a regular reminder of where she started. “I know that my last deadlift record was 185 pounds. My goal is to deadlift 200 pounds,” says Karu. “I remember when my goal was to get triple digits.”

But she doesn’t need an app to tell her she’s in good shape. A snowy Maine winter can tell her that. “That was never driven home more poetically than the winter before last. All I did was shovel snow,” she says. “I was awesome at snow shoveling because I was really fit.”

Before Karu became a CrossFitter, running was her sport of choice. She ran marathons and trained with a running group, racking up 60 to 70 miles in an average week. “I had my running girls. We went out five days a week at 5:30 in the morning,” she says. But injuries accrued over the years, and Karu had to bid goodbye to those lengthy miles and demanding races. Her daughter, Tyler Karu, was already working out at CrossFit Beacon in Portland and loving it, so Karu decided to try it herself in August 2012.

CrossFit Beacon is one of four dedicated CrossFit gyms—practitioners call them boxes— in Portland. There are two dozen such gyms in Maine, which license the CrossFit name and use trainers certified in the CrossFit program, founded in 2000 by Greg Glassman. Affiliate gyms have proliferated in the last decade, from fewer than 100 in 2005 to over 11,000 worldwide today.

The gyms are often sparse, warehouse-like spaces. Instead of rows of treadmills and stationary bikes affixed with TVs, there are power racks and lifting platforms and open space that leaves room for whatever that day’s workout might entail. The workout of the day (WOD) is the core of CrossFit, and hour-long classes are scheduled multiple times a day (true to its name, the WOD changes daily and varies in focus and intensity). Gyms also offer specialty classes focused on improving balance, endurance, strength, flexibility, and speed, as well as free introductory classes for prospective members.

“In general, it’s functional movement— squatting, running, jumping—done with variety and at a high intensity,” says Tyson Weems, a coach at CrossFit Beacon. But “high intensity” is relative. “An elite athlete will work at an extreme intensity level, but on the other end of the spectrum, someone might be lifting a PVC pipe that weighs half a pound or moving slowly, but it’s intense for them.”

The range of modifications makes CrossFit really accessible to athletes of differing abilities, and it’s what keeps Karu coming back every week. “People think CrossFit is only for people who are strong and athletic and extremely competitive,” says Karu. “Anyone can do this. We have people who are starting from zero, who haven’t been exercising at all. Some people do it because they’re competitive. That’s fine. But that’s not why I’m doing it.”

There is an annual CrossFit Games, where people from around the world compete, but everyone working out at a CrossFit box is called an athlete, whatever her ability. The concept prompts participants to broaden their perceptions of what athlete means beyond the elite competitors they see on TV. Athletes gain a whole CrossFit vocabulary, too—words and abbreviations that might confound a newcomer who sees them scrawled on a whiteboard: AMRAPS (as many reps or rounds as possible), Rx (as prescribed), thruster (front squat straight into a push press), and MetCon (metabolic conditioning).

There’s the workout of the day, which might include wall balls and push-ups, kettlebell swings, lunges, and pull-ups. Every WOD is designed to be “challenging but not dangerous and scalable to different ability levels,” says Weems. “All the movements are proven to make people better movers and athletes. Mixing things up in certain ways keeps it interesting. Doing it together is also powerful,” he says. “When you play or suffer next to someone, making friends and building community tend to happen naturally.”

That community is a big part of why Karu is such a fan of CrossFit. “When I stopped training for marathons and racing, I realized what I missed was the community. I missed that group of people.” She’s found camaraderie with the fellow CrossFitters she meets at Beacon—the 20-somethings and 60-somethings, the former college athletes and the office workers, the super-fit and the just-getting-started.

The hard-earned gains made inside the gym are certainly a source of pride, but ultimately, Karu says the real value of CrossFit is what it does for her when she’s not even there.

“CrossFit lets me do so much outside the box,” she says. “I’m healthier. I eat better. It does give you confidence and grace moving through the world when you’re happy with your body.” It’s a confidence that doesn’t require makeup or cover-ups, and it goes beyond appearances. “CrossFit emphasizes not how beautiful your body is, but how beautifully your body works. It’s a basis for a much fuller life.”

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