by Drew Davis

Ed. Note: when was the last time you took your endurance sport fitness and did something completely different with it? These days, many triathletes branch out into other endeavors such as gravel racing, SwimRun, and ultra-distance events. Newly minted Elite Team member Drew Davis was feeling, well, exploratory recently, and headed off for something truly outside our usual experience. Read on for more.

I love to find the edge of discomfort and lean into it with my shoulder to find out how close I can get to breaking. Maybe it’s part of why I love fitness and racing, or maybe it’s the final touch on a positive-reinforcement loop that great discomfort causes tremendous growth. But when the opportunity presents itself, I love to find out how far I can go before I totally blow up. Unfortunately, I have learned that there isn’t much need for all-out training when you race long distances. The gap between the efforts you will need for competitions and your absolute maximum output is wide. Even if you do track intervals or short bike intervals, your highest efforts will still likely fall short of your absolute best. Coming into 2020, I told my coach that I was willing to take a few hits in training for a few opportunities to really let it fly. I had been patiently building my fitness over three seasons, and I wanted to take it for a walk.  

Enter HYROX.  HYROX is a new fitness competition based out of Germany that claims to be “the ultimate fitness test.” I’m not sure if any Kona competitors would agree but I liked the chutzpah, nonetheless. The competition is a continuous race comprised of eight rounds. Each round starts with a 1KM run, followed by a feat of strength. These include ski erg and row, sled push and pull, burpee broad jumps, farmer’s carries, weighted lunges, and finally, wall balls. On the surface, particularly if your average race length is more than four hours, this seems pretty tame.  And some of the stations were definitely easier than others. 

But the sled we pushed weighed 365 pounds. For this 150 pound athlete, that’s a shit load of weight. The farmer’s carry featured two 50 pound kettlebells, well more than half of my bodyweight. We were asked to do weighted lunges for 100 meters, longer than a football field, and you couldn’t drop the 45# sandbag on your shoulders. These are things that, as a triathlete, we are simply not asked to do. So I was excited to see how I would hold up.

Photo credit Dylan Haskin

My 4 AM routine pre-race routine for triathlons is dialed. I know when to wake up, what to eat, when to get to transition, how to set up my gear, and when I like to start my swim warm-up. My heat for Hyrox started at 11:30 AM. So, I had to improvise and do some guessing about what would work best. I moved my breakfast up to 8:30AM, drank some coffee, and brought a banana and some EFS to top off before the race. I showed up at the arena about 90 minutes before the competition. I’m not a big guy, but I have rarely felt so small amongst a group of competitors. Do you even lift, bro. The average physique was more Crossfit than endurance athlete. I fueled up, went through a quick warm-up, and walked into the corral. I fist-bumped everyone in the name of good sportsmanship, and we were launched.

To reach 1KM, we had to run two laps around the facility. After the first lap, I checked my heart rate: 173. I would expect to hold that heart rate for a 5K, which would take me roughly 18.5 minutes. That will settle, I thought.  

The first event was the ski erg, which I planned to breeze through. I knew that the key was using your lats more than your arms to pull the handles, and I cruised through relatively unscathed. Two more laps, and then we got to the sled push.

The sled had 45# plates stacked 2.5 feet high on top of it. I tried to push, and it didn’t move. I had a brief moment where I wondered, “What if I literally can’t get it across the room?” I lowered my hands six inches, put my shoulder against the bars, and drove with all of my might. Mercifully, it budged. I made it about 15 feet of the 25 meters before my lack of air stopped me. Checked my HR: 180.

Photo credit Dylan Haskin

I took a few breaths, pushed for another ten feet, and slowly found a rhythm. A few guys were crushing this station but, for the most part, people were struggling—I knew I wasn’t alone in the suck. Slowly but surely, I moved the sled across the line. Then I had to push it all the way back. It was at this moment that my shoe exploded off my feet. My no-tie laces, the key to a quick transition in a race, finally crumbled under the pressure of pushing. This happened three more times on the return trip before I finally returned the sled to its starting position.

Two more laps, and then the sled pull. Suddenly, my size was an advantage: I knew how to get low and drive back. This sled was also 100 pounds lighter. This was still one of my longest events, but I did better than I expected after the sled push.   

Two more laps, and then came the burpees. The burpees just sucked but I’m pretty sure that they sucked for everyone. This represented the halfway point of the race, and I knew I had a much better shot at the next few stations, so I was feeling a bit more energized. HR was still holding steady at 175.

Next was the row, 1000 meters, and I have never been more grateful for spending seven years on a crew team. I blew through the station and had the 17th best time out of 170 competitors. Given my size, that shouldn’t be possible.  Rowing, like swimming, rewards technique.

The next station was a farmer’s carry. In retrospect, I didn’t approach this with the best strategy. I was walking too slowly to prevent the kettlebells from swinging, but I just ended up taking too long. I only stopped once over 200M, but I definitely lost some ground here.

Next came the weighted lunges, my favorite surprise. I made it through 100M unbroken with a 45# sandbag on my shoulders. My legs were full and fat with lactic acid, but I was able to keep driving them forward, one step at a time. I was SO ready for that mental battle thanks to triathlon and hours on my bike trainer in the winter.  

Photo credit Dylan Haskin

And so I came to the final station: wall balls. Twenty towering two-sided racks with a target 10 feet above the floor. The whole thing looked like menacing scaffolding. At each target was a twelve-pound medicine ball. The object was simple--hit the target 100 times with the ball. Run to the finish line. Celebrate glory.

This station was right next to the finish line, so the constant chatter of finisher times and times was blaring in the background. This was not awesome, although it still pales in comparison to the dreaded Ironman sign (<---- Finish | Second Lap ------->). I came into the station 30-seconds behind the leader of our heat, who would go on to place 8th overall in the competition.  We were at least 5-6 minutes ahead of everyone else with whom we had started, so I knew that we were toward the top of the field. I had been chasing him relentlessly, and I thought that if I could do two sets of 50 reps, I just might edge him out.

After I finished my first ten reps (two of which did not count because I did not hurl the ball high enough), I immediately dropped to one knee. My heart felt like it might cartoonishly leap from my rib cage and scream “I quit.” My arms were shaking from the shoulder down to the fingertip. It was like bonking and running out of air at the same time. I went for another ten, only missing one, but was immediately brought back down to the floor.

I started looking around at the other competitors. They all had rhythm, a choreographed routine that made the medicine ball seem weightless.  I consider myself a pretty talented athlete when it comes to body awareness and hand-eye coordination, but I could not out talent or outwork what I was experiencing: a lack of specific training.  I had never previously done wall balls, and I had never sustained a heart rate this high for this long. And it showed. After five minutes, I watched the leader of our heat dash to the finish line as I heard my judge weakly count “39...half way isn’t that far.” I felt frustrated and exhausted. I said to myself: “Break it into smaller pieces, and just keep going.”

From then on, it was sets of five, many of which nearly flew over the target because the idea of doing more reps that didn’t count was positively out of the question. I kept trying to hold the ball at eye level, like I saw everyone else doing, only to feel it slip through my soaked hands and arms and crash to the floor. With 9 minutes and 30 seconds elapsed on this station alone, I squatted down for my final 10 reps.  My judge, bless her, must have felt pity and started to cheer me on toward the last rep. I did my last 10 unbroken, letting the ball thud to the ground after the last rep. I ran it into the finish. 1 hour and 21 minutes. 7th in my AG, 25th overall. The guy who I was closely trailing? He beat me by six and a half minutes.

Photo credit Dylan Haskin

As I write this, I am still wildly sore—way worse than after any of my races last season. The day after the competition I woke up with no energy. And yet, all I can think about is taking another shot at the race. I had so much fun. I finished the race covered in sweat and snot with my lungs rattling and feeling ALIVE. It was exactly the type of rush I was looking for.

I’m already back to the triathlon grind, but I’m enjoying it more. I feel tougher. I feel more resilient. Seeing my heart rate hit 165 no longer feels like a cause for concern. And I managed to go out hard, which has eluded me in triathlon thus far. I’m too timid in the swim and bike, which rewards me with a fast run, but is often too little too late. Coming into this season, having done this race, I think that I will feel freer to push on the gas early on in the water. That, in and of itself, is worth the price of admission. If you’re racing Oceanside, you have two months to prepare, and this type of race is probably tipping into a “no-fly-zone” for training. But if you have three to four months until you’re toeing the line at a 70.3 or 140.6, see what’s happening around you in the “short and painful” category. It may pay dividends that you can’t even foresee.