Learning to Breathe Fire: An Interview with JC Herz
“I am not an elite competitive athlete – I’m one of the least strong athletes in the group: female, medium height, lean but not a great lifter or fast runner…” JC Herz describes herself in the preface of her book Learning to Breathe Fire. Roped into joining CrossFit by her husband, Herz soon developed her own love for the running, jumping and lifting she had heard about for months at the dinner table.
A former rock critic, tech writer, author and entrepreneur, JC Herz turned her attention to the quickly growing phenomenon of CrossFit. In the pages of her book, the reader learns about the science, the history, and the people that make the enthusiasm for the sport of fitness so contagious. Visit the Learning to Breathe Fire Facebook page, and you’ll see Herz posing with top CrossFit competitors as well as athletes from boxes from across the US.
There is no standard CrossFitter. We’re a hodgepodge group. People of all ages, physical ability, professions and backgrounds enter the box every day to tackle weaknesses, sweat out stress and see friends. With Learning to Breathe Fire, Herz captures the important milestones that have shaped the sport of CrossFit. Whether it’s the famous legend of Glassman’s first Fran, or the Reebok design team puzzling over the contents in CrossFitters’ gym bags, the stories of CrossFit’s evolution are as engrossing as the sport itself.
After a few weeks of emails and a phone call, I learned more about JC Herz, what she discovered during her time as a CrossFit gumshoe and which megastars were calling her at midnight.
True Barbellion: Who are you hoping to reach with this book? Is it for CrossFit fans, or are you hoping to convert some non-believers?
JC Herz: Obviously, I’d love it if *every* CrossFitter bought Learning to Breathe Fire – I know they’d have a blast reading it. But writing the book, I made a conscious effort to distill and render the experience of CrossFit in a way that would give non-CrossFitters an epiphany about why their friends are so passionate about it. For instance (from Learning to Breathe Fire):
“Commemorative [partner] WODs are odes of a sort. They tell a kind of story that is tied to movement. But this story is not for an audience – it’s for the people who perform the movement. Only the people carrying the weight, struggling to get under the bar, moving under loads that make their shoulder muscles sizzle and fail, really understand the story. Only the people asking their partners to drop the weight understand how much easier it is to subject yourself to physical discomfort than it is to watch someone you love struggling to move. You want to let them fight their fight, pull their weight – it would be disrespectful, patronizing, not to let them do that. But you want to take weight, to be worthy of the other person’s effort and their fortitude. And the other person feels the same way.”
"CrossFitters have written me to say Learning to Breathe Fire gives words for experiences they couldn’t express."
It’s the ideal book for a their non-participating spouse, sibling or brother. That person might read the book and want to do CrossFit – but even more significantly, they might say, “I will never do this – it’s not for me – but I understand why you love it, and I’ll support you in that.” Sometimes, having people “get” why something is important to you is more important than having them actively participate.
TB: What did you enjoy most about writing Learning to Breathe Fire? What surprised you the most?
JH: It was amazing to unreel the onion of humanity’s history of sports, to delve into why sports emerged in human society in the first place. After all, it’s not obvious that people should run onto a field, set rules and gratuitously expend calories when food is scarce. The anthropology of that, and the deep reasons for it, are fascinating. There were some big surprises there – days when my mind was completely blown, realizing how connected we are to the rituals of ten thousand years ago, and how we re-invent those rituals, even though we have no consciousness or memory of how they emerged. It’s a good case for genetic memory.
"I’ve probably spent more time reviewing Games footage than anyone on Earth"
Related to that, it was incredible to get into the heads of the athletes, to match frame-by-frame video footage with questions about what they were thinking or feeling at particular moments. I’ve probably spent more time reviewing Games footage than anyone on Earth, and I did it specifically to trigger athletes’ memories during interviews – to put them in the moment so they could remember what they felt physically, emotionally, what they were sensing, what was going on around them and what was going on internally in those pivotal moments. My experience as a journalist is that evocative details can pull whole scenes into focus, for someone being interviewed and for readers. The resulting text – that fusion of detail and psychological narrative – is very intense in places, and more emotionally compelling than most sports writing.
TB: Did you have mostly phone/email interviews? Who did you meet in person?
JH: I spent time in person with Greg Glassman and Dave Castro, who was very generous with his time (I kept giving him opportunities to end the conversation, and he kept inviting me to walk and talk some more). I spent a few days hanging out with Rich Froning and the Mayhem crew in Tennessee, and visited Graham Holmberg in Ohio, the day before my tour of Rogue (I’d interviewed Bill and Caity Henniger in depth on the phone – visiting Rogue was about the factory tour and talking to the guys who make the gear). CrossFit Oldtown was my home gym at the time, so I saw Jerry Hill and that crew four times a week, in addition to phone interviews. Christmas Abbott was a combination of in-person interviews and phone interviews. Most of the other athletes were a series of phone interviews – there were athletes I interviewed four, five, six times.
Box owners, I discovered, are the busiest people on planet Earth. A lot of them called me on their commute home after they closed their boxes, and many of those boxes were on the West Coast. So the phone would ring at 10:30pm or 11pm, and my husband would hold it up, caller ID towards me. “Greg Amundson is on the phone.” “Kelly Starrett is on the phone.” “Jason Khalipa is on the phone.” It became a running late-night joke – which CrossFit megastar would call, right as we were brushing our teeth.
My favorite interview was with Ray Bily, Christmas Abbott’s early-on training partner in Iraq. That man is a warrior philosopher par excellence – I could listen to him for hours.
TB: Was there anything that almost made it in the book, but didn’t? (What? Why? Got any dirt on anyone?)
JH: The book came in really long and had to be put on a diet. Kelly Starrett got left on the cutting room floor, which was unfortunate. A chapter about Christmas and NASCAR got cut. An awesome vignette about the opening of CrossFit Mayhem didn’t make it in. There was some inside baseball and some box soap operas that got cut (so yes…).
TB: I loved reading about Christmas in Learning to Breathe Fire. Can you share something from her NASCAR chapter?
JH: “Christmas’ extended family is conversant in the lingo and arcana of her NASCAR adventure. When she became a CrossFit competitor, they’d say “That’s nice,” pat her on the back and bake her a cake. “Suddenly,” she says, “I’m not even on a pit crew but training for it, and I’m the Queen of the Family.” Whenever she feels grateful she thinks of her grandfather, who watched NASCAR every weekend. He’d be crazy-out-of-his-mind proud to see his slip of a granddaughter, the chronically sick little baby who grew up with allergies and asthma, gunning lug nuts off a track-side tire.”
TB: You touch on CrossFit HQ in your book, but I’ve always wondered the hierarchy there. Who makes the final decisions? Who actually runs CrossFit HQ? (Why can’t the Games get decent ESPN air time?!?)
JH: The dynamics of TV ultimately have more to do with advertising than content – that’s beyond HQ’s control. In terms of the organization, my understanding is that Greg Glassman is the steward of “What is CrossFit” and the affiliate model. Dave Castro runs the Games, and Nicole Carroll runs training. There’s a lot more to it – the Media organization, a significant legal team, etc. But HQ is pretty vigilant about maintaining focus and avoiding mission creep. The big challenge is scale – CrossFit HQ at 10,000 affiliates can’t run the same way as it did at 4000 affiliates, or at 15,000, 20,000 affiliates. Scaling up while maintaining the culture is tough.
TB: I’ve read your book. I’ve Googled you. I didn’t learn much about you. Can you tell me something more about yourself? And what your current/future projects are?
JH: Right now, when I’m not writing or promoting books I design software that predicts adverse health outcomes – it takes in huge quantities of data from health insurers, runs that data through mathematical models, and spits out predictions about who’s going to keel over in the next six months if they don’t take their meds. It’s like “The Minority Report” for emergency room visits – ideally, those predictions are used by insurers to intervene before the person keels over and goes to the emergency room. The irony is, most of the data I deal with is about people on the ugly end of the sickness-wellness-fitness continuum, people with multiple chronic conditions on all kinds of medications. I’m neck-deep in the health economics of that – the dollar consequences of those adverse events – and it’s pretty terrifying. It also gives me an actuary’s perspective on health reform. Long story short: the major upshot of ACA is a massive financial transfer from the young to the old – it slices the pie differently (and basically screws people 26-40), but doesn’t move the needle on health outcomes.
TB: So you’re a techie. Are you still involved with video game programming?
JH: Not currently, but have had some informal conversations with people about front-end design for fitness tracking apps. Right now, the leading apps capture all the geeky high-level athletes, but do a lousy job of getting non-nerds and novice/intermediate athletes to enter their information. There’s a lot more that could be done to make those platforms more satisfying for beginners and for CrossFitters who are more socially oriented. There need to be better progressions before athletes get to Rx’d. For a beginner, achieving one double under or unassisted pull-up or ring dip is a big deal! Scaling pull-ups from a two-inch band to a one-inch or half-inch band is a big deal. There could be a lot more milestones that scaffold beginners and pull them along, i.e. “if you can do ten of X, then you’re ready for Y.” More kinds of PRs, and ways to get high-fives for those. Etc. Most of what’s out there could have better interactive design – it’s not just about making data comparable for large populations of athletes. Happy to talk with anyone about this – message Learning to Breathe Fire on Facebook.
TB: You were a rock critic. Who’s your favorite artist? Who do you like to WOD to?
JH: One of the strangest things I’ve noticed about CrossFit is, music is typically blasting inside a box when the WOD starts. And yet, once you’re in the WOD, you don’t hear the music (unless something slow and mopey comes on Pandora). This is very different from gym classes where people anchor their attention on the music to engage mentally during repetitive, otherwise boring aerobic workouts or spinning. You could put a gun to my head after most WODs and I wouldn’t be able to name half the playlist, because the WOD itself – the coordination of effort and the self-talk – is cognitively all-consuming.
Musically, I tend to reach for “road trip music,” stuff I can groove to. Recent fave is the Kongos “Come With Me Now” (there’s a girl jumping rope in the video – if she’d been doing double unders that’d have been awesome: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gz2GVlQkn4Q). Imagine Dragons, etc. Musical taste is all over the map, though, from rap to country to tango. I like lyrics with a sense of humor. Luke Bryan’s “My Kind of Night” made me laugh: “Put in my country ride hip-hop mix tape/Little Conway, a little T-Pain/Just might make it rain…” Really shows the generational difference from 20, 30 years back – rap and country used to be oil and water. Now people grow up listening to both, and don’t skip a beat from Jay-Z to Blake Shelton.
"It became a running late-night joke – which CrossFit megastar would call, right as we were brushing our teeth."
TB: Did you have a strategy for compiling notes and interviews into a readable narrative?
JH: I usually have a good idea of the story I want to tell, and the threads that need to be woven into it. The most important thing – and an increasingly rare thing in the age of “Google journalism” is to actually do the gumshoe work – go places, talk to people, listen, look around, take notes, ask questions that only a human being knows the answer to. Interviewing is a skill – figuring out where the story gets deeper and more interesting, and engaging someone in conversation about that. Reporting requires intuition and attentiveness to cues and details – really noticing what’s going on. I think the ability to do that has been compromised by social media and mobile devices – the mentality of surface-skimming and distraction. But then, I’m someone who thinks 300-page books are a satisfying way to spend your time.
TB: A common theme in CrossFit testimonials is how CrossFit gives people the confidence to re-pursue lost or forgotten goals. Have you experienced that?
JH: In terms of personal experience, in June of 2013 I figured out that I’d have to work 7 days a week to finish the book by the September deadline. I called it the 100 Day Chipper. My experience with CrossFit made that level of work more tractable, no doubt.
"Interviewing is a skill – figuring out where the story gets deeper and more interesting, and engaging someone in conversation about that."
When I reached the final page of Learning to Breathe Fire, I was sad my journey through the beginning years of CrossFit had ended. For several nights, I had pulled tires under the I-95 overpass with Jerry Hall; thrown down some serious weight with the Nasty Girls; pushed violently against my limits in the desert of Iraq with Christmas, Chazz and Ray; and cheered as Caity Matter snuck in for the win of the 2008 CrossFit Games. These stories, by the sheer power of the bond CrossFitters share, had become part of my own history.
Now when I look at the people beside me, heaving heavy snatches or panting through burpees, I see the foundations of my own CrossFit history – a primal ancestry present in each gasp for air. We push forward against the clock, against our expectations, even against this sport of fitness. Why?
Because we are its future.