Unpacking Hero WODs

Today, I am going to participate in ritual. Along with thousands of CrossFitters around the world, I am going to do “Murph.” This means that, starting at about 10 a.m., I will do the following as quickly as possible:

  • Run one mile
  • Do 100 pull-ups, 200 push-ups, and 300 air squats (in any order)
  • Run one mile

Murph is probably the most famous of CrossFit’s 80 or so “Hero WODs.” (WOD = workout of the day, in CrossFit parlance.) Hero WODs are named in honor of soldiers (and, occasionally, first responders) who are killed in action. Murph is named after Lt. Michael Murphy, a Navy SEAL who died in Afghanistan in 2005.

In some sense, this is unproblematic. Honoring fallen soldiers is good. But there’s also a sense in which Hero WODs serve as veiled support for substantive military policies or nationalism generally. Most people who know CrossFit would have to admit that there’s a certain degree of militarism to it. (There’s a good post about this here.) Before its association with Reebok, CrossFit HQ sold clothing labeled “Infidel,” ostensibly to be worn as a badge of pride.

So Hero WODs are rituals, and rituals are worth being skeptical about. One should understand what he or she is doing before participating. Provided that you’re not going to get punished for being public with your freethinking, it is always better to think through your actions than to just go along with the crowd.

The question, then, is whether Hero WODs necessarily imply support for the conflicts in which these people were killed. If so, I would not participate, since I do not support those conflicts.

It’s hard to be critical of Hero WODs once you know the stories behind them. Last year I read Lone Survivor, which was written by Marcus Luttrell, the sole survivor from Michael Murphy’s SEAL team. It is epic and intense. After reading it, it seems completely right to say that Michael Murphy is worth honoring and remembering. But what that means and how one should do that are interesting questions.

I’ve done Murph several times before. It’s never easy. Physically, of course, it’s brutal. It’s enough to floor anybody. But the real wallop is mental and emotional. It’s a long, methodical workout. There is plenty of time to think. Plenty of time to go through your narrative.

So what is that narrative? It’s different for different people, which is probably good. But I think the traditional narrative—the standard, uncontroversial version—goes something like this:

Michael Murphy was a badass soldier. He made unquantifiable sacrifices. He fought bravely to protect his brothers and his country. He believed in America. He fought for justice. Michael Murphy’s life and death show that we, as a people, are strong enough to overcome our losses and still win.

That’s not necessarily a political narrative, but there’s some nationalism and perhaps even militarism to it.

My narrative is different. I try and strip away the military piece. Honoring Michael Murphy is different from honoring his, or any politics. Perhaps Michael would disagree. But my take is more like this:

Michael Murphy was a badass human being. He challenged himself mentally and physically. This workout is an extended metaphor for challenge and improvement. I am angry that Michael died. Death is a horrible thing. War is a horrible thing. Life isn’t always easy. It isn’t always fair. We have to fight death, disease, nature, and, sometimes, maybe even other people. There is honor in physical and mental perseverance. There is honor in humanity. We have to keep moving.

Perhaps some people see no difference between those two narratives. If so, fair enough. But I do. It’s important to me to draw that distinction, because Hero WODs are ambiguous phenomena. If we don’t clarify our thinking—if we don’t earnestly try to understand what we’re doing when we do them—then I’m not sure we are really honoring anybody or anything. We’d just be going through the motions. And when that happens, ritual devolves to mere process, absent meaning.

My dad and me, 39 minutes into Murph on Memorial Day 2011.

Tags: crossfit