Embrace the Suck

Embrace the Suck: What I Learned at the Box ABout Hard Work, (Very) Sore Muscles, and Burpees Before Sunrise by Stephen Madden 

These were my favorite passages from a box about Crossfit, Resilience, and pushing through. 

“Hey, hotshot. Not looking too bad for a forty-eight-year-old. All those early morning workouts are paying off. Gonna look great at the pool club this afternoon.” It was one of the first times in my life that I looked in the mirror and truly liked the body I saw. But now, among the hyperfit, I was reduced once again to being the fat kid on the playground, a twelve-year-old who wants desperately to play but has trouble getting in the game. And when he does, is just not that good. 

“You didn’t look like you were racing. You didn’t look like you were trying very hard. Some of those other guys were putting out”—a phrase we often used to mean working hard—“and you weren’t.” Here I was, my legs jelled and my lungs and breakfast both about to come out of my throat, and my own seed was telling me I wasn’t working hard enough.” 

“Before track meets, bike races, indoor rowing competitions, cross-country ski races, snowshoe races, triathlons, biathlons, duathlons, kayak races, mountain bike races. All of them, with me warming up the same way. Slow circles, slow, easy motions. Warming up, getting ready. And wondering, before each and every one of them, just what the fuck was I doing here? What was I trying to prove, and to whom was I trying to prove it? What was I after and could it even be found in something as ultimately trivial as, say, a pull-up contest? Some people invest their self-worth in the quality of their relationships or their work, or perhaps with their relationship to higher powers.” 

“These thoughts had been with me as long as I could remember, and I’d never been able to answer the question or banish the doubt. They didn’t prevent me from competing, and certainly not from training, which from junior high through college and then again since age twenty-six had been as much a part of my daily routine as brushing my teeth, reading the sports section, or drinking coffee. The questions often came up before workouts, too. They asked themselves loudest before races, but they nagged every day. If the unexamined life was not worth living, then I was in need of a checkout. Because I couldn’t answer questions that had haunted me so long I couldn’t remember when they first raised their hands. And I was sick to fucking death of them nagging me.” 

“But I often felt like a spectator in my own life, overwhelmed by responsibilities and the sense that at any moment I would fail, that I was still not doing exactly what I wanted to be doing, because I still didn’t know what that was. I had stumbled across a saying that soldiers and marines in Iraq and Afghanistan had been using to describe a coping mechanism that got them through their deployments: Embrace the Suck. Yeah, it sucks here. But here you are. And wishing it didn’t suck wasn’t going to make it any less sucky, so make the best of it by embracing it and seeing what lessons can be learned from it.” 

“At the Annex, the coaches try to do so by stressing the importance of proper form, and by constantly preaching the mantra “master the move and the weight will follow.” It’s easy to say but hard to enforce when your pupils are aggressive middle-aged men, most of them titans of Wall Street who didn’t achieve their posts in life by listening to people.” 

“One of the truisms of CrossFit is that you should do the thing you hate most, because it’s only in mastery that the hate will dissipate.” 

“eventually find activities they like, and they stick with them because they get some kind of pleasure from them, whether it’s the camaraderie of a golf game, the endorphin buzz of a run, the admiring glances that can result from weightlifting, or the sheer pleasure of bombing down a hill on a bike. If you like it, or like how it feels, you’re more likely to stick with it.” 

“I’m pretty sure he meant that in the physical sense. That if we were walking down the street and saw flames leaping from the windows of the top floor of a building, we’d be able to sprint up the fire escape, kick down the door, drag the obese man who had been overcome by the smoke to the door, throw him over our shoulders, and carry him to safety on the sidewalk. Or cradle one twin baby in each arm while descending to the cellar laundry room. Or do one power snatch every minute on the minute for forty-five minutes. But I took it in a much more metaphysical way. That by working hard to eliminate my weaknesses, by pushing through a perceived barrier, by simply showing up and chipping away at the task, I could finish things and achieve my goals. And that if I could do it in a gym, I’d be able to do it at work, and at home, where three little kids demanded a constant stream of attention and work, and where Anne and I often felt overwhelmed by, well, everything. And maybe it would allow me to once and for all vanquish the voices in my head, telling me I wasn’t good enough.” 

“We were going to be fit, and healthy and happy. This guy had the answers.” 

“I wouldn’t say I was lonely. It was hard to live in a house with that many people and ever be alone, and I liked my brothers, who were genuinely good big brothers to me.” 

“Now I knew what it felt like to be good at something. To win. I had never known it before, and I wanted to feel it all the time, in everything I did.” 

“There was no training, no goal. I was looking for something to do, and this suited me. I had found something that suited me. Alone, there was nobody to lose to. I didn’t feel slow, or fast. I just felt the pleasure of movement, and the weird pleasure in the pain of going hard, a pain/pleasure ratio I would spend the rest of my life trying to understand, but always enjoy, as I did on those hot solo days on the track. Access to this maroon oval opened up something in me that was as valuable, and as elemental to me, as learning how to read.” 

“It was the first time I ever saw my parents fight. I had heard them fight before, from behind the closed door of their bedroom, where they conducted all of their business, but this was out in the open, around a new kitchen table. It was both fascinating and horrible to see my parents fight, and to know that I was the spark that had ignited the tinder that had gathered in the stress of the move from Dorchester. My mother was adamant that they should let me sign up. My father was equally set that I should not. In a futile effort to convince my mother, he played all his cards at once: time crunch caused by a longer commute into the city; expense; travel to games on weekends, which was his only time to relax; my health and safety. It was ugly. But my father, who could bend his sons to his will with a single look over the top of a newspaper or a reach for his belt buckle, caved to Ma’s cold stare.”

“The new kid in town was fast. I still don’t know if the kids in Dorchester were a superior race of athletes bred to toughness by having to walk everywhere, and the suburban kids were weak and slow because their moms drove them everywhere, or if, more likely, the two months of working myself had finally developed in me a leg strength I was never going to get playing with Legos.” 

“I don’t remember what happened on the set of defensive downs we ran next. I was too stoked by having been pummeled on the back by my friends and thinking, This is what it feels like to win. I had never felt it before, not to this degree. We were winning because I was fast. And I was fast because I had worked hard all summer.” 

“Norwood chased me. The Hatfields were chasing me. My teammates, my new friends were chasing me. But none of them caught me. They couldn’t. I was fast now. I was an athlete. I was winning. And if I was winning, I must be doing something right. Touchdown.” 

“Later that hot night, I stood in the shower of that new-to-us house on Randolph Street, letting the water rinse away mud and grass stains and marveling at the bruises and welts on my body. I was too tired to lift my arms to wash my hair. I had never felt such fatigue, but nor had I felt such a happy feeling of knowing I had given everything I had to give, and of seeing—feeling—such a rich reward for the effort. It wasn’t just the winning; it was knowing that I had tried my hardest and that what was inside was good.” 

“He had two speeds when it came to this stuff: redlined and stop. He was redlining now. The thought of spending money on something like exercise was enough to explode his Depression-era mind. I didn’t blame him, not really. My father had known true hunger as a kid during the 1930s. But times had changed. Surely he could give me twenty dollars to do something healthy. It’s not like I was going to blow it on weed and beer.” 

“My mother stood behind him, silently waving a twenty-dollar bill, letting me know it was okay, she had me covered. “And we’ll have to get up in the middle of the night to drive you,” he said. Ma pantomimed driving a car. She’d take care of it. “What makes you think you can ride fifty kilometers, anyway?” he finally spat. “What makes you think he can’t?” Ma suddenly snapped, outrage in her voice, as if the answer had been primed on her tongue since 1955, left unused during previous fights and previous sons on this very topic. “What makes you think he can’t?” she said again. There it was. The difference between the two people who had, together, defined me.” 

“For the first time, I saw my parents not as a unit whose job it was to raise me, but as two individuals, with separate personalities, goals, ambitions, and styles. When I got older, I would wonder what the hell had ever brought these two very different people together. But for now, I simply marveled at the thought that they would fight over this, and in front of me, a kid.” 

“It went on like this for years. Dad never accepted why I wanted to do this stuff, but as I did more of it, I grew bolder. When he grumbled about driving me two hours to the state championship track meet, I told him it could be worse—he could be driving to bail me out of jail. Here I was, an honor student going to the state championship, and all he could do was complain.” 

“Years later, as an adult, free to make my own decisions and pay my own way, I stopped to see my by-then elderly parents when I was en route to a climbing trip in Nepal. During a pre-departure dinner, Dad listed all the reasons why I shouldn’t be going to Nepal: There were communists there. Why did I want to sleep on the ground for a month? He had slept on the ground for almost two years during World War II and it was no fun. Nepal had only one phone for every two hundred people. I ate my pie and told him I didn’t know anybody there anyway and so had no need for a phone. Mom laughed. He scowled, and asked me how much my fancy new North Face jacket cost. I lied. “Send lots of postcards, okay?” Ma said, hugging me at the airport. “Have fun. And please come back.” 

“But at 5:30 a.m., it was the province of a few middle-aged men looking for nothing more than a way to beat back time and to stay in shape. We had all, in some way, heard about CrossFit and were looking for a way to get the benefit. We knew next to nothing about training, especially lifting, which was one of Mickey’s specialties.” 

“seemed to think was close to a kip. It’s a central tenet of CrossFit that you are to leave your ego at the door when you enter a box. There is simply too much to master for any one person to think he can do everything. It’s the sort of thing I had hoped I would have accepted, especially after grappling with my own subparness for a lifetime. But even though I knew I needed coaching—had, in fact, sought it out and was paying for it—I still felt like I had been called in front of the class to solve a particularly easy math problem on the chalkboard, one that everyone else had got on the first try and I alone couldn’t do.” 

“Telling a bunch of competitive men, most of whom make their living on Wall Street or as salesmen, to scale back their loads, focus on form, and not pay any attention at all to how much the other guys were lifting is like telling Cub Scouts to not laugh at a fart joke. It simply doesn’t work. It got pretty funny at times to see Dave looking over at Leo’s bar before a workout, noticing that Leo had twenty pounds more on than Dave did, and scrambling to add two ten-pound bumper plates to his own. And if doing a lift with less than perfect technique was the only way they could move the weight, well, then what difference did it make. They still got the weights up over their heads, right?” 

“My focus on the form meant that my weights were increasing quickly. It became a self-fulfilling cycle. The more weight I lifted, the more I wanted to lift. And the more I lifted, the better I felt. While some of the other guys nursed injuries brought on by bad form, I stayed healthy. Sore, yes, but healthy. And although my personal bests on the lifts weren’t the highest ones on the massive “best board” that loomed over the Annex floor, they were pretty high up there. I was still playing in the house league, but when it came to lifting, the other guys were the Hatfields on ice skates.” 

“Holy shit you’re getting big, bro,” he said. It should have been as simple as a nice thing to hear from another middle-aged man. But it may as well have been Billy Hatfield admitting I could skate better than he could. And if Dave thought I was getting bigger, could a muscle-up or a kip be far behind?” 

“Knowing the difference is a key to survival in this world. I need to get it checked. Pain, soreness, fatigue, and even nausea are a regular part of any type of intense athletic training. In a weird way, pain and fatigue are signs that the training is working, that muscles and lung capacity are growing as you push yourself. But they are so central to the culture of CrossFit that when Uncle Pukie appears at a WOD, it is generally taken as a good sign, a sign that an athlete is working so damn hard that she has driven herself to exercise-induced nausea, puking outside the door of the box or into a strategically placed trash can. Unless you’re the puker. Then all it does is suck.” 

“Of course. I know people who, if their houses were on fire, would on the way to the door grab their “I Survived the Shawangunks” T-shirt so that the world knew they had finished a particularly grueling triathlon, rather than take treasured family heirlooms like photo albums or Grandpa’s framed citizenship documents.” 

“One of the keys to survive—and thrive—in CrossFit is learning how to tell the difference between regular old soreness brought on by hard exercise, and the kind of pain that’s telling you something is way, way wrong, or at least wrong enough to become way, way wrong if left unattended.” 

“The second type of pain is delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS), the result of tiny tears in the muscle—or, more specifically, between the muscles and surrounding tissue. These tears release chemicals that cause swelling, and it’s that swelling that makes you sore. DOMS is the reason people can walk normally immediately after crossing the finish line of a marathon” 

“We wrap the rubber bands around our feet and pull back with our arms to urge our legs into a millimeter more of a stretch than the day before. We hold the broomsticks in a wide grip and run them up, over, and behind our torsos—a pass-through—to make our shoulders and chests more flexible. Then we hold it up over our heads and squat down, deeply, chest and shoulders up, and hold that bar way overhead until our quads scream and our hip flexors surrender to our will.” 

“showers, dousing ourselves with ice-cold water to quell the swelling before returning to warmer water, a process we repeat over and over again after workouts as if we were annealing newly forged metal. Because, in fact, we are.” 

“That’s when Chris Duignan passed me. Duignan, a former collegiate rower and marine, was easily the most affable person at the Annex. As funny and self-deprecating as he was eager to learn the ropes, Chris threw himself into workouts with an enthusiasm that far outstripped his conditioning, flexibility, or strength. He climbed ropes with such vigor that the telltale burn on his ankle from bracing himself on the ascent became infected. He sweat so vigorously, even after he’d finished the WOD, showered, and toweled off, that he’d say the shower “didn’t take.” The standard line on Chris, one on which he agreed, was that when he lost twenty or thirty pounds he was going to be an animal. You could see it when he rowed and his experience in a collegiate boat showed.” 

“Nonetheless, there was that old feeling all over again: I was fat and slow. All talk and show, no go.” 

“I used to swim for a coach who from time to time would come over to a swimmer during warm-ups and say, “Climb on out of there. Why don’t you go get a pizza or something? It’s just not happening for you today. You’re struggling.” The couple of times I got such a tap, he was dead on right. Here’s the thing about CrossFit: nobody will ever say that to you. If you started, you’re gonna finish. An obvious trauma like a dislocated shoulder gets you out of that, but being tired or feeling tapped out or even having bloody palms from too many pull-ups is no excuse, if for no other reason than that you are training your mind to be as tough as your body.” 

“I also like to think I will never again see the look that flashed through Mickey’s eyes, just for a second, when he realized I was serious, that I really was quitting. I could tell he wanted to call me out, to say that Duignan and Lisa and my wife were still going, and to question not my manhood but my very sense of humanity, because who gets up on a Saturday morning in summer to do a workout like this to honor guys who didn’t have the luxury of quitting, and then walks away with two rounds to go? What the fuck is wrong with you? he wanted to say. But he didn’t. He just turned his back on me and walked away, which was worse.” 

“CrossFit in 100 Words,” “Eat meat and vegetables, nuts and seeds, some fruit, little starch and no sugar.” 

“girth puffed against his kit as if it were a sausage casing. Too much high life entertaining clients had left him sixty pounds over the weight he raced at thirteen years before, when he had been a promising young rider on the European junior circuit. But when a client noticed the natural form and ability lurking beneath the insulation and challenged him to get in shape, João threw himself at the task, working with a trainer as well as a nutritionist, who told him to “eat like a caveman.” So he did, cutting out the pasta he loved so much, snacking on almonds and blackberries” 

“Still, it took supreme acts of consciousness and will to stay on the program. Rather than just blindly accepting foods offered to me, like those tiny packets of snack mix on an airplane or samples at the supermarket, I learned to carefully consider what was being offered and to say no thank you if it wasn’t Paleo. I carried around my own half-pound bag of smokehouse almonds, jerky, raw unsweetened coconut, and dried berries, figuring that if I became desperate and was faced with unhealthy, un-Paleo choices, I could always eat my own food.”

“I opted out of the breadbasket and learned to stay on the perimeter of the supermarket, where the meat and vegetables are, the inner aisles being the pathway to processed sin. I drank only red wine, and only on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays, never during the week. Beer and I broke up. Like most breakups, it took a few times to truly take, and there were a few bouts of messy makeup sex.” 

“People commented, men and women, at my buffness. A colleague opened a meeting by saying, “Let’s talk about how skinny Madden is.” A friend’s wife gave me a look that made me wonder if she were the real Mrs. Robinson. I preened. And my WODs started to improve, especially anything involving pull-ups or running, because I had just dropped 10 percent of my body weight. Imagine doing all these exercises with a twenty-pound dumbbell in your pocket, then imagine taking it out. Yes, you’d be faster. And yes, people would notice. And yes, they’d say something you wanted to hear. No wonder people get so obsessed with this, I thought.” 

“I’ve decided that having cookies in my life once in a while means more to me than taking a minute off my time in the Grace WOD, in which you perform thirty clean-and-jerks as fast as you can. I’ve regained ten pounds, but my new pants still fit. I’ve made peace with the fact that I have traded some speed and agility for the ability to take advantage—to enjoy—some of the best things life has to offer me. Maybe that makes me a failure. Or maybe it makes me a well-rounded, happy guy who’s more self-aware than he thought he was. I think it’s the latter. Of course, I have to remind myself of that deal I made with myself when I’m lying on the floor of the Annex, wondering why I’m not getting any faster at Grace. But like my breath, that knowledge eventually returns.” 

“I have to admit that the fact Navy SEALs were so into CrossFit was a big part of its appeal to me. SEALs are the ultimate cool guys, professional badasses, especially to someone who goes to meetings for a living.” 

“Yes, sir,” I stammered. “You know you were supposed to be able to do eight? You had all this time to prepare and you come here not ready? What else can’t you do, Madden? Why are you even here?” This I was ready for. This I had thought about. The simple, glib answer was that I wanted to be mentally tougher and was here to learn the secrets of America’s steely warrior class.” 

“The same lessons were reinforced when each team was assigned a giant log. Hurricane Sandy had recently blown through the area and had decimated the local forests, so Rutan had found two beautiful logs, each weighing about five hundred pounds. They had been shaved of their bark and sanded smooth. One was christened Inspiration, the other Perspiration.” 

“The core group of women who work out at the Annex are the 35–50-year-old suburban mom equivalents of the Type A guys who make up the 5:30 WOD. Hypereducated executives turned stay-at-home moms, they are fire breathers in yoga pants and sports bras, former college athletes who compete at everything they do—CrossFit, running a school fund-raiser, managing the funds of the town Cub Scout troop—with a ferocity that would put Michael Jordan to shame.” 

“New York City Marathon with my arms spread wide like an airplane and a big smile on my face as the clock flashed 4:13.28, she had simply shook her head and said, “If you were smiling at the finish line, you didn’t run hard enough.” To prove her point, she showed me a picture of herself taken at the same finish line a few years before, her eyes vacant, her face a death mask of pain, her time forty-five minutes faster than mine.” 

“There’s another dirty little secret at play here. Most people approach swimming as if it were running or cycling, and think that the key to getting faster is to swim more. But their strokes suck. When they swim more, all they do is reinforce bad form and their muscles remember doing something wrong. Better to approach it as if it were a golf swing, or a power snatch. Get some coaching, learn and reinforce good form, and all of a sudden you’ll feel more comfortable because you’re breathing easier, so you spend more time in the water” 

“The new space allowed Mickey to expand his CrossFit gear as well as his programming. The result was the rise of a competitors’ group, true fire-breathers who meet every day at 7:30 to do a special workout, because for these guys and girls, the regular WODs aren’t hard enough. They tend to be younger, in their twenties, and add a new level of intensity, humor, and performance to the Annex crowd, even if their taste in music can seem perplexing to us silverbacks.” 

“They’re not all, kids, though. One of their members is Jamie Cutler, a former Marine now in his late forties. When Jamie walked into the Annex, he was huge from weight lifting, but had zero flexibility and no endurance. He could throw around weight, but that was about it. Now, two years of chipping away later, he’s one of the premier examples of the alchemy that can occur when perseverance and sheer stubbornness are combined with the CrossFit protocol.” 


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davidsonhang View All →

Purpose: I create an empowering context for curious and hungry people looking for fulfillment, experiences, and creativity. We do this by developing their growth mindset, introducing self-love, and powerful group experiences. It results in people with strong boundaries, resilient mental health, and practical life skills

People leave with the ability to land their dream job, have autonomy and flexibility with their lifestyle, travel the world, and create from their heart and soul.


Davidson was once broke, insecure, low-confidence, and frustrated by doing all the wrong activities. Addicted to drugs, validation, and wallowing in self-pity. No relationship to family, and at the mercy of other people’s suggestions and opinions.

It was hell.

After spending $100k hiring different coaches, traveling the world doing workshops around the world, reading>1000 books, and through curiosity, have created the most effective system to remove people from that situation. My life’s work is to bring joy and abundance to people who as on a similar path as I was and bring back the joy and abundance of their life.

Through shared experiences and storytelling, I inspire and model behaviors that lead to a richer, more fulfilled life full of joy, experiences, passion, and ecstasy from the richness of relationships and being able to experience the depths of the human experience.

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