We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.
- President John F. Kennedy
I wonder if you know
I wonder if you think about it
Once upon a time
In your wildest dreams.
You have plenty of courage, I am sure,' answered Oz. 'All you need is confidence in yourself. There is no living thing that is not afraid when it faces danger. The true courage is in facing danger when you are afraid.'
-L. Frank Baum, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz
When I finished an intense program and "tested out" of the Maximus CrossFit Academy on October 29, 2015, it was the highlight of a fitness journey that has left me 111.2 pounds lighter in less than a year and a "Brand New Man" in every sense of the word.
In "testing out," I proved I could perform all the exercises, weight lifting procedures and fitness skills necessary to participate in CrossFit. For the first time in my life, I could jump rope. For the first time in my adult life, I could do things like pushups, sit ups and an occasional pull up or two.
One year earlier, I had been morbidly obese and had difficulty tying my own shoes. CrossFit has been the trigger that finally made me recognize, like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, what I was looking for was in my own back yard.
I grew up with the spirit of President John F. Kennedy. I was born slightly before he was elected president and don't really remember his assassination. Many things that happened immediately afterwards, like the space program and the Beatles coming to America, are some of my most vivid and favorite childhood memories. Kennedy was the ultimate goal setter. He gave us the challenge of doing something impossible, like going to the moon, and set a timeline to do it by the end of the decade. I wrote about President Kennedy in my book Wealth Without Wall Street and how the country had changed by 2008. The concept of asking people to sacrifice and embrace hard work had long fallen out of favor with our business and political leadership. We would have avoided the 2008 economic crisis and government bailouts if Washington had operated in the spirit of Kennedy instead of the spirit of pandering to special interests. Washington lacked courage. Wall Street lacked courage.
I lost 100 pounds in seven months, but my focus and intensity were starting to slow down. I was starting to lack the courage to make sure that my weight loss and fitness journey stayed at a high level. When I stumbled onto CrossFit, the spirit and energy inspired by President John F. Kennedy came back to me.
My Journey to the CrossFit "Box"
There's something to be said about this man's enthusiasm and willingness to live outside his comfort zone. The reason I love my job is men (or women) like Mr. Don. It's a beautiful thing to see someone do something they've never done, and even more so when they have a relentless spirit like this man does. It's been a pleasure to be a part of your journey, Mr. Don. You are truly an inspiration to us all.
-Dex Hopkins, Coach at CrossFit Maximus, Lexington, Kentucky
I had the honor and privilege of being able to help Don McNay achieve his first jump rope EVER last night in Academy. It's people like him and moments like these that remind me of why I absolutely love what I do. He is such a positive man and his smile is contagious. You inspire all of us, Don! Blessed to share this journey with you!
-Erica Spitz, Coach at CrossFit Maximus, Lexington, Kentucky
The most important thing in the Olympic games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle.
-The Olympic Creed
I should have been a one hit wonder in CrossFit. I made it to the first session for four reasons:
1) Friends, like David Helmers and Dr. Derek Weiss, were members and encouraged me to try it.
2) It is three blocks from where I live.
3) My daughter found a Groupon where I could try the Academy at a low price.
4) I met with manager Kathy Childress and coach Dex Hopkins the week before. They assured me that I would not die during the first session.
I needed the spirit of John F. Kennedy to get me to walk into the box (CrossFit has its own language and gyms are called "boxes"). I arrived 20 minutes early and the intimidation factor was overwhelming. There was a gymnastics class finishing up and the instructor, Erica Spitz, was flying across the bars like a 21st century version of Mary Lou Retton. There were men and women lifting heavy barbells and dropping them on the floor like they do in the Olympics.
I saw my Academy classmates gathering and none of them were in my age bracket. Half my age was more like it. No one else in the box had been born when John Kennedy was alive. There were only a few who were born before Bill Clinton's presidency. I was the oldest and heaviest member of my Academy class, and there was not a close second. I had seen those kinds of gym dynamics before and usually a form of Darwinism occurs. The young and stronger run off the older and weaker.
Not in CrossFit.
CrossFit operates with a concept called scaling. It turns out that Erica, the woman doing the Mary Lou Retton imitation, was our Academy instructor and recognized immediately that I was not going to be able to do the traditional pull-ups part of the program. She moved me over to rings, like those you see in gymnastics, and taught me a technique to do pull-ups using those. I did pretty well using that technique. Then we went through a series of weight lifting and exercise programs, many that I had done in high school football and track. It had been 38 years since the last time I tried them, but I had a degree of familiarity that led to a degree of confidence. Enough confidence to survive the hour long session.
When the class ended, Dex Hopkins was waiting for me. Everyone told me that I would like the former Delta State University (Cleveland, MS) football star and everyone was right. With his long hair and beard, Dex looks like Jesus if Jesus was tall, tattooed and had zero percent body fat. Both he and Erica Spitz were part of a team from CrossFit Maximus that came in seventh in the world in the 2014 CrossFit games. Dex and his wife Marilyn Kelleher Hopkins, a Urology resident at the University of Kentucky, competed as individuals in the CrossFit games before moving from Richland, Mississippi to Kentucky.
Although Dex was a tight end at Delta State, I knew he had been a quarterback in high school. He has a sense of confidence and leadership that reminded me of the late James Street. Street was a football hero who led the University of Texas to an undefeated national championship in 1969. Street got into the structured settlement business in the 1990s. We became close friends and frequently did business together.
James and Dex were the same kind of guys. Incredibly smart and insightful, but they keep it slightly muted behind an outgoing, country boy persona. Both were world class motivators. They understood how to get the highest level of effort out of the people around them and the highest level of effort out of me in particular. They got everyone around them caught up in their enthusiasm. It's a rare leadership trait that produces true championships.
Dex talked to me for over an hour. He told me that he had been watching closely and that I could move very well for a man of my size. He focused on the positives and made me enthusiastic to take my aching body back for the next class, when he would be teaching the Academy.
When I came in the next day, co-owner Lincoln Brown was waiting for me. Lincoln, a Wharton School graduate, is a successful "serial entrepreneur" who comes to entrepreneurship naturally. His father, John Y. Brown, Jr., was a former Kentucky Governor and a founder of Kentucky Fried Chicken. His mother is the groundbreaking sports journalist Phyllis George. It was the first time Lincoln and I had met, but we had a mutual friend in Dr. Jim Roach and I am a friend of Lincoln's half brother, former Kentucky Secretary of State John Y. Brown III. Lincoln and I talked about how he got interested in CrossFit personally and from a business standpoint. I had noticed the quality and education status of everyone working at the box. Most of the coaches had degrees in fields like Kinesiology and weightlifting guru Ben Welter was an engineering major. All of the coaches are role models of fitness and had the same kind of enthusiasm that Dex and Erica exhibited. Lincoln articulated how he attracted such a high-powered group and how well they worked as a team.
Then my love affair with CrossFit began.
A couple of things started to happen. One is that I went on a reading binge. I'll never write an extensive book solely on CrossFit as it would be impossible to outdo books like Learning to Breathe Fire by J.C. Herz and Inside the Box by T.J. Murphy. I liked Embrace the Suck by Stephen Madden as I connected with the author's personal journey. I read every article I could find about CrossFit founder Greg Glassman and discovered that almost anything you wanted to know about CrossFit could be found online.
I understood why CrossFit worked so well for me. As opposed to a large corporately owned gym (usually owned by a venture capital firm), the focus in CrossFit is not on equipment, a fancy building or cramming in new memberships. The focus is on "back to the basics" exercise and training in the most Spartan of settings. The routines change daily, and they focus on pushing a person to their maximum potential. The workout of the day (WOD in CrossFit world) is so intense and fast paced that it is impossible for your mind to drift. I burn about 1200 calories in an hour. The coaches are there to coach and instruct, and they teach in a small group, participatory setting. They teach the correct way to lift weights and do exercises to increase success, but also to make sure we don't hurt ourselves. The concept caught on early in the military and law enforcement communities, but I also see why it seems so perfect for a driven, anti-authority, low boredom entrepreneur like myself. It's a place where improvement is constantly measured and attainable no matter what your fitness condition was when you started. Most importantly, there is a true sense of teamwork and community.
One of the great moments was when Erica Spitz (whose husband Nathan Spitz is also a coach and manager) taught me how to jump rope for the very first time in my life. Fit or unfit, I had never been able to do it. We did it in stages. She had me jump up and down in place. Then she had me move my hands without a rope. Then she had me jump without a rope but still moving my hands. Then we put a rope in hands. After a few tries, I had it. Each time I get a little bit better as confidence was built on achievement. Erica knew I had it in me and kept pushing until we got the proper result.
The community became important to me. Very quickly, I started bonding with the people in the box, both inside the gym and through social media. In the Academy setting, my younger and fitter classmates started rooting for me and my relentless work ethic started inspiring them. CrossFit is not a world where you advance by beating the other person. You inspire the rest of the people in your group to keep pushing forward and to keep pushing you forward. A true sense of teamwork. Fitness has been a lonely journey in my adult life. Now I felt like part of a team. You don't see people on treadmills with headsets at a CrossFit gym. You see people interacting and bonding.
It's the first time in my adult life where I walked in a gymnasium and felt like I belonged there. From the outside, especially if you only know about CrossFit from the ESPN CrossFit games, where some of the fittest athletes in the world compete, you would think CrossFit is a world where only people with perfect fitness need apply. The true, untapped market for CrossFit is middle aged, recovering fat people like me. Putting us in an environment where we can feel like competitive athletes and inspire others is the best way to make everyone better, physically and mentally.
Getting Back From Giving Back
I think that he's achieved a success far beyond riches and fame. Look around you. There is not a life in this room that you have not touched, and each of us is a better person because of you. We are your symphony, Mr. Holland. We are the melodies and the notes of your opus. We are the music of your life.
-Mr. Holland's Opus
Baby you look at me and tell me what you see
You ain't seen the best of me yet.
-Irene Cara (from the Oscar-winning song "Fame")
At age 56, I get to be a rock star. In an athletic setting. Surrounded by some of the fittest and most motivated people I have ever met. All I have to do is keep showing up and let them watch me go at CrossFit with complete abandon. I have a new set of friends and admirers.
A year ago I made a lot of major life decisions, like weight loss surgery and changing my eating habits, with the simple goal of staying alive to a normal life expectancy. Now, 111 pounds later, I realize that just staying alive in a pretty weak ambition. I want to achieve excellence in whatever I do, and CrossFit is a terrific outlet for allowing me to achieve excellence with my health. The goal is no longer just to grow old, but to operate at peak efficiency and make the most out of life.
My role model, the greatest living Kentuckian, Al Smith is going strong at age 88. He has been sober for 52 years, but he once told me that his devotion to public service and being active stems from making up for the early years when he was drunk. I want to get back the decades when I was morbidly obese by getting into peak shape at a time when others are dialing it back.
As I get healthier, good things have happened. Business has improved as my mind is sharper and my stamina is longer. Everyone in my world comments on how happy I am and when you feel good, it makes everyone around you feel good. Life is at its high watermark, and I have the wisdom of experience to appreciate how lucky I am.
I did not realize the impact that fitness and exercise would have on my inner psyche. I've always been situationally fearless. I've been willing to take risks in certain areas of life, like starting new businesses or asking an accomplished woman to marry me, but held back in other areas, especially related to my health.
Starting with the weight loss, then with competing in 3K and 5K races, and now with CrossFit, I keep knocking down the barriers against fear.
I was afraid of surgery and then surgery helped to save my life. I was afraid to run foot races and I finished them all, even when my feet were blistered and swollen. CrossFit has forced me to push and keep pushing myself on the exercise front, in front of other people who are universally supportive.
Facing my morbid obesity was a major battle, but facing down fear and developing true confidence is the greatest gift I have received.
There is a reward in making a full, all out, focused effort. The reward is in waging the battle, not necessarily in winning the war.
I'm going all out to improve my health and to inspire, encourage and motivate those around me to do the same. It's a challenging, worthwhile and achievable goal.
The kind of goal President Kennedy would be proud of.
Don McNay, ChFC, MSFS, CLU, CSSC, AFSP is a structured settlement consultant, entrepreneur and best-selling author who lives in Lexington, Kentucky.
He is the founder of McNay Settlement Group, RRP International Publishing and Digital Media, McNay Financial and Kentucky Guardianship Administrators. He has Masters Degrees from Vanderbilt University and the American College, and he is in the Hall of Distinguished Alumni at Eastern Kentucky University, where he serves on the Board of Directors for the University Foundation.