KABUL – Sgt. 1st Class Ricky Irvin took a look at the gym at the NATO headquarters here when he arrived last summer and knew he wanted something a little more intense. He had a long year ahead of him working odd hours in a communications shop for the war’s commanders.
He led a push to create a CrossFit gym just across a pathway from where some of the Afghanistan War’s top commanders make their decisions to shape the conflict. It was a hit, with about 50 people or more each day heading over for the short, high-intensity workouts for which CrossFit is known.
“You won’t see us doing curls in the mirror with an iPod,” said Irvin, 33, a Tacoma resident. “You won’t see us on an elliptical.”
Instead, he leads workouts named after hurricanes. They’re punishing routines featuring lunges with weights, sprints, pushups and pull-ups.
CrossFit is appealing to service members because it’s quick, intense and it builds up muscles troops use in the field instead of isolating muscles that look good in the mirror.
Participants do sprints, sit-ups, lunges, complex weight lifts and pull-ups, and they go at full speed until the workout ends.
“Just about everything we do, you can translate to real life,” Irvin said on Tuesday as he coached a lunchtime group through a lunge routine.
Service members and civilians here at the headquarters for the International Security Assistance Force Afghanistan and its operational hub, the International Joint Command, do not face the same daily physical demands of infantrymen out in the field.
The gym here is packed with cardio equipment, such as elliptical machines and treadmills. It caters to the high-ranking officers stationed here and the service members from the dozens of nations represented in the headquarters.
Days are long and mentally taxing for the soldiers serving in the headquarters. Some are deskbound, and many spend their downtime working out.
“My job is feast or famine,” said Irvin, who serves with Joint Base Lewis-McChord’s I Corps. “We’re either up until 4 a.m., or just trying to make this place better.”
CrossFit gives him and others in the war’s brain a break from their routines and a tougher workout than they could accomplish in their gym.
The men doing the workout Tuesday looked exhausted and sweaty after just a few minutes. They compete with each other aiming to do the routines in the least amount of time. The best scores are recorded in chalk on the blast walls that surround the courts where they work out.
“It’s fun,” said Heath Forbes, a civilian contractor who joined the CrossFit program at the headquarters. He gasped for air and admitted struggling with cardio exercise routines at Kabul’s high altitude.
“I prefer max weight days. This whole cardio thing, not so much,” he said.
Because it’s so well-regarded in the military, CrossFit creates special routines for service members killed on duty if they’re known to be disciples of the exercise regimen.
Irvin has a ream of posters describing the workouts that recognize fallen service members. Many are service members from the Special Forces because they were early adopters to the regimen.
One poster showed Sgt. Alexander Bennett, the 24-year-old Tacoma native who was killed in the rocket strike in August that killed 31 special operators in early August. Bennett was an Army aviator supporting Special Forces operations.
CrossFit, and the gym in Kabul, recognized Bennett’s sacrifice and the service members who died with him in a September event called “31 Heroes.”
Another poster is for Air Force Staff Sgt. Timothy Davis of Aberdeen, who was killed by a roadside bomb in February 2009, leaving behind a wife and child. Irvin’s CrossFit program next week is doing a workout as part of a fundraiser for Davis’ son from a CrossFit gym in the Puyallup.
Those workouts recognizing fallen service are tough even by CrossFit standards, Irvin said, “because there’s no scale to a hero.”