In a gym down by Aberdeen beach, CrossFit coach Holly Tynan is discussing pain.
Holly recently reached the semifinals of the European CrossFit Games in Berlin. She knows a thing or two about pushing past her limits.
“You just got to stay in that dark place for as long as you can,” she says. “Just keep going.”
Pain is under discussion because, nearby, Aine Gillespie is doing her warmups.
Aine is doing a grueling 13-hour workout to raise money for charity. It is 4pm, and she’s more than halfway through.
“I’m fine,” she says. “My back is a bit sore.”
All donations will go towards research into Alzheimer’s, the most common form of dementia. Aine’s grandmother Mary suffered from the condition. Mary died nine months before Aine was born, which is why she picked today — her 26th birthday — to do the challenge.
Aine’s other granny, Emelia, died with dementia earlier this year and the disease has affected other members of her family.
Plus, as a physiotherapist with NHS Grampian — and a former care worker — Aine has seen just what dementia and Alzheimer’s can do to families.
“I work a lot with old people and I see Alzheimer’s is not part of the normal aging process,” she says. “And people need to know that.”
She aims to raise £2,000 with the 13-hour workout. She knows doing it will be painful. But Aine is a CrossFitter — pain is part of the appeal.
What is CrossFit and why does it hurt?
CrossFit — half fitness programme, half global gym franchise – is in the growing segment of the modern fitness industry in which suffering is not only a consequence but a marketable element.
CrossFit’s peculiar agony is its combination of Olympic-style weightlifting with high-intensity cardio and gymnastics.
A typical workout in the CrossFit Games – the sport’s annual tournament – could see athletes sprint 2km on a rowing machine before blasting though 30 overhead lifts of a 60kg bar.
Then it’s on to 30 bar muscle ups, an arm-sapping pullup each of which end with the athlete above the bar.
But to really excel, you need more than fitness — you need to learn to endure pain.
“I’m ready to lose a finger, or feel like my arm’s being ripped off,” seven-time CrossFit champion Mat Fraser told an interviewer in 2021. “So that during the workout, when I’m in pain I’m like, ‘This isn’t bad yet. Keep going, keep going, this isn’t bad yet’.”
Taking on Karen, Diane and Kelly one at a time
Every hour on the hour, for 13 hours, Aine is tackling one of CrossFit’s benchmark workouts, a combination of moves designed to test an athlete’s progress.
Crossfit’s benchmark tests are all named after women, so Aine’s day started at 8am with Ingrid — three ‘snatches’ (a movement in which a weighted bar is lifted directly from the ground to above the head) followed by three burpees, repeated 10 times.
There has also been Karen (throwing a weighted ball up a wall 150 times) and Diane, a particularly nasty workout that combines 45 deadlifts and 45 handstand pushups.
The 4pm workout is Kelly, a longer programme that includes five 400m runs and 150 wall balls and box jumps each. Aine’s had a short break since she finished she did Diane at 3pm but the day’s load is starting to show.
“You’re probably working for like half an hour or maybe getting half an hour rest,” says Holly. “13 hours on is fairly tough. Your body’s just going to get sore.”
The countdown is on
It’s time to start.
Aine is being helped through the day by gym owner Rob Lawson and friend Lewis Cradock and the three athletes are a flurry of action as they make last minute alterations.
Lewis is looking for his jacket — the 400m will take them up Urquhart Road and the rain is coming down in waves outside — and finds it underneath Rob’s dog Bella, who’s gone to sleep on it.
A timer on the wall counts down from 10, and they race out into the wet.
Four hours later….
It is 8pm and the atmosphere in the gym has changed.
Bella the dog has slopped back to her cage, while Rob is napping at the back of the gym curled up in a fetal position.
With just one workout to go, Aine sits in a camp chair with a group of friends here to cheer her on. Across from her is Lewis wearing an avocado-coloured Oodie and snacking on a family-sized back of salt and vinegar peanuts.
“I’m doing fine,” Aine says, who herself is wolfing down some jelly babies. “But this next one is going to be grim.”
The last workout is Fran, a short and brutish mix of barbell thrusters and pull-ups that will test Aine’s already sore back.
As gym manager Kirsten Lawson coaches CrossFit Aberdeen’s children’s class on the main gym floor, Aine does a half squat. She winces.
“This is so sore,” she says.
A Disney energy boost for Fran’s final hurdle
Across the gym, Rob gets up from his nap. The 42-year-old Welshman, a CrossFit veteran, is Holly’s coach. For him, pushing through the pain barrier is all part of the training.
“It’s about being comfortable with being uncomfortable,” he says. “That’s the big thing.”
The trio get ready and the energy builds. Lewis, also 42, is moving stiffly but calls for someone to cue up Disney songs for the final push.
“Can we get some Disney bangers for our last workout?” he shouts.
The clock ticks down to zero and the gym is suddenly a fury of noise and crashing metal as heavy barbells are lifted up then dropped to the floor.
Hakuna Matata from the Lion King blares out of the gym speakers followed by Let it Go.
“I think there is a lot of adrenaline right now,” Kirsten says.
One last push for Aine — and some good news
Rob and Lewis finish first and collapse on the ground, before pulling themselves up to cheer Aine to the finish.
She finishes a round of thrusters and moves to the pull-ups for the final time. Lewis, who ripped his hand open during the last workout, is shouting at Aine to keep going.
One more effort and she’s done.
“Did someone video that?” she gasps as she lies on the ground, fist bumping a flurry of congratulatory hands. “Amazing.”
She calls her parents back home in Tipperary.
She’s cruised past her fundraising goal – CrossFit members around the world shared her challenge on social media, taking her total to more than £2,500.
It’s been a long day, but worth it.
And the pain?
“I wasn’t thinking about it,” she says. “I just had to get it done.”
Aine is raising money for The Alzheimer Society of Ireland and Alzheimer’s Society. To donate to Just Giving page, click here.