Let’s start with your back story. You told me your win at the Granite Games was the cap on a recovery from a serious illness. Can you share with us your journey on the road back to recovery?
About four years ago, I woke up to horrible back pain. I assumed I had tweaked something working out and it would get better in a few days, so I took it easy and went about my day. I am very self-reliant and loathe to admit weakness by going to the doctor but after two weeks I wasn’t any better and was having trouble moving – standing, walking and bending all caused me pain, so I went to a chiropractor. They said my back muscles were spasming and acupunctured me. We did that for a couple of weeks until he finally adjusted me and I almost blacked out from the pain. My wife eventually talked me into going to the doctor. They ran some tests and put me in the hospital right away. They weren’t sure what was wrong with me but my blood tests were very bad. We would eventually learn that I had gotten a staph infection through a cut and it had landed in my spine at T11 and T12. By the time they got it under control, the infection would destroy the disk between T11 and 12 and eat through part of the two vertebrae, causing them to eventually fuse and grow together.
I was in the hospital for six days right after Christmas and spent New Year’s there. I came home with a port in my upper arm, into which I injected heavy antibiotics for several months. I would eventually lose 25 pounds and 1/2 inch in height. I was in constant pain and would count the clock until two hours were up and I could have more pain medicine. I couldn’t walk on my own. I couldn’t sit in a chair without support because the weight of my upper body was more than my spine could support. I could only turn over in bed with the most careful, slow movements. I couldn’t work, I couldn’t take care of my family. I had to fight against being swallowed by fear and despair.
No one had ever seen this type of injury and could not say what level I might recover to. I spent many weeks in pain and in bed, wondering if I would ever walk again. Almost overnight, I went from a strong independent person to an invalid. I began to face the reality that this might be my new normal. I was on so many pain pills that I became addicted to them and had to slowly wean myself off. I have never had a problem with addiction, but I can understand that pull now. Even many years later, I can still feel that desire for the next dose.
Wow. So where did things start to turn around for you?
I eventually started feeling better and would like to say I started thinking about getting in shape again, but really what I wanted was to not be in pain enough to enjoy something about my day. I remember tasting food again and going outside for short walks. Everything in my life became simple and precious. I was weak and I tired easily but I also noticed and appreciated everything. Being able to move again was such a joy and many times I overdid it learning what my new spine was ready for. When I could finally begin to work out again, I used a soup can for weight–doing a seated soup can press felt like lifting an anvil. Deadlifts were standing between two chairs and bending slightly at the waist. I was still often depressed and tried to fight it by celebrating the victory of lifting a soup can–which was a hard sell, believe me.
It has been a slow recovery, but one I am so blessed to have made. I went from soup cans to ten pounds to one hundred pounds to where I am now. Every day was a struggle and an unknown but also a joy and a victory. My back does not bother me now, other than to ache if I’m on my feet all day. So I would say I’m fully recovered and in better shape now than before. I have deadlifted over 400 pounds for reps several times and won the Granite Games last year. I was not able to compete in the Open this year due to an injury, but I was able to do 16.4 and the 55 deadlifts at 225 pounds were the easiest part of the workout for me. I truly believe that if I had not been in really good shape I would not have been able to fully recover, or recover at all.
That’s a truly incredible story! And now you’re a Granite Games champ, which is such a testament to how far you’ve come. How long have you been involved in CrossFit and when did you realize you had a passion for competing?
I started CrossFitting back when it was still just a website, about 8 years ago. I’ve always been massively competitive. I didn’t lose often because I took losing so hard. All family gatherings involve some board game and the best parts are arguing about the rules and who’s cheating.
As I’ve aged and mellowed though, competition has changed for me. I still want to win and train hard to make that happen, but the competition is more with myself. After my back thing, every workout is a victory. We’re all on different points on the fitness path and no one knows what someone has had to endure to get to where they are.
So very true and a great perspective to have. Has fitness always been part of your life?
No. I was an awkward, goofy kid who got picked on a lot. In seventh grade, my best friend talked me into trying out for football. I was horrible, so was he, and we spent the season on the bench. That summer, we sent off for a bodybuilding course we saw in the back of a comic book and started working out. I gained ten pounds over the summer and started every game in eighth grade. Almost overnight, I went from a clumsy, skinny kid to a popular athlete, all from lifting weights. Nobody ever picked on me again and I got all the motivation I needed to make fitness a lifelong pursuit.
I played football and was also on the wrestling and track teams. After school, I got into bodybuilding and competed several times, but I quit competing when I kept losing to steroid users. Then I got into martial arts and studied several different styles.
CrossFit was a game changer because when I found it in my forties, my opportunities for sports were few and I was tired of just lifting. Originally, I saw it as a fun new way to stay healthy, but after my back illness I wanted to try my hand at competing.
So you really took it to a new level after your recovery. That’s so cool. What would you say was your favorite event at the 2015 Granite Games?
It would have to be the last event, Stubby–5 muscle ups, 30 axle bar shoulder to overheads at 115# and a 60 ft front rack lunge walk at 115#. At that point, I was in first but had to do well to stay there. I was feeling a lot of pressure because muscle ups aren’t my strongest movement and I had only strung together 5 once before but knew I had to in order to stay in the lead. My game plan was simply to string the muscle ups and then don’t stop. I didn’t win the event but came in second. Crossing the finish line to end a great weekend of competition with some amazing athletes and taking first place after what I’d had to endure just to be able to walk again, let alone compete at this level, was a defining moment in my life.
I can see why. And do you intend to return for the 2016 Granite Games? What would be your ideal workout you’d like to see come up in the programming?
I do plan to come back this year, which would make it my third Granite Games. Last year’s programming played pretty well to my strengths, so more of the same next year, please! I thought it was a valid test of fitness. I try to remain neutral about programming–everyone has weaknesses and I think the people complaining the loudest about workouts are probably just worried about facing a movement they aren’t proficient at yet.
Fair enough! Aside from training, what keeps you busy when you’re not competing?
Well, let’s see.. My wife and I have five kids and one brand new grandson. I work as a graphic designer, and I draw and paint and teach a drawing class. I also tend a small vegetable garden. I like to post fitness-related stuff on Facebook (facebook.com/rob.bernet) and Instagram (@robbernet), and I’d like to coach eventually. Maybe after I retire from competing–I don’t think my wife would tolerate me spending any more time at the gym!
Speaking of time spent at the gym, where do you draw your motivation for all the hard work, hours and dedication it takes to compete at this level?
Training has always been a joy, so motivation is not too hard to find. Still, working out several hours a day plus mobility and recovery work plus food planning and prep plus everything else can be overwhelming. I rely on my coach, Jared Stevens, and my friends at my gym, CrossFit 417, for support. There are some awesome athletes there who never fail to uplift me with their friendship and dedication. They are so generous with their time and help and advice. Also the fellow masters athletes I’ve competed with and become friends with are inspiring. If I ever think about skipping a workout, I ask myself if they are skipping today. That gets my lazy butt in the gym.
I love it. The community does make such a huge difference! Just one last question for you, Rob. If you had one piece of advice for athletes working to come back from a serious setback, like an illness, what would it be?
Don’t dwell on what you can’t do. Be thankful for what you’re capable of right now. Life and health are a gift to be treasured for as long as they are given to us.
Also, set realistic goals and don’t compare yourself to others. Yes, maybe others in the gym can crush workouts you can’t touch yet, but they haven’t had to face the obstacles you have. We are all on different paths with different abilities and different demons to overcome.
Finally, celebrate your victories, savor the journey and play the long game. Remember, CrossFit is just a means to a healthy life. Yes, I want to deadlift 500 pounds today, but I also want to deadlift 100 pounds when I’m 95.