One fitness writer shares what happens when your CrossFit partner becomes your life partner—and then things go downhill.

By By Gabrielle Kassel
December 28, 2018
Photo: Corey Jenkins / Getty Images

At the time, if you checked my résumé, it might have said Desk Girl, or Gym Assistant Manager, or maybe CrossFit Box Welcome Committee. Whatever you call it, I'd check CrossFit athletes into class, and welcome them with the big smile of someone who had just moved to New York City. The way Ben* tells it, "I was being a huge, eager dork." The first time he walked in-five minutes late to class, no nod of apology-I knew I was in trouble. He had athletic swagger, big brown eyes, and all the BDE of someone who'd played football in college. For weeks (okay, months), I didn't know what to do with my draw to him or the tension between us. I was a women's college graduate, had limited dating experience, and was currently dating a woman.

The Warm-Up

Ben was broad-shouldered, athletic in a lean way, shaggy-haired, and sporting a beard that seemed to grow fuller each day. Our friendship felt inevitable; we were both ex-college athletes, new to CrossFit, overly competitive, and, even in our infancy, the best athletes at our box (CrossFit speak for "gym"). Once we became friends, we texted constantly, wagering bets on the daily workout and sharing video clips of athletes we longed to become, and flirted through the language of exercise. (I mean, exercise makes for amazing foreplay.)

I'd never had a male friend like this. As the months went on and I broke up with my girlfriend and he opened up his relationship with his, it became clear that we weren't just friends anymore. One day, he picked me up after my work shift at the box, and a kiss sealed the deal.

Becoming Mr. and Mrs. CrossFit

What followed was over a year of lust and CrossFit. At the time, I found his attention and jokes thrilling; Our sameness, validating; Our routines, a kind of stability I loved.

In hindsight, I recognize that we shrunk each other's worlds.

During the weekdays, we worked hard and independently. In the evenings, we worked out, ate salad, kissed like high schoolers, and celebrated our CrossFit progress. On the weekends it was much the same, but even more singularly focused. From 10 a.m. until 3 p.m., sometimes later, we worked out alongside each other-sweating, giggling, competing-and we had the strength and endurance gains to prove it. (There are legit benefits to having a solid workout buddy-someone you're dating or otherwise.)

The peak of our love was probably a year after we met, during the five-week competitive CrossFit season (The Open), which starts in late February each year.

Over the course of our romance, we'd become what felt like king and queen of the gym. So we knew everyone would be watching-to see how we'd perform and how we'd place against all the other CrossFit athletes in the world. For those five weeks, every night we'd refuel and wash the sweat off in the shower together while strategizing the workouts and hedging bets on who, between us, would perform better. We were in it together.

For each of the five workouts, it ended up being a near draw. Maybe he had more reps than me, but I'd placed better in comparison to the other women worldwide. Or maybe he'd had less "no reps" but I'd still gotten more reps overall. For each workout, we did equally well. And at the end of the five weeks, we were equal parts exhausted and proud-both proud of ourselves, and of each other. (Related: 11 Things You Should Never Say to a CrossFit Addict)

But soon after that, there was a shift.

The Cool-Down

There was no question: I was in love, and Ben certainly cared for me. But Ben, CrossFit, and I had grown into a codependent relationship. We were always exercising together, and always hard.

It sounds like philoso-babble, but with us, it wasn't just exercise. We thought that our ability to handle (and conquer) the workouts was symbolic of our own fortitude. And in many ways it was, but it also brought us closer to each other.

The intimacy of that journey combined with the intimacy of completing The Open (for all intents and purposes) together was our ruin. It was too much.

For a few months after The Open, we continued our charade. But emotionally, he was pulling away. He started wanting to work out with the guys at our box. He stopped washing the suds from my hair in the shower. He stopped seeing me as his workout-buddy-turned-lover and started seeing me as a competitor. There's a photo of us together from that time, and when I look at it now, I see my own toothy, glowy smile compared to his side-eye, a sarcastic wager about who'd win the next workout wet on his tongue.

It took until the fall for us to split officially-and it ended in drama. Afterward, I was heartbroken.

The Aftermath and Rebuilding My Routine

I wonder now if he was too many things to me at once. He was my best friend. My workout buddy. My weekend warrior. My lover. My partner in life and exercise.

He also became (my) CrossFit. Because I had simultaneously fallen for the boy and the sport, when my relationship with him ended, my relationship with the sport, too, felt uncertain. Post-break-up, I had to answer questions for myself: What did CrossFit look like without him? What did it feel like? Could I love CrossFit, while also allowing (forcing) myself to fall out of love with him?

Ultimately, the answer is yes. I love CrossFit. I love it outside of the role it played with Ben. I love how it makes me feel strong and gritty, capable and feminine. But it's taken time for me to realize that. I had to learn how to show up to the box for myself. I had to learn how to work out alone. I had to learn how to compete with myself, and not with my lover. I had to figure out what it was I loved about CrossFit.

For that, I leaned into my support system: my mom, the other members at the gym, my coaches, my therapist. I started adding other workouts like yoga and running into my routine-things that felt meditative. I began keeping a fitness "feeling" journal where I write how I'm feeling after every single workout, a practice I'd recommend to anyone trying to reconnect with their exercise routine.

I also gave myself permission to be a heartbroken mess, to move through the hurt of losing my workout buddy. If CrossFit reminded me too much of him on certain days, I'd drop in at a kickboxing studio. If a WOD I'd previously done with him was scheduled for the day, I'd skip it and make a date with my foam roller. And if I couldn't bring the same intensity to a workout because he wasn't cheering or for me or egging me on, I forgave myself.

As of right now, I still miss the unique intimacy of dating my workout buddy. Every day, I'm still putting in the work to nourish a healthy relationship with the sport. It's been difficult, but also tremendously rewarding.

Sometimes Ben and I still take the same CrossFit classes together, but we avoid eye contact and barely speak. It's too easy to conform to our original roles, and because he's currently dating another girl at the gym-which, yes, has come with its own layer of hurt-that would be unfair to all of us. In those moments of sadness, I try to think about what I gained from our relationship: at the very least, a love of CrossFit, and the opportunity to date my workout buddy and best friend. And if years down the road we ever end up at the same CrossFit competition, maybe we'll cheer for each other-even if we're not (in it) together.