How CrossFit Almost Killed Me: Rhabdomyolysis

How CrossFit Almost Killed Me: Rhabdomyolysis

Almost 2 years have passed since I came close to dying from what would have been the most embarrassing legacy in the history of my family: CrossFit.

October of 2012. At the time I was training 6-7 days a week. Lifting heavy almost every day, consuming pounds of the best grass fed beef the North West had to offer, working from home as a contractor and pretty much living a great lifestyle for performance and what everyone these days is calling “gains.”

I felt stronger than I had ever been and was confident in everything I was doing at the time.

My personal life, on the other hand, was quite a mess. But hey, we’ve always been told people perform better with some stress over none. Who am I kidding, I swim in stress and it’s made me Darth Vader strong.

Hurricane Sandy was on its way to the East Coast and I was booked for a trip back to the Tri-State area (CT, NJ, NY) for Halloween and some family time. Needless to say Holloween didn’t happen, not in the festive way at least..The storm hit, cities lost power, were flooded, boats ended up in streets miles away from the coast, it was a dark fucking time.

I commonly refer back to these days when liberals start talking about how bad guns are. There were looters. Really just people who were cold, without heat, power and gas looking for a way to survive, legal or not. People will get ugly when they have to survive, especially when there aren’t police or authority around to keep them in check. I watched as good neighborhoods turned into opportunities for criminals and Anti-Gun Americans all of a sudden remembered why their parents were gun friendly.

Anyway, my Uncle owns a Marina in Staten Island. You wouldn’t believe the damage that was done. People came from all over to see it. Freelance photographers were snapping photos left and right. They even made books filled with pictures. It looked like a scene from an apocalyptic water world except there was no water, just boats and docks where they didn’t belong. Walking through what you could was like walking through a labyrinth of giant thorns covered in gasoline and smelling like filthy water, except the thorns were boats stacked on top of each other. I’ve never seen anything like it to this day.

A couple days after the storm, I had rented a car and driven into Staten Island to help out. I can tell you with confidence I was the only person driving into the city. My uncle took me to the marina and I spent the day working with a bunch of neighborhood guys and friends who had come to help clean up the Marina. It was a lot of work, moving things, trying to just clear shit out of the way so everything could be rebuilt. By the time I was done my gas smelling jeans were being thrown in a garbage bag and I felt like I had just been through many Hero WODs in one day. Props to you manual labor guys, the long haul is tough. Coming from a sub 10 minute power biased CrossFitter.

rhabdomyolysis crossfit

(Photo by Neal Dub taken from Flickr)

The next day I was on my way back to Connecticut and I stepped into a local box to get a workout in with some of my buddies at CrossFit Norwalk. We did a main page WOD that involved GHD Situps and Muscle Ups.

The workout was: (Comment #9 is the best...)

25 GHD Situps

1 Muscle Up

20 GHD Situps

2 Muscle Ups

15 GHD Situps

3 Muscle Ups

10 GHD Situps

4 Muscle Ups

5 GHD Situps

5 Muscle Ups

It was a deceiving combination.

Since I had been doing mostly CrossFit Football I hadn't touched Muscle Ups in a while and the box I was training at did not have a GHD machine. However I was 4 plus years into CrossFit and well experienced with these movements.

I pushed through the workout and felt fine after. It was a challenging workout mostly because the positions in the bottom of the GHD Situps and the bottom of a Kipping Muscle Up were very similar. Both taxing on the lower abdomen. It was a great way to forget about the previous days and always a pleasure to workout with my bud Mike Sabato.

Two days later of a swollen stomach, serious pain in the hip flexors, lower abdomen and Coca Cola colored piss, I stood in the bathroom shaking my head at how much of an amateur I was. I called a friend, Paul Amato, who owns CrossFit Reality and asked him about one of his recent coaches, Chris Amenta, who now owns CrossFit Extracted. Chris had gotten Rhabdo a couple months earlier.

In case you’re not following, Coca Cola colored piss is the biggest sign of Rhabdomyolysis. This is when damaged skeletal muscle tissue breaks down and releases proteins in the blood which are filtered through the kidneys. When the levels are high enough your kidneys start having issues filtering it and your piss turns reddish brown.

That day I was in the bathroom getting ready to leave for JFK to hop on a plane back to Portland, OR. A 6 hour flight. Paul convinced me to go to the hospital for a simple blood test to make sure I’d be OK.

Thanks Paul. We may have our disagreements and you can be a total douche and you WILL forever hold this over my head but, you probably saved my life.

Fast forward 5 days later and I’m in a hospital bed in CT, with 300ml of saline being pumped through me an hour, with a bloated penis, no sign of masculinity through superior physique, groups of doctors coming in to ask me how fast I was running to get Rhabdo, pissing 40 times a day and night, staring out a window envisioning myself escaping like a scene out of 007, asking the nurses for pain killers because who doesn't like good pain killers.

(A couple weeks before Rhabdo)

(If I never see myself like this again it will be too soon...)

After the first 24 hours of saline my CK levels were at 90,000. CK is Creatine Kinase in the blood and used as a measurement for risk of heart attacks and rhabdo among other things. Let me give you an idea of what this means. Commonly triathletes check themselves into hospitals after a triathlon and it’s normal for them to show CK levels of 35-45,000. A normal CK level of an average person on the street is around 100 units per litre of blood.

Depending on your feelings about luck, and yes I’m talking to all you self righteous entrepreneurs who say luck doesn’t exist, I was very lucky. I did not sustain any kidney damage and more importantly, I did not get on that plane and suffer kidney failure how ever many thousand feet up in the air fucked to be remembered as the guy who died from Rhabdo. As much as I would have smirked at the Fuck You it would have given CrossFit HQ in the press, I’m not going out like that.

Now to the fun part. I lost all of my metabolic conditioning and I was barely capable of going up a flight of stairs without breathing like I had rowed a 500m on a Concept 2, with the wooden handles for all you fancy fuckers. I suffered quite a bit of pain in my lower abdomen and basically I spent the next 8 months lifting, focusing on body weight stability and all around being scared out of my mind, that I had lost 4 plus years of hard work in CrossFit.

I got back to where I was (thanks to hard work and some coaching from my friend Jay Tieder at Bridgetown CrossFit) BUT, I never fully healed. It’s been almost 2 years and still to this day if I do too much core intensive work my abs swell up and I have some sharp pain during the most inconvenient times like sex. That pisses me off beyond belief.

crossfit rhabdomyolysis

(One of the more appropriate selfies I took during my amazingly stimulating days as a human water balloon.)

Some say once you have had Rhabdo the chances of getting it again are very high. I believe that. Why? Well for starters I think the only way I sustained such high CK levels with no damage to my kidneys was because I was giving myself small doses of Rhadbo from my training. I’ve also seen with my own eyes and felt with my own body smaller levels of the same issues I had when I first had Rhabdo, commonly after high volume core intensive movements.

This brings me to PEDs. If someone had said, George I’ll prescribe you HGH to help you recover faster from the damage Rhabdo did to your body, whether back when it first happened or now, two years later I would have gladly cashed that chip in, granted I could afford it.

If you’re one of those people that is up in arms about Performance Enhancement Drugs, especially in the CrossFit world, you really need to ask yourself. How are athletes training as hard and often as they do and recovering as well as they do? Sure nutrition, sleep, supplementation and lifestyle etc is huge but do you know any serious athletes, especially in CrossFit who have not sustained some shoulder or back injuries that train doubles or triples regularly? Because in my 5 plus years in this once awesome Community, I do not know a single one.

We all get injured and if you think sitting out for 8 months of a year is an option for someone trying to really compete and make a living off their performance, then you my friend have never been a serious athlete.

Unfortunately for most of us human beings, to train that hard, that often means you’re going to do quite a bit of damage to your body and there is only so much you can do to recover. With the levels of performance we have reached now in CrossFit, from my opinion, Performance Enhancement Drugs are a necessary tool to recover and progress. By no means does this mean you can’t make progress without PED’s, I’m just saying short of being a freak you’re going to get injured and beat up and we all need an upper every once in a while.

I’ll say what most people won’t and I’ll say it openly. I fully support PED’s in the Competitive CrossFit World. Work is work and resources have always been a part of winning, PED’s are just that. People will always use them and who am I to judge someone for playing the level field?

With all of this said, I’m in a CrossFit gym daily and I made some mistakes which is how I ended up with Rhabdo and why today I’m still suffering from the side effects of it.

  1. I hadn’t done GHD Situps in probably a year.
  2. I fatigued during some of my sets of GHD Situps and pulled myself out of the bottom.
  3. I walked into the workout days after a natural disaster nowhere near my 100%.
  4. I let my ego get the best of me and assumed I could handle it.
  5. I pushed through the pain and early signs of Rhabdo for two days before I went to hospital.

Despite the fact that I should have gone to the hospital I have to say something about the New York Giants game I had the pleasure of gimping through with my father. Most of the city did not have power, heat or gas. The stadium was still packed filled with New Yorkers cheering their team on. Service members including Fire, Military and Law Enforcement presented a flag across the field they held by hand and after the Star Spangled Banner the stadium roared like never before. In the midst of disaster this was one of greatest moments to be a part of and more so than ever I was damn Proud to be an American and an East Coaster. (Take that "Best Coast")

rhabdomyolysis story manimal

(Thanks for this Dad, it was well worth the delay and I'll never forget it.)

CrossFit is dangerous, when under the supervision of inexperienced coaches with athletes who will push themselves well past what their body can handle or athletes who have been deconditioned from a lack of physical activity or conditioning.

One of the best examples of this I know are some of my military friends that come back from deployments where they have lost a lot of muscle mass and haven’t done a CrossFit WOD in 8 months. Their body remembers how to do the movements and they are mentally tough as nails, but when they push to that point, everything breaks down and here comes injury.

Let’s face it, there are a million CrossFit boxes and a lot more “coaches” now. Most of them don’t know what they’re doing and most members in a CrossFit box don’t know any better including these coaches. The majority of them wouldn’t be there if it was all hard work and no second chance at high school social clubs.

However if you know me, you know being in a CrossFit box has been a daily part of my life for five years. I’ve even coached for 4 years. When I got Rhabdo I was in amazing shape and all it took was some GHD Situps and Muscle Ups to put me 6 feet under. Don’t be an idiot, check your ego, forget the coaches yelling at you, don’t listen to your friends pressuring you. If you haven’t done something in a long time, you better take it slow or not at all. Unless you want a legacy like death from CrossFit.


  • Bruce Witzenman

    The one thing I wish the Doctors and specialist would look into when it comes to Rhabdomyolysis, do those individuals show signs of sickle cell trait and record findings. I have found a couple of vague references to this possibly being the actual underlying cause, unfortunately no studies to be found.

  • Brady Cone

    Thanks for the article. I’m reading it while laying in a hospital bed, recovering from Rhabdo after an intense CrossFit workout on Monday. I had no idea what it was until yesterday when I could hardly move, and my piss was brown. Thankfully I called my friend who is a CrossFit instructor in a different town. When I told him what was happening, he told me I had Rhabdo, and needed to go to the ER immediately. If I hadn’t called him, I probably would have gone to bed to try to sleep it off. And I might not have lived through the night.

  • terry

    More than 1/2 a dozen special forces at a SanAntonio base were diagnosed with moyamoya within 30 days. moyamoya is a rare disease and unheard of to have an “outbreak” so to speak. I personally had an internal carotid artery dissection during a novice crossfit competition. I realize doctors don’t want to blame crossfit because it could be any number of other things that can cause dissections or moyamoya, but lets face it . . crossfit is causing major life threatening injuries world-wide. We need to acknowledge the link and crack down on better supervision and training if it continues.

  • Danielle

    My 32 year old healthy cousin just died from this a week ago and we had never even heard about it. He didn’t do crossfiit but always worked out. His friend pushed him to work out way too hard which wasn’t his fault he just didn’t know any better. My cousin complained the day after an intense leg workout that his calves were so swollen and could barely walk. We just all thought that he was extra sore and since he was drinking alcohol that it was normal. He went to bed that night and was found unresponsive in a chair making a gargling noise. He then was in the hospital brain dead, bleeding out of his ears nose and mouth and with kidney failure. I wish this condition was more known and it needs to be so that nobody else has to suffer how our family is suffering. I just felt the need to write this as his story should be told ???

  • Vin

    I had a similar experience last month. I went hard after babying my knee for 2 months. The muscle breakdown was in my low back. My CK peaked at 115k. I was in the hospital for a week. I still have decreased sensation in my back. I’m in the early recovery phase of lots of rest and light stretching. They are sending me to neuromuscular specialist to see if I have a mitochondrial disorder/glycogen storage disorder. Do you have any tips to increase speed of recovery?

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