On June 4, 2014 at 6am, I was ripped from a dead sleep by the smoke alarm screeching outside my bedroom, in concert with my next door neighbor screeching my name at the top of her lungs.
It’s amazing how your brain and your body respond when you’re in danger. I’ve never been in real danger before, not like this. Sure, I’ve had some scary moments, some times when my heart raced, some times when I thought, “man, that could have gone south fast.”
But when you realize in a matter of seconds that your life is at risk, and if you don’t move and move fast, it’s over – well, you MOVE.
As I woke up, I saw flames leaping outside the bedroom window towards the house next door. Everything that happened next happened so quickly.
I remember grabbing shorts and a t shirt and throwing them on. No bra, no underwear, no socks. What are the essentials? Get dressed, get anything that is alive out of the house, and GET OUT.
I went after our cat first. I had the carrier in our room and tried to get her in it. She was terrified and bolted from me. I was panicking trying to find her and get her out, but the smoke was thick and once I was standing, it was hard to breathe and hard to see.
I reached for our dog. The smoke alarm was terrifying her, and she was sitting on her haunches at the top of the stairs, refusing to come down them. I don’t remember if I carried her or dragged her down the stairs, but I grabbed her by the collar and dragged her out to the front yard.
I had to leap to the side of the walkway to get out of the way of the firemen with the hose as they ran towards the flames, and I ran away from them.
There I stood on the side of the street, holding my dog by the collar, with no leash, no bra on, no shoes, for what seemed like eternity, watching smoke billow from my house.
A crowd of people had gathered on the street – neighbors, curious onlookers, those who couldn’t suppress their morbid curiosity. In reality it was probably only a few minutes, but it seemed like forever at the time. And it felt like everyone was staring at me.
Eventually a neighbor took pity on me and invited me inside her home. The family was preparing to move, so they had a completely empty room that they allowed me to sit in with my dog while I waited for some news, any news, of what was happening.
I had just started a new job two weeks prior, coming off of years working for the local police department. Many officers on the PD knew my address, as we had opened our home to them every Christmas Day each year as a place for a warm meal for those that had to work.
They came by. They were kind, they tried to comfort me, but they had no news. “They’re still working on containing it,” they said. “It’s still going.”
Hours passed. I was finally allowed back into the house to see the damage, see what was salvageable.
The rest of that day and night are a blur. I remember bits and pieces: throwing out vegetables that were swimming in water in the kitchen. Not being able to take any of my clothes with me because they were all wet and smelled like smoke.
Nailing a piece of plywood over the back door where the firemen had taken an axe to it to get inside. Wandering through Target trying to determine what I needed to buy: a toothbrush. Deodorant. A few changes of clothes. Underwear. Crying in the shower in my hotel room, wallowing in self-pity. Not being able to sleep out of raw, naked fear.
And the smell. The awful smell. If you’ve ever smelled a house fire, you know what I’m talking about.
The process of dealing with disaster restoration is miserable, and I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy. After 11 months of insurance, contractors, and the like, we were finally able to move back in.
The moments during and immediately after the fire are a blur. But there’s one thing I remember, and I remember clearly: the kindness shown to me by other people.
And most of those people knew me from our CrossFit gym.
We had started CrossFit less than a year prior, in October. And yet, when I truly needed someone, my friends from the gym rallied. I made one call to one of them, and they were all there.
Karen was the first to arrive. Karen was a Project Manager in her day job. She came with Starbucks in hand for me and helped me think clearly. She made lists and phone calls and acted as my organized brain when I couldn’t.
Then there was Carrie. Carrie was a vet, and had actually been over for dinner the night before the fire, and less than 24 hours later, she was helping me nail plywood over my back door.
Let me tell you, few things are as satisfying after a house fire as taking a hammer to a door while yelling curse words as loud as you can. Once she helped me seal up the door, she took me to Target to get whatever I needed, then took me to my hotel and checked out my dog and cat to make sure they were ok from the smoke.
Emma was an artist, so she was the gentler side of things. Our fire happened on her wedding anniversary, but no matter – while I was at Target with Carrie, Emma went to the local grocery store hot bar and delivered a plate of food to my hotel, which was waiting for me when I arrived.
And Tucker. Tucker wasn’t there the day of the fire, but she called up and said, “Hey, we’re out of town. If you and your family need a place to stay for the weekend while you figure out what’s next, go stay at our place.”
And we did. The next day my husband, mom, and dad all came to town, and we stayed at Tucker’s for 3 days while we hunted for a rental, dealt with insurance, and figured out what was next.
Yes, there were others: Malinda, a police officer with the department and close friend who heard the call on the radio and raced to my home, stayed with me until the fire was out, and helped me book a hotel room that evening. Kelly, who came back to the house with me again and again during the clean out process and helped me breathe through multiple panic attacks.
The list goes on. We held a party when we moved back in, and put up a giant thank you banner, with photos of all of those who helped us along the way.
But at the end of the day, there are three important things that stand out to me from this experience.
1. You can never be ready, but you can be prepared.
No one expects their house to catch on fire. No one lives every day expecting disaster. How can you? You have to live for today. If we all sat around expecting the worst thing to happen, we’d never go anywhere.
But you can prepare yourself, both mentally and physically. You can make a plan with your family for what you’ll do if something happens. And you can prepare your body and mind.
In the few short months that I was doing CrossFit, I prepared my mind for this. CrossFit tests your fitness, but also your reaction times. Your endurance. Your ability to think clearly when your body is under duress. And every single one of these traits are exactly what I needed when the fire happened.
It was preparing me for life – the count of 3, 2, 1, Go at the beginning of each class was just like the smoke alarm going off, springing me from my bed, and telling me to GO.
2. You need a tribe.
And few tribes are stronger than a great micro gym.
There were a lot of people in our lives that helped us through the grueling 11 month aftermath, and they all deserve recognition for what they did.
But the first people I called when I knew I needed help were not the people I had known for years. They were the people I had known for months. And they rallied around me hard and fast.
There’s an unspoken bond that you have with someone when you share the moment that they push past their mental limits.
Because we pushed ourselves together on a daily basis through tough situations, we had a different sort of bond. And when I was in a tough situation, these were the people I knew would stand beside me and help me through it.
I grew up in a neighborhood that I refered to as ‘Brady Bunch Land.” We rode our bikes to the pool and stayed for hours. We hung out in the cul-de-sacs long after dark. Kids wandered from house to house, from backyard to backyard.
That doesn’t exist as much these days. But we still need a tribe. We still need a community. We still need people who will support us when times are tough.
Not all CrossFit gyms are created equal. And not everyone needs a CrossFit gym to find their tribe. But if you’re looking for a sense of community, if you’re looking for people that you can turn to without question and without fail, if you’re looking for a family, you can find it in a great microgym.
3. You don’t always recognize functional fitness until you need it.
I look back on both the fast action I took and sprint I made out of the house and the months after, and I see so many things translate straight out of the gym and into real life.
For example – here’s my husband Brandan carrying a bag of clothes from the moving truck into the house:
That looks just like a sandbag carry we would do at the gym.
This one still gives me a laugh, but the driveway at the rental house was incredibly narrow. I parked the truck in it, but I couldn’t open the doors once I did.
Instead, I climbed out the window, and lowered myself down to the ground.
A negative pull up. Something we use to build strength in the gym to get our first pull up.
The list goes on. But the next time you’re carrying your groceries in the house, recognize that we’re training those exact same movements in the gym every day.
Your life is so much easier when your body routinely moves in the way it was meant to move. And when the time comes that it HAS to move that way, you’re on autopilot. It already knows what to do.
“Honey, don’t get mad. I’m ok. The house is on fire.”
This is not a call you want to get. It came for me on June 4, 2014. At 4.a.m. I was 2,700 miles away in San Francisco. An hour earlier, Jessica had woken from a dead sleep to a smoke filled bedroom, a blaring fire alarm, and flames so bright she thought it was daylight. Get dressed. Grab the animals. Run like hell.
Constantly varied. High intensity. Functional movement.
Jessica and I started CrossFit together in October, 2013. It was intimidating. Exhausting. Crazy fun. We got in great shape. Fast. And we made good friends. Fast. So good, in fact, that women who were strangers 9 months prior were among the first to arrive and to help Jess get back on her feet before the fire was out. I’m grateful to these friends for looking after my family when I couldn’t. And I’m passionate about CrossFit in part because it brought these wonderful humans into our orbit.
The good news, if there is any, is that nobody died, we lost few of our posessions, and only lost half the house.
When I think about what it must have been like for Jess to react, endure, and ultimately survive this ordeal, I imagine panic. You often hear about fight and flight, but the third option is to panic and freeze. In the chaos, Jess acted rationally. Controlled action. Dress. Grab the animals. Run like hell. Her answer, when I asked how she managed getting out? CrossFit.
When you approach a WOD in the box, you anticipate a certain amount of suck. Mentally, you go where you have to to grind through to the end. Sometimes there’s a strategy. Sometimes you can’t think past the next rep. But you endure. So, in a way, it’s like practice for the hard things life throws at you. Like a house fire. Or the rebuilding process.
After the fire, life moved on. We found a temporary house that we’d call home for another 11 months. There were meetings with insurance agents, investigators, movers, city planners, architects, contractors. It was a full time job planning the restoration and working with the builders to stay on schedule and within budget. And through it all we still had real jobs.
This was a stressful time. Sleep was fitful. Emotions were had by all. I can’t think of a better way to get your mind right than finding something heavy to pick up and put down over and over. Thankfully, we know a place where that’s normal, and we’re part of a community that understands the value of it.
After we moved back in, we were amused to find that most of our clothes that were in storage no longer fit. It turns out we shed inches from our waists along with our frustrations and anxiety.
Four years on, things are more or less back to normal. We remain grateful to those who helped us get through the challenges.
A year and a half ago, we purchased the gym that’s been such an important part of our lives over the last five years. We’re passionate about our CrossFit family – past, present, and future – and if you need something heavy to pick up and put down over and over, a way to relieve your stress, or want to make sure you’re ready for whatever life throws your way: we’re here for you.