Pat Vellner, 2018 Second Fittest Man on Earth, has competed in the top level of the sport since 2015. With three consecutive CrossFit Games podium finishes, the 30-year-old finished his 2020 competitive season after Stage 1 of the CrossFit Games.
CrossFit, forced to scale down the 2020 Games due to the pandemic, resolved to only let 30 men and 30 women compete virtually for a chance to qualify to the finals. Only 10 athletes, to top 5 men and 5 women, would progress to the in-person finals in Aromas, California.
Competing alone in Nanaimo, Canada, Vellner finished 9th after the online stage, 15 points away from fifth place.
Vellner went into the 2020 Games following an impressive season, where he won the CrossFit Open, finished second in the Dubai CrossFit Championship and then won both Wodapalooza and the Rogue Invitational.
We had a chance to speak to him following his performance in Stage 1 of the CrossFit Games. During the first part of our conversation we discussed the realities of competing online as an Elite athlete, form the differences between virtual and live competition to the details that proceed and followed every event.
You can read all about it below.
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It’s been a long year! Obviously not the way I wanted my weekend to go, but I’m proud of my effort and amazed by all the athletes who competed this weekend. Huge congrats to everyone advancing to the #FinalFive . It’s exciting to see some new blood pushing at the top on the men’s side! I’m so grateful for all of the support both locally and all over the world. Thanks to the @crossfitgames for giving us a chance to compete in yet another unique competition format. For now i need a lot of rest, a lot of food, and a lot of friends and family time. ✌🏼 📷 @trainingdaymedia @tamanephotography #crossfitgames #crossfit #alldone #reebok #reebokcanada #foodspring #romwod #tydaxfit #championsandlegends
We have split our interview into two parts. Part two covers Vellner’s competitive season, reflections on his performance and his thoughts about the future of CrossFit. The interview below has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
Hey Pat, how are you feeling? Fully recovered from the Games now?
Yes, I was having an issue with one of my legs going in and I definitely didn’t make it any better competing. I’ve got a groin that’s now not in great shape, but it doesn’t matter if I don’t have anything else to do, so I can just rest up.
What was Stage 1 like, did it feel like the CrossFit Games to you?
It was different. Personally, not really.
I know a lot of athletes made a pretty big effort of trying to make it feel like a competition as much as they could. A lot of people got together and tried to compete with other athletes or created some sort of a stadium or things like that, and tried to simulate more of the Games feel, and we just weren’t able to do that here.
So I don’t know. It felt different. Same as Rogue; it’s tough, not to motivate yourself or to push, but it’s tough to simulate that same competition feel. That is something that misses anytime you do an online format. So I was I missed that a little bit for sure.
What exactly did you miss; the crowds, the people, the music?
It’s funny, I don’t care as much about the crowds of people and things. I like having the athletes around and I like being able to, in between events, be with the athletes and have that immersive experience, talk to people.
That’s one of the funnest parts of competing; it’s the banter you have with the athletes and that environment in warm up areas and cool down areas and on the competition floor, physically being able to race somebody.
There’s a lot of skill that goes into that, how you navigate those factors – so it was a totally different style of competition that eliminated that stuff. It tested different elements, it was a different added aspect to the test, so you lost some things but you gained some things.
I know personally that’s why I like to compete: I like to go somewhere. I like to see the athletes. I like to be on the floor with people and push against them.
Having lost that for Rogue and now the Games – and then the Open will be the next competition we do – it’ll be three in a row having no physical competitors. That kind of hurts me a little bit. I really like that part.
What about the “hidden” leaderboard? You go into every workout and you give it your all and then you don’t really know how you performed. And to start with you’re only looking at your own performance and maybe thinking ‘I’m really pleased with that,’ or not. And then you actually see how it compares to others – does your perception of how you performed change?
I would say probably for most people the answer is yes, and it depends. I found the beginning with the blocks challenging.
[Stage 1 of the CrossFit Games was built into blocks, where athletes had four three-hour windows to perform a pair of workouts per block]
I like to follow the points and see where things are and understand where I stand. I view a competition as a big whole game.
That’s part of how I approach it, but not being able to know things on such a time delay – and I didn’t have that much of a delay, once my block ended, everything was out, but I had the delay from the workout before – it’s hard, and some people do better than others.
Normally, I really like live competition because I get charged up and I like to know where people are, who I need to stay ahead of and see the physical race taking shape in the overall standings.
Whereas some people, I think that can really stress them out. But it’s hard to really ignore it, and sometimes it can play in their head a little bit. Whereas in a system like this, you have no choice but to ignore it.
It maybe allows people to stay more focused on what their performance is.
I know personally, I could do something where I thought ‘hey I put a really good effort in and I’m happy with that,’ and then you see that was still only a 20th place effort. It sort of takes away that feeling a little bit, where you’re like ‘oh, well, now that’s not so good’ or ‘maybe I need to be better at that.’
You have to take that with you when you finish the competition and then start working on that stuff.
Different people respond to that environment differently. That’s why in live competition you see some people who can really regularly rise up to the occasion and do great things, when there’s that energy. And some people really seem to underperform when they compete on a live stage because some of those pressure situations get to them a little bit.
So there’s a different pressure, applied differently. And depending on where you live, maybe you felt it differently than others.
It was kind of interesting.
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You mentioned the competition blocks; what did you actually do in between them?
Mostly I went home, even between events, because the blocks were three hours long and you had two events per block, and nothing was really long. The first day every workout was four minutes long or less.
You want to maximize your rest in between events. So I did this – and I’m sure most athletes did the same – where you try to compete pretty early in the window on your first event and then save the second one until the very end of the window. So you end up with a two hour block in between events within the same block.
And then you end up with your three-hour rest in between blocks, and then another two-hour rest between workouts in the second block.
It was quite long days, actually. You’d warm up, do your event and then try to go and settle your system down and rest up, recover for whatever you have next, come back, warm up, do it again. You were in a constant up and down.
I don’t live very far from the gym where I competed, so I was able to go home and sit down and watch a show or have some food or do whatever I wanted to do to relax for a little bit and then be able to come back with plenty of time to get everything done.
It sounds like another part of the competition that you have to strategize for.
It’s interesting when you have some freedom over it. In live competition you show up and you compete whenever they say to and then you leave.
I haven’t talked to a lot of athletes about how they manage that, but if I had to guess, I’d say most people are trying to maximize the rest. And it depends a little bit between what the events are, some things are a little bit less taxing than others and you might be ready or willing to do the next one earlier.
But it was cool to have a little bit of control over that kind of thing. You just got to say go whenever you wanted. So you’d be warming up and ready, and everybody would be looking at each other like, ‘Are you okay? Are you ready?’ And you’d be like, ‘I guess. OK, three, two, one, go.’ And then you just go, there was no strict timeline. It was kind of fun.
That must have been weird. I know from my experience, right before a competition starts you get this realisation about what you’re about to do, like an ‘it’s actually happening’ and then you start and you’re hyped. It must have been strange to get to go whenever you chose to.
Yeah, there were a couple of times where it felt almost anticlimactic.
We were like, ‘All right, so… we’re going to go,’ ‘OK,’ ‘Go.’
It’s funny – like you’re saying, it’s rare that you have that amount of control over your environment going into a competition. It was an unparalleled level of control that I’m not used to, and that was interesting.
And talking about the workouts themselves, which one did you enjoy the most?
I think Nancy was really good. It had running, overhead squats and burpees – it was a good workout.
I don’t do a lot of benchmark-type CrossFit anymore, so it was a good reality check and a good kick in the teeth on a couple of workouts. The Fran workout was a good, hard way to start the competition.
Most competitions I’ve done in the last couple of years, we don’t really start with something high speed, high power like that. Fast, dramatic, high-energy workouts are usually done at the end.
But taking away the spectator experience, which was irrelevant for this stage of competition, they could shuffle things up however they wanted.
It was hard, everybody at 9am had to shoot out of the cannon and go max effort and blackout speed. We don’t do that very often to start a competition, so that was something that was new and cool.
Part two of this interview, where we delve into Vellner’s reflections on his season and his thoughts on the future of CrossFit, is coming soon.