Correction: An earlier version of this story omitted the number of athletes signed up for the CrossFit Open last year. Registration soared into six figures. This version has been corrected.

At the kickoff for the Open at CrossFit Balance in downtown Washington, there was a DJ to pump up the participants. (Kori Kamradt)

Just a few years ago, Todd Newell was 130 pounds heavier and unable to run 100 meters. The idea of participating in a competition for “The Fittest on Earth” back then?

“I would have ridiculed it,” says Newell, 39, of Catonsville, Md.

So it’s pretty remarkable that earlier this month, that is exactly what he was up to. I met Newell, who now trains at CrossFit BWI, just as he’d completed the workout that’s the first hurdle in securing a spot at the 2014 CrossFit Games. If you’re unfamiliar with that televised spectacle, it’s essentially the Olympics of exercise, with athletes testing their dominance in a series of surprise (and often borderline sadistic) events; last year’s challenges required endless reps of handstand push-ups, legless rope climbs and weighted one-legged squats.

Don’t expect to see Newell attempting those moves on ESPN this summer. His score for the workout put him in about 94,000th place worldwide (or, more precisely, in a tie at about 94,000th place). That won’t be nearly enough to qualify for Mid-Atlantic regionals, let alone the Games. But he’s perfectly content where he is. “Having [contestants at] all of these levels of fitness together is encouraging my own road to fitness,” he says.

Newell’s attitude is representative of what the CrossFit Open has become — a competition that’s more about achieving experience than victory. The five-week-long showdown, which was launched in 2011 to winnow the field of competitors for the Games, is open to anyone who pays the $20 registration fee. A new workout is posted each Thursday night, and participants have the weekend to get it done under the supervision of a certified judge. (Anyone aiming for regionals has to have it videotaped as well.)

In 2011, just 26,000 athletes signed up worldwide. In 2012, it was 55,000. Last year, registration soared into six figures. And this year, there are some 200,000 folks involved.

The rising numbers have given CrossFit affiliates, known as “boxes,” more of a reason to celebrate. That’s why a DJ blasted tunes on Feb. 28 for the Open kickoff at CrossFit Balance in downtown Washington, which has more than 75 athletes participating this year. Before the first heat got down to business, there was a New Year’s Eve-style countdown, which ended with a whole lot of screaming and clapping. And then came the exercises.

For the debut workout of the 2014 Open, competitors had 10 minutes to complete as many rounds as possible of this two-move combo: 30 double unders (getting a jump rope under your feet twice in a single hop) and 15 power snatches (with a 75-pound barbell for men and a 55-pound one for women).

Jessie Albert, 27, battled the butterflies in her stomach. Every time she shows up at CrossFit Balance, there’s a tough workout to complete. But there normally isn’t a judge standing a few feet away, studying each movement. Even more pressure: Scores are posted on for the world to see.

There was no reason to be nervous. Albert turned in a solid performance that brought her closer to her goal “to do better than last year.” But her work for the night wasn’t quite finished — she needed to stick around to support her gym buddies as they took on their double unders and lifts.

“More people are cheering on than doing the workout,” noted Albert, who marvels at how inclusive CrossFit is. “You could show up anywhere and do this workout — the same workout as the fittest women in the world.”

It was also the same workout that athletes tackled a couple miles away at CrossFit Foggy Bottom later that night. The smaller box didn’t have a DJ on hand, but there was a buzz in the room as coach Jim Bathurst huddled with a dozen competitors.

“Is anyone shooting for regionals?” he asked. The response: laughter. “I don’t want to assume,” he said, before launching into some form pointers. At the top of the lift, your arms need to be locked out and next to your ears, he explained. And at the bottom, you’re not allowed to “bounce the weight like a basketball.”

These guidelines aren’t just suggestions. They’re rules. It’s part of the reason why the Open gives athletes a push, says Steve Dolge, owner of Second Wind CrossFit in Brightwood. Normally, if the workout of the day calls for something that seems like too much of a reach, the move is simply modified. During the Open, that’s not an option.

“You have to do the workouts as prescribed. If it’s supposed to be a muscle-up, then a pull-up won’t count,” Dolge says. (A muscle-up is a pull-up plus a dip performed on a pair of rings.) “You have no choice but to use a particular weight, or do something a particular way. If you’re going to set a personal record, it will happen then.”

The difficulty of the workouts forces athletes to develop strategies to save energy and pace themselves, Bathurst added.

Before arriving that night at CrossFit Foggy Bottom, Adam Knight, 36, had watched the official workout video online and searched for blogs with potential approaches. There were several doubts swimming through his head: “Is this a sprint or a marathon? Can I do this?”

For Knight, the answer to the second question was yes. But that’s not always the case.

Just ask Kylie Taylor, 35, who showed up the next morning at CrossFit Syndicate in Columbia, Md. That box has teamed up with CrossFit BWI and CrossFit Annapolis — which all share an owner — to combine their weekly workouts and give the process more of a CrossFit Games-type atmosphere.

In her heat, Taylor spent every second of those 10 minutes jumping, lifting and repeating. But she never managed to pull off a double under. “So I did all that and got a zero — no score to show for it,” said Taylor, of Elkridge, Md.

That’s not to say she got nothing out of it. “I’m doing the Open for exactly what you see here. It’s a community, and a very healthy competition,” Taylor explained. She’s committed to trying as hard as she can and seeing where that gets her.

Two years ago, an Open workout demanded 75-pound snatches. Taylor had never done one with such a heavy weight. But that day, she did it 30 times. So a single disappointment can’t spoil her enthusiasm for what’s to come. “It feels good to have one thing I can’t do out of the way,” she said.

And Taylor couldn’t have been more thrilled for her friend Matt Johnson, 38, who had also come into the Open without having mastered double unders. After hitting the gym and focusing on every tip he had heard, he finally managed to pull off the move the day before.

“What if yesterday was a fluke?” he had worried. It wasn’t. He finished that first round, and then went for it again until the clock ran out.

As those final seconds ticked down during each heat, the energy level spiked. Furious yells of “You got this,” “Pick up that bar,” and “Keep going,” blended together into a symphony of support, which typically concluded with a round of high fives and then a collapse to the ground.

“That’s our official recovery position,” joked Kristen Parker, an assistant coach at CrossFit Annapolis, pointing to the panting bodies all over the floor.

No matter who you are or how fit you are, this stuff is hard work, added coach Christa Giordano, 32, who’s part of that tiny percentage of athletes actually striving to make it to regionals. She has qualified the past four years, but there’s no guarantee she’ll get there again.

“Every year gets bigger, better and stronger,” Giordano said.

By the end of that first round, however, she had already won something: a bet with Todd Newell. He had lost all that weight and made incredible athletic progress, but he still wasn’t sure he was ready for the Open.

The way she persuaded him to sign up on the last possible day? Cash. Giordano promised to reimburse Newell’s $20 if he didn’t take away anything positive from the competition.

His smile after that first workout proved that her money is safe — and that maybe in a few more years, he’ll be gunning for regionals, too.

@postmisfits on Twitter

Hallett edits the Fit section of Express.

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