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2023-24 Offseason World Tour Memoirs: Picsil Pamplona Arena Games

February 8, 202424 min read

Image Credit: Picsil

Pamplona, Spain

The final stop (stop 20!!!) of the “2023-24 B.Friendly Fitness Offseason World Tour” brings us back to Europe in what was a late add to the tour. We were in Spain back in September for the Madrid Championships and have returned in February for a much less well known competition, but one that shows promise and has taken some big strides forward in their second year, the Picsil Pamplona Arena Games.

Competition Composition

The 20 person elite individual divisions are a new addition to this competition in 2024, and while that’s where our focus in terms of coverage is, there are also about 1100 athletes competing in teams of 4 divisions (Rx, Intermediate, and Scaled) in their own three day competitions. Picsil partnered with the existing competition this year and helped elevate it to new heights in its second year. 

The elite divisions featured a mix of online qualifiers (10 each) and invited athletes (10 each) with the direct intent of giving some of the best athletes in Spain a chance to compete against Semifinal, and even CrossFit Games, caliber athletes from not just Spain, but all over Europe. In total there were nine European countries represented between the elite men’s and women’s fields including four CrossFit Games individual athletes (2 each on the men’s and women’s side), as well as three time CrossFit Games team podium finisher Ingrid Hodnemyr out of Norway. 

Running with the Bulls

If you haven’t seen the first event from this competition yet, it might be worth checking it out I ran it prior to the athletes to give you a full picture of the event, and then covered each heat on Instagram as well, picking up the athletes after the initial run buy in. Most of the athletes I spoke to said this event on its own is amongst the coolest, if not the best, singular event they’ve done in their careers. 

Not only did they get to run the streets of Pamplona where there running of the bulls takes place each year, the event culminated in the plaza in the center of the town where locals gathered and surrounded the athletes for a series of 5 Atlas stones to shoulder. This particular region of Spain is well known for a specific sport here which includes shouldering stones of different shapes and sizes; so in one event the organizers were able to integrate two culturally significant elements of the region of Spain which was hosting the competition. 

Navarra Arena

The remainder of the competition took place inside the Navarra Arena on the south side of the city of Pamplona. I have written about it before in these memoirs, but location and logistics when planning competitions are critical; especially when hosting a thousand or more athletes, but also when expecting people to travel long distances or from different countries to come participate. 

In this case the invited athletes were all staying in a hotel that was within 10 minutes walking of the arena, and the hotel arrangements included both breakfast and dinner for the athletes; two very nice things that reduce cost and increase the feeling of being well hosted at a foreign competition. 

The arena itself is equipped for many different types of events from concerts, to a wide variety of sporting events, and everything in between. It has all the amenities needed already built in, meaning cost to build bleachers, bring in internet, bathrooms, etc, is all mitigated and simply a part of whatever arrangements are made for using the building. Even if the cost is somewhat negligible, it greatly reduces the stress of trying to coordinate the logistics of a build. 

Heats of 20

In the continued interest of providing the near top Spanish athletes a chance to compete against the likes of Karin Frey, Fabi Beneito, Uldis Upenieks, Elena Carratala, and Ingrid Hodnemyr, all of the elite events inside the arena were one heat of action; and in most cases I thought this was great. 

The best example is probably from the 30 ring muscle ups workout where the youngest male athlete in the field, Arnau Sabate, posted a time of 2:03 (for reference Mat Fraser did this in 2:00 at the 2018 CrossFit Games, Sabate’s time would have been 6th that year), and beat the entire field, a moment he will likely never forget. 

Isabel and the 1 RM Snatch

On Saturday night, however, I am not sure that having all 20 athletes on the floor at once was the best idea. The stadium was packed to the brim that night, including the upper deck, and standing room only from the Vendor area which was overlooking the competition floor. 

In principal, Isabel, like 30 ring muscle ups, is a workout where you could get a surprise victor, and in fact it did happen as the last entrant into the field, Lola Guillen (also from Spain who claimed a backfill spot in the final week) did exactly as Sabate had and won the event. The problem was, that because there were no short bars the athletes could not all snatch in the same location so there needed to be a stagger. And then because of the upcoming one rep max snatch, there were plates and scorecards all over the floor as well. In the end, 10 of the athletes snatched in a back row a couple meters in front of the rig taking a step forward every 10 reps, while the other 10 were 15 meters in front of them doing the same thing. It was somewhat exciting, and there were close races, but visually it was simply too much to ask anyone to take in everything that was going on and even realize that Guillen was winning. Karin Frey took second and not at a single moment did she know Guillen was ahead of here because there was no way too, unfortunately, that was also true for many of us in attendance. 

Isabel yielded to a two minute rest and then a five minute window for a one rep max snatch. With 20 athletes scattered across the floor, all lifting at the same time, in a condensed window with no other parameters about how often or when to lift, it was just chaos. Emcees and myself tried to position ourselves as best as we possibly could, with Jo Ciastula even climbing up into the stands… and yet in the end none of us saw the winner on the men’s side, Chris Nilsen, snatch the 127 kgs needed to win the event. 

While I really did enjoy the idea of having the chance for the qualifying athletes to compete against the invited athletes for a majority of the events, in that instance, I don’t think it was the right call. We basically missed the winner of the women’s Isabel and men’s max snatch due to that decision. Did it take away from the weekend as a whole? Hardly at all. Is it something worth considering when planning competitions? Absolutely. 

Small, Late, Key Changes

Competition organizers, directors, programmers, judges, and scoring leads often spend weeks to months (in some cases years), planning these competitions. So I am sure it can be quite frustrating at times when someone like me shows up the week, or day, of and offers input about certain things. However, this is one of the most key principles I have come across in this sport, but also in my own life. When a person is so close to something (in this case the planning of a competition) for so long, sometimes perspective is lost. Balancing the closeness of that perspective with the expertise of an outside perspective has shown to be a winning solution. 

I call this competition consulting, and it is something that dozens of competition organizers have expressed gratitude for across the world over the last 6 years that I’ve been doing this. And every time, I am impressed by them. It reminds me of a greater principal in the community of CrossFit ‘check your ego at the door’ (because we are all about to get humbled by the workout of the day anyway). 

Being able to recognize that in coming to the competition you have spent so much time, energy, and passion planning for and putting together, I want the same thing as you- for it to be as good as possible, isn’t always easy to do. 

In the case of Isabel and the 1 rep max snatch, I expressed my concerns, and I believe they realized it was potentially valid, but there was no way to make the change that late. Two other small examples were able to happen though. 

Floor Decals

First, the decals on the floor are something that I have become increasingly aware of through conversations with athletes. They affect the playing surface and can create inconsistencies lane to lane. Now, sponsors pay for those and certainly the capacity to collect sponsorship money is very important, and the visibility for sponsors is too. But the material used, and the ability for it to endure the weekend matter. Also what is programmed matters. 

Before the handstand walking over obstacles event I walked the floor and saw that in one lane the decals had been shredded a bit due to the wear and tear of the weekend creating an inconsistency in a middle lane. The team responded quickly, cutting those raised pieces away and smoothing it out as much as possible right before the athletes took the floor. 

Variable Time Caps

Originally 30 ring muscle ups had a 4:00 time cap for both men and women. In doing research for this competition I pulled the data from the 2018 Games which featured the same event. Granted it was several years ago, but the caliber of the Games field from 2018 is better than this field in 2024 anyway, so I would consider it quite relevant. Back then all but one man finished under 4:00, but only about half of the women did; so I suggested an increase of 1:00 to the time cap on the women’s side. 

At that point in the competition there were 18 women left competing. Six of them finished inside the four minute cap, and another five finished in the next minute. Five more finishers, five less opportunities for ties, five more moments for the fans to cheer, a win all the way around. 

Close Calls and Big Consequences

For the second time in three weeks on the tour one of the elite divisions ended a three day competition with a tie. There are more nuances than can reasonably be explained in writing about how this keeps happening, but the big picture principle is that the margins at the top of this sport are small and therefore the details in planning for the pro divisions in particular matter as much as ever. 

The closeness of this particular competition was highlighted and amplified as much as any I’ve ever seen, yes, ever seen, because of the way it ended on the men’s side. 

Heading into the final Aniol Ekai held a one point lead over Uldis Upenieks in a points per placement (1 point for 1st, 2 for second, etc) scoring system (which I would basically never advise using by the way). 

If Uldis beat Aniol by exactly one spot in any finishing position they would be tied on points and Uldis would have the tiebreaker (1st-1st-2nd-2nd as compared to Aniol’s 1st-1st-2nd-3rd). It was a true winner take all scenario between these two men. 

The back and forth battle across the 180 reps which were in the final event are worth going back and watching. They exchanged the lead a few times and then crossed the finish line less than a second apart from each other; drawing every nuance of the briefing and finishing scenarios into question instantly, not to mention the 50% difference in prize money between first and second places. 

Realizing what had just happened and the implications of it, judges and competition directors immediately began consulting each other about what the actual result was. No chip timers, no buzzers to slap, just stop watches, eyes, and the video from the livestream which was obstructed by a judge. 

Consistency

Throughout the rest of the weekend, I believe this would have just been called a tie. However, in the interest of attempting to get it right, additional evidence and videos were sought and one angle showed Upenieks foot touching the red mat (which was briefed as the conclusion of the event) prior to Ekai’s by an immeasurably small amount of time. 

So did they get it right?

Honestly, it’s the first time (in at least a long time) that I can remember not being sure. Having slept on it now for several days I would say the same thing now that I said then: if you’re measuring by seconds and allowing for ties as you have been all competition then I’d say it’s a tie and Aniol ends up as the winner of the competition by one point. If you are now deciding to seek information from external circumstances and deciding that even though it was by much less than a second it is enough to award Uldis a full second advantage over Ekai then he wins on the tiebreak. 

There are dozens and dozens of small details that may or not may not have been right or wrong throughout the weekend. Each of the athletes made mistakes, got good breaks, got bad calls, an the list goes on. That is the sport we have signed up for, and while solutions to those “problems” are being sought all the time, there has never been a perfectly executed CrossFit competition… and yet we still show up to compete, watch, evaluate, and enjoy. 

Uldis and Aniol are both phenomenal athletes. They have also both been around for some time now. Amidst all these conversation on Sunday night on the floor inside the Navarra Arena someone said ‘if you are around long enough some things will go your way and others won’t.’ And I could not agree more. These athletes train and prepare and try to account for everything to put themselves on the right side of those small margins, but so do their competitors, and someone has to win, while another has to lose. 

Most importantly to me in this case was seeing the respect the two men had for each other. Aniol did not have to go up to Uldis after the awards ceremony and tell him that it was great to compete against him and that he earned it. Uldis did not have to say that Aniol has improved substantially and is a legitimate contender in Europe now. But as we’ve seen throughout this sport, while the tension is high and the desire to win is palpable between the buzzers, the respect for the dedication and sacrifice needed to be there in the first place is also understood. This is just the latest chapter in a history of these gladiators of the sport battling to the bitter end and then paying their respects as they head home to prepare for the next one. 

Karin Frey

While all the drama was on the men’s side, Karin Frey was taking care of business with the professionalism of a silent assassin. Four first place finishes, two seconds, and two thirds, en route to a commanding and convincing win over the rest of the field. She has now won the 2023 French Throwdown, 2023 Madrid Championship, 2023 Dubai Fitness Championship, and 2024 Picsil Pamplona Arena Games. She has been dominant on the European circuit. 

She also matched her career best at the CrossFit Games last August where she finished 14th (she was 14th online in 2020 as well, meaning in reality this was clearly her best ever finish). She had a sub par performance taking 17th at Rogue where she was competing sick. 

She has made a coaching change this offseason and to this point seems to be experiencing not just success in terms of results, but in the way she’s executing on the floor with the guidance of Facundo and CrossFit Mayhem. 

I have been watching Frey compete live since 2019 and can see noticeable improvements in the gymnastics realm, which has historically been difficult for her relative to her weightlifting and conditioning. Additionally she seems to be competing with an increased confidence and poise. If she continues on this trajectory it seems that she should be in the conversation for an even better placement at the Games in 2024… although, as we will highlight throughout the year, the top of the women’s field globally is extremely competitive and once again some very fit and talented women will be on the outside of the top ten looking in. 

Next Adventures

With 20 stops down, this offseason is officially at an end for me. The Open is quickly approaching, and with it comes the start of a new season. And for me, and us at BFriendly, that season consists of much much more than four stages spread out over six months. We will be on the road covering dozens of competitions from around the world. Thank you for everything this year, we look forward to continuing to share the wonders of the worldwide competition and fitness community with you. 

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Brian Friend

Brian stumbled upon CrossFit in the Fall of 2013. He has been a writer, data analyst, content creator, commentator, and broadcast coordinator. He's worked at a majority of the largest CrossFit competitions over the last three seasons, is a regular guest on the Sevan Podcast, and has been amongst the leading sports analysts in the sport in recent years. He has a passion for advancing the sport of CrossFit, and spreading the CrossFit methodology, by living it out in both his personal and professional life.

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