It’s rep No. 88 of 150 in Karen. You’re wincing, braced for the medicine ball to make its descent back into your waiting hands. You catch it, press it between the wall and your shoulder, your chest heaving, your legs shaking, your mind suddenly flooded with thoughts:

My lungs are on fire.

My shoulders can’t take this.

The ball is too heavy.

I don’t have 62 reps left in me.

I won’t be able to walk downstairs right for a week.

I wish I were home on the couch.

I want to stop.

Thing is, though, you can’t stop. Not in CrossFit. Your coaches won’t let you. Your fellow athletes won’t let you. But today, you’re about to let you. Maybe you had a miserable night’s sleep. Maybe it’s 104 degrees and muggy in the shade. Maybe you wolfed down pizza, burgers, and ice cream for lunch. Maybe you and your significant other had a bad fight. Maybe you’re new to this and you’re not totally sold on leaving it all on the floor in front of your peers. Whatever the reason, something’s rattling around inside your head that’s thisclose to making you quit. That rattle is powerful, but in order to pull your torso off that twenty pounder, your drive needs to be powerful-er. You need an override button.

There is one skill that is tested in every box, every day, all over the world, and that is the childhood-honed craft of counting. You’re counting reps, counting weight on the bar, counting down the seconds on the clock. CrossFit has a masterfully established distraction system; all one need do is buy in.

Everyone who’s done Fran, Elizabeth, Diane, or a similar fiendish couplet from hell knows that the second set, the fifteens, are the worst. You start out with your twenty-ones, you’re all adrenalized, ready to rip into the WoD like a hyena at a kittens-in-cardboard-boxes convention. Your nines are even all right, you can see the light at the end of the tunnel. But during your fifteens, you’re in the shit, and there’s no way out except by doing the work. Stopping for a breath will not make it hurt less. Thinking about how you’d rather have both eyeballs lanced with white hot pokers will not make you push faster. The suck is only over when it’s over, and the shortest distance from point A to point B is a straight line.

Easier said than done, right? Once you’re in the tunnel, the music that was pumping you up gets drowned out, your buddy’s encouragement offered between his own gasps for air go unheard, you can barely see your coach standing at your side, pushing you to get back at it. You’re alone in that tunnel; it’s up to you to hit the gas pedal and go. But how? Where’s the fuel reserve button?

Keep counting.

Before you start a WoD, there is a plan mapped out for you. Five reps of these, ten reps of those, fifteen reps of the other thing for twenty minutes. You’ve got a time domain and a task to accomplish, but no Rx format on the spaces between. No one tells you what should happen when you have to put your hands on your knees to catch your breath.

At the beginning of your WoD, have a plan of your own. “If I need a break, I’m going to count out three breaths and then put my hands back on the bar/ground/rings. If I need another break, I’m going to count out three more breaths and then put my hands back…” Be consistent. Same number of breaths every time. Maybe you even give yourself another data point by recording your breaks so you can see how much time you’re losing when you’re not doing the work. Leave no quarter for your pain sensors. Think top-level Games athletes don’t feel pain? Think again – they’re just mentally conditioned to ignore it or move around it. They make a decision and have a plan.

I tend to find that when I’m concentrating on making the rep count and then assigning a number to it, my thoughts on the WoD or my physical state don’t have room to make themselves known. When I stop, I think about drawing in as much oxygen as I can, and each breath then becomes a rep. That’s my job when I take a break. It’s not my job to wish it was the end. It’s not my job to think about how sore I’m going to be. It’s my job to breathe so I can reach the end. Great as our communities are, sometimes we do have to get there alone, and it’s a lot easier if you have a map.