Every three seconds, Kara Saunders (neé Kara Webb) checks her watch. We’re running sprints on a grass track near the CrossFit gym she recently opened in Brisbane, and she keeps blowing past the pace her coach set for her. “I need to slow down,” she says after we finish our third 200, “but I get bored.” As we walk back to the starting line and recover, she continues, “There’s only three ways you should finish a workout: failing, almost failing, or feeling terrible.”
That scorched-earth mindset has propelled Saunders to six appearances at the CrossFit Games, including a second-place finish in 2017. But the 28-year-old isn’t satisfied with runner-up, of course, which is why she’s out here, running at a speed that’s brisk but apparently not exciting. Learning what a sustainable pace feels like—and forcing herself to stick to it—is just one of many mental shifts that may make Saunders the “Fittest Woman on Earth.”
To get there, she needs only the slightest of edges. At last year’s CrossFit Games, she battled neck-and-neck with fellow Australian Tia-Clair Toomey for three days. In the thirteenth and final event—a series of rope climbs, ski-erging, and overhead squats—Saunders ceded victory Toomey by two-tenths of a second. The final score: 994 points to 992.
Since then, Saunders has switched to Brute Strength Training and Skypes with her head coach every day. Three weeks ago, he started her on the pacing program and has been peppering in other mental tests, like a 20-minute Assault Bike session with the clock covered. “I finished slower than if I’d been able to see the clock,” she says, after we run the last 600-meter and start walking to her car. “I know I can push myself, but I need to learn how to be uncomfortable and stay there without the mini goals—the five-, 10-, 15-minute mark.”
Saunders and I drive back to CrossFit Kova, where she tells me the next part of her workout: three sets of heavy back squats. I opt to join her, so I start doing a few air squats, and then grab a barbell for to warmup. Meanwhile, Saunders already has 300 lbs on the bar. It’s been no more than three minutes.
“Are you already at your working weight?” I ask.
She smiles and nods. “I’m kinda known for that.”
(Even when the workout isn’t for time, Saunders gets creative about pacing.)
Between her squats, Saunders does a dozen GHD situps, a fundamental part of her pre-hab. As a toddler, Saunders started walking earlier than normal. She also swam butterfly as a kid. Both exacerbated a congenital defect in her back that went undetected until 2015. Leading up to Regionals that year, Saunders knew her back hurt and avoided hyperextending it. At the competition, she had to do 100 GHD situps—an extreme form of hyperextension—but her back problem never had a chance to rear its head. Instead, her abs overcompensated, and by the 20th rep, she felt them start to tighten. By number 100, she knew she had rhabdo. She skipped a visit to the hospital—”it was a mild case,” she insists—and now does GHDs twice a week. She hasn’t had a rhabdo problem since.
Her back, though, remained problematic. After Regionals, she discovered that she’d broken her L4-L5 vertebrae on both sides. To keep competing meant risking permanent damage.
Based on how Saunders handled her rhabdo, I assumed she’d just plow past the roadblock. But then she reminds me of the 2014 CrossFit Games, when she was in first place after ten events but withdrew because of a compressed nerve in her neck. “That’s why I decided to compete with a broken back,” she tells me from the GHD machine. “Because I knew I could stop if I had to.”
Until then: More pre-hab.
Her final workout of the day is 30 dumbbell clean-and-jerks as fast as possible. She uses 110 pounds, slightly over the prescribed weight of 66% of her body weight.
“It doesn’t say squat clean and jerk, so I probably don’t have to squat, eh?” she muses to her husband, business partner, and the reigning fittest firefighter in Australia, Matt Saunders. He nods.
Her final workout of the day is 30 dumbbell clean-and-jerks as fast as possible. She uses 110 pounds, slightly over the prescribed weight of 66% of her body weight. “It doesn’t say squat clean and jerk, so I probably don’t have to squat, eh?” she asks her husband, business partner, and the reigning fittest firefighter in Australia, He nods.
“Good,” she says. “That’s what makes me sick to the stomach.”
She does the 30 in four sets: the first is 11 reps (“I don’t like ending on an even number”), then 6 (“or the number 5”), then 6, then 7. She finishes in 3:30.
To cool down, Saunders does a 30-minute EMOM that cycles through six movements. As with her sprints, this is more about maintaining a steady speed than pushing into the Pain Cave, and if she has any extra time in the minute, she’s supposed to row at a 2:00 pace. By the final round of the EMOM, she’s worked non-stop for 29 minutes, in addition to running almost three miles, squatting until failure, completing a heavier and more awkward version of Grace, and doing her pre-hab—and this is a “light day.”
I look over at the screen on her rower. She’s going at a 1:51 pace.
This is what Kara Saunders knows best: pushing a workout until she fails, almost fails, or feels terrible. That work ethic has gotten her onto the podium at the CrossFit Games. But if she wants to become the Fittest on Earth, she may need to slow down a bit.