An hour east of Nashville, at the junction of Interstate 40 and State Highway 111, the tiny town of Cookeville (population 35,000) attracts a weird amount of elite athletes. CrossFit heavyweights, including Dan Bailey, Mat Fraser, and Sara Sigmundsdottir, have settled in Tennessee’s Upper Cumberland region to train with Rich Froning, who was dubbed the “Fittest Man in History” after winning the Reebok CrossFit Games four consecutive times between 2011 and 2014.
But it’s not all barbells and box jumps in Froning’s charming, rural hometown. Between the tree-lined trails, caves, lakes, and waterfalls, there are plenty of reasons for outdoor enthusiasts to visit Cookeville, and that includes the food and beverage scene. The town might be small, but it clutches more than 100 restaurants, from mom-and-pop joints serving up farm-to-table fare to vegan comfort food to classic Tennessee barbecue drenched in sweet sauce. Oh, and the doughnuts are to die for.
Here is Froning’s favorite way to spend a day working out and eating.
First Stop: CrossFit Mayhem
Not surprisingly, Froning recommends starting at the gym he founded in 2009. It’s worth dropping in for a WOD—workout of the day—even if the owner hadn’t told you to.
The 18,000-square-foot state-of-the-art box brings in tourists from around the globe—1,200 this year alone. Fitness groupies come for selfies in front of Mayhem’s “M” logo and to sweat alongside Froning at his facility, which relocated to its current digs on, yes, Rich Froning Way in 2016. His CrossFit Games team of athletes frequently train at Mayhem.
Froning doesn’t drink caffeine, and he’s been experimenting with intermittent fasting since August, meaning he doesn’t eat breakfast. For average mortals who run on sustenance and not willpower alone, Froning recommends breakfast at Poet’s on the Square or Poet’s South. Both shops sell locally roasted java and a variety of egg sandwiches served on fresh, buttery croissants.
Next Stop: Cycle Phifer Mountain
After Froning’s morning gym workout, he hops on a Trek Émonda SLR 8 and dives into an endurance road ride that ascends 2,005 feet over a hilly, 22.8-mile course. To simulate Froning’s route, rent a bike at Caney Fork Cycles and head to Phifer Mountain Church, at the intersection of Phifer Mountain and Whittaker roads. Take Phifer Mountain Road north until you hit Cherry Creek Road, where you’ll turn left and coast south until you reach Whittaker Road, which loops you back to where you started.
Lunch: Seven Senses Food & Cheer
After 16 hours of abstinence, Froning breaks his fast at 1 p.m. with a few bites of syrup-covered waffles his wife just finished cooking for the couple’s young daughter. Then it’s off to Seven Senses for a proper meal: a steak and mushroom wrap with fried okra and a side salad.
Located in Cookeville’s historic West Side Cultural District, Seven Senses has been a local mainstay since 2015, when executive chef Chad Combs won the World Chef Challenge. He focuses on Southern comfort food and offers a full vegan menu and several gluten-free entrées. “Most everything’s pretty good,” says Froning, suggesting the shrimp tacos with chipotle ranch. You can’t go wrong with the bacon cheese grit puppies, either. Full disclosure: Froning’s mom waited tables at Seven Senses for years.
Afternoon Excursion: Cummins Falls State Park
You don’t become the world’s fittest man by sitting still. When he needs inspiration or variety, Froning says, “I go out and use my fitness.” Surrounded by 24 state parks and designated natural areas, Cookeville is ideally situated for outdoor adventuring.
More than 150 waterfalls have been documented within 40 miles of downtown. Towering 75 feet above the Blackburn Fork State Scenic River, Cummins Falls is Tennessee’s eighth largest waterfall in volume, and it’s Froning’s go-to spot for a three-mile round-trip hike with spectacular views. From the Cummins Falls trailhead, take Falls Overlook Trail to Blackburn Fork River Trail, and prepare for a rugged half-mile descent. Turn left at the river, and follow the water a few hundred yards to reach Cummins Falls. Yes, your feet will get wet.
Cummins Falls can get crowded. For solitude, explore one of Cookeville’s hidden gems: Waterloo Falls, Ozone Falls, or Lost Creek Falls State Park, where The Jungle Book was filmed.
Snack: Ralph’s Donut Shop
The rest of America might run on Dunkin’, but Rich Froning runs on Ralph’s, where he carbs up with a giant—and we mean giant—apple fritter. The first iteration of CrossFit Mayhem opened in the former Wilson Sporting Goods plant next door to Ralph’s. CrossFitters would end their WODs with a special “CrossFit doughnut,” a butter twist covered in maple glaze and topped with two slices of crispy bacon.
Dinner: Char Steak Lounge
CrossFitters are big on protein and meal prep. Froning currently subscribes to a precooked, grass-fed beef delivery service. At Char, Froning orders a 16-ounce rib-eye with sweet potato fries and a house salad. He says he’s not paleo, but his dinner begs to differ.
Widely recognized as Cookeville’s top steakhouse, Char has gained notoriety for its smoked chicken wings and rattlesnake pasta, which has some serious bite. The steakhouse is also a popular watering hole and entertainment venue, with two outdoor patios and live local music every Friday from 9 p.m. until 1 a.m.
You’ve Earned a Nightcap
Froning doesn’t drink alcohol. “I couldn’t train at this level if I did,” he says. While he might unwind with a late-night workout, we won’t judge you if your idea of relaxation includes booze, especially if you managed to keep up with the fittest man on earth for a day. Head over to Red Silo, the local brewing company credited with bringing craft beer to Cookeville.