We are staggering up the side of a mountain at 8,000 feet elevation.
My lungs aren’t working right. Something is broken inside. Every breath feels like I’m making it through a straw. I don’t know it yet but I already have the beginnings of elevation sickness. I’m supposed to be climbing but I can barely make a step forward. I manage to pick my foot up and put it six inches in front of me. That effort feels significant. I deserve to rest. But I can’t rest. I can’t stop. There are bodies to the left of me and bodies to the right, arms and torsos littering the trail. If I stop I know I will join them. It would be easier to walk if I wasn’t holding a massive sandbag across my shoulders but that’s part of the obstacle. I keep leaning forward. It’s the only choice. Leaning backward when I’m this top heavy and unsteady would be disastrous. I force myself to continue up the hill.
After what seems like at least an hour of creeping, torturously, up the slope, I make it to the top and turn around, trying to stop myself from running all the way back down. Unchecked speed with almost 190 pounds of me plus who knows how many pounds of sand.… I truly could kill someone. I weave crazily back down to the starting point for the sandbag carry and drop my load.
“Good job, man,” a cheery volunteer offers while directing traffic. “Keep it up!”
Easy for him to say. As I finish the obstacle I look over at my friend Tony who has just unloaded his sandbag.
“How’s it going?” he asks, working hard to get the words out of his lungs. He reaches his knuckles out to me.
“Doing… great,” I wheeze, pounding his fist. “You?”
“Awesome,” he says. “Ready to go?”
We start back up the same hill we just finished climbing, this time without sandbags. We move 10% faster. Barely. The best part? We’re only on mile 3 with another 10 miles and 25 obstacles ahead of us. Aroooo.
I Have Given a Name To My Pain
This is the 2018 Spartan Beast at Snow Summit in Big Bear, CA. Last year was the first Spartan Race at the Southern California ski resort. It was one of the toughest in Spartan history. The 2018 version is even more difficult. The designer of the race, Trailmaster Steve Hammond, called this year’s challenge “The Soul Crusher.”
“This is the hardest race I’ve ever done,” a girl behind me says. Her name is Melanie and she and her two friends have traveled from Germany to pit themselves against the Beast.
“So it’s not… just me?” I ask, trying to sound like I’m not dying.
“Nope,” she says, taking a swig from her Camelbak. “I’ve done 29 Spartan Races and this one is the worst. Have fun!”
She gives me a thumbs up and accelerates past me. I watch her tight booty shorts and the two shirtless guys with abs like Hercules jogging up the hill until they disappear. Tony nods at me, letting me know it’s time to keep moving. He’s right. We don’t know it yet but we still have 6 hours more work ahead of us.
I grit my teeth, force my burning quadricep to lift upwards, and step another foot closer to my goal.
In the last six years I’ve done two Tough Mudders, a Warrior Dash and now three levels of Spartan Race. All told, I’ve spent close to a thousand dollars for the privilege of suffering. And it hasn’t just been mental. I’ve had cracked ribs. Shredded knees. Torn shoulder muscles. Ripped calluses. Electrical shocks. 2nd degree rope burns. Plus a smorgasbord of assorted cuts, bruises, scrapes, sprains and strains. I’ve run through a hailstorm. I’ve voluntarily jumped into a tanker truck of ice cubes. I did a flip off a twenty-foot platform into a muddy pool. I’ve belly crawled across a football field covered in barbed wire. I’ve slogged through miles and miles of cold, wet, dirty, rocky wasteland.
Am I crazy?
Well, maybe. I rarely talk about it but several years ago I was clinically depressed. I took a bunch of different drugs, went to hundreds of therapy sessions and even spend a few days thinking about taking a nice warm bath with some razor blades. But that’s a different story and is only tangentially linked to this one. Or is it?
Have you ever seriously considered suicide? I hope you haven’t but if you have you understand what it feels like to believe you are powerless in life. Like all belief systems, the “I’m Sad, Weak and Doomed” belief system seems perfectly rational when you’re in the middle of it.
Changing my outlook from Desperation to Hope took a shitload of very hard work. Paradigms don’t miraculously transform overnight. It takes time and it usually requires something very painful to shift your world view. Heart attacks will do it. A death in your family. Watching someone get abused. Being dumped. Or maybe you finally just hit your wall and realize you don’t have anything in your life that matters anymore.
That was me. I was the guy in that song Blue except for me it was Gray. I lived in a gray house, had a gray car, my girlfriend was gray, my clothes were gray, and everything and everywhere was gray all the time. Just tasteless and lifeless and pointless and horribly, painfully pathetic.
I’d love to say that Spartan Races (or any one thing) was the answer but it wasn’t. No, forcing myself to endure grueling 7-hour long mud runs didn’t come until years later. But somewhere around that time my eyes began to open. I started to see something I never wanted to accept. A great, horrible truth. A truth at the center of every race I run today.
When I tell people about my Obstacle Course Race (OCR) obsession they always want to know why. Why do I pay good money to hurt myself? Why do I train for months just so I can suffer? Why, when there’s so many “nice” things out there, would I choose to do something so ridiculously uncomfortable?
Why I Run Spartan Races
In his amazing blog Art of Manliness, Brett McKay talks about a philosophy he calls “The Strenuous Life.” The term is taken from a quote by one our collective heroes, Theodore Roosevelt:
“I wish to preach, not the doctrine of ignoble ease, but the doctrine of the strenuous life, the life of toil and effort, of labor and strife; to preach that highest form of success which comes, not to the man who desires mere easy peace, but to the man who does not shrink from danger, from hardship, or from bitter toil, and who out of these wins the splendid ultimate triumph.”
This quote is so good it should be posted on the wall of every classroom in America. It should be tattooed on the chest of every boy who comes of age. It should be required as a password for every job, every adventure, indeed any challenge a man can invest himself in.
Roosevelt nails the truth I never wanted to accept for all those years:
You are going to suffer.
Something today is gonna suck. Maybe several things. Maybe a whole bunch of things. Someone may hurt your feelings. Something may fall apart. You may forget something. You may look stupid. Your car might get scratched. The cat may pee on your bed. The check might bounce. Someone may leave you forever. You might get drunk and break your face. The list of things that could cause you pain today is almost infinite – and the more you do, the more pain you will experience.
The reason I run obstacle course races, the reason I’ve run two marathons and an olympic-distance triathlon, the reason I keep pushing myself harder than the year before is the same reason Tyler Durden started the world’s most infamous boxing circuit:
“After a night in fight club, everything in the real world gets the volume turned down. Nothing can piss you off. Your word is law, and if other people break that law, even that doesn’t piss you off…. After fighting you can deal with anything.”
I run because if I can overcome a tremendous pain of my own choosing, if I can accomplish something so much more difficult than my average life, if I can force myself to suffer danger, hardship and bitter toil, then afterwards, the rest of my life, the other challenges that used to feel unsurmountable merely feel difficult.
If I can climb a rope with bloody palms, I can massage for an extra day to cover my rent increase.
If I can run with cracked ribs at 10,000’ elevation, I can go to the gym when I don’t want to.
If I can carry sandbags up a hill during a hailstorm, I can stay cool and calm when my client/boss/friend/family is losing their shit.
If I can push myself to complete 13 miles and 30 obstacles while suffering from elevation sickness, I can do pretty much anything.
The End of the Journey
There’s also another reason I do these races. It isn’t just about pushing through pain and becoming stronger. I admit I have learned to become a masochist over the years. It’s a useful skill to accomplishing great things. But I’ve found there’s something even better that comes after I’ve learned to master my pain:
The feeling I get when I cross the finish line.
Nothing in life is as satisfying as when I complete a super-difficult goal. When I cross that threshold and the crowds are yelling and I get my medal (and my beer) I always feel like a million dollars. I feel invincible. I feel like I can do anything I set my mind to. And you know what? I really can. And so can you.
If you haven’t experienced an OCR or Mud Run you really need to. I can’t recommend them highly enough. To find an event in your area, follow this link in the US and this link if you’re International. Life is hard. Obstacle races are hard. But if you’re willing to invest yourself – to do the bitter toil – then you can experience “the splendid ultimate triumph.” And before you know it you’ll be back again, pushing yourself even harder.
Arooo! Arooo! Arooo!
See you on the battlefield!