Why do we do this to ourselves?

It was pointed out to me that everything I do with my personal time, viewed from the outside, doesn’t look like very much fun. In fact, it looks like it hurts. And looking at some of the photos, I can’t help but agree.

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I often get the question of why. Why do you want to go do uncomfortable things? Why do you need the ability to clear an 8′ wall, to low-crawl under barbed wire? You have a car, what point is there in running 20 miles?

I often have difficulty answering these questions. I usually avoid answering by saying that if you have to ask, you are unlikely to understand the answer. But it is a legitimate question, and deserves at least an attempt at an answer.

I had my first trip to Japan earlier this year to train with the top Shihan. At the end of one of Nagato Sensei’s classes, he asked if there were any questions. Some smartass in the crowd yells out, “What does it all mean?”

Nagato has the question clarified in several languages, then gives the response, “The purpose of training is to be a good person. An exemplary person.”

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I do feel that in many ways the training and challenges I do have made me a better person. The Japanese would call the process “polishing the spirit.”

I have also developed a deep love for those around me, whereas a few years ago I was unable to feel anything but disdain. And I can step up to challenges that I previously would have thought were impossible.

I also love seeing what the human spirit is capable of, both what I can do through sheer force of will and what I see done by others. Even those who have a better excuse than most to think that it is impossible.

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I want to know what I’m made of, what I can do, and what I can do under adverse circumstances. This is where people have the most trouble understanding me. Why does it have to be cold, wet and nasty? Why can’t all the obstacles be made of bubble wrap so that no one ever gets a bruise? Oh, that obstacle is severely uncomfortable and that makes it physiologically unsafe, they should eliminate that one.

These things build toughness and they train courage. They teach you to keep going through the pain and do what needs done. If you can’t perform when you are cold, wet, in pain, then I would argue that you can’t perform. When things go to crap and you NEED your toughness and courage, trust me, you will be rather uncomfortable and likely in a certain degree of pain. If you have trained to embrace the suck and keep going, you will be fine. Otherwise, you may well be in trouble.

In particular the electrified obstacles take a lot of flack for being over the line, too uncomfortable and intense, too dangerous. I’m not going to weigh in on that debate, simply because it varies too much from race to race, but I will tell the following:

I was at a race a few weeks ago and teamed up with a group of young men doing their first mud run. One of them was severely freaked out at the prospect of the electrical obstacles. Every wire crawl we passed, he was worriedly saying, “Is that the taser obstacle??!!”

When we finally got to it, there was a short wire crawl before we reached the shock wires, and the course volunteer suggested that the individual shocks would be less intense if more than one person went through at a time, so we got all four of us lined up just in front of the shock wires and then charged forward as fast as we could, going even faster after the first jolt.

We stopped to fist-bump and check on each other, and the fear that I had sensed in him was gone. He had gone up against his fear and kicked its ass.

I had only met the man on the course, only knew his first name, but seeing that change come over him was the highlight of the day. That’s the prize at the end of the struggle. That’s what we go through this for.

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Dead Last, DNF, and What If.

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I ran a local Thanksgiving 15K today, and experienced something that I have never had happen before.

I finished last.

Mind you, not last in my division, not at the back of the pack as we all storm the finish line, but DEAD last, not seeing another soul for the last mile, stopping to ask a policeman what direction to the finish line, crossing under the inflatable finish arch as the course volunteers are prepping to take it down.

My feelings on this fact: HELL YEAH.

I beat the goal time that I had set for myself by 7 minutes.

The fact that I was completely and utterly outclassed by the others on the course? That simply means that all the others of my ability or below stayed home or did a shorter distance.

A lot of newbie runners that I talk to are terrified of coming in last or not being able to complete the course, and limit the events they sign up for to what they KNOW they can handle. All they can see is the, in their eyes, public humiliation of being the worst athlete.

News for them: The worst athlete never made it to the course.

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Something less than 5% of the US population will run a half-marathon. That falls to 1% for the full marathon. So really, merely lacing up your shoes and stepping into the starting corral puts you at least in the top 10%.

Cross the finish line last? Take pride in knowing that there are thousands of people, with physical abilities equal to yours, that lack the nerve to sign up, step up, and do what you just did.

Failed to make it to the finish line? As H.W. McBride said many years ago, no man is ready to go through a battle until he HAS been through one. Learn from what worked, what didn’t, and come back to hit it twice as hard.

When my time comes and I look back on my life, I will be completely happy with, “I wasn’t the fastest or the strongest, but I got it done.” I will even be able to make peace with, “Failed every damn time, but I gave it all I had.” The one thought that will never sit right is, “I wonder if I could have, if I’d had the nerve to try.”

Go. Embrace the awesome within you and see how far you can take it. Find events that you are not sure you can handle, and go knock them out. Don’t fear failure. We only fall so that we can rise again stronger.

And when you find the scary epic events to go after…Call me. I likely will want to come too.

Bunny Beast Mode- Carolinas Spartan Beast 2013

This was my third Spartan Beast of the year, and the first that I felt truly prepared for. Overall I am finally feeling improvement in my abilities. I have found that all Beasts will plan something evil for you within the first half mile, something that will start sapping your fighting spirit. On the past two it was a brutal uphill, but they were more creative on this one. Less than 500 yards in and we are sent through trenches of cold water, instantly locking up my calves and making it hard to do anything past a walk. From there it was the familiar Spartan obstacles, 6-7 walls, trails that were technical but not anywhere near the soul-crushing hills I had come to expect. We hit the Atlas Lift, and the course volunteer’s eyebrows raised a bit when he saw me cranking out full clapping burpees. I’ve gotten sloppy on my burpees with a few recent races, and am really trying to break the habit.

More trails and we came to the Hercules Hoist, which is where the fact that I am getting better seemed to crystallize. I usually drop body weight, climb the rope with my hands as I stand back up, and repeat. This time it just came together, I dropped my body and was able to keep the smooth upward motion going with hands only. It must have looked good, because I heard the stunned voice of the course volunteer behind me go, “Damn. BEAST MODE! Hell yeah!” Back on the trails, Tarzan-swinging and butt-scooting down steep hills, and came to the tractor pull. For once I felt strong enough to move at a trot with the weight, and I actually saw the photographer in time to set up the shot. Most races have the standard tire flip. This one upped the ante by giving us a 4′ section of log to flip end-over end. Note to self: put more deadlifts in your workouts. No burpees but still tough. Next was the tire drag, which I knocked out solidly enough to again get cheers from bystanders. New and rather odd, but I think I like it.

About this time Princess Badass (one of my teammates) and I noticed that she was passing me nearly every section of trail running, and I was overtaking her at nearly every obstacle. She commented, “You are like the Energizer bunny. You just never seem to stop.” Beast Mode Bunny?

Somewhere around the traverse wall and spear throw my commitment to burpee form fell through, and I think I walked away from the spear throw at 20 rather than 30. I told myself that I am freaking better than this and did 40 at the rope climb, then donated an additional 10 to a teammate before heading on. Next was one of the most horrendous mud pits I have ever been through, coating my hands with enough slick mud that the monkey bars were not a possibility. The terrain from that point got noticeably tougher, which was good as a few of us were starting to refer to the course as “the Bitch Beast.” I elected to do burpees rather than wait for the line at the rope traverse, then moved on to the sandbag carry.I was a little shocked to actually see sandbags abandoned along the course, where people had gotten a certain distance and then given up. Putting the sandbags right after a water obstacle meant that most of the bags were wet and thus heavier than normal, but still got through it and handed the bag off to the next runner. I was a little surprised to see the Hobie Hop as an obstacle here, as the stadium Sprint was the only place I had seen this before. I waddled more than I hopped.

I had been forced to skip the bucket carry in Vermont to meet the time hack, so I was happy to get a chance at it here. The course volunteer directed us to take buckets from those coming back down the hill rather than dumping and refilling, and I got one that was a little under the required level. I ended up taking a rest break next to a female racer whose bucket was a little overfilled, so I used some of her gravel to bring mine up to snuff.

We then hit the barbed wire crawl that was reported to be one of the toughest. While it did suck that it was through a gravel pit (torn up knees that are still healing), it did not have the rockiness of Vermont or the slick steep inclines of Nebraska, so I found it tough but not nearly what I expected from rumors of it. From there it was the standard end-of-race obstacles, the cargo net, dunk pool, and slip wall. For whatever reason, there were a LOT of people suffering from cramping on this race. The man in front of me went into a rather spectacular leg cramp 3 steps up the ladder to the cargo net. I helped him down  and then went on my way.

The dunk pool  had a small gap between the water and the wall I had to go under, so I had a much easier time than at any of the previous races with this obstacle.

Then over the slick wall, over the fire, and through some impeccably dressed gladiators.

I finished in 5:16, more than 2 hours ahead of my finish time at Ottawa. While some of that may be improvements in my abilities, I have no doubt that a large part was the terrain. While it was a tough race, it was nowhere near the brutality of the Mountain Series races. Anyone wanting to go for a Trifecta but not quite sure you can handle a Beast, this is the one I would recommend to you.

Beyond Expectations: Miller Park Spartan Sprint, 2013

I had heard of the “Stadium Sprints” put on by Spartan Race, but the idea had never really appealed to me. I love the single track woods trails, the natural obstacles. I’m not a ball-sport person. I honestly had to ask what Miller Park was, so the draw so many people talk about of a famous location held no appeal to me. 

I started dating a fellow mud warrior, and she mentioned that she wanted to run this race, but was unsure if she could get there after attending a wedding the night before. OK, you need a driver and battle buddy. I can do that. So I signed up to run it with her.

Wow was I wrong about the stadium sprints. A different category of challenge from field Sprints, not more or less challenging but different, more like a weightlifting class than a run.

We had a team of more than 300 in attendance. 

These sprints release groups of about 15 people every few minutes to avoid bottlenecks on the course, as it is restricted and there is little room for passing. We started out running up ramps to the upper levels of the stadium, with ropes tied across that we had to go over or under. I found that if I got low and extended one hand forward, I could run under the ropes like a cartoon ninja and not be slowed down.

We then came to the familiar obstacles, 6′ walls and lots of stairs.

Then we hit the more unusual events. Medicine ball slams. Hand-release pushups. Wait, rowing machines?

You had a certain time to cover 500 m. No time shown on the display, when you reached the goal or ran out of time it would simply say “Congratulations. ARROO!!” or “Burpees for you!!” Several of our team were literally on the floor unable to rise for a few minutes after this obstacle.

Most things were pretty basic, carry heavy object, go up and down bleachers, etc. The jump rope with a 2″ rope was unexpected and much tougher than it looked. I couldn’t get more than 5 in a row, and several people injured their ankles at this point.

Some of the team donated reps to get the rest of us through, formed burpee teams to assist those that failed obstacles, and otherwise encouraged us all.

There were a few places where the race went out into the parking lot with the more familiar obstacles, jerry can carry, atlas lift, traverse wall. My girlfriend/battle buddy spotted me as I went across the traverse wall. The last step was too wide to clear, but I was able to stretch enough from the previous step to ring the bell, then went back and spotted her, and we both made it.

The last section of the race had several obstacles scattered around the baseball diamond, the first being the cargo net, where most of us ended up on the jumbotrons.

We nailed the Hercules hoist, both burpeed out of the rope climb, and went to the final obstacle, 10 over-and-back box jumps, then charged through the gladiators.

We received our special-edition medals and joined our teammates in the bleachers watching the rest of the team finish.

Typically, I am the personification of “I come. I tear it up. I leave.” For once I took the time to hang out with teammates, chat with the families of other competitors, hit up the after party, etc. Somewhere along the line I’ve gained a team off the course as well.

Here Come the Story of the Hurricane- Nebraska Spartan Sprint 2013

At my first race, I was given a Hurricane Heat dog tag, but the significance of it was not explained to me. I used a free volunteer race to sign up for the Nebraska Sprint, and signed for the HH up to see what it was about.

Show up at OMG early, meet the team, and find that the HH is to be lead by Tony and Andi, two very wonderful people, but both capable of challeling the devil incarnate at will. This became evident with the first command being “Do burpees until I tell you to stop.”

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You can do a lot of burpees in a stretch of 10-20 minutes. We then moved to the Atlas Lift obstacle, gathered the weights and passed them around the team. We also had the Warrior Ethos drummed into us if we didn’t already know it:

“I will always place the mission first.

I will never accept defeat.

I will never quit.

I will never leave a fallen comrade.”

The group was divided into smaller teams, for which we had to come up with team names. OK, we’re in Nebraska, we need something humorously inappropriate involving corn…

A call from the sidelines: “CORN HOLERS!!!!!”

We have our team name.

We then had to buddy carry one member of the team for the first mile of the course, which involved some serious hills. We could switch off who was carrying, but the carried teammate could not touch the ground.

When we reached the end of that, we were assigned 25 burpees, which became 50 when someone complained. Suffer in silence.

We then had to bear-crawl the next section of the course. I have no idea how far we crawled, and in truth this is where memories of the event become a bit fuzzy.

I just remember doing what we would normally consider absolutely crazy, and doing it without a second thought. Low crawling through culverts. Covering ground by alternating burpees and frog hops. Crossing the traverse wall without using your feet.

Oh, and then there were the tires.

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We were originally going to carry them around the course, but it was soon determined that this could not be done, they were too heavy and full of water. So we flipped them as a team, over the sort of hills built for ATV riders to jump over.

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We rolled it down what we thought was the last section, and then went down and did box jumps onto and off of the tires.

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We were then told to race getting the tires back where they came from, last one there does 100 burpees. Engage warp drive.

We took the gamble of trying to throw it from the last hill and let gravity help us. We lost that gamble when it went the wrong way and just wouldn’t stop rolling.HH2.jpg

We reached the barbed wire crawl and each team was given a spear. That we had to get to the far end without getting it muddy.

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My team had the cleanest spear at the end and was not penalized, the other two were given a number of monkey-f***ers to do.

We were all cold, muscles locking up, nowhere near our usual strength, when we came to the rope climb. As a team, the bell at the top needs to be rung 6 times. The ropes are also above a pool of water, not helping with the cold. First team member went up, nailed it, came down, and it was my turn. I did my best, got to, no exaggeration, an INCH short of ringing the bell, and couldn’t get any further. My team was calling out encouragement from below, so I kept trying. As I raised a hand to try to reach the bell, my feet slipped and I fell. I found out later that one of my teammates broke my fall, and I went under the water still able to sort out where up was and to stand back up. My team walked me to the edge of the water and I waved off the course medic who was coming up to check on me.

There were a few more challenges and a LOT more burpees, but we finished, got our T shirts and dog tags, and went off to change before running the race itself.

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Between the cold, the fall, and the dunking, I didn’t have my usual tear-it-up spirit starting the race, but I formed up at the starting line and gave what I had left, offering a word of encouragement where I could.

The race itself seemed uneventful after the hurricane heat, but still a good time. I walked more of it than I ran, thinking I may have inhaled while I was under water, but kept moving. As I got further into it and got warmer, things got easier. My arms were still jelly from the morning, so I will admit that I didn’t do the full number of burpees for obstacles failed.

The barbed wire crawl featured a man with a fire hose making all of us hate him, many deep pools of water and much general discomfort. I think the photo from the dunk zone pretty much sums up how I was feeling at this point:

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Making it over the slick wall, I slipped and didn’t quite have the strength to pull myself over. I was able to call the racer in front of me back to help me over, then over the fire and through the gladiators.

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Got my medal and banana, picked up my gear, and reported in full muddy glory to the volunteer tent, late for my shift. The volunteer coordinator said, “You can shower, but I need you desperately, so be back quickly.”

I replied “Give me a dry shirt and tell me where you need me.”

While I was changing and stowing my gear, she asked if I would hate her if she asked me to be a gladiator. I stammered, “I would love you forever…”

9.jpg10.jpgThe HH was a great experience, almost a mini GORUCK, I will be doing more of them. The race itself was a good time, as tough as they could make it with the terrain.

I also learned that you want to change your socks between the race and your volunteer time. Mud-soaked socks dry out into little sock-shaped adobe bricks that bond to your skin, and you will have to wear them into the bath in order to remove them. Good to know for next time.