The Four Stages of Athlete

The more races and challenges I attend, and the more newbie athletes I watch develop, the more I see the pattern of growth falling into four stages. Some people stay in one stage their entire lives, some blow through all of them in the blink of an eye.

We usually start out from a place of boredom and a sedentary lifestyle. We break out of it, start looking at fitness, find our first race and enter:

Stage 1: The Hobbyist


Having fun, racing with friends, but not taking the racing or the training all that seriously. This stage can be ingrained enough that I have read several running training books that say something like, “Keep your daily training under 30 minutes. This is just a hobby, you don’t want it to become a job!”

Many people stay here, and that is fine. Many add fun silly touches to it, tutus, silly wigs, costumes. Keeping fit, having fun, who can fault that?

But a few of us continue to:

Stage 2: The Explorer


Oh, Warrior Dash was a good time, what else can I try? Ooooh, if I do three Spartans I get a special medal. I can do that. How hard could it be? And I want to try a marathon. Dean Karnazes’ write-up of the Western States 100 sounded awesome. I wonder if I could work up to that? Wait, what is GORUCK? What is Badass Dash? How many of these can I fit in before my loved ones put out a missing person’s report on me?

The Explorer is a fun stage. Having discovered some cool new things that you like, you develop a borderline obsession with finding out what else is out there, and trying to do it all. Eventually things are divided into done it, couldn’t get to it, and still working on it. The still working on it challenges lead you into the next stage:

Stage 3: The Knight Errant

knight errant

In this stage you are going toe-to-toe with challenges that are a little bit tougher than you are. You want to prove what you can do. You train hard, make many people wonder why you want it that badly, and your failures, even small ones, tend to hit you hard. You fall down, get irritated with yourself, get back up, and go at it again. And while you may not get it the second time, you keep hammering at it until you do.

As you conquer some and are beaten back by others of the various challenges you enter, one of two things will happen: You will eventually have your fill and go back to one of the earlier stages, or you will move on to:

Stage 4: The Warrior Monk

warrior monk

This stage, from the outside, looks similar to the Knight Errant, tough challenges, heavy-duty training. But inside, much different. You no longer worry about proving yourself. You know what you can do, what you have done, where you have failed, where you are still developing. You are calmer, more focussed, but even more fanatical in working toward your goals.

Challenges at this point tend to develop to the level that would cause the Hobbyist to swoon. 48 hour trail runs. Events with “Death” “Suck” or “Hell” in the name. Events that require you to carry survival gear. Events that even previous finishers tell you that they would never go through that kind of torture again.

It has become less about proving what you are and more about building yourself into what you want to be. Using your self-training and challenges to remake yourself, the way fire and hammer blows remake iron ore into a sword. The bragging nature of the earlier stages has left now, replaced with frank discussions of what you have done. Less, “Oh, I did this, isn’t that badass,” and more, “Yeah, they gave us a 15 mile forced march 24 hours in. We made it, but damn did that suck.”

And somewhere along the way, an odd effect comes into play. While your days of calling yourself a badass and holding out your accomplishments for praise are behind you, the recognition now seeks you out. New athletes come to you with questions. You watch them and giggle at, “oh, I remember that stage.” You no longer feel your accomplishments are special, just what you can do if you apply yourself. And you constantly hear that THAT is why they are special.

Being like everyone else

We live in a world that loves uniformity. Don’t stand out. Stay in line. Stop showing off.


A world where fitness centers can kick you out for working harder than everyone else, which is “intimidating.” A world where everyone who does not act just like you is open to ridicule.

I stumbled upon one of the all-too-common articles written by non-runners who wish to bash runners for not being like everyone else, which I often ignore, but this passage stood out:

You and the rest of your slob friends are at the bar, getting drunk (because that is what you do at bars) when a young lady or gentleman walks in and you notice they are not drinking. Someone inevitably asks them the logical question, “Dude, why aren’t you drinking?” The question the marathonite has been jonesing to be asked all night; the entire reason they went to the bar. So, the douche runner responds, “because I am training for the marathon and I have a 16-miler tomorrow.” Really? You do? So why aren’t you home watching a movie? Or hanging out with your douche runner-group? Oh yeah. Because you want all of us to know how awesome your self-discipline is. I think I am going to drive my car 6mph alongside one of those runner groups and blast club music as I drink just so they can know how it feels.


Don’t be the rest of the world. Don’t let them break you. Don’t let them force you into the box that they think is the right way to live.


Go out and do what you want to do. See the world. Conquer your next challenge. Learn something new. Whatever it is that makes you you, go do it!

Most people don’t have the will to do this. They take what they are given, stay in their comfort zone, watch the latest reality TV drama, buy the products that advertizing says they should have.

And through all of this, they can’t find why they don’t feel fulfilled. Depression finds its way in, so they treat it with whatever drug is the new cool thing, or self-medicate with alcohol. And never realize that the reason that there is a void that needs filled, is because life in the comfort zone is hollow.


But the 2% of the population breaks out of this mould. We go as hard as we can for as long as we can at our chosen pursuits. And when we’ve given it all we have, we rest up and get back up to do it again.

I spent the first 30 years of my life in the 98% trying to be like everyone else. Starving for something more, but not knowing what more there was and programmed to stay where I was comfortable. Work your job, watch TV, go out to eat, get drunk with your friends, don’t try anything new, don’t go anywhere where you do not have a perfect itinerary with people to guide you only where you want to go.

I cannot think of a single memory from that time that I really and truly treasure. 30 years without a high point? And the life I had was considered normal?

I joined the 2% that don’t give a damn what the 98% think just before my 31st birthday, and both the memories and the odd stares from bystanders came in numbers I never could have anticipated.

The bar-goers watching us carry a log through downtown Columbus, as we gave them the excuse of, “We were out drinking, and we lost a bet…”

The woman who I helped across an obstacle at Warrior Dash, who immediately tackle-hugged me as soon as I had cleared the obstacle.

My boss looking at the events on my calendar, and having the reaction of,”You’re going to England? England England? For the weekend? To crawl through the mud? In January?” and walking out of the room looking a little dazed.

Driving through Montreal at 2 in the morning, looking over the guardrail and realizing I’m looking across the deck of a freight ship on the river.

The reactions of people who just use treadmills for cardiovascular health when they see me trudging along next to them, incline as high as I can handle, gas mask covering my face and 50 pounds on my back.

Feeling the rush that came from the cheers at the finish line, and cheering my fellows on to finish.

Traveling to places where I barely speak the language, having only a vague notion of how to get to my destination, and finding ways to make it all work.

Blog 2

I am the 2%. I do what most of the world rejects as crazy or stupid. I travel to strange locations to attend even stranger events. I push harder than most think prudent toward goals that many find illogical. And I am 100% happy doing it.

Evolution of a GRT

Stolen from Mark Webb, one of the people I look to when searching for crazy stuff to do.

Over Long Distances

Some 50 good livin’ or so events later, with friends and acquaintances coming into the fold, and having seen lots of “noobs” do their first GORUCK event, I have been lucky enough to understand each and every stage of the life of a GRT. Without further ado, lets get going

So Excited

You just found out about GORUCK – maybe from a friend, a website, a colleague, your gym – you looked around and decided to take the first step. Signing up. It is, after all, the hardest part of the GORUCK Challenge right? It says so right there.

But its 2-3 months away – you show your excitement is by posting about it, working out, throwing the ruck on your back that came 3-5 business days later and running with bricks. You research packing, you research food to eat, where to put your bricks, and all sorts…

View original post 1,353 more words

What’s it worth?

2015-01-17 17.19.38

All racers who have been around awhile have the array of finishers’ insignia that pile up as your history of events grows.

Medals. Dog tags. Patches. Challenge coins. T shirts, so many T shirts.

And many of us, in various ways, get questions of what all this is worth. Most fall into three categories:

1. “You went through all that and THAT is all you got for it?” “I’m debating signing up for that one. Is the bling worth the trouble?” “Racers go through fire, ice, electricity and barbed wire for a T shirt and a cheap medal.”

2. “Just want to get to the end. Just want that patch.”

3. “If (insert type of person here) can get a medal, then mine isn’t worth anything.”

1. All of these items are simple symbols. And a symbol has whatever power you give it, no more, no less. Its intrinsic worth, whether it is made of gold or aluminum, doesn’t matter. It is a reminder of where you were, what you accomplished, and who you grew into.

2. Cadre Big Daddy John addressed this during a GORUCK Light I attended. As soon as we are into a tough event, we just want out, just want it done. When what is really important is what we learn along the way, the barriers we have to push through to get there. While the tantalizing award at the end is a powerful motivational tool, it is worthless without the effort required to earn it.

3. Only you know the true value of the medal you hold. Because it was a price that you paid, and that it is likely that no one else saw. The months of training, the blood sweat and tears, the time, the pain. Someone else didn’t work as hard as you but got the same prize? Someone bought the finisher’s award on Ebay? Then you know what YOURS is worth, and they know what THEIRS is worth. Someone else’s slacking does not invalidate your hard work.


We also get the question of if, regardless of what satisfaction we attach to it, the prize is worth the cost. The time away from other activities, sometimes away from family, the monetary cost of doing the event.

Again, the answer depends on you. Who did you develop into while chasing this prize? Did you improve your health so you will be around longer for family and for other activities? Did you improve your attitude, your way of thinking, to be able to be a more powerful presence in the lives of others? Are you better able to lead your children to see what is possible in life, rather than just taking what is given and never reaching higher?

The prize at the end of the struggle is not what you get. It is what you become. And for many of us, including myself, who keep a dog tag, belt buckle, or challenge coin on them daily, the finishers’ prize is just a little reminder of who we truly are.

Something in the Air: Utah Spartan Beast 2014

When I signed up for Utah, I expected a tough course with nearly endless uphills. I had done mountain-series races before in Ottawa and Vermont, I expected more of the same. While I thought I had dealt with elevation before, this race would teach me that I truly had no idea.

My home is at roughly 800 feet above sea level. Killington Vermont, home of the Spartan World Championships, is a little over 4200. This race went from 5600 to 6800, which had much more effect on me than I had expected.

My battle buddy and I made it to the start line, enjoyed the rousing send off, and charged through the smoke grenades onto the course. The course started off reasonably flat, which of course meant mud trenches within the first quarter mile. We ran into friends at the over-under-through walls, one of whom mentioned her goal for the day was to get over all the walls unassisted. She failed at the 6′ wall, and I was able to give her a different technique so she could make it on the second attempt.

On to hot, steep, dusty trails that seemed to go on endlessly. Trails that flatlanders don’t quite understand. And the fact that the air didn’t have any air in it didn’t help. When we reached the downhills, footing became a problem. The ground was a dry fine silt, the consistency of talcum powder. We then went through a short barbed wire crawl that lead into a mud pit, down a long downhill trail to the tractor pull.


My battle buddy was suffering from the elevation more than I was, so I started off pulling both of ours. I think I could have done it over solid ground, but dragging them through powdery soil made them feel twice as heavy. I had both for half the distance, maybe a little less, and we each had our own for the rest.

Up the hill to the Atlas carry. Those are getting heavier. I ran ahead to complete mine, then ran over to assist my battle buddy with hers.

We both failed the rope climb and the cargo net monkey bars and moved on to the hoist, which despite being mudded to the point of almost being greased, we were both able to complete.

The tire lift was a new obstacle for me, tires suspended from a bridge that you must pull up from above and then slowly let back down. Both of us completed without a problem.

About this time we came to the second ungodly uphill, a brutal climb back up to the top. My battle buddy was having difficulty breathing and was suffering greatly from the heat, and decided that it was foolish for her to continue, so from this point forward I was on my own.

The next three uphills were absolutely brutal. I have seen many races where people sit down and rest for a bit. This is the first where I saw dozens along the course just sitting and staring hopelessly out into space.

The normal obstacles, tire pull, tire flip, more walls to go over. What truly stands out in my memory is the last 500 yards.

The longest and sloppiest mud crawl I can ever remember.


The slick wall was thickly coated in mud, as were my hands and feet. I have NEVER failed this obstacle before, and I failed three times here. When I did succeed, it was with a man pulling from above and two pushing from below. It reminded me of an old movie line of “T’was man over man that got us over that wall.”

Over the fire:


Got my finishers medal, and joined the line to get our banana and water. I soon had to drop out of the line, walk to the side, sit down, and spend 5 minutes trying desperately not to throw up.

This race took all I had, pushed me right to the limit.


Welcome to the Mountain: Quebec Spartan Sprint 2014

I will be the first to admit, I underestimated this race. And I paid for it. With the 15 hours of driving to get there, volunteer time the day before, missing lunch at the venue and ending up at McDonald’s for dinner, I was nowhere near properly fueled or hydrated.

Ah, it’s only a sprint. No biggie. I left my camelback in the car. Only five miles, won’t need it.

Never use the phrase “no biggie” when taking on a mountain whose name translates as “the Massive.”

2014-06-22 07.35.40

In any case, lined up at the starting line. I jumped into the Elite wave to make certain I could finish before I needed to volunteer. The MC gave us a rousing send-off in Franglais, and we were off, straight up a ski slope. My hopes of doing the entire race at a jog were quickly dashed as the never-ending uphill slowed almost everyone to a walk.

Up the hill, over and under walls, back down, back up.

Things started to fall apart during that second climb. My energy levels were far below where they should have been, I couldn’t calm my breathing and heart rate down, and I still couldn’t find the end of this climb. For the first time ever during a race, I found myself flat on my back, staring up at the clouds until I had recovered enough to move on.

I came to the barbed wire crawl about 3/4 way up the mountain, and the course marshal informed me that we were only 5 minutes from the first aide station. That helped my mental game a lot.


5 minutes away perhaps, but on the other side of 2 obstacles. I made it about 5 feet up the rope climb, did my burpees, through the net crawl and to the water station. Getting hydration back where I needed it helped a lot. I was still not at full strength, but good enough to carry on. Down the hill, sand bags, atlas stones. Perhaps a touch slower than normal, but much better than that second uphill. After the atlas carry, back up the hill to the fire jump:


I had volunteered the day before at the cargo net, which means I got to see how everyone else gets over it and then try all the different ways you see. Sadly no photo of it, but I was able to somersault over the top and walk down the far side.

The hoist obstacle was a little unusual. While I usually see concrete blocks or sandbags, this one had…propane tanks?

2014-06-22 14.03.24

Through the normal Canadian obstacles, the dip walk, the spear throw, the premium rig (which I did better at but still failed), but the biggest obstacle by far was the mountain itself.


Toward the end of the race, obstacles were back to back to back. Fail the spear throw. 30 burpees. Fail the rig. 30 burpees. Halfway across the traverse wall. I ran out of air, fluids and ability to care at 15 burpees and moved on. (Full measure of burpees done later that night.)

100 yards down the road, up and over the slip wall:


And the rope descent that we only get at North-of-the-border races:


Across the finish line in a little over two hours.

Things to learn from this:

Carry the camelback if there is even a remote chance you will need it.

NEVER skip pre-race nutrition protocol again.

The Canadians have much more awesome medals than we do. Get up here more often.


Hiding Ignorance Beneath Contempt: A response to “Tough Mudder and Spartan Races: Masochism goes mainstream”

Obstacle racers accept that not everyone will understand us. Not a big deal, some like weight lifting, some like road racing, some like step aerobics. We like what we like, and everyone can do as they please.
That being said, we dislike the utter contempt for our sport that comes from many non-athletes and a very few athletes from other sports. If its not your thing, fine, but don’t talk down to us for the sort of challenges that push us to be better.
The most contempt comes from those who know the least of the sport. It is usually ignorable, but when an organisation as prestigious as the Boston Globe chooses to publish an article that looks down on us and is obviously written by someone who knows little of the sport, I feel the need to respond. (

So, here is the body of the article with my comments.

FOR ANYONE worrying that China is going to take over after we’ve all eaten ourselves into oblivion and blown the defense budget in what remains of Iraq, there is hope. Unbeknownst to the couch-ridden masses, America has a powerful core, a national equivalent of SEAL Team 6. It is strong, it is invincible, it is the Terminator, the offensive line of the Patriots, and the surliest toll collector on the Mass. Pike rolled into one. It is the hard underbelly of the fitness elite: those who engage in extreme athletic competitions like Tough Mudder and Spartan Race.

Anyone who does anything that I consider out of my comfort zone must be a superhuman cyborg. Makes perfect sense.

So you ran the Boston Marathon in under three hours? Meh, these men and women say. There was no barbed wire to crawl under, no flaming pit to jump over; you just ran down a city street, bathed in admiration. What’s the challenge in that? Where’s the electro-shock treatment? What, no 3,000-foot ascent? Slacker.

I have NEVER seen any obstacle racer look down on those who do well in other pursuits. Many of us ARE marathoners in addition to everything else we do.

The rise of extreme obstacle racing — Tough Mudder and Spartan each expect an estimated 1 million participants this year — is a welcome aberration in a nation that appears doomed to expire of abdominal flab. A predictable extension of the running boom, it gestated at the finish lines of marathons and 10Ks. The weekend warriors cried, “Now what?”

Okay, I am going to ignore the weekend warrior comment because I cannot respond to it politely. Many of us started with OCR and then moved into marathons and 10Ks, along with the more flamboyant challenges that the author does not even know about. This is not a been-there-done-that mentality. It is a sport of athletes who love testing every possible weakness of their physical and mental fitness.

When Harvard Business School grad Will Dean, the Mark Zuckerberg of the fitness industry, envisioned Tough Mudder, he understood not just viral marketing but the philosophy of William James: “The strenuous life tastes better.” Not much is strenuous about modern life, and when primal urges go unmet in the urban savanna, a vital thing withers. For a people to function, loins must be girded. Extreme competitors get this.

Not everyone wants to stop their fitness journey at 30 minutes a day on the elliptical. And this is a problem why?

From a distance, the phenomenon invites ridicule. Consider the Tough Mudder tribe, whose idea of a rollicking good time is an all-night relay carrying 40 pounds of bricks, a plunge into ice called an “Arctic Enema,” and a slide that deposits the competitor in licking flames, a human grill called “Fire in Your Hole.” For all this, the Tough Mudders who endure receive orange headbands that evoke a certain ’80s movie, “Flashdance,” and its attendant song, “Maniac.” Seems fitting.

Meanwhile, over at any Spartan Race, or its predecessor, the impressibly merry Death Race, participants sign waivers that suggest their extinction is imminent. The founder, Joe De Sena of Vermont, begins his new book “Spartan Up!” by describing a nearly fatal 350-mile race in Quebec — in mid-winter. What fun!

“Invites ridicule”? Facing fears, pushing through your limitations, learning what you are actually capable of, is now worthy of ridicule? And if you want to make fun of the headband, I get to go through your closet and see what fashion faux pas I can find.

Milder, but also non-traditionally challenging, is the new series of mountain races begun by four friends that include former US Senate candidate Gabriel Gomez. Hingham-based O2X will hold its inaugural race, with “natural” obstacles,in September at Sugarbush Mountain in Vermont. The rigorous ascent, “a cross between obstacle-course racing and trail running,” might deplete the body but will mercifully leave the mountains intact, co-founder Craig Coffey told me. “We will leave the mountain better than when we found it,” Gomez said. Presumably, too, the competitors’ resolve and physiques.

Finally! A paragraph with no blatant disdain!!!

Three of the four 02X founders were Navy SEALS — not surprising, as a hard streak of green-and-brown camouflage runs through extreme athletic endeavors. On the Spartan blog, De Sena says some of the events were designed by the US military. When an Army recruit crawls though mud under barbed wire, however, he is preparing for an experience that might actually transpire. When an investment banker does the same, wearing an orange headband, what is the point, beyond ensuring that masochism becomes mainstream?

Yes, no one ever really needs to be strong in this world. No one will ever have to crawl under the wreckage of a car crash to free a trapped child. No one will ever have to jump over a fence to get to a phone and call 911 in an emergency, because cell phones are always charged and work everywhere. Nothing that is practiced by the military has anything in it that may be of use to civilians. The whole thing is just silly.

De Sena explains it as a change in perspective: “I believe that confronting these insane obstacles is the best way to rewire a human brain after years or even decades of coddling, predictability, and excuses,” he writes.

If, of course, your brain is not fried on the course, or worse. Injuries in extreme races have included electric shocks, broken bones, a stroke, and four deaths. A lawsuit was filed on the most recent, a 2013 drowning in West Virginia, but so far, no race organizer has been held culpable in any fatality. I note, however, that the once vaunted Web address of the Death Race,, now redirects to a comparably

We will ignore a very good point from the Spartan Race founder, and go straight into, “You’ll shoot your eye out with that thing, kid!” We will also ignore the injury rates among mainstream sports that cause much more damage to the body than OCR.

That people find events like the Spartan race attractive — and will pay upwards of $100 to enter — seems odd, given that the number of young people who find military life attractive has dropped over the past 10 years, from 63 percent to 40 in one study. Maybe our inner GI Joes get all the adrenaline they need in a weekend race with no threat of an extended stay in Baghdad.

Again, no one in civilian life has any use for any of this stuff. Now go back to your recliner and watch some TV. Its the American way.

There is, however, a certain comfort that can be derived from knowing that the Tough Mudders and the Spartans exist. They are the new American militias, unarmed but for their extraordinary triceps.

Yes, everyone who can do this is a huge, muscle-bound Viking Berserker. To prove this point, I asked several of my teammates for photos to use in this post.


Obstacle racers are all sizes, all shapes, all ability levels. We are not some strange group living far away.

We’re everywhere.

We’re everyone.

We’re you.