The Spartans*

True to form, my old college roommate has always recruited me to participate in shenanigans that I would otherwise remain oblivious to.

There’s the helicopter ride, which stunk profusely because I’m afraid of heights.  Then the bungee jump, which also stunk because… uhm, I’m afraid of heights.

After several years, I began to realize that things I got recruited for often involved my stepping outside my comfort zone, which I steadily cultivate to be really small and really comfortable.

You would think I would have learned by now, but when he called three months ago, I did not hang up the phone, have the service turned off, unfriend him on Facebook, cancel Twitter, and have my mail forwarded to a non-existent location in Antarctica.  But I should have.

Instead I foolishly greeted him, “Hey, Dave…. What’s up?”

In a cryptic voice he responded, “So there’s this thing called a Spartan Race…”

He told me it was a little over three miles long and had a few obstacles.  “It’s like a 5k with obstacles.”

Me: “I walk three or four miles a day anyway. I could do that distance.”

Dave: “We will go as fast as the slowest man.”

Me: “What are the obstacles?”

Dave: “There’s a few walls, but people do them as a team. I’ll boost you up, then you pull me up.”

Me: “Well, they’ve never built an obstacle so high that I can’t walk around it.”

Dave: “That-a-boy. I’ll figure out our starting time and let you know.”

Me: “Ok.”

Dave: “Start doing burpees.”

Me: “Wait!  What’s a burpee?”

Dave: “It’s like a push-up. Gotta go. Call you later.” Click.

And just like that I had committed to do a Spartan Race.  I actually wasn’t that stressed. I always make a point of getting my 10,000 steps daily, and with karate, I have gotten decent at push-ups. “I’m practically race-ready,” I confidently told myself.

Over the next few months, Dave and I spoke several times, and like a frog being slowly boiled, I barely noticed the heat being turned up as new and ever more daunting challenges were revealed.

First, he mentioned the rope climb, the barbed wire crawl, and various feats of strength like carrying a 75-pound bag of sand and a 5-gallon bucket of gravel long distances, plus loading and unloading the bucket by hand. Then he slipped in diving through mud pits and worst of all, a cargo net climb, which I deducted involved heights.  (Did I mention my fear of heights?)  Even worse, if we skipped any of these obstacles, we would be required to do 30 burpees.  This was sounding less like a race and more like a gauntlet of misery.

Even so, I started getting excited about the event and googling videos and pictures of various races.  I learned what a burpee was, which is like a push up until it gets to the part where it becomes more like a squat, then a jumping jack, then a squat again, then another pushup, then repeat, 30 times…

Three nights before the event, I tried 30 burpees and immediately called Dave.

“We have to cancel this!  I just did 30 burpees and I can barely walk!”

In his ever-calming voice, David talked me down from my panic.  “We will take it one step at a time, one burpee at a time and one obstacle at a time.  We’ve got this.  I’ll see you at Fort Campbell.”

When the weekend arrived, we drove from opposite directions to meet in Fort Campbell.  I had four hours to ponder the waiver I had signed the night before, bold letters requiring me to acknowledge the “RISK OF DEATH.”

Still, fool that I am, I retained an excitement that was not even diminished upon check-in at the hotel when the clerk asked if I was there for pleasure or business.  I explained what my old roommate had gotten me into and she gleefully remarked that several women contestants had just checked in before me.  She looked me up and down, and an expression of concern crossed her face as she said, “They were all really buff though.”

“I’m in the non-buff category,” was my stoic reply.  I took my room keys and marched the 200 feet to the elevator carrying my 10-pound bag and tried not to think about how out of breath I was when I arrived.

By morning, we had crafted our game plan:  Run until out of sight of any spectators who might misinterpret our walking as weak or un-Spartanlike.  Then we would approach every obstacle with a critical eye and choose intelligently whether to skip it.

They threw the gameplan off before the starting gun sounded.  They called our time, and as we walked up to the staging area, we realized that in order to approach the start line, we had to climb a wall – before the race even began – in front of everyone.

Since every Spartan Race was different, we had learned only that morning that we would face 21 obstacles.  Personally, I felt somewhat resentful that I was being forced to take more than my money’s worth.  It was like getting a baker’s dozen when you really, truly only wanted 12 doughnuts.  With trepidation but a fair amount of dignity, we clambered over the four-foot wall and lined up among the 248 other Spartans who had selected this time slot.

So there I stood with my college buddy, Dave, on the starting line of the Spartan Sprint in Fort Campbell, Kentucky.  I reflected back on how a mild-mannered, usually sane columnist found himself so situated.

“It’s basically a 5k with 21 obstacles,” Dave had promised.

My own wonderment was interrupted by a race official with a megaphone, working 248 of the 250 contestants into a frenzy of hurrahs and guttural shouts of masculinity and not-your-grandmother’s femininity.  Dave and I tried not to visibly cower.

The gunshot rang out, and we were off, crossing the first wall with relative ease.  The second obstacle was a line of round-baled hay turned on end so we had to navigate up the curved edges to the top and drop off the other side.  We nailed it, and our confidence grew.

Several minutes and two river crossings later, we encountered our fifth obstacle, the 6-foot wall.  Again, with a little teamwork, we crossed it with little difficulty.  Elated that we had finished almost 25% of the obstacles, I knuckle-bumped Dave and told him as much.

“We’ve only done three,” he replied. “River crossings don’t count.”

I stopped dead in my tracks.  “What? That’s the hardest part!  So we have 18 more obstacles and two more river crossings left?”  I tried not to sound as hopeless as I felt.

“Yep,” Dave efficiently replied, wisely saving his breath for more important things, like oxygen consumption.

For clarity, a river crossing involves waist-deep water, 20 feet across with 6-foot high banks covered in mud and no vegetation.  The only way in is to slide down the muddy bank, and the only way out is to climb up the opposite bank using strategically placed, but similarly mudslicked ropes.  A few times we lucked into steps worn into the mud by prior contestants.  We weren’t lucky often.

And we had two such crossings left that, let me remind you, did not count as official obstacles.

But, Spartanesque, we toughed it out. I mean, we did skip a 7-foot wall because, well, 7 feet is high, but we hit the rolling mud dunk with gusto, submerging ourselves entirely in muck to pass under an obstacle and emerge on the other side like ancient warriors reborn.

Nearing 2 miles in, morale was high.  We had mastered 7 more obstacles and one more river crossing and calculated only a little over a mile to go.  We began to visualize the culmination of our hard work, if suffering from our lack of preparedness in the preceding months.

Next up, the barbed wire crawl, a 100-foot stretch of elbow-to-elbow competitors trying to keep their tail ends low enough to not snag a valuable piece of flesh.  I snagged valuable flesh at least six times.

Clambering back to our feet, we relished our close-up view of the 2-mile marker, a sense of pride filling us both as we realized that, contrary to our very real fears, we were going to accomplish this thing.

We felt invincible.  Briefly.

About a quarter-mile later, a group of women jetted past lead by one fiercely competitive alpha female barking out encouragement:  “Only 2 miles left, ladies!  Keep pushing!”

I stopped dead in my tracks in unison with Dave as a look of horror came across our faces.  “Wait!” I yelled at the alpha female.  “How long is this thing?”

Covered in mud and running full-pace with a respiratory rate below where mine would dip in a coma, she glanced over her shoulder and shouted back, “Four and a half miles.”

Now there comes a point in every friendship when the relationship is tested.  After 30 years, my friendship with Dave had matured to the point that petty things like a stray mile here or there should not even show up on the radar.  Except at this point, my radar was blipping at a pace only exceeded by my heart rate.

“I did not know this was 4.5 miles, I promise!”

Observing the mirror image of my own distress on Dave’s face, I believed him.  Another quick calculation determined without taking a single step, we had gone from two-thirds of the way complete to barely half way, so turning back would not be any shorter than continuing on.  So, with considerably less self-ascribed glory, we continued on, albeit with noticeably less bounce in our step than before.

We moved forward through as many torturous challenges as the race planners could devise, carrying sandbags and M-16’s through a simulated urban warfare environment and hand-loading 5-gallon buckets of rocks, then hauling them 100 yards out and back, only to unload them again.

By this point, we even boldly refused to do burpees to replace one skipped obstacle, shouting “We’re paying customers!”  It worked.

About that time, a woman whisked past who started fifteen minutes after us, excitingly proclaiming she “never passed anybody.”  When we expressed our joy at benevolently helping her accomplish a long-held goal, she clarified, “I didn’t mean that in a bad way, I just had knee surgery two months ago…”

I glanced at her knees to find which one to kick, but too many witnesses were around . . . and I couldn’t catch up to her anyway.

Finally we caught sight of the line of flaming logs that we would leap for one last, really cool photo op, but looming between us and this finish line my arch nemesis, the cargo net climb.

“Last one, buddy,” Dave cheered, recalling my early and frequently expressed anxiety about this one.

Spectators lined the sides of the final obstacles, cheering on friends and family to completion, so skipping it was not an option, plus in my exhaustion, neither were the 30 burpees.

As I grabbed the net and took a first step, I thought to myself that either way, the pain was nearly over by way of a fall to my death from the cargo net or successfully crossing the finish line, where the agony would end less abruptly.  Knowing I would have a chance to lay motionless for a while, I was at peace with either result.

© Michael L. Collins

This column originally appeared in two parts inthe October 18th and November 1st editions of The Mountain Press

To support mine and Jacob’s dream to publish a book someday, click here.

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