“This isn’t about going it alone; it’s about becoming part of something bigger than yourself. Spartans leave no one behind. It is great to push yourself alone, but it is even greater to compete along with friends and acquaintances to reach a new level.” Spartan Up! by Joe De Sena (founder of the Spartan Race), p. 163.
I was on the cargo net climb, frozen into place, unable to move my body the necessary two feet over the top, and climb back down. My friend, Elisabeth, had already scampered up and over the nets, and was waiting for me on the ground on the other side. The Spartan volunteer, a youngster who looked to be about 16, scooted over and tried to help me by saying, “You can do this,” and demonstrating how to get up and over. I gave his advice exactly 1.3 seconds consideration and said, “No, I can’t,” and proceeded back down. On the ground, I did the thirty burpees required when an obstacle is failed. I also started plummeting down the very black hole I fall into when I realize I’ve committed to something that is way beyond my capabilities, a hole that is slippery and lined with, “You should have known better,” “You’re not an athlete like all these other people,” “What the hell is wrong with you?!” “You have no one to blame but yourself,” and my particular favorite, “You got yourself into this mess, and now you’re going to let everyone down. You’re useless.”
It all started back in November when Elisabeth texted me, “You want to do a Spartan Race with me?” My response was, “What’s a Spartan Race?” She explained that it’s an obstacle course, and sent me a link to a video. I watched it and was both intrigued and horrified.
Elisabeth is a long distance cyclist and runner. She’s completed six marathons and countless shorter races. The woman has ENDURANCE. I couldn’t possibly do anything like the Spartan Race in a million years. Could I? Maybe I could. I mean, I’d been doing CrossFit for almost a year and a half. I could do a back squat at 85 lbs, and a deadlift at 150 lbs. CrossFit includes some running, and I was getting better at that. Maybe, just maybe, I could hold my own with the 23 and 34 and 45 year olds. I would just need some extra training. It was quite simple really.
Afflicted with what my cousin’s husband calls the “Whole Hog Syndrome,” when I commit to something, I’m all in. Facebook being the perfect medium, I posted information about the Race. I described the training I was doing. Daily.
I took a picture of the new outfit I bought just for the race (and ended up wearing something else).
I even trumpeted the food I was eating. I could, of course, eat whatever I wanted seeing how I was in training and all.
Race Day arrived. The morning of February 7 found Elisabeth and me trying to get our bearings at the race site, the McDowell Mountain Regional Park outside of Phoenix, Arizona. We got our race packets, took a look at the participants doing various obstacles in the near vicinity, discussed our race strategy which mainly consisted of us saying we’d help each other and confidently announcing, “Oh, I can do that obstacle!” and figuring out where to leave our bags of clean clothes for after the race. We even participated in the tiny warmup they had before the race.
Then it was our group’s time to go. Off we went, Elisabeth ahead of me. Up a sandy hill to the first wall, which I could only get over with Elisabeth’s help, scrabbling ungainly and plopping in a decidedly uncoordinated fashion onto the ground. She got over the wall by herself. The same with the next wall. And the next one. I started getting a little nervous. But I kept going. I got myself through a wall with cutouts in it, so I felt a little better. Then came the cargo net climb. I had not factored in my excruciating fear of heights.
After finishing the burpees, I knew I was in serious trouble because there were more high climbs ahead. I had lost my nerve and was feeling completely unprepared for the rest of the race. I didn’t know what to do; I sure as hell couldn’t run this race like a real Spartan. It wasn’t that I was incompetent – I would have had to grapple up several rungs of the Ladder of Ineptitude to even reach incompetent. It was that I COULD NOT DO WHAT THIS RACE REQUIRED.
Feeling tears stinging my eyes, I slowly started after Elisabeth. Elisabeth turned around and said, “If you’re going to do this, you need to run faster. I can’t do this race without your help.” I was thinking about my options – sitting down and crying (and not delicately either; I’m talking hunched over sobbing wails with snot running down my face); stomping off in a huff to sit in the car; and suddenly sprouting wings and flying home to Tucson. Her tone snapped me out of my reverie of misery. She was concerned about her completion time for the race. She was committed to doing this. It was very clear on her face. So I picked up the pace but was still not sure what I was going to do.
I couldn’t burpee my way through every obstacle; that would slow us down to a snail’s pace. Finally, at the rope climb I asked a Spartan Race volunteer if I could just not do the obstacles but stay with my friend and help her. The kindest woman on earth said, “Of course you can, honey. I wouldn’t do any of these things!” She gave me the permission I couldn’t give myself.
From that point on, I decided to only do the obstacles I thought I could do safely, and help Elisabeth wherever possible. We ran up hills and down. She tried every single obstacle and did the majority of them, doing the required 30 burpees for the ones she couldn’t do. I helped push her up when she needed it, provided stability when necessary, helped with the rope pull of 90 pounds, and gave her shoulders to sit on to do a high hand over hand obstacle. The most significant help I gave was in the mud pits (which I actually enjoyed). She’d pushed me out, but the mud piles were too slippery for me to pull her out. So I used one of my strongest assets – a voice that can cut through a crowd like a hot knife through butter. “Can somebody help push my friend’s butt up?!” resulted in a very nice young man stepping forward and offering her his thigh to step on.
I won’t say that the rest of the course was a special, magical time in which my heart became filled with love for the Spartan Race. It wasn’t. But I kept going, and did my best. I also noticed how everyone, and I mean everyone, helped each other. At an eight foot wall we were looking around for a man to boost Elisabeth up when a 5′ 3” gal offered to help. She provided a shoulder for Elisabeth to step up on and once Elisabeth was over the wall, got herself over too. My contribution was to stand there in astonishment.
I did the barbed wire crawl/roll with Elisabeth just before the end of the race. After that was leaping over fire, which was the last obstacle. I could not bring myself to do it because I’d only done about a third of the obstacles and felt like I didn’t deserve it. That was for Spartans. I was covered in bruises that made me look like I had been in a cage fight with Godzilla, and had mud in every orifice of my body. Those are badges of honor for Spartan Racers, but I felt like a phony.
I have been friends with Elisabeth for almost twenty years, and the words she said to me after the race confirmed why. Those words were, “I know you were thinking about quitting but you didn’t leave me. I couldn’t have done this without your help.” That really made me stop and think.
When it came down to it, I didn’t leave my friend. I couldn’t leave my friend.
Maybe I am Spartan after all.