Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Playing the Beast

George Bernard Shaw wrote "we don't stop playing because we grow old, we grow old because we stop playing." As I was getting packed to return to Vermont to do the Championship Beast, that was the thought I was having about why I keep doing these Spartans. I'd qualified for Boston and won a 5k since the last Spartan race so a couple of friends had asked me why I don't just focus solely on running, why pursue an activity I feel so inadequate for since I get passed by so many more people and get whooped so much more.

It took a small damaged brain with memory issues very little time to figure it out and remember. As Kiana and I went to the track and then after playground, she sat there and played on the monkey bars and kept trying to swing harder, till she eventually fell and cried. After a couple of minutes of calming down, she did it again successfully. As we walked to school, she walked across a wall with balance then stopped and picked a flower. This, this is why I do Spartans. Because road races are fun and running is fun but as kids, or at least when I was a kid and as I watch my daughter Kiana, we want to do so much more than just put one foot in front of the other fast. And so we build playgrounds to do it more cleanly and when I get on there and play with her... it's a nostalgic feeling I can't quite describe.

But when I get out to do Spartans, the nostalgic feeling is further back than my childhood. It's remembering the childhood of perhaps being human itself... when there was no clear path, just a mountain to climb, trees to avoid, rocks to crawl over. I suppose there were always some people who stayed at camp but the ones that took us higher, further were those who'd be the defining elements of humanity was building it's own playground, it's own path or at least pursuing the one that  most people left only to the beasts. In Spartans, they build in these obstacles which cover such a range of challenges. I am still amused that they call the running out here technical running; that to me feels like calling a plane flying and a bird technical flying. Running in nature is the way we got better at running and while driving on running in a car may be faster... flying or running through the natural way up mountains, swimming across rivers, getting in the mud, that's not technical to me, that's running in the midst of beauty, nature, reality. In those Spartan races, I have beaten people who would have come in ahead of me on road races and vice versa. But it's more than just putting one foot in front of the other, you have to land them right, watch where you're going. And if the challenges were just things that you had to deal with and then keep running and the best runners would still be usually the winners, well they wouldn't be obstacles then, they'd be merely interruptions. And so that was the attitude I went in with as I laid out my gear and got ready for the Spartan championships.

The first time I did it in 2013 I had no concept of what Vermont looked like. I had looked up at the Ski Resort mountain where we'd do this all and thought that was a beautiful mountain than when I'd heard we were going to be up and down it several times, it was the most hideous thing I'd ever seen. But going into it, I knew it was a beauty and I was hoping to be successful in taking it with it's obstacles and becoming a beast.

The first few miles on the course were different this year, a different start with a slight down hill turned into an uphill. It was very few obstacles at first, letting people spread out before jumping over walls, going under walls, going across walls, crawling in mud under barbed wire. I'd seen all of this before and I'd prepared for it all mentally. There were sandbags to carry, buckets to carry, and since the year before I had also these at home and had some concept. I am not a great swimmer and it wasn't long before we were swimming in water that was colder than any water shy of an ice bath I'd ever been in with two obstacles in the middle. I got 50% of those, missing the tarzan swing because well I guess I didn't focus on the right movie having thought about Beauty and the Beast and the Jungle Book and not enough about Tarzan and Jane. I got further than I thought I would along it and the water was colder than I remembered when I landed. Still, we proceeded where the trail got more unfamiliar and we kept going forever uphill it seemed. When we got to the very top, there was a wind and fog and cold where you couldn't see very far in front of you with a cargo net where perhaps it was just my imagination, it seemed a lot colder in just climbing those 20 feet up than it did at the bottom. The balance beams I had done before had a new twist with a log in the middle followed by more balance beams. There was a memory test (do you remember things worse or better when you're cold?).

 And suddenly on what had been described as the toughest course I'd ever done, the hardest thing I've ever signed up, I honestly started to grow over confident. I was over halfway done mileage wise and while it was a challenge, I was ready to say that the training had paid off and just to turn it on till the finish line. Not long after that, there was an interruption, no an obstacle, no a crazy ridiculous part of the course that reminded me that this was on a ski course and that in order to go up people usually take lifts and come down on ski's. The hills had been tough enough but all of a sudden there were bags to carry. The simple truth is we'd had a similar obstacle the year before but it was a long sandbag that while heavy and awkward, I'd gotten this. This year I'd worked on my upper body more (or so I thought) and it would be simpler. Boy was I wrong. They had upped the ante... it was now two bags, built not with a handle but with a way you'd grab them at the top and you'd have to take them both. I started that climb what felt like 100 times dragging it, hating gravity, wondering as I do in the middle of most races and certainly Spartans, WHY AM I DOING THIS?!? I was in the elite heat and we had two carry bags, the ladies and the open heat only  had to carry one bag and they were passing us and each of them were sharing encouragement as
they did so. It was questionable whether it was sweat or tears going down my cheeks at that point. Apparently it would become more common during the day that people would just leave a bag and walk off the course and quit there, I only saw one person do that while I was on the mountain. Definitely had the wrong griping thought up there as I kept trying to find a way to push by thinking, just reminding myself that mentally I just had to "Get a grip." Then I realized well my grip muscles are exhausted... it wasn't my arms or chest, it was my hands never having done anything like that trying to pull these things up that was wearing me out. I got it done after some breaks in the middle and I think approximately three and half years.

But after that while there were just a few miles to go... those miles felt longer than I dare describe. There was a point on the course where I made the wrong turn and realized and a volunteer lead me back and as I headed backwards, probably getting a little mileage in I was talking to the guys going forward who recognized me and asked what was wrong asking if I was walking off the course (there was zero chance of that). I just said I was trying to do the course in its entirety and I didn't know how else to do that after making a wrong turn than to go back. There were obstacles that I struggled with that I wouldn't have without those bags, a herculean hoist were you pick up weight over a rope and a beam and then let it down gently was  harder than any other times I've done it from grip strength shot. There a contraption that felt like it was from American Ninja and it whooped me, the obstacle I'd been able to prepare the most specifically for the monkey bars were no longer just bars that swang across, they had huge ups and downs, and they took me down. There were things I didn't struggle with at all in previous Spartans like the rope climb where my fingers were just hurting. I got it done but I had to hang on tight and it was a bumpy ride. Honestly several days later they still hurt, maybe why it took me so long to write this report. In Spartans some obstacles have to be completed, you have to make them a priority because they aren't an option, that was one of them. Others you get one shot at them and if you miss them it's a 30 burpee penalty before moving on... there's a great Spartan saying, there's no failure only burpees, I got to not experience failure 150 time along the course.

The end was a steep climb with a steep run down to jump over the fire. But when the finish line was visible it was easier and that was the fastest I'd climbed up terrain and ran down the slopes. The honest truth is that in Spartans I've never checked my time or my standing. I don't wear a watch because I don't know how to translate it. I knew it was about 15 miles, 7000 feet of elevation, 33 obstacles, tons of muscle, mind, heart and pain to get through it. I was exhausted but knew that day I was proud to be a beast, still believing that if you sign up for some messy things in life, it makes the ones you don't sign up for a little easier to deal with. This Spartan beast reminded me that it's good to work hard, to find something to believe in, even if I didn't know where I stand.

Like any Spartan or race, I wasn't necessarily smiling in the middle but I was smiling at the beginning and at the end. I've played many sports and taken many challenges in life, some willing and some by happenstance but there's nothing else I've ever done that pushed endurance, every muscle fiber as much as this, my heart beat. Many have mentioned I was crazy for doing this kind of stuff... fair enough, we know something's wrong with my brain. But I think it's probably good to push and play with as much of the system on occasion. And that playing in Vermont was a beauty and at the end of it I was grateful that both that the mountain and I were still standing and that I got to be a beast.

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