In May of that year, 2014, a client asked me to prep him for a Spartan Race. Back then, I thought they were silly and gimmicky, even though I had never actually done one. Through this journey he would accomplish his goal, and I would fall flat on my face…again.
A few days later, while drinking a few too many IPA’s, my training partner and I were talking about this Spartan Race I was getting my client ready for (the Spartan Beast). We were also surfing the web looking for our next challenge and found it, the Spartan Ultra Beast! This would be awesome, I could go to Vermont to see my client fulfill his goal and the next day we could run the Ultra Beast. Three beers later, we signed up. This actually looked really hard and difficult, exactly what we were looking for.
Training started right away. With long runs through parking garages, carrying sandbags for miles, I had gotten to the point where I could carry a 70 pound sandbag for a mile in less than 8 minutes. Burpees and Pull-ups for days, crawling across football fields, embracing the worst weather to train in and working out multiple times a day. I was in the best shape of my life, even better than as a collegiate athlete. I quite literally felt like I could wrestle a bear…and win. One day, my wife said to me, “You look like one of those Under Armour mannequins.” I don’t think she actually meant it as a compliment, but it made me feel good and was one of the coolest things anyone had ever said to me. I was beyond prepared.
As race day approached, I began to pull back on the training and focus on the last thing anyone should do before a Spartan Race…look at You Tube videos about the race. I stumbled upon one “trainer” who advised all runners to start off slow, take your time, the race is long, make sure you have enough in the tank to finish. Seemed like good advice to me…Mistake #653.
Race day! Pitch black, whipping and chilly wind, we stood at the starting line. Everyone there looked like an Under Armour mannequin. I began to question whether or not I was in over my head. The starter yelled, GOOOOO!!! Off we went, and immediately we were climbing the steepest mountain I had ever seen, let alone climbed. We don’t get this kind of stuff in Chicago. I struggled, but I didn’t want to be “that guy”, who walked, but I could not run up this damn hill. I picked up my head, opened my eyes and saw that EVERYONE, had their heads down, hands on thighs, walking/climbing up the hill. The only thing I could hear was 250 tough guys gasping for air. They were louder than the cold wind.
Up ahead, I could see the top of the hill, as the “runners” ahead of me took a sharp left turn. Once I got there, I realized that that left turn was just a 10 yard detour before MORE CLIMBING. Early on here, I began to question my ability to complete this race, but I kept on going.
After the first obstacle, which was some crawling under wire, we reached a flat part of the course. I remembered the “advice” to take my time. So I walked, quickly, but I walked while others ran. I remember thinking that they were crazy, “how did they expect to last for the entire race?” Even the best of us will be out here for at least 12 hours or so. A few more obstacles (which I dominated, thank you very much) we came to the one obstacle that I dreaded the most, The Tarzan Swing. We had to jump in a lake, which was roughly 40 degrees, swim about 150 yards out to a rope ladder that was attached to a bridge, climb the ladder then swing across about 5 ropes hanging from the bottom of the bridge, kick a bell (to signify completion), then plunge back into the cold water and swim another 150 yards to shore. At this point, I was just about a year removed from rupturing my pec tendon. Remember when I injured myself “showing off” at Boot Camp? That was screw up #401.
So I jumped in the water. Backstroking all the way to the rope ladder, all I could see and hear was failure. Racer after racer could handle the rope ladder, but ALL failed miserably at the tarzan swing. I heard no bell. All I could hear were people crashing into the water, unable to reach the bell. One after another fell: a symphony of failure. I climbed the ladder, took a deep breath and reached for the first rope, then the second, third, fourth, fifth and then I kicked that bell as hard as I’ve ever kicked anything in my life! Holy moly…I did it. I swam to shore to see everyone who failed doing their penalty burpees. I got to run past the burpee area. I felt like the king of the world. The water made my body feel frozen and numb, but somehow I managed to run. It was probably because that was the only way to avoid hypothermia. That victory and momentum carried me for the next couple of miles. I arrived to the top of the mountain, and now it was time to run down. As intimidating these hills were to go up, they were twice as scary looking down. Coming from Chicago, I have never run on anything like this before. I was actually frightening. I thought for sure, that I was going to break my head open. It was painful, not the pain in my legs, but the pain of watching person after person barrel down the mountain with great ease and speed. “On your left!” Man, you hate to hear that at a race. It means that someone is passing you by. A chorus of “on your left” went along with the rhythm of their collective steps. The worst damn song I have ever heard.
I started to get into my own head a bit, as I began failing obstacles that I should have been succeeding at. Then there was more downhill. I slowly shuffled sideways through the woods, over exposed roots and large rocks all the way to the bottom of the hill only to find out that I had to go right back up again. I put my head down and walked up, then slowly went back down again to the sandbag carry. I was ready for this one, until I realized that we, the Ultra Beast runners, had to carry TWO 70lb sandbags about ¼ mile up the steepest part of the hill and then back down. Easily, easily, the single hardest physical task I have ever done.
NO CONTEST. Ask anyone who was there, we all know. I fact, I saw a few of those big strong men from the starting line, lying on the ground weeping. Their legs were cramped up and they could not go on anymore. Since then, I’ve had the opportunity to get to meet the best that the sport of obstacle racing has to offer. They all agree, this was the suckiest obstacle they’ve ever encountered. It took me probably 45 minutes (maybe an hour), but I completed it. Onward. After that were a few more obstacles, then the finish area. Now this Ultra Beast is actually two laps of what I just did. While many of the people/runners, who were doing the regular Beast course, were just about to finish, we had to make a hard left turn and start all over again. The ultra-runners were given a bright green wristband to tell us apart from the rest of the competition. As I approached the finish/restart area, I saw a runner who I had talked to out on the course. He had his green wristband off, holding it in his left hand. I asked him why. He said, “I’m so tired, I’m just going to stop here and try to collect a regular beast medal. I’m done.” Holy crap, little did he know that I was thinking the exact same thing. My arms felt like wet spaghetti with soggy pancakes for hands. However, when I heard him say it, my focus completely changed. I talked him out of it. With our bands on, we made that left turn. On our way, there was one woman spectator, standing and clapping. “GO ULTRA!” she yelled. I can’t tell you how strong her words made me feel.
In between loops, we were able to stop and refuel at the transition area. Here, ultra-runners could refill their water packs, eat something, change clothes and/or whatever they needed to get/do for the second loop. When I got to this area the mood was somber. Everyone who was still in there was saying it was too late, there was no way we could complete the second lap in the necessary time frame. I witnessed a few people pack up their belongings and quit the race there. Undeterred, I quickly ate a bagel with peanut butter, about 10 pickle spears and drank the pickle juice. Realizing that I had some nighttime running ahead of me, I packed my headlamp in a Ziploc bag, put it in my backpack, charged out of the gate and attacked the first hill. Ha! I still couldn’t run up, but I certainly climbed it much faster this time. I got back in the water, grabbed the rope ladder and then the first tarzan swing, right before I crashed directly into the water! I was inspired indeed, but my spaghetti arms just didn’t get the message. So I did my burpees and continued on.
The crowd of runners was much leaner on the second loop. I felt like there was only about ¼ of the runners now. I guess everyone else had either finished or dropped out. But for those of us who were still out there we became bonded and determined. We encouraged, helped, supported and sometimes just talked to each other, anything to keep the mood up. I got to the top again and still shuffled down. The sun began to set behind the mountains, so I reached into my backpack to get my headlamp only to find that my Ziploc bag broke leaving the headlamp saturated and inoperable. DAMN! How was I to navigate those dark, steep downhill trails without a headlamp? But I kept on going. In fact, I felt like I was gaining speed. At this point, I heard that voice…“You’re going too slow! You’re not going to make it. You have to RUN! Let’s go, follow me.”
So we ran. All of a sudden I was sprinting down this mountain. With relative ease we sprinted against time. We made it all the way to the bottom, and immediately forged back up again. My legs felt invigorated and I was indeed going to beat this clock. Somewhere along the way, I lost track of my new friend. I have no recollection of where we parted, but he wasn’t by my side anymore. Once I got back to the top, the sun was gone. Pitch black with no headlamp, almost all by myself. I could see and hear the festival/finish area down below and I knew that I did not have far to go. However, I did have to go into those woods to get there, and I could not even see my hand in front of my face, so I waited. I waited for about 15-20 minutes for another runner who had a headlamp, so I could follow them down. Once they got there, I trailed behind, carefully watching every step. We made it all the way down and headed directly for the sandbag carry again. I threw one of them up on my shoulder, the other one under my arm and started to climb. The hill was littered with dropped sandbags of the runners who had quit. After my first step, I felt a tap on my shoulder. “Dude, I’m so sorry, Man. I’ve got to cut you off. You’re race is over. You did not get here in time.” I turned around, dropped the bags, put my hands on my knees and cried. 15 plus hours on the mountain, only one mile to go and it was suddenly over. “Luckily” for me, the sandbag carry was right by the finish line, so I got to walk right past it, just not through it. This was a jubilant area, and this time the “music” I heard was laughter and the finisher medals clinking together. Devastated, I walked to the lobby area to find my family waiting for me. My training partner, Jeff was there with my family, his medal firmly in hand. “Daddy, where is your medal?” My daughter asked me. “I didn’t get one, Mags”. “You can have mine”. She then handed me the medal she had earned in the kids race earlier that day. She was quite proud of it, and I had learned that she wouldn’t even let anyone else touch it that day, so this was actually quite a special moment for me. Selfless of her and it made me feel a little better. But only a little better at the time, I guess, because when everyone asked me what happened, I slammed by bogus headlamp to the floor and it broke into about 20 pieces. However, I quickly realized that the only thing that was bogus was me. If I had of not pussyfooted around on the first lap of the race, I would not have even needed the headlamp in the first place. I screwed up. It was my fault. I let myself be intimidated. I did not trust my own abilities. And in a twist of fate, I saw the guy that I talked out of quitting at the transition area. He was holding his finisher medal. He gave me a hug and thanked me for talking him out of quitting. I smiled on the outside, but I was slowly being crushed from the inside out.
Instantly, I became aware that this was how I had managed to screw up at many things in my life. I prepare and prepare with ferocious intensity, but when it’s time to shine and go, I pull back, because I don’t trust myself. NEVER AGAIN. FUCK THAT SHIT.
Since that day, September 21st 2014, everything changed. I changed the way I approached everything. I changed the way I communicate with people, especially myself. I changed the way I coached and I changed the way I showed people love. Within six months of my failure on the mountain, my book of business DOUBLED. I keep that green wristband prominently displayed in my office. NEVER AGAIN.
By the way, the next year I went back to the Ultra Beast and kicked that races’ ass. I ran the first loop very fast and actually treated the second loop like a victory lap. I stopped to offer encouragement and help to others who were struggling. I did not even bring my headlamp on the second lap, as I was looking at the sun when I crossed the finish line. This race alone was a great story, which I will share later.
In this edition of screwing up, I learned many valuable lessons.
- Trust yourself.
- Push forward. You can rest when you are done.
- I am stronger and more resilient than I ever gave myself credit for.
- Attack with relentless forward progress.