It was a long way from the hills of Schuyler County to the muddy fields of Barre, Mass. The journey to get here involved lots of hard work and sacrifice. I was surrounded by men and women who had also put in long hours of training in an effort to prepare for this day. The sense of camaraderie through shared misery was evident in every interaction I had, though we were strangers we shared a bond. The 80 plus degree temperatures and brutal humidity did not deter us, but rather represented another obstacle to overcome. The warrior spirit was alive and well, sharing this moment with my son and daughter only added to the intensity and drama of the day.
Two hundred plus athletes stood ready to start the race, this was of one many waves of runners that would take on the challenge of the 8. 5 mile obstacle course, a total of more than 2400 athletes would compete by the end of the day. The announcer recited the Spartan creed in a rousing voice, just as any coach does before the big game. Full of positive declarations and challenges to which we all shouted back in unison, “I am Spartan.” One phrase would run through my mind that day as I ran the array of obstacles, gasping for breath… heart ready to burst and my body ready to collapse.
“We are honored by your courage and committed to Excellence, but know this through your mind, body and spirit, we will all be put to the ultimate test… for you chase glory on this day! Who am I? I am Spartan!”
Eight weeks earlier on Father’s Day when most dads were getting a new tie or a hammer I got a notice saying my application for the 2016 Spartan Super in Barre Mass. had been accepted. It promised a grueling race that would be between 8 to ten miles with 32 obstacles, all meant to challenge my strength and endurance. My daughter Cathy smiled when she handed me the envelope, it was a devilish grin.
Cathy, who graduated in 01 from Watkins was a standout swimmer and athlete who would be one of the first graduates to get a scholarship to a division one school, U-Conn. Russ graduated in 98 from Odessa and had the distinction of being ranked number two in the country in the high school class for motorcycle trials. I was not shy about pushing my kids when it came to sports, it was their turn to push back.
Cathy told me I had 8 weeks to get in shape, lose 20 pounds and toughen up. Sitting around the table at Chef’s Dinner for our Father’s Day breakfast I decided I didn’t need to finish my home fries or the rest of my breakfast. It would be the beginning of me not eating a lot of things, no more cookies, no more cake and no more of almost everything I really loved when it came to food. We went over a training schedule and I made the commitment to stick it out and not let my kids down.
The Catharine Valley Trail would become my training ground, it would also become the classroom for some lessons in humility. I started out that Sunday afternoon with the idea of running 4 miles. As someone who used to train as a fighter 25 years ago this seemed to be a simple and doable task. As I stretched at the beginning of the trail, loosening up old muscles that had not done this for years, a young woman came running down the trail. I boldly asked this young lady if she would like a running partner, foolishly assuming I could keep up, it never even crossed my mind that I couldn’t. We made quick introductions and headed down the trail. April was light on her feet, she chatted easily as we ran, and I was breathing hard by ¾ mile mark, my heart was pounding and I struggled to keep pace. Going a little further I found I couldn’t run another step.
I told April I had to walk, “Go on ahead, I don’t want to ruin your run,” I managed in between gasps for air. She slowed to walk and told me “It’s ok, just let me know when you want to pick up the pace again.”
As we walked, she shared some information on breathing and on form. She had run cross country in high school and graciously repeated some of her coach’s tips on running. We started running again after I caught my breath. We repeated this process a couple of more times for the next three miles. I felt horrible for holding her back and apologized each time for my weakness, she graciously slowed to my pace each time.
During one of our walks while I worked to catch my breath, she said, “You know Bob my mom can’t run… and you are way older than she is.”
I thanked her for both making feel good, and my age all in one sentence. This one would turn out to be one of the many lessons in humility that let me know how far I had to go, how out of shape I was, and what a Herculean challenge lay ahead of me.
The agony and the ecstasy, is the only way I can describe 8 weeks of training. I work in the woods as a logger, not an easy job, the prospect of working all day in the woods and then coming home to eat a salad, and then go for a run or lift weights was a full time battle for me. I was tired…it seemed, all the time, I thought about food all… of the time. Each night there was a reason not to work out, each night I went anyway. It was a long, slow process to get into shape all of it taking much more effort than took 25 years ago.
The good stuff, the stuff that made it all worthwhile was sharing my training and sharing my improvements with my kids. Each night I would text them how many miles I had run and how many burpees I did. A burpee is dropping down doing a push up, then springing to your feet, then jumping up in the air with your hands over your head. We each shared what we did that night, always trying to outdo each other.
We ran together, the three of us for the first time ever as adults, while I had run with each of them over the years separately we had never run as a family. Our first run together during week 6 of training, was 8 miles and 80 burpees, it is a memory I will always treasure. Spending time with both Russ and Cathy to train was probably the greatest rewards of this journey. In the last weekend before the race I ran down the Catharine Trail from Montour to Millport, about 9 miles, doing ten burpees at every half mile. I felt strong and I felt like I was beginning to get back into shape again. I was 18 pounds lighter and could do more pull-ups and lift more weight with more reps than before; I thought I was ready for my Spartan Race, I was wrong.
With a rousing yell, we started our race, the ground still soggy from last night’s rain. Cathy set the pace, we would run two miles climbing over round bales and zigzagging through the wooded trails, before our first obstacle of any size. It was a large A frame, maybe 30 feet up in the air it was an easy climb up and over. Russ had left in an earlier heat running in the Elite class. Cathy would hold my hand to help me through the obstacles and help me with the pace. She had run a Spartan Super just a few weeks ago and this was a chance to help her Dad and get some training in. It did not take long for me to feel as though I was holding her back. We had up until this point made good time and I felt pretty confident. Next came the rope climb 30 feet up, Cathy and I both climbed up hand over hand ringing the bell at the top so that we could be waved on. If we had failed the judges would send us to the burpee pit for a mandatory 30 burpees before going on. The crowd of the two hundred athletes in our group had now spread out a little, running a half mile or so through the fields we came to the sand bag carry, 40 pounds for men 20 for women a ¼ mile uphill carry and then back down. We both jogged for the first part, I was beginning to get winded and I had to walk up the rest of the hill and did a very slow jog back down to the bottom where I dumped off the bag. Breathing hard now, feeling the heat of the morning sun; we ran to the next obstacle. True to the nature of the contest the next obstacle was a spear throw, Cathy’s hit the target and bounced out, mine fell short, 30 burpees for both of us. Cathy did hers with some grunts and groans, as soon as I got to 15 I had a hard time believing I could even do 30. The sweat now ran down my face and back, I had to stop for a minute to catch my breath before going on… this was tough.
More cargo nets, a climbing wall, an area the length of a football field covered in barbed wire that had to be crawled under, using a combination of rolling and crawling to avoid getting tangled up and have your clothes ripped to shreds. I was starting to catch my breath we ran down into some deep ravines filled with muddy water, sliding up and down the banks through a series of them, the cool water felt great, no thought was given to the slimy concoction that waited for us at the bottom if ravine. The last water hazard was deeper and had a wall you had to swim under… the filthy water never felt so good… I was tired. The next obstacle I barely attempted, I knew I did not have the strength to pull off. 60 feet of hanging rings and ropes which you had to swing from like Tarzan, half way through I just let go, 30 more burpees, Cathy also failed so we did our burpees together, it did not make it any easier.
We ran up hill and encountered a series of walls, I had practiced for these and managed to get over a combination of walls anywhere from 7 feet to 8 feet, some straight up, some at odd angles. The last wall stopped me, 9 feet tall, covered in slimy mud I could not jump high enough to reach the top to pull myself over. The women had steps a couple of feet off the ground they could use to give them an advantage. The deep mud before the wall made a running attempt for me almost impossible. Cathy made it over and watched and cheered on as I tried repeatedly to get over. 30 burpees was my sentence. This almost killed me, I did a few caught my breath and did a few more, the last ten went painfully slow. When I finished there was no energy left to run, I walked. I had to let my heart slow down, let my breathing even out so I could get in some oxygen. The humid air made all of this even harder. Cathy fed me a couple of salt pills and some energy chews to help bring me back to life, the sweat stung my eyes, we were only at mile four. I fast walked as best I could to try and keep a decent pace. I felt horrible about holding Cathy back, she cheered me on and kept me going. Waiting for us next was a concrete ball about two feet in diameter, which had to be carried 50 feet or so and then put down, give them 5 burpees and carry it back to the starting line again. I have no idea how much it weighed only that it was heavy or weighed as much as the sled filled with sand bags that had to be dragged back and forth in a similar fashion.
The obstacles became a blur, a 5 gallon bucket filled with stone, up and down the hill, another sled filled with sand pulled up hill, more cargo nets, and more walls. I got to the seven mile mark and knew that as tired as I was I could push on. I also knew that this was the hardest thing I have ever attempted, lying down and resting crossed my mind more than once. Cathy’s encouragement sustained me. I would not slow down but just keep pushing forward. Mile 8 came and I started to feel better, the ground was a little smoother or at least a relief from the swamp we had just run through with mud and water over three feet deep in spots. One last 30 foot tower and a fire to jump over and we were home.
I got to the finish line, head pounding, back aching, out breath, and out of everything that seem to make me want to move. I reflected back on the words at the start of the race
But know this, through your mind, body and spirit, we will all be put to the ultimate test… for you chase glory on this day! Who am I? I am Spartan!”
There was no shouting this time, I mumbled it under my breath more of a whisper. Disappointed with the performance, humbled by the other athletes who ran with me and the course that kicked my butt. I vowed to train harder, vowed to be more Spartan like.
Epilog... Russ finished with a time 50 minutes faster than mine putting him somewhere in 7oth place in the men’s Elite Class and with a time faster than 90 percent of the rest of the 2500 competitors. I finished 2 in my class which sounds great until you dig a little deeper and find that there was only one other foolish old guy besides myself in the 55 year to 60 years old category. This is for young people. I did however finish with a faster time than 1600 other competitors all who were younger than I. Cathy got some training in and in the photos at the end of the race, she looks as though she went for a morning stroll, I have no idea what tired old Spartans look like, but I am going to have to pretend they didn’t look any worse than I did, cause, “Who am I? I am Spartan.”