Spartan Shape-Up, Day 290:
There are moments in life that can change us forever; they awaken something in ourselves that we hadn't known existed, unleash the parts of us that we had kept caged, or suddenly prove to ourselves that our dreams can, no matter how big or "impossible," become a reality.
As I crossed the finish line at my first Spartan Race - The Colorado Spartan Military Sprint - with tears welling up in my eyes, and a smile on my face, I knew that The Moment was suddenly upon me.
290 Days ago, I decided I was done living a life trapped in my limitations, hindered by my spare tire of junk food and resigned to going where ever I drifted, rather than steering my life in the direction I wanted to go. I set a goal. A BIG one: Be fit enough to successfully complete a Spartan Race before I turned 30 (for someone that was 284 pounds, never run a day in her life, never been "sporty" or "strong" this was a colossal undertaking). One thing lead to another, and I found myself debarking a plane into 85 degree weather in Colorado, about to attempt that very thing.
I was petrified. Seriously. I am not a nervous person, by any stretch of the imagination, but the thought of attempting this feat made my stomach some weird amalgamation of knotted butterflies (yeah. Try and picture that.). Thankfully, upon my arrival in Colorado, I was surrounded by some of my closest Spartans (including, but not limited to, Sara - of the Sandbag post fame, and my GT), that helped keep my busy and keep my nerves down. Ish.
It all began at packet pickup. Please note that in BIG RED LETTERS it decidedly informs you that "YOU MAY DIE." (I did not tell my mother this.) Excellent. Clearly, I had lost my mind. I was in over my head. I was not ready. I'd never be ready. I'm not this person. I don't do these things. My inner Fat Chick had a panic attack. Outwardly, I kept it together (at least I thought I did). At this point, while "relaxing" in the hotel lobby, people watching all the incoming Spartans, I got to meet my first new friend of the weekend - Katy! Katy is a Colorado Springs local, also running her first Spartan. We'd "met" on the Chicks FB Page, and found some comfort in being Spartan Sparkles (Sparkle: a Spartan Chick that hasn't run a race yet.) at our first race together.
Later on, I got to meet Jill, a friend of Sara's, who would join our cast of characters for the weekend. Jill was also a Sparkle, but with a running background. She was quick to laugh, smile and share a really positive attitude. I could not have asked for better people to surround myself with... and they just kept coming!
With no Hurricane Heat to get to, we ate a leisurely dinner and all decided to turn in early. I tried. I swear. I got back to the room and tried to pack my race-day bag. I am pretty sure I just paced around, putting stuff in my backpack, taking it back out again, fretting whether I'd brought the right stuff, what to do, and everything in between. I had doubts. BIG doubts. My arms are still akin to T-Rex, I was still too much overweight, the heat would kill me, the altitude would get me, I'd be LAST....... I laid in bed. Thank god the sheer mental circles I had run all day, coupled with getting up at an obscene hour to get to the airport, as well as flying BACK in time, had me tired. I passed out.
.... and woke up on RACE MORNING. OHMYGODOHMYGOD. Again, I would like to emphasis that I am not a nervous person. But this was unlike anything I'd ever attempted before. I was about to attempt to prove myself, and half the world that told me I couldn't, absolutely wrong. I donned my Pink and Black - inwardly smiling and thinking of the 3000+ Spartan Chicks that virtually supported me all over the world. Over the preceding few days I'd gotten countless messages of love and support, from people I've never met. This Spartan Family is like no other, let me tell you.
I managed to choke down some breakfast, understanding the importance of fueling, and it was in the car we went. I could barely stand myself. My usual loud-mouth self was quiet. I tried to breathe in the beautiful Colorado scenery and relax... but that didn't seem to be on the horizon. But the Race Site was. We boarded a shuttle in front of the hospital on Fort Carson (... interesting choice of shuttle spot, Spartan Race. ), and there was no turning back.
Our small group of Spartans gathered at the registration area, getting situated. We sorted out numbers, figured out timing chips, and consolidated our bags. I will freely admit that I couldn't put on my own timing bracelet because my hands were shaking too badly.
Here's me, trying to stay sane, posing with my outfit-twin, Sara:
It was a little after 9am and the final prep had begun. Our team (mostly Spartan "Storm Chasers" with a few new recruits!) was headed out at 9:30am. Bags were checked, shoelaces were checked and rechecked, and we took our Before picture:
Over in the starting gate corral, the energy was infectious. There were 300 people following an emcee doing yoga stretches. Music was bumpin'. People were taking pictures. I wanted to throw up. I stuck close to my GT, a veteran Spartan, hoping to absorb some of the calmness that seemed to surround him. I couldn't stand still. I paced. I bounced. I stretched. It was time.
The announcer ran through a rendition of the famous Coach Flowers speech, "I am a Champion"... only as "I am a Spartan." Listening to 300 people feed off this energy had goosebumps raising on my skin. As the "AROO!!"s echoed around me, I tried to center myself by reminding myself that I was here just to finish. To show myself that I could. To do the best I was able. I would be officially leaving my Inner Fat Chick at that start line, and daring to attempt something that I never could've possibly imagined two short years ago.
We started running. An easy jog led us through a line of Greek columns, cameras snapping, dramatic smoke drifting all around us, and finally, I was moving. This felt better. I needed to focus, set my mind on a task and move forward. My body knew how to do this running thing, thankfully. We hit autopilot and my legs carried me over the dry desert and up to our first obstacles.
First, Mud Pits. Three in a row. Jump them if you could, wade them if you couldn't. Seemed simple enough. With a solid running leap (thank you Plyo training!), I made the first two with no problem. .... Jump three, I landed in waist high mud, and suddenly had an overwhelming feeling of satisfaction. There is something about landing in mud that really makes your inner 5 year old smile. PLUS, let me just tell you, it was a blessing. 85 degrees and sunny seemed beautiful, but it was AMAZING to get wet right off and cool off the body temperature. My posse gathered and we pressed on.
As we left the mud pits behind us, my GT ran up along side me and pressed a muddy hand print onto the back of my shirt. Before I had a chance to raise an eyebrow (or retaliate!), he simply explained that, "if you get worried, remember I have your back."
We crawled under some netting, scaled some low walls and I was starting to feel okay. I had an outlet for the pent up energy, and so far, so good. My "fat ass" and I had gotten over the low walls with no help, with a small semblance of grace... maybe I'd be okay. However, knowing Spartan Race, this was merely a warmup.
(You'll forgive me if some of my story gets jumbled at this point. It is hard to keep the exact sequence of 30+ obstacles in order, as you fight through them. )
My first true challenge came at the soapy wall. The task was thus: wade through thigh-high soapy mud water, then scale a slippery wall, with the "assistance" of a wet, soapy, muddy rope. Having done my studying, I knew that the key here was to keep one's body as perpendicular as possible to the wall, to maintain your grip. I began my ascent. Two-thirds of the way up, gravity started to catch up with me, the wall got slippery-er, I fought to keep my grip and it got hard. At which point I remembered that we were directly in front of the spectators. Like 12 feet away. There was NO WAY that I was going to be the fat chick (I was trying to leave her at the start line, I swear), that did a face plant and slid down the soapy wall, like a bug on a windshield. I fought my T-Rex arms, and with a leap of faith (that earned me my first giant bruise of the day), I took a big pull with my arms, and tossed my right leg over the top, with no helping hands. VICTORY!!!! I was feeling pretty damn good, descending the other side.
I earned my first burpees of the day at the back to back Grenade Toss and Rope Climb. Yeah. 60 burpees total here. In prep for the Beast this fall, I will definitely be working on this area.
Onward, to the beginning of the real journey. The infamous Spartan Race Barbed Wire Crawl. Where the determined become Spartans, and the weak get whiny. From the start point of the crawl, you (thankfully) couldn't gauge the scope of it. Instead, I simply followed instructions: grab a gun (yep, a gun. It is a "military sprint"), and start crawling. First, I would like to take a moment to have you, Dear Reader, ponder the logistics of this. Colorado desert man-made mud is clay. Which means it's heavy and sticky. When a metal gun becomes severely encrusted with it, that gun becomes even heavier and harder to manage... but we were going to low crawl with it. There was only one solution (the one that landed me my other Giant Bruise of the day), cradle it in the crooks of your elbows/forearms, while still using your elbows to crawl along. We crawled. I kept my head low. The mud was like crawling through thick fudgey frosting... but with more sticks and rocks. It was slow going, but we had machine gun fire, the theme song to M*A*S*H, and even the Muppets for crawl music to keep us going. You can only go as fast as the person in front of you... and chances are, that person wasn't moving too quickly. Why? You're just crawling, you say? Let me tell you, trying to move your body through sticky mud, keep your pants on (thank you spandex! I didn't have nearly the wardrobe malfunctions that I witnessed!), hang onto your gun, not get a foot in the face and not impale your ass on barbed wire (Barbed wire: 1, Aja's Ass/Capris: 0), is EXHAUSTING. As we neared the end of the barbed wire crawl (we thought), we heard the rumor shouted "There's THREE SECTIONS!". In disbelief, we pressed on.... Through two more sections. Tricky Spartan Race. Tricky. Between the first and second, I had to wade a mud pit (don't lose your gun!), and between two and three, I had to crawl through a tiny tunnel of hay bales. Let me just tell you, as my core started burn from all the side-crunch crawling, the sweetest sight I've ever seen was the end of that crawl (complete with photographer to capture our trauma).
I was starting to feel like a real Spartan, like I'd seen in the pictures. (We later learned that that crawl is rumored to be one of the longest in Spartan history, clocking in at 8/10ths of a mile!)
Muddier that I've ever been in the last 10 years, we trotted on. It felt SO GOOD to be able to move again.
We tackled a few more obstacles with success (no, I'm not going to give you ALL the details!), when we hit the segment where I knew I could hack it - we got to the heavy stuff. Grabbing a women's sandbag and hoisting it across my shoulders, oddly put me at ease. THIS I knew how to do. Shimmying it around I found I didn't even have to hold it with my hands. I leaned into the near-vertical sandy, rocky hill and started climbing. Suddenly, I realized how lucky I was that I live in Vermont and have natural hills to train on. I kept moving steadily up that hill, leaving many a tough-looking gym rat, standing in the dust, gasping for air. Looks like this Sparkle was starting to do a little Chicking! (Chicking: (verb) to pass a guy in a race.) Maybe carrying some extra weight around my middle wouldn't hold me back too much after all...
The pack had really started to thin out by this point, and my posse was loosely together, in little groups of 2-3, as we approached my first big mental hurdle. The Tall Walls. I can't pull myself up them. I'm not a particularly good jumper. In my head, I'm HUGE and it would be a herculean effort for any poor soul to boost me up on one of those... and even if they did, what would my t-rex arms do when I got near the top?!?!? Oh. My. God. I felt my stride falter a bit, as we trotted up to the first wall, and I watched a few other attempts to get over. I had no options. I couldn't go around, this is why I was HERE. To show myself that I could do these things that I thought I couldn't. Thankfully, my GT was waiting at the wall with 10 fingers, ready to push me up there. I took a deep breath, and figured, well, at least I'd go out trying. It happened before I knew it. I found myself up on my arms at the top of the wall, and then dangling from the other side. Over.
I was OVER THE WALL.
No wait, BlogLand, let's stop a minute there. I was over. the. wall. One of my most giant fears, and it was over.
... well, sort of.
It would seem that while I would've thought ONE tall wall would've been fine to prove to myself that I could do it, Spartan Race seemed to feel that I needed two. But, just to be nice, they included a "step" on this one, which was the tiniest piece of board that you could use for a toe hold, part way up.
I watched several women clamor up and over this, with relative ease, thanks to some monkey-like skills and a tiny toe hold. I was surely not going to be one of them. I started to freeze up. This was different, I'd have to do this myself, with no boost. I didn't have the arm strength, that wall was too tall, I'm not a good climber, I don't know how...
"Aja. Get over here." the GT interrupted my thought train to Ican'tsville, mincing no words. I'd like to say that he read my mind, but probably the impending panic was becoming evident on my face, and he snapped at me enough to distract me and get me down to business.
Now or never, I thought to myself and reached for the wall. I'm not sure how it happened, BlogLand, but with no boost (just the comfort of knowing I did have a spotter down there, should I have an epic fail), I managed to get up and over that wall with some efficiency.
.... and it wasn't that bad. I was in one piece, I didn't need physical rescuing (mental, maybe), and I had completed that obstacle. If there was ever a moment to wax philosophical, this was probably it. I had just tangibly conquered my biggest obstacle fear, that I had built up in my head to being insurmountable, without severe embarrassment. But I was through it. Like many of my preconceived fears and notions about myself and my limitations, I very literally, left this one in the dust.
Our path led us over and around the dusty, cactus-filled landscape (you have no idea how many tiny spines I have pulled out of my hands and feet over the last two days), and through a few more obstacles. I gladly picked up a concrete block, tethered to a chain and dragged that bad boy up a hill and down the other side. I won't lie, I had to spur on a few boys that were lagging in front of me, by making jokes about being passed by a girl. They thought I was joking, I was serious. Heavy things are my wheelhouse, and they were slowing me down.
Our posse had spread out now, so the faster ones could stretch their legs, reassured that the worst (?) of the obstacles were over. I ran over the hills, chatting with my first Canadian of the day, dodging cactus and other pokey plants, keeping tabs on my girls behind me. No Spartan left behind. Ever.
30 more burpees found me at the Monkey Bars and I was a bit frustrated. I had anticipated that would be the case, but I thought I would make it further through before dropping. AH well. For next time. As my girls caught up, and I urged them into a forward trot (if they only knew it was less to torture them, and more to keep my mind in the right place!), despite my raging desire for water. Seriously, it was HOT that day, and my mouth was as dry as the land we were traversing.
Then I saw her. The lady with the hose. Yep. We were literally about to run by her lawn. And she was standing there with her kids and a hose. MY HERO! She may have no idea how much she rejuvenated me with that cold soak down and spray to the face. Sometimes, folks, it's the little things. I was refreshed and eager to continue.
After a few more streams, climbs up banks, and other interesting tasks, I met my Biggest Challenge of the Day.
This one, I'm sure was the evil brain-child of the Fort Carson military residents, and the crazies at Spartan Race.
Picture this: a large ladder, made of logs, set in an A-frame. Make the apex about 12-15 feet off the ground, and space the logs out so that they are not a comfortable reaching distance apart. Make sure you have to stretch, to reach the next one.
Typically, I am not one afraid of heights, or particularly timid. Without thinking too hard about it, I got up on the first rung (that required climbing) and then sort of bear-crawled my way to the top.
... and was suddenly horribly overwhelmed.
Like I said, I'm not afraid of heights, but no one likes the thought of not being "secure" in their footing, and only facing a landing on some "soft" hay bales quite a ways down. I'm old enough to know that would hurt.
Here was the problem: How to transfer my body from the climbing up pose, to over the apex, and to the climbing down pose. Each way that I started to move, I felt unsteady, I was going to fall. Everything was a long reach away. I had no idea what to do.
I started to freeze up. It felt like forever (realistically, it may have been 20 seconds). And, of course, as one is want to do when they are feeling overwhelmed, I started to doubt. I was going to be that person that got "stuck" on the ladder thing. That they'd have to "extract" from the obstacle or some other craziness. I didn't want to be famous like that. I had to find a way down. I didn't know how. It was a long way down, I was going to fall, my arm started to shake (nerves).
Suddenly, after laughing earlier at the GT's seemingly insignificant gesture, I remembered the muddy hand print on my back. I took a deep breath and reminded myself that while he was not here to rescue me, he's taught me a lot of things that were here with me. For instance, there are a whole lot of things that I have already done (run a 5K for instance) that seemed more than impossible, until I did them. Plus, I won't lie, in a fit of panic a few nights before the race, I had made him promise that he was 100% sure I could do this race. He promised. He was sure. And I trusted him blindly, that he knew what he was talking about. I would do this, I could do this, and that seemingly silly hand print reminded me of that. Get down to business. I have done harder things (ever try the "No Bread" challenge for 60 days?!).
Thankfully, Sara happened to also be at the top of the obstacle, and had found a good way to conquer the top of it. She started to very matter-of-factly give me a plan ("swing your right leg over...."). At the same time, one of the military personnel staffing the obstacle must've sensed my hesitation, and stationed himself at the end of it. Sara's instructions continued to my left, while Military Guy (who reminded me more than a little of Sparta's own, Sergeant Sedlak) began going motivational on me. He yelled at me, and it was absolutely what I needed. "You GOT this." he screamed. "YOU can DO THIS!" he shouted.
I had not come this far to fail now. I moved. As soon as I got through the scary part at the apex, the rest of the obstacle was no problem. Military Guy greeted me with an enthusiastic "YEAH!" at the bottom and a high five. I hope he realizes how helpful he was, to this new Spartan.
I did it. I had been afraid. Of failing, of getting hurt, of looking stupid, of getting stuck.... and I had looked right at those fears and informed them that they could not hold me anymore. I was more than halfway through this pivotal journey, and there was no place for fear in Sparta, unless it was driving you forward.
Coming off that obstacle, I felt light. I could conquer anything put in my path, from here. I had my girls, Sara and Jill at my flanks, my GT metaphorically at my back, and a whole new confidence emerging from the mud. I did not have to be held back by my doubts any longer. I chose to be stronger, I chose to make a change, I chose to become Spartan, for all that that encompasses.
The rest of the race passed in a bit of a blur. I was all smiles. I recall joking with a band of red-clad Canadians as I ran up along side them on the trail. One dude had a Spartan mohawk hat, with a Canadian leaf on the side. Impressive mash-up, sir. Well done.
I blew through the Hercules Hoist (rope and pully a concrete weight to the top and lower it down slowly), with no effort at all, got into a quick familiar rhythm with the Ski-Erg machines (thanks to my CrossFit gym!), and pressed on into the homestretch. I could hear the crowds in the distances, and knew that we were getting close to the end. I was fueled on a weird mix of Adrenaline, Happiness and feelings of Triumph, as I dived into the neck-deep ice water of the dark tunnel crawl.
I'm going to stop here to comment on this one. This may have been my favorite. I absolutely loathe being hot. Particularly hot and dusty. That was pretty much how I'd spent the better part of this course (yes... we were in the desert...). For this obstacle, you got in a deep trench, a little wider than shoulder width, filled with water and covered with tarps (hope you weren't claustrophobic...). You had to sort of half swim, half crawl on your hands and knees, and there was no standing up, EVER. I am pretty sure we crawled/swam the length of a football field, and the water was cold. I was so happy. My internal temperature dropped a bit, I got my swim on, and emerged at the end a (still smilin'!) dripping mess.
I scrambled up a muddy hill, and sliding down into the mud pit on the other side, I noted that we were close to the end; I could hear the crowd's shouts of encouragement to the competitors, on the other side of the cargo net tower in front of me. I was energized. It was all within my grasp now.
Suddenly, I was struck with a pang of disappointment. Allowing for the different abilities to run to their level, I had lost my GT on the course a while back. All things considered, it wasn't a huge deal, but somewhere in my head, it was a little bit. For the last 290 days, he's stuck with me through sanity and craziness, (lots of) tears and smiles, 400 million questions and requests for explanation, doubts and protests, successes and failures, and most importantly, he truly believed I could do it (and repeatedly reminded me of this when I wasn't sure) from the day I decided to leave the couch and change my life. It seemed fitting, in my mind, that he should be by my side when I crossed that momentous finish line. I would be crossing alone.
Pushing that thought aside, I focused on where I was. I was surrounded by supporters, my girls were to my sides on the cargo net, and there were Spartans all around me that were like family I had not had the chance to meet yet, sharing a similar drive toward personal goals, new challenges and better lives.
Down the other side, I met my last 30 burpees of the day (burpee obstacles: grenade toss, rope climb, fence pole step things, monkey bars, traverse wall) at the traverse wall. That is much harder than it looks. Hand grips and toe holds are really tricky when everything is wet and muddy. I will have to develop some strategy here for next time. Like, maybe assessing the individual walls a little more clearly and picking a less muddy one? Developing more grip strength? Something. Hmm.
Lastly, my ladies Sara and Jill, gathered up and we attacked the fire jump together (I'm SO hoping for an epic picture here, NuVision!). Landing, I saw that all that stood between me and the finish line where a couple of armed gladiators. They were the least of my worries. I had scaled a wall, waded through mud, flipped a tire... why would I be worried about them?! I smiled and ran for the middle.
... and I caught sight of the finish line.
To one side of the red, blown up arch labeled Finish, my incomparable GT stood holding one, single finisher medal.
My eyes went blurry with an inexpressible array of emotion, and I barely saw the gladiators, or felt the taps of their pugil sticks.
I did it. I was crossing the finish line of a Spartan Race.
I ran straight at my GT, dove into a huge hug, and came out with a Spartan Race Finisher Medal around my neck.
BlogLand, everything they say (the Spartan Race Motto) is true:
I knew at the finish line.
I knew that by crossing the finish line, I had proven to myself that I was stronger, mentally and physically, than I could've ever imagined. I knew that I could overcome and conquer things that scare me. I knew that limits had no hold over me, if I decided I was destined beyond them. I knew that I would no longer be bound by what my "inner fat chick" thinks, because I had just proven her so very,very wrong. I knew that I was my only competition. I knew that with this tangible victory against the odds, I would be different from here.
I couldn't tell you so much about what happened the remainder of the day, as the glow of Victory and Satisfaction (coupled with a haze of fatigue and thirst...) is clouding my memory.
What I can say is that the banana they hand you at the end of the race, guaranteed, will be the absolute best banana you've ever eaten. No joke. Major Om Nom Nom factor.
Additionally, Spartan Race also plans in a Secret Obstacle for those who uncover it (think of it like the Easter Egg secrets in a video game), called the Icy Showers of Death. This involves grouping your friends around a hose with a high pressure nozzle, and taking turns pressure-washing each other with the coldest water you've ever felt in your life, until you have removed 95% of the cement-like mud you have collected over the last couple of hours. Things to consider: You will need to stick this hose in your shirt and down your pants. Yes. You have mud there. Are you Spartan Tough?
Finally, I will say, that I consider myself lucky to have met and run with so many of the fabulous Spartans. From the new friends I met on the course (Thank You, guy-losing-his-shorts that didn't let the barb wire take my eye out!), to the Chicks I met for the first time, to the good friends that will be with me always, it is an incredible menagerie of people that Spartan Race has brought into my life. I also knew that at the finish line, as we grouped to take our After Picture:
For anyone that considering running, do it. You can. You are strong enough, fast enough and powerful enough. "Sign Up, Show Up, Don't Give Up." You have no idea the gift you will have given yourself. It won't be easy. In fact, it will be really difficult. You'll have to train, you'll have to change some habits, you'll have to travel outside of your comfort zone in ways you can't even fathom right now. But I can honestly say that at 29 years old, crossing that first finish line was one of the most rewarding and life-altering things that I've ever done.