Last year I signed up to do my first Spartan Beast. 12-14 Miles and 30-35 of some of the most difficult, soul defining, mentally grueling obstacles you can do. I had completed the Super before which is 8-10 Miles (which turns out to be closer to 13 when you add in some of the obstacles) and new that I could get myself through this, but that I needed to train. So I did. I had just come off my Competitive Season for Ultimate Frisbee, was feeling in good shape, and had used that to jumpstart my more physical training. The day of the race came, I had two of my good friends out there with me, and everything went horribly wrong.
In my previous races, I had used minimalist shoes, without issue. I wear them to work, I wear them when running, I wear them anywhere I can with the belief that my feet should have the ability to support myself and my activities, which they do. But on this course, it was hard packed dirt with large rocks everywhere. The kind of rock that seems to have a magnetic attraction to that spot right in the middle of your forefoot and has no purpose other than to inflict as much pain as possible. Now usually, I consider myself quite nimble with footwork and able to dodge the rocks with ease, but I was outnumbered by this army of stones. Not 3 miles into the race I think I had stepped on damn near every rock in Breckenridge and my feet could no longer take the beating of >200 lbs landing step after step on a rock. I quickly realized that all of the training I had done, all of the preparation mentally and physically, was wasted because I had not prepared for the terrain appropriately.
One of my friends was training for an Iron Man, in fantastic shape, and we were destined to crush this race together and make it the first of many on our conquest to prove that our bodies are capable of anything. He walked beside me. I had spent months visualizing myself climbing, jumping, carrying, throwing with a feeling of victory at every obstacle. I could hardly walk. 5 miles in now, trying to “jog”, when every little pebble at this point would literally drop me to my knees. Some people passed and asked if I was okay, if I needed to stop and allow them to go get someone. Most tried to give encouraging words, assuming that I had not trained and that my body was veto-ing the stress I was trying to put it through, “almost there!” and “you can do it!”. What they didn’t know is that my feet were so bruised up at this point that making it 15 steps further was a task that I didn’t know if I could do anymore.
They say that the Spartan Race will push your body to the limit. Your legs will feel heavy. Your heart will be pounding. Arms feeling so weak that lifting the beer at the end of the race will seem so strenuous that you almost ask for a straw (ALMOST). I felt none of that. I walked for 13 miles. My friend walked beside me for encouragement. I had spent all of my time training and preparing, hoping to set a new standard for myself, and I found myself limping along, collapsing with every landing, and dreading all carrying tasks that would add weight to my steps. But the worst part, was knowing that my goal was unachievable.
I could no longer try and push for a high age-group rank. I could no longer set my personal bar higher than before. I could no longer compete with my friend to make each other go faster, further, stronger than we would on our own. I could barely stand.
I remember at one point needing to stop off to the side. I hadn’t stepped on another rock, I wasn’t tired, I wasn’t weak. But I had to stop. I still had about 8 miles to go but I knew I needed to make a decision. Walking is boring and I hate the feeling that other people need to worry about me or be their limiting factor, and I found myself doing both of those things. So I had to decide what my new goal was. I could easily call for someone to cart me down the mountain and allow my friend to continue on his own, or, I could finish this race. It no longer became about my physical capabilities, or training, or hydration. This race became a true test of my mental strength. I took that break and talked with my friend, I let him know that I didn’t care if it took me 8 more hours, I was going to complete every task, every step, every jump, and unfortunately every Burpee (stupid spear throw). I re-iterated that I wanted him to go on without me and not stay back with me because this was his race too and I would be okay. That day, I learned everything about myself.
We as humans spend a lifetime comparing ourselves to others. Oh this person is taller than me, this person is faster than me, this person is stronger than me. But rarely do we spend the time training our mental capabilities. Lucky for me, I had close to 16 slow miles to do that. We are capable of extraordinary feats. Our bodies can withstand stress greater than most people with ever get CLOSE to putting them through. But we are often limited by our mental strength. I completed that race, and afterwards I stayed on the couch for as much of the next week as I could. But every single step for 4 hours I had to dig down and remind myself that no matter how much pain I was in, no matter how much easier it would be to ride the cart down the hill, I had no excuse to not finish what I had started. Regardless of my time, I owed it to my friend that had already sacrificed his time to stay beside me and I owed it to everyone that actually is physically incapable to do events like these but would give anything to have the chance; to finish the race.
Humans break records every day. Someone climbs higher, someone runs faster, someone jumps further. But humans also fail everyday. And that is the harsh truth. If there is a winner, there must be a loser. But when it is your time to lose. When it is your time to fail, how do you respond. Do you quit, find a new sport, or become such a fan of someone else and become content in watching them? I hope not. Re-evaluate where you are. Look at where you started, think about the work you put in and how far you have come. Re-calibrate what your goals need to be, short term and long term. Develop a new plan. Find a victory in what you have achieved thus far, learn from why you didn’t end up where you wanted to, and mentally prepare yourself to continue forward.
Everything went wrong in my race. I was destroyed and being pitied by strangers. So I had to re-calibrate my mind. My goal was no longer to push my physical self to the limits and conquer something more difficult that I had ever done in the past. It was now to finish the race. To take every step on my own. To not let the course beat me. I felt better at the end of that race than I have at the end of any of my other races. I knew how close I was to giving up, throwing in the towel and getting on with my day. But I won that day.
We can perceive any event in many different ways. In each victory, there is improvement to be made. In each loss, there is a victory to be realized. The next time you are beat down, broken, tired, realize that you are capable of completing ANYTHING. Sure there will be a few hiccups along the way, but that is what makes this journey so interested and exciting. Take the time to work on your mental strength, because when it all goes wrong and the deck is stacked against you. It will be all that you have left. And it is all that you need to succeed.