by Carrie Adams
Read the full version from Carrie’s blog: Leaving a Path.
On a cold, dark, wet morning, over a thousand miles from home, while horribly under-dressed and with a fractured foot in the mountainous trails of Southern California, I began an experience that would help define me as an athlete, would challenge me with every rugged step and ragged breath, and would earn me the right to proudly proclaim myself a Spartan.
Race morning was cold, and I’m from Nebraska, so I’m used to the cold. In the backdrop of the Vail Lake Resort grounds in Temecula, California, mist rose off the mountain peaks. That meant snow was falling. I knew that my thin thermal gear would not be enough to keep me warm in this weather. I’d have to rely on my own speed to stay warm.
On top of the cold, it was miserably wet too. The rain fell in sheets, then in a mist, then in sheets again. There was even hail, and the grass was a puddled mess. My feet were soaked long before I got near a water obstacle, and my light unstructured shoes were an obvious miss for a tough trail run. If the mountains were as brutal as they looked from the valley, I might in trouble.
Waiting for the start is a dangerous time if you let your thoughts wander. The gravity of the unknown began to sink in for me and an unfamiliar feeling crept into my consciousness: uncertainty.
I was thousands of miles from my familiar trails, running a different kind of race. I was on my own and unsure whether my training had been enough and whether the recent news of a stress fracture in my left foot would prove problematic. I pushed all that from my mind and headed out to the start line. After all, as of late, I run six days a week, 16 miles or more every Saturday. Despite the conditions, and without knowing any better, I was confident.
At the starting line, I met up with Joe Desena, creator of the Spartan Race. Inexplicably, he held an axe in his hands.
“I’ll be out on the trail all day,” he offered by way of explanation. ”I’ll probably run it backward at least once.” This prediction proved accurate, as Joe spent the day on the trail running, directing traffic, and motivating runners, a garbage bag acting as makeshift poncho in the downpour.
After the starting whistle blew and we took off, I had the ominous feeling that this was like no race I’d ever done before and I was about to find out firsthand just how much I could handle.
Despite the picturesque backdrop of a mountain lake surrounded by beautiful hills dotted with green bushes, thickets, and small pines, the course was brutal, demanding, and not to be underestimated. Admiring the view for too long could prove dangerous, as the trail wound along steep gradients. Even though I am a fairly experienced trail runner, I realized immediately that this course would be daunting. Treacherous hills reached up into the clouds, and steep, slippery gradients led back down to Earth.
At the base of a deep hill and around a bend stood the first challenge, narrow balance beams in a zigzag. As a lifelong dancer with excellent balance, I thought it would be easy– but only after three unsuccessful attempts and 30 penalty push-ups did I finally get across. As I passed Joe, who had been watching me struggle through it, he called out to me, “Not as easy as it looked, huh?” That set the tone for the rest of the course.
Dizzyingly steep at times, the hills never let up. The rain made the trail muddy and sloppy to navigate without spikes. Stretched between the monster peaks and dense trails were brutal obstacles, one more intense than the next. They required more than strength – balance, dexterity, problem solving, and speed.
Creative and sadistic, each challenge was designed to test the competitor. I struggled in exasperation as I hauled my frame up and over walls, through tires, under fences and even through 100 yards of muddy water on my belly. After hoisting a cinder block fifty feet in the air, I was instructed to fill up five gallon buckets with water and haul them through waist-deep water. This was after 100 yards of a barbed wire path so low that my cheek grazed the muddy ground.
At the end of the course, I had to solve a Rubik’s Cube before climbing up a slippery wall with a knotted rope. If I failed any of the obstacles I faced penalties, usually push-ups, and after paying my penalty I had to try again until I successfully completed the obstacle. There was no easy way through. But even though the race was competitive, racers encouraged, collaborated, and pushed one another forward. After all, forward was the only way to go.
Although I’m a seasoned racer, I have to admit that I didn’t know how to begin to tackle some of the obstacles in the course. I struggled to pace myself in between them. I was constantly in new territory, always recalibrating, thinking quickly, and making adjustments on the fly.
About halfway through the trail I felt my injured foot buckle. Wincing through the pain, I knew there was only one way off the mountain and I had to just keep going. I pushed forward and I went faster. If I didn’t attack the trail I knew it would eat me alive. I couldn’t help but respect the harshness of the course the deeper I went into the event. It was like a living breathing monster that nipped at your heels, always pushing you harder and faster.
As I came screaming down a hill through the fog at the edge of the lake, the finish line finally materialized. Calling on one final burst of speed I was past the last obstacle – Spartans with clubs that stood between the runners and the finish. In a heartbeat I was over the line.
I was exhausted, my chest heaving, my pants torn, mud across my face and underneath my fingernails. I barely felt the medal placed around my neck. Bruises were already rising on my shins and knees, and my shoes were destroyed, but I was done. I was exhilarated and I was humbled.
I sat in the wet grass, and let go of a breath I didn’t realize I’d been holding since I finished. For most races, the finish is just a flash, often anticlimactic. Today was different, because today’s race was different. I didn’t just make it across the finish line on the race course– I made it across a barrier inside myself, invisible yet more significant. I didn’t just overcome senselessly difficult obstacles in Temecula, California–I overcame my own fear of the unknown.
I showed up that day a runner, a racer from Nebraska. I left that day a Spartan.