by Carrie Adams
Before our Pennsylvania event, we introduced you to John Ulsh in a blog post. A man who suffered a horrifying car accident in 2007 but had defied all the odds to not only survive, but come back to a life of fitness, health, motivation and inspiration for others.
He had been given a less than 3% chance of survival following the car wreck and spent the next fourteen weeks in and out of hospitals and rehabilitation centers before he was home. Nine months later, a hole in his heart required additional hospital time. Two full years after the accident, walking with a cane, he made a decision to run again… and run he did. Here is his story about his experience in PA and how he found the Spartan finish line.
“What was I thinking?” I said that sentence over and over again in my head as I stood at the bottom of Blue Mountain Ski Area, looking up the mountain at runners/climbers headed toward the top. I quickly realized that the Spartan Race was not going to be like any race I ever ran…
Two days before the race, an email came from the director of the Spartan Race stating the following: “This course is going to be awesome (assuming awesome means steep and treacherous). The course is around 5.0 miles of hills. This is our hardest sprint race because of how steep and treacherous the terrain is. It’s harder and longer than last year. Race smart and watch your foot placement!”
“What the $#@*!!!!” was the first thing out of my mouth. I was under the impression that this was going to be a 3 mile race on a fairly flat course. (The description on the Spartan Race website describes the sprint race as “3+ miles”. Technically, 5 miles is 3+. But, so is 100!) I guess in hindsight, I should have figured out it would be steep when I saw that it was at a ski area. I am not always the most observant…
I struggle with a lot of different parts of running. The one part that always kills me is hills. I have worked with running coaches to try to improve my hill running, but it has been no use. When I run hills, my damaged veins can’t get the blood out of my leg fast enough. Quickly, my leg muscles start to lack oxygen, and then the “real pain” starts. “How bad can the hills really be?” I said, trying to convince myself that I would be fine.
As I stood in the “ski village” with my team, I was kind of wishing I had added a doctor or two to the team, maybe an orthopedic and perhaps a cardiologist as well. I did have my friend Rob Hadley with me to run the race. He used to work for the pharmaceutical company that made the stents in my leg. Now he works for a company that makes the plug that might some day be used to fix the hole in my heart. He has scrubbed in on hundreds of surgeries. He is practically a doctor, right? I am sure that with a Swiss Army knife, a Bic pen and the right “product” from the trunk of his car, he could save my life in a pinch!
The rest of my team also consisted of Hadley’s. Rob’s two sons Patrick AKA “Patch” (16), Joe (14), along with Rob’s brother Chris. Chris and Rob run marathons; Joe is a heck of a good cross-country runner and Patch…. Well Patch can “pick things up and put them down.” He is a strong kid! My wife Tonia was also there for support and my son James (8) came along to run the 1-mile kid’s Spartan Race. Tonia quickly became the pack mule as we handed her our backpacks filled with towels and our clean clothing for after the race. She would later describe her day as a “Mini-Spartan Race” as she lugged the bags all over the mountain while taking photos for me. Finally, 11 o’clock arrived and it was time to get this race started.
I would be lying if I said that I wasn’t concerned about finishing this race as I stood at the starting line staring at the first of what would be many hill climbs, 50 yards in front of me. But, as the guy in the Spartan costume gave his “warrior speech” and then sent us “into battle”; I did what I have done so many times since the accident. I took the first step, then another…
I needed to celebrate finishing this race. I needed to know I could do this. There would have been no question that I could have done the Spartan Race before the accident. After the accident, as I laid in a nursing home, no one would have even given any thought to the idea of me ever doing such as race. Now it was time to get rid of some more demons. There was only one way to celebrate at the finish line and that was to run the race.
This race was the single hardest thing I have ever done. I definitely suffered more pain and mental anguish from the accident, but then I had no choice. At that time I could only simply accept my fate. Running this race was my choice. I could stop the pain form getting worse if I wanted…
I could write 5000+ words describing everything we went through on the course that day. (Honestly, I plan to do just that for my book.) But for now, I think the easiest way to describe it to you is to mention a few of the highlights and show some photos.
I want to start by saying that everyone in our group finished. We decided in the beginning that no one would be left behind. We would finish as a team. We all struggled throughout the course, but when it happened someone from our group was there to encourage you to keep going. Patch trained the least for the race and was “talked” into doing it by his dad. He really had to push himself to finish. I say this not to point out his struggles, but rather to point out that I didn’t hear one complaint out of the kid’s mouth! I am sure he called his father a few choice words under his breath, but he simply didn’t whine or complain. He knew he was in over his head, but he kept pushing. I am sure he wanted to quit, but he never did. Not the typical response a lot of people would expect from a teen. I was really proud of him and I am sure his dad, brother and uncle were prouder!
This race up the mountain would have been challenging enough without obstacles. The Spartan Race people don’t tell you what obstacles will be on the course so every time you come to one it is always a surprise. Especially, if like us, you never ran one of their races. Some obstacles favored size and strength while others were more a test of one’s cardio fitness and ability to recover quickly. Carrying a 40 lb. bag of sand down and back up a double black diamond ski hill at mile 4 would end up testing every part of a person! We climbed walls and ropes. We climbed monkey bars and crawled for 50 yards under barbed wire. (I have the cuts on my back to prove that one!) We carried 50 gallon buckets filled will stones up and down a hill. We went down a giant slip and slide into a pond (That was actually fun!). We drug a 40 lb. concrete block by a chain down a hill, through waist deep water and back up the other side. We flipped tractor tires and threw spears! In the end, we climbed 2200 vertical feet over 5.1 miles and conquered 15+ obstacles in 90+ degree temps. It was a great day!
I realize now that obstacle racing is exactly what I need, a single opportunity to test my will. The accident was the toughest thing I ever gone through. It has been 4+ years of fighting setbacks, not knowing what will happen next, and pulling myself back up when I fall down. The Spartan Race was all of those things wrapped up into a few hours, instead of years.
[Editor's Note: Read more about John and his story on his Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/MyRecoveryMyMotivation]