When I was anxiously preparing for the start of the World Championships I saw a glimpse of some of the announced runners that would be attending the event. I saw at least 10 athletes that had running times that were so superior to mine, I felt like a JV high school runner at best. I mentioned this to a mentor and friend of mine, Chris Clifford and he said, “remember Spartan Racing is a different beast.” Chris said, “if you had to spend 5 minutes in a boxing ring with one of these 120 lb, 14-minute 5K guys, and then race the Spartan event who do you think would win?”

As I stood on one of the 15-round Spartan stickers, waiting for the start of the 7 AM elite Fenway Park Spartan Sprint, with less than a minute to go Chris’s words came to my mind. I glanced to my right and looked at the 205 pound Alexander Nicholas, then in front at the 200 pound Hunter McIntyre and then I noticed there were also the runners with the sub-140 pound frames and thought the only way Spartan Races attract all of us is because they are battles, not races.  I smirked a small smile as I pictured Alexander Nicholas, with his baggie Moi Thai shorts from his Elite Fitness Club in a MMA ring with Hobie Call and thought, Spartan has created an event where heart, strength, agility, speed, endurance – everything – is needed to win.  

Fenway’s start was a battle; athletes were greeted by an immediate bottleneck and a serious urgency to be the first to the front if they had any desire of being a contender. Grasping the handrail and whipping myself around the turns of the ramp, climbing furiously, I found myself urging to be in first but ebbing in and out of the top 5. As soon as we reached about 300 feet of vertical climbing we quickly grabbed the dual 5 gallon jugs and were performing the farmer’s carry down stairs that brought us back down the vertical only to carry the 60 pounds of water right back up. Only 2 minutes into this race I found my lungs being seared by the crisp, morning air.

After ascending over and through the bungee cords I found myself in the company of Hunter McIntyre and Brakken Kraker. We had a fairly good gap as we entered the rowing machines. I had heard the rowing machines were a 500 meter row in less than two minutes with a pre-programmed message on the screen: less than 2 minutes, “AROO!” more than 2 minutes “Screw You!” Actually, the message said, “30 burpees” but screw you and 30 burpees is quite similar if you’ve ever done a Spartan Race.

I finished the row just in front of Hunter but felt a little timid leading through the ups and downs and lefts and rights through the stadium seating rows.  I felt it better strategy to follow then to lead.  As we continued through obstacles I felt like an MMA fighter exchanging blows as we went count-for-count through the heavy rope, slam balls and hand-release pushups. I found myself on the defensive as Hunter made his move and Brakken made his.  

With a mere 7 minutes remaining in a short 25-minute sprint, I helplessly watched as Hunter and Brakken dropped me through the sandbag carry and would proceed to finish in yet another (Remember Miller Park) finish-line sprint. As I went over the final set of 5-foot walls, followed by the 8-foot wall I saw out of my peripheral on the giant Fenway Screen, Hunter and Brakken going neck and neck on the final box jumps. Hunter would once again beat Brakken by less than a second.

I crossed the finish line and again reflected on being a fighter in a battle and pushing myself beyond my limits. Third place didn’t feel like a victory, it felt more like being on the ropes and not punching back when the time was necessary. However, once again I walk away from my early career as a Spartan Racer yearning for the next battle and planning how I will be delivering the blows and beating the beasts that this sport has given me.

The Bear

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Just before this beard craziness all began, I was playing B-ball with one of our athletic, 16 year old African-American kids.  He was trash talking me from the start, and about halfway through he called me an, “old, big, hairy, ugly, white dude.”  He predicted that he was going to, and I quote, “cross me up and break my ankles,” making some comment about it having something to do with his “swag.”

Now, my shooting percentage is terrible, but as the old proverb says, “Old age and treachery will overcome youth and skill.”  After defeating him, I informed my arrogant opponent, “you just got beat by old, big, hairy, ugly, white dude with bad knees and no fingertips.”  As it turns out, his swag was no match for my beard.

It’s all about the beard. For as long as OCR has existed, beards have held exulted office simply because of the fact that they are beards. As a beard wearer of many years, Zack Paben saw this as a niche that bizarrely hadn’t been tapped into yet.

The morning following the basketball incident, I saw a random post on Facebook about boys having swag and men having beards. Inspired by the quote, I posted a picture of myself coming out of a frozen mud bath with the caption ”Boys keep your swag and I will keep my beard” to the More Heart than Scars (MHTS) Facebook page.  Billy Findeiss (Now forever known as Mr. December) asked me if I was trying to start a beard contest.  Of course, I said, “yes,” then Michael Caudell joined in and started posting all kinds of pure self-loving beard pics.  Jimi Da Beard Hughes  was next to enter his mud-faced masterpiece and then came Steve-o Opie Bones‘ entry.

Zack clearly had people in mind already. While the idea was one of those, “hey, you know what would be cool….?” Moments, things started to take shape, albeit slowly.

“I had hoped for (Spartan Death Race veteran) Steve-o, having seen pictures of him and his beard doing heroic things.  I have heard other men giving praise to my mud beard while participating in various OCRs. I have seen lots of pics of my Facebook friends’ muddy faces.  When I saw a post with a hairy visage I would pester/encourage them to join the competition.”

And so the idea of a “Bearded Men of OCR” calendar, with the proceeds going to charity was born. With Zack having worked for 22 years with at risk youth, it was a natural progression to have an idea and then have charitable causes benefit from it.

“The response was overwhelming once Steve-o entered, I never expected to have the incredible support and involvement that came from the OCR community. As time went on, it was clear that some rather amazing men were entered into this fun contest.  During a conversation with Steffen Cook, (Mr. February), the subject of what the winner gets came up.  Obviously, the first prize for all participants is having a beard, but it was decided that the winner would be awarded the title of “Sir Mud Beard,” with each of the top 12 winning a spot in a calendar. Mr. February said the only thing a Brit could to such an idea, “Brilliant!”

He could tell I was making it all up on the spot but he was still all in, and we love him for it.  He has been instrumental in refining the MHTS calendar vision, as well as being a great person for me to chat with about MHTS projects. It has been great to get to know this amazing group of guys.  Some of our private messages got a little hairy being that we all have a zest for life, and great sense of humor.

It started with just one picture but after a week it was clear we needed an album so everyone could look at the pictures side by side and find them in one place.  The last week, we included a collage along with some more questions to learn about our hairy friends.”

Selecting the final 12 was easily done, as Zack explains, “Once it was clear that our goal was to have a Sir Mud Beard Calendar we decided to have the top 12 guys represent their corresponding month (e.g. January would be the person with the most votes, February would be the person with the second most votes, and so forth…).  You can talk about encouraging others to vote and the vote counting process and so on.”

This throwaway comical idea about beards and OCR quickly became something to take seriously. The final 12 were selected and were even interviewed, so that each page of the calendar has a bio of the person that adorns it.

With the charities of Combat Wounded Veterans Challenge and Spartan Race regulars Operation Enduring Warrior benefiting from the sales of the calendar, the causes are close to the hearts of all involved.

The third and last portion of the proceeds will go to Zack’s own cause, More Heart Than Scars.

“The 3rd portion will go to us to More Heart Than Scars to become an official 501(c) (3) organization and to continue to assist and help individuals overcome both physical and or mental challenges. One of our primary goals is to sponsor John Powers, a full left hip-disarticulation amputee to hike the Appalachian Trail. We plan to list inside the calendar the dates of upcoming OCR events.  We also plan to have some OCR companies support by sponsoring our calendar and giving a one-time discount to a race with proof of purchase of one of our calendars.”

With Spartan Race being well represented within the pages by not only by staff members and even Death Racers, what’s your excuse for not owning one?

Contact Zack via the facebook page More Heart Than Scars Facebook page for more information.

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