by Jon Nicholson

There are moments in life that define you. Often they happen to you when you least expect it. You think you’ll be prepared, but you almost never are. It can be joyous occasion, a tragedy, or somewhere in between. How you respond in those times can shape you permanently. It can propel you forward or drag you down. You don’t know which… until it happens.
I had one of these moments one year ago on Blue Mountain during the Pennsylvania Spartan Sprint. It was my first ever Spartan Race. This year I returned to that Mountain again.

To call the PA race a sprint is the definition of irony. There’s very little about it that resembles a sprint.
Flashback one year; that first climb straight up the hill. Half a mile? Less? More? It seemed like forever.
I had been running four times a week, doing some weightlifting, some interval training. In the prior year I got serious about getting back in shape, dropped 30lbs, and started to find my athletic self again. The Spartan Race seemed like a perfect event to test my progress.

Halfway up that hill my heart rate was somewhere between 170 and 4000. My legs burned. I poured sweat. I was drooling probably as well. (thank goodness for the lack of photography on that climb). I stopped and tried to laugh, but it sounded more like a whimper (one of my less effective race strategies). I had that moment: the defining one.

I thought, “I don’t know if I can do this.”

I thought I was prepared. What if I can’t? My wife is up there at the top, waiting to cheer me on. What if I’m just not ready? What if I just sit down and quit? I really thought I was prepared. I trained hard, didn’t I? What IS this race? What did I get myself into?

No immediate answers to these questions came as I listened to my heart pounding and felt the acid in my legs begging me to quit.

Instead, something inside me spoke: “Just do 40 steps, then take a 10 second rest. Keep your head down. Just 40 steps.”

So I did that, amid the noise of self-flagellation, fear, and doubt there was 40 steps. Then I rested. Then I negotiated 40 more steps. Then a rest. Then 40 more. Suddenly I was at the top of the mountain.
My wife was there and she saw the look on my face and knew exactly what to do. She kissed me, smacked my on my butt, and told me to get moving.

My weight was lifted, spirits re-charged, and off I went.

I finished the race and it even with a respectable time, though it felt like forever. I did 180 burpees along the way. I look shell-shocked in the photos, but elated not long after.

So what happened to me? What was that defining moment?

If there’s one thing a Spartan Race can do for you is simplify and clarify things. Simply and clearly, I hit that place far out of my comfort zone: so far from it that the landscape was alien. I was confronted honestly and directly with questions on that climb:
Who are you right now?
Who are you when it gets so hard that you want to quit and crawl away?
Who are you when things aren’t rolling along smoothly and success isn’t the obvious outcome of your effort?
Who are you sweating and drooling on that ski hill in the July sun, thirsty and seemingly broken?
I am the guy who climbs 40 more feet.

A year later now and time for the PA Sprint again. In those 12 months between, I completed my Spartan Trifecta, dozens of road and trail races, and my first trail Ultramarathon. If there was any question that I would face the struggle of the prior year, then they weren’t questions for me. I was confident this time. My mantra for hard races is “keep grinding.” It grew from “40 more feet”.

The race was like I remembered. This year I knew a lot more people though and the racing family is a friendly and generous one. When I started that first climb I felt myself smiling. When the heat came to my legs and the sweat started and the heart rate climbed, I welcomed it. There were no questions to answer this year. I just embraced it.

In the end, I knocked 50 minutes and 90 burpees off my prior years’ time. That was great and I was proud of that, but more than anything, I returned to Blue Mountain a better athlete and stronger person because of that race a year, not despite it.

For friends who are just getting into a healthier lifestyle and exercise again, I advise them all to sign up for a race. I don’t care if they are competitive or not. I tell them: make the goal to finish. “You’ll Know at the Finish Line” may be the slogan, but it’s also a genuine truth. I tell them that there’s a conversation out on that course for you, waiting to happen. Get out there and have it. It’s long overdue.

Find your finish line today.

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