Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The Face of a Spartan...


Spartans are a different breed. I know because I’ve met them and raced beside them. I ran the SoCal Super Spartan, a brutal 8 mile obstacle race on February 25th in Temecula, CA and found out first hand that Spartans don’t break when things get tough or when there seems to be no hope and they certainly don’t run from a challenge, even when it’s cold and wet, and the worst weather in nearly 200 years in Southern California. They face it and they overcome.

The morning of the race was demoralizing, even for runners who are used to chilly and sodden outdoor trails. I sat in a parked car my arms crossed and with the heat on full blast aimed directly at my soaked shoes. I was shivering, cursing the skies, and wishing only for dry socks. Given the climate and the conditions, I thought that maybe turnout would be low. I didn’t know what a bunch of runners from Southern California used to the warm weather would do when faced with a day like this. At first, my assumption seemed correct. The early registrants were sparse, but soon the line of cars grew and so quickly more volunteers were needed to route traffic. The runners came and the valley filled with people huddling together to stay warm but committed to running regardless of the circumstances. I was beginning to feel inspired. Maybe these athletes would be tough after all.

Thomas Gunter
Milling around the event, I took some time meeting a few of the other competitors. There was the guy I called “Lightning” Thomas Gunter, the charismatic Southern California man with curly, blonde, flowing hair who barely survived a horrific electricity accident and had just been cleared by his cardiologist to compete. Hobie Call, nicknamed “the Winner” who I can only describe as a man in constant motion, a boundless ball of energy, he was stretching and jumping all over the clubhouse before the race with a huge grin on his face. He was chasing down the daunting task of attempting to win every Spartan race including the Death Race to earn a $100,000 bonus. I didn’t let the smile fool me, he was there to win. There was Rodrigo, a law enforcement agent, donning a Spartan-inspired cape and his coveted Vibram running shoes, a camera in a waterproof sleeve around his neck. He was quick with the jokes and encouraging words, shooting footage of the venue, the other racers, and the weather before the first wave set off and he finished about every sentence with an enthusiastic, “Oh snap!”

I met Ben, a quiet 40-something marathoner who had grown tired of pavement and was doing his first Spartan race to “see what he was made of.” We ran a lot of the race together and when we connected at mile six on the course heading up a steep trail he asked me to pass him so he could chase a girl down the mountain. And then there were the two 20 year old college students from San Diego State University who I noticed laughing nervously at the start. They were excited, but seemed, like most of the first timers a little anxious about the race wearing old tennis shoes from high school that had logged over 300 miles thus far. Unknown to me at the time they would be the source of much needed encouragement to me on the climbing wall later on in the day, helping me gain the confidence to get across.

In a competitive run, you are contact with other runners frequently. For me there was the unseen hand from a fellow runner that outstretched and grabbed the back of my jersey when I fell on a ridge that kept me from toppling over the side and the cheers of another racer at the cinder block challenge that motivated me as I painfully hoisted it 50 feet in the air. And the two SDSU students I saw at the start were all confidence and encouragement helping me cross the sideways climbing wall. A hellish obstacle with strict rules about not touching the top or falling off but navigating across the randomly placed hand and foot holds. There was no nervous laughter coming from them now. I saw women, tough and strong, passing men all along the course charging forward with a resolve that gave me chills and more than once prompted me to say, “Get after it, girl.”

I watched “Lightning” finish, he had started after me in a later wave. He was shirtless, arms up, huge smile on his face no trace of the trauma his body had endured. Dead for nearly two minutes after his accident, his being alive was a miracle, let alone running a brutalizing 8 mile course on this morning. Hobie also finished, but long before I did and in first place, one step closer to $100,000 breaking the one hour mark and effectively putting a target on his back for anyone tough enough to go after him. And Rodorigo, exhausted and muddy still found a moment to take a picture with me and talk about his race, how he couldn’t wait to do it again, and “oh snap” his awesome Vibrams. You can check out his race day footage, (I make an appearance a couple times) all 24 minutes of it, HERE

With countless others I shared a nod, a knowing smile, a laugh or a story about the run. I stayed and watched some of the other runners cross. Some came across at a dead sprint, heads down, others with arms outstretched overhead with smiling faces. There was often laughter on the runner’s faces and even a few tears. Some limped across the line and others walked, several sitting immediately to rest. Regardless of how they did it, when they crossed that line it was something to be proud of, something earned. James, who commented on the Spartan blog, may have even summed it up best: “I came, I saw, and I left blood on the course.”

I saw the faces of SoCal Super Spartan racers that day. Men and women who came together for a few hours on a dismal Saturday morning to share a once-in-a-lifetime experience. We all would leave a little stronger that day. In the trails of Southern California I saw their faces strained, their brows sweaty, and their bodies covered in brush, dirt, leaves, and muddy water. I saw them cross the finish line and I finished with them. I know what it takes to be a Spartan, I’ve seen it. What about you?

(Note: The video features me as one of several Spartan racers that day.  I was honored to meet all the other participants and thank www.spartanrace.com for the experience.  I am doing a three part series on my Super Spartan SoCal experience.  They were written within a couple days of the race itself and it was one of the most inspiring races of my life.  This is part Two.  Part One was my race itself.  My final installment will be about why I did it in the first place.  Stay tuned.)