My first Spartan race is on March 24th 2012. That leaves me 108 days to train before its time to put up or shut up. Though I have yet to compete in a race yet, my excitement for this new obsession grows daily. This morning my girlfriend and I completed our first Workout of the Day, or W.O.D. to the uninitiated. These routines are prepared by the race organizers and released each evening for those looking to train for the races. Most of the workouts are based on the growing trend of Crossfit, an exercise method that utilizes weights and interval training for intense and sometimes brutal workouts. Though it has its critics, Crossfit and Spartan Race both challenge people to push themselves to the limit of their physical endurance and mental resolve.
Back in 1996 I went through a test of strength that was brutal to say the least. At this time The Marine Corps had just instituted a new training event to cap off thirteen weeks of boot camp. The Crucible as it was called was a 54 hour and 78 mile coarse spread out across acres of real-estate designed to test the recruits knowledge, skill, and physical conditioning. During this time we were not allowed to sleep, barely ate, and constantly marched from one venue to another wearing a full combat load and pack. Interspaced throughout this were four road marches the longest a grueling 12 mile ordeal that left my feet bleeding and raw. Later as a marine I would go on to undertake a variety of marches from 15 to a brutal 32 mile hellish adventure. In addition to the physical challenges my platoon were sent through in The Crucible, a multitude of obstacles tested our strength but more importantly mental acuity.
These obstacles, each named for a Medal of Honor recipient from the past, contained mental problems designed to encourage teamwork and speedy decision-making skills. Though it was possible to muscle your way through them, the quickest way to complete each obstacle was to solve the riddle and use the materials on hand and your fellow recruits to get across, under, and in some cases through the test. Many involved getting heavy objects such as sandbags and one-hundred pound ammo crates over walls and through obstacle courses. In another, the six man fire team must transport one of its members on a stretcher over walls and barriers without tipping or dropping the litter. My favorite involved a tire suspended over a sand pit. The goal was to get each member of your team through the center of the tire, gear and all without touching the sand beneath, while being timed.
So often those seeking to get fit, focus on gym exercises and isolation routines that while effective at burning fat and sculpting physique do little to build actual usable strength. Events like Spartan Race and The Tough Mudder promote the concept of a total athlete. They combine long distance endurance and stamina with physical exertion requiring muscular ability and strength. Sure there are runners who can crank out marathons, but how many can do so while carrying one hundred pounds. Likewise, gyms are filled with hulking brutes who can bench press a ton, but how many can do this repeatedly run 3 miles, than do it again and again? For those seeking the fitness of a Marine or the physique of a Navy Seal, I think obstacle racing and the training building up to it is the way to go.
So much of your conditioning in America’s elite units goes beyond the physical. It’s a mental game of withstanding punishment and proceeding despite what your body says or conventional wisdom advises. The training teaches you in effect to master your own body and push it to its true potential. Time and time again I remember the lessons of my Drill Instructors and platoon leaders. This may hurt they’d teach, but it will soon be over and you will survive if you just keep going. There were times when I felt like little more than a mindless machine detached from my nervous system. Sometimes that’s what it took to push through, in the end though that feeling of accomplishment was indescribable. It is amazing to find yourself in a situation beyond what you believed possible and to learn that you truly are capable of something great.
I won’t lie, standing there beneath the shadow of the Iwo Jima memorial on Parris Island that morning after completing the Crucible, I cried my eyes out. My feet were piles of pulped fleshed and oozing blisters. My back was raw from the straps of my back and rifle sling. My stomach had turned on itself for sustenance and my eyes felt like they were edged in barbed wire, but that’s not why I cried. My tears were for a joy that only those who have conquered the incredible can understand. I had done it, I had beaten the odds defied the critics and became a U.S. Marine. The price for my success was a tortured body, twisted, beaten, bruised, and bloody, but not broken and not defeated. Among those that completed the nine mile march back to the base to receive our emblems and welcome to the Marine Corps that morning, were an eighteen year-old young man with a broken femur and fractured wrist. Another had broken his arm in three places and still one more had crushed the bones of his foot. I cannot imagine the sheer agony of that march back for these young men. They did it though with a grin on their faces, zero complaints, and hearts bursting with pride. These are my brothers and the kind of men I count myself lucky to share a bond with.
One hundred more days and I get to test myself again, and in ways I have not attempted in almost ten years. I can’t wait for it. My mind is spinning and my muscles clinch in anticipation of what’s to come. I know that it takes a special kind of individual to put their body through a meat grinder with little more than their own pride and commitment to push them through. There is a special kind of bond that comes from sharing something punishing and grueling with a group of people. You may not know each other, and come from different places across the country. For that time though while you’re there be it in basic, war, or a race like this you are all in it together. You’re there to overcome and succeed. You’re brothers and sisters. See you all there in march.