Evolution of the Series

I’ve been knocked out from electrocution. I’ve been immersed in ice within a breath of hypothermia. I’ve been driven to my knees by a death march up the side of a mountain. In the 4 short years I’ve come to eat, sleep and breathe obstacle course racing I’ve suffered. And along the way I’ve lived life to its boundaries. Every moment has been exhilarating.

OCR seduced me with its unwavering commitment to our collective humanity. What can be more human than running, carrying heavy shit, crawling and jumping? It captivated me with its ability to shake off the chains of modern comforts and tap into my primordial instincts of survival. Most of my friends think I’m crazy or even masochistic. Those other friends who convene every weekend on courses just smile and line up again at the finish line next to me.

This sport could be called a religion if not for the fact that the necessary skills to compete predate any god. There’s been a consensus that OCR’s popularity initially exploded because it tapped into that evolutionary past. Now, as the sport matures, there are those who argue that it needs to evolve to survive. I can’t help but wonder if that thinking could be dangerous and even counter-productive.

Evolution has come with or without that debate. The popularity of American Ninja Warrior has tempted some OCR series to tap into new audiences. More and more, race directors are engineering bigger more complicated obstacles. Some so innovative, even the best in our sport have been dumbfounded at recent championship competitions by the need for a how-to manual before attempting them.

Mr. Mouse would scurry into permanent obscurity at the thought of pleasing the masses who cheer on Captain NBC. When asked to overcome some of the most recent engineering monstrosities, ancient Spartans would take one look and simply burn them down.

Make no mistake. Skill has its place in our sport. But I can’t help but wonder how many successful competitors at today’s elite events would successfully complete or even choose to participate in an original Tough Guy or survive a Death Race. Skill is worthy of praise. But courage and the will to overcome adversity should be the true measurement of an obstacle course racer and obstacle engineers should remember that. Their creations should test every human being’s ability to push past their previously conceived limitations. Circus acts are for big tents.

I confess. I’ve followed the best in our sport to bouldering walls and some of the ninja gyms that have sprung up around my city. I recognize the value of grip-strength if I want to be an all-around successful athlete. More and more though, suffering on today’s courses seems to stem from torn and bloody hands. Where is the psychological test that has us walking away feeling reborn? Pushing our limits at grip strength doesn’t compare to pushing our limits as human beings.

Don’t get me wrong the “Sufferfest” spirit is still out there. But I can’t help but worry about the future of OCR as I see it twist itself into a more marketable sport at the expense of its soul.

This was never meant to be a spectator sport. It was supposed to pull people off of couches and into the mud to reacquaint themselves with the earlier version of themselves. Tapping into the grit that’s within us isn’t just addictive. It’s also contagious and that’s why it exploded in popularity.

Call me an idealist.  But can we not evolve as a movement without abandoning our original genius insight? Our own evolution as a species was what we were trying to shake off in the first place!

 

The Last 10 Percent

Racing, as in life, is made up of so many different little parts. If you focus too much on one thing, it’s like stepping up too close to a painting. Sure, you can appreciate the brush strokes, but you’ll miss out on the whole picture. The overarching beauty of the masterpiece before you. Or maybe you are missing out on the hastily composed graffiti on the underside of a bridge. Either way.

So, here’s my approach. Do what you will with it. Embrace. Put it in your junk mail. I don’t really care. And in the end, that’s a lesson right there!

The Physical:

At the end of the day, if you want to win, or do really well, there are certain physical laws that govern you. For most endurance sports, once you have the elite “skill set”, we come into the range of aerobic capacity. In a nutshell, that’s how quickly you can move through the expected terrain at a pace that’s maintainable for 1-2 hours. Seems simple. Let’s delve a little deeper.

  • The expected terrain. If you are going to be competing on the side of a mountain, you need to be good at going up and down hills. Really good. You should probably practice that.
  • You’ll rarely find a 400m soft rubber stretch of course, where you can drop sub 60 second laps. So, why are you spending all your time on one?
  • The running portion is going to make up 70-90% of your time. Train accordingly
  • AEROBIC. Meaning with oxygen. People (especially cross-fitters) love going anaerobic. Beyond competitions that last a few minutes, they fall apart. Most OCR races are at least 45 minutes long. To train your aerobic system, you’ll need to spend lots of time at, or below your Aerobic threshold. Sorry, it’s true. This isn’t the sprinting up stairs speed. This isn’t the sexy, high-paced, dubstep ladden training montage. This is the “running through flowers, for hours” pace. Conversational. Heart rate 120-140 for most people. Get it into you!

The Coach:

If you want to self coach yourself… great. If you want to pay for a coach, also great. Make sure whoever you choose, the following always holds true:

  • Consistent progression. You should be increasing the training load by about 5% every week, with every 3rd or 4th week being an “easy” week.
  • Varied intensities. You workouts should be mostly easy, with some “really hard” stuff thrown in.
  • Tests. Every 4-8 weeks, you should have some kind of test, where you can see if you are getting any faster, or if you are just tiring yourself out.
  • Communication. You should have a relationship with whoever makes your training plan, that allows you to say “DUDE, i’m really tired, why is that?”, or lets you say “I don’t think this is working”. Your coach might need to say “suck it up, keep pushing”, or “hmmm, let’s reassess your plan”, or “maybe we need to get some blood work done.” either way, communication is paramount.
  • Your coach should be someone who is smart and who has some sort of a reputation in the industry. Ask 5 of your competitors about your coach. If they all think he’s a twat, maybe it’s time to look elsewhere… This can include you, if you are self coached! Don’t be a twat.

Spiritual

I’ve always believed that the most important facet of competition is the mental and the spiritual, not the physical. I’ve won many races that I shouldn’t have. Where the guy who finished second is a faster runner, or better at obstacles. So, what’s the big secret here? I don’t know. I’m probably wrong. But something here might help.

Your ego will build you up. This will create expectations. So, try best to let go of your ego.
“How do you do that” (Hunter M asks)? Accept that you aren’t special. If you are Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky, or a Mud Running champion, at the end of the day, no one is special. We are all just on a rock, hurtling through space and time, doing our best and maybe inspiring 1 or 2 other people to do slightly better too. Sorry if you thought the earth revolved around you, but it doesn’t.

Alright, now that you have no ego, release your expectation of how you might perform relative to others. Just go out there, breathe really hard, make your legs burn and see what happens.
I’m not here to discuss theism, but really? If God exists, i’d hope that he really doesn’t care about the outcome of an athletic pursuit. I really hope….

Now also, stop caring about what other people think about your performance. You may have 10 fans, or 100,000. But most of them would be unaffected if you quit the sport tomorrow. Don’t do it for them, do it for yourself.

Putting it all together

Cool. Now that we’ve squashed all ego and all expectations of how you might do, get back to the “Physical”. Break down the course. Break down your preparation. Break down EVERYTHING that you can. This includes your breakfast. Your running form. Your technique for picking up a sandbag. Look for where you lose time relative to your competitors. Work on those weaknesses, then build it all back up. Become a student of your sport. Learn as much as you can and then apply it.

I hear you saying “But Ryan, why would I want to spend all my time doing this?”. Well, this article WAS called “The last 10%”. You can go out and get 90% of the performance right now, without doing any of this stuff. Guess what. If you learn these principles and you apply them to anything else in life, whether it’s basket weaving, organizing your pantry or designing medical implants, you WILL improve. So maybe there is a bigger lesson there. Or maybe not. meh.

Lose Weight Or Die In Vermont, An AI Story

In recent years an AI program wrote a novel that made it past the first round of a Japanese literary competition, and a new Harry Potter novel, created with the Botnik learning machine made waves in literary circles. While predictive text generators struggle with plot, dialogue, and overall sensibility, they do possess a remarkable ability to understand the underlying themes or ‘feel’ of the text they are fed.

Following is a short story about Spartan Race, courtesy of botnik and Hay Kranen text generators, and using available text from Joe De Sena’s “Spartan Up” along with Outside Magazine’s fantastic look at Joe and the farm.


He had always hated the muddy field with its smiling, slippery suffering, cold, pain. It was a place where he felt shocked.

He was a dirt drinker with soft arms and sculpted knees. His friends saw him a large leader. Once, he had even made a cup of tea for a fatigued blob. That’s the sort of man he was. I’ll elaborate on the short-circles; the great grease which perfectly proportioned the way life uses principles and builds a suffering!

Joe Desena, Spartan CEO

Joe slid over to the window for 30 days and reflected on his cold surroundings. “Why burpees?” Andy yelled from the survivors. The rain hammered the young children. “Exhaustion has them in the pond.” He laughed.

He saw wet goals in the distance. It was the figure of Spartan Race.  He was not prepared. Too easy.

Spartan stepped and came closer, firmly Joe could see the organic pools in his eye. “There’s a cabin in Vermont, but everything is stone at 4am.”

Spartan stared with the passion of 5686 tight-fisted quitters. He said, in hushed tones, “I love you and I want pain.”

Burpee Joe looked back, even more suffering and still fingering the heavy boulder. “Spartan, lose weight or die in Vermont,” he replied.

They looked at each other with tired feelings, like two concerned, comfortable losing at a very determined Wall Street Party, with Chinese music playing in the background and two smart teachers changing to the core.

Joe studied Spartan. He took an underwater breath. “Too bad,” began Joe, “Are you eating apples for 8 days long? I don’t feel the same way, and I never will.”

Spartan looked pained, his overtired emotions crawling like a substantial, sparkling spear.

Joe could hear Spartan’s emotions shatter into 705 pieces. Then the strong brute hurried away into the distance.

Not even a drink of dirt would calm his nerves tonight.

——

Rea Kolbl – To all of our family and friends: You are amazing.

A while ago my husband and I were working out in a gym, and I was in a particularly bad mood; I was hungry, tired and stressed from work, but still wanted to work out, failing at it, and taking it all out on Bun, who by then was well trained in the hangry athlete management and just patiently nodded at my glares and R-rated language. Not getting upset at me actually just made it worse, and while I felt bad I also couldn’t find a way to stop it. Then someone recognized me.

“Are you Rea?? You are amazing!!” Then, turning over to my husband, “isn’t she amazing?”

I half expected Bun to just walk away at that point, but he smiled and said, “I guess she is.”

Finish-line-hugs

No matter how hard the race is, Bun is always there for me at the finish line.  Photo credit: Bob Mulholland

But the truth is, I wasn’t amazing at that moment, and there are many like this in our daily lives. Being tired can make you moody, and being bad at planning sometimes also means I’ll be hungry, overall a bad situation for me and those around. It’s easy to smile at races, be happy during events where I’m rested, full of adrenaline, with nutrition planned (usually by Bun) to avoid hunger. It’s also easy to be amazing after a race, especially a good one. And even after bad ones, there’s always things to learn and to celebrate, hang out with friends I haven’t seen in a long while, and eat all the bananas and peanuts available at the venue.

 

But this is maybe 10% of our daily lives (fine, this year maybe 20%), but there are so many more days of hard training, involuntary sitting down (taper tantrums tend to be even worse than tired tirades), and Bun puts up with me through all of those. Even kisses me goodnight at the end of the day, no matter how many times I told him that the lack of bananas is obviously his fault, and no I refuse to eat that energy bar because the second ingredient is sugar.

 

Always-there-at-the-finish

I think staying up all night is even harder for our crew – at least we’re occupied with “one foot in front of the other”, while they patiently wait ready for us to come into the pit. Photo credit: Victor Martines

So what’s my point? I don’t know how to fix this. I know when I’m annoying, but in that moment, I can’t stop it. So I guess this is a shout-out to all of the spouses out there, all of the partners, family, and friends who see the worst of us, yet still love us, despite. Who come with us to races, stay up all night with us, or stay at home to take care of the household… and who rarely get greeted with “You are amazing!” by strangers in the gym.

Fed-by-the-crew

Without all of your help we wouldn’t even be able to feed ourselves. Photo credit: Tough Mudder

 

Because you are amazing. And we’re only here because you are here, too.

 

Considering your first OCR?

So, you’re thinking about doing your first race, but you’re nervous about hitting the big “register now” button.

Spartan-Seattle-Beast-Trifecta-Group

Guess what – I’m willing to bet that at least 90% of people who are interested in obstacle racing today sat exactly where you are sitting right now, including the pros. Yes, 90%. I’m not over exaggerating.

You’re probably asking yourself questions like, “what if I’m not ready?” or “what if I’m not good enough,” or *gasp* the worst of all, “what if I embarrass myself?”

I’d like to take a moment to address those questions.

What if I’m not ready?

Let me answer this question the hard way: you’re probably not. None of us REALLY are, and that’s part of the fun!

The thing with obstacle racing is that there are so many different components to it. There’s running, hiking, throwing, heavy carries, coordination, crawling, jumping, throwing, balance, sometimes swimming…and well, you get the picture. There’s a LOT.

It doesn’t matter what your athletic background is, at least one of these elements is going to humble you. You are going to look at the person who is standing next to you and think to yourself, what the $*@?. It’s just a part of racing. Truth is, none of us could be considered “perfect racers.” There is always something that you can improve on. If you are telling yourself that you are going to wait to register until you feel physically ready, well, because there are so many pieces, you’re going to be waiting forever.

This multitude of elements is what makes racing so entertaining. It’s fun to take a look at some of the things that you totally suck at and work on them. Then, when you try again, you can take a step back and say “wow, I used to only be able to make 2 rungs of twister, and today I made five!” It becomes an addiction, and almost like a game of How Good Can I Get?  I’d also like to go ahead and add that it is TOTALLY OKAY to be proud of yourself for completing a race. Good vibes are encouraged!

Races can provide an awesome opportunity for you to see what you’re really made of. Not only are there things that you can do in a race that humble you, but there are going to be some opportunities for you to surprise yourself. Yep, there are things that even you, the complete newbie, are good at, you may just not know it yet. Maybe, you can’t run for shit, but you are a lady who can carry the men’s weight sand-bag carries like a champ. You go, girl! Imagine racing as an opportunity to show you where you are awesome–come on, aren’t you a little curious to find out what you’re good at?

What if I’m not good enough?

I promise you; you are good enough. The thing about obstacle racing that I’ve learned is, the value of racing has nothing to do in the race itself. Racing is about the confidence that you learn along the way.

One thing I’ve learned about obstacle racing is that, for most people, tackling the challenge often deals with overcoming obstacles that are off the course. More often than not, you can listen to people tell you stories of how racing has helped them accomplish things that they have never imagined. I’ve talked to several people about how racing has helped them understand that they are better than their depression. I’ve heard how people say it’s made them feel strong enough to get out of abusive relationships. For some, they may have less serious things, like running OCR has made them feel “less bored with fitness.” Some people want a challenge, and you better believe they get that. Personally, running obstacle races has helped me have a better understanding of myself. It’s helped me come to terms with who I am as a person, it’s helped me gain the confidence I needed to say when I made a mistake, and it’s helped me gain the confidence of acknowledging when I am good at something.

Because of this trend of people-overcoming-personal-obstacle-racers, I’ve also noticed that everyone at races is SUPER friendly. Just like everything, there are exceptions, but people show up to support each other. People may offer you tips and tricks, or hey, even let you join their group. Racing often means traveling, and traveling can become opportunities to spend time with other people similar to yourself. I’ve met some of my best friends racing. It’s very exciting to listen to everyone’s stories–there are some pretty interesting people out there!

I know what you’re thinking, and sure, there’s the physical piece of it, too. If you’re reading this, you’ve probably been watching a lot of SPARTAN: Ultimate Team Challenge or other shows that just feature the elites. You know what, sure, there are several people that appear to be god-tier athletes. But most people aren’t like that. I would never try to sit here and tell you that those people don’t exist, because they most certainly do, but that should not be your determining fear factor. Most of the people who come out to races are those who are looking for a challenge, or they are looking for a unique experience. But, OCR is meant to be more mentally challenging than physical. It’s meant to make you feel good, not make you feel like you can’t accomplish something. Not to mention, most bigger OCRs have some sort of “opt out” option–whether it’s burpees, a penalty loop, a lost wristband, whatever. Some race series (I’m looking at you, Terrain) don’t even care if you walk past an obstacle, as long as you are not in a more competitive wave!

 

What if I embarrass myself?

Ready for another blunt, disappointing answer?

Nobody. Gives. A. Fuck.

Really, they don’t.

 

The thing is, OCR is about building confidence. With an event that attempts to build up your confidence and character, the people try to build you up, too. With that being said, as long as you try, you really shouldn’t be embarrassed. People you’ve never met before will sit there and cheer for you when you accomplish things. If you show fear, they’ll cheer you on. If you show excitement, they will cheer louder. Volunteers will dance with you and even help you get over certain obstacles, if allowed. You will see smiles all throughout. You will be encouraged. You will be pushed and held to high standards. Why? Because the people who are out there will believe in you. It doesn’t matter if they’re your friend, someone you’ve never seen before, or someone you will never see again. Everyone believes in you. If you’re surrounded by people who believe in you and want to help you, could you really be embarrassed?

 

So, Sarah, what do YOU think it takes to be ready?

I guess I’ve told you that you’re both ready and not ready for your first race. I stand by both of those comments. Physically, there is a challenge and truthfully, there is not benchmark you must hit before you get started. You’ll have areas you’ll excel, and you’ll have areas where you are weak. Everyone does, and quite frankly, if you wait until you’re ready, you’re probably going to be waiting forever. So don’t wait, go ahead and register; use your first race as a benchmark! Mentally, if you are willing to take on the challenge, then you are absolutely ready. There isn’t as much pressure to be a total beast as you may think; especially not if you are a first-timer.

Truth is, your first race is going to be uncomfortable. It’s probably going to humble you in at least one area, but, it will also give you a sense of accomplishment that doesn’t compare to anything else. If you’re willing to take on the challenge, you are going to be great. You’re going to meet some amazing people who believe in you. You won’t find a more uplifting community. So, please join us. On behalf of the OCR community, know that you are welcome to join us, and we are cheering for you!

 

Racing, Burpees, and Misogi: a Three Year Update (Part One)

This past fall I traveled to the United Arab Emirates for the Inaugural Middle-Eastern Obstacle Course Championships.

I wasn’t particularly excited to be racing. Granted, there had been a time when I was really passionate about racing, back when I first stumbled upon the sport and subsequently caught the racing bug. Back then my goal was to be the best in the world at what I did, and a good deal of every day was spent either training, recovering from training, or thinking about training.

I thought about the sport constantly in those early days, but the sport did not think about me. I loved speed and trained that way, but the sport of obstacle racing was evolving toward sluggish, multi-hour mountain races. This left me with the occasional short course races and not much else. I had a brief stint with Spartan’s Pro Team and moved on. I would end up working far too much, meeting a Hungarian girl, and eventually following her to Europe.

My racing days were three years ago, ages in a sport spit-balling forward into the public’s eye as quickly as OCR. But I would be lying if I said there wasn’t a certain tickle, an itch in the back of my head. I tried to bury it and move on to new things. Still, it reemerged on an almost weekly basis.

Twice in the last three years I’ve attempted to scratch it.


The Championship took place well outside of Dubai, in the northeastern, mountainous section of the United Arab Emirates that bordered Oman. As we left Dubai behind there was no gradual transition from urban to rural. Instead, one moment we were in the awe-inspiring, meticulous city, and the next we were alone on a sand-strewn two-lane highway. To either side stretched seemingly unending dunes dotted with the occasional camel.

The novelist Wilfred Thesiger spent years wandering through this “Empty Quarter” of the desert in the 1940s. For months at a time the landless Bedouins he traveled with subsisted on nothing more than dried dates and camel milk. Dates, to me at least, seem to be about on par with sandpaper in terms of nourishment while in the throes of dehydration. And why would Thesiger, an affluent aristocrat, willfully spend extended amounts of time trying not to die out in these ever-changing sands?

Eventually British interests began to show interest in meeting with tribes, oil was found, rights were negotiated, and just like that, the massive silver city currently shrinking in our mirrors had sprung upward from the sand.


I drank strong, bitter coffee to stave off the jet lag while Halvord Borsheim, a Swedish racer based out of Dubai, slalomed his BMW SUV though sedentary early-morning traffic. His girlfriend Martha, also a racer, was co-piloting, but she was rehabbing and would be cheering instead of racing today. My brother, Brakken, had flown in from Milwaukee, and currently sat next to me, dozing.

This would be my second time racing here. I had flown out to Dubai in 2015 for the first Middle Eastern Spartan Race. It was a sprint to the finish, and I crossed the line thinking I had won. But my celebration was cut short when I saw Hallvard, medal around neck and banana in hand, waiting for me past the finish line.

"“width=100%”

Given the brutal terrain and conditions, I was ecstatic with the 2nd-place finish. The rest of my week was spent wandering around the city in a sleep-deprived spell, jaw hanging at the sheer wonder of the place. I was new to racing, to traveling, to having giant checks handed to me, and everything felt like a dream.

Something clicked for me that during that trip. This was a thought that, simple as it was, would grow into a philosophy over the coming years. You see, I have good speed endurance (I once took a year and a half off from running, and for my very first day back, walked to a track and ran a half mile in 1:58) but my talent is not linear, and I’m actually quite average when it comes to pure aerobic, or endurance events. Had the Americans shown in 2015 I’d have taken 10th and gone home empty-handed. If the Europeans showed up I would have been lucky to take 20th. But only I had made the choice to show up, to sit on a plane for 16 hours, to race. This was the secret: talent is important in this world, but like it or not, it is finite and can only be improved so much. Circumstance, however, is entirely up to you.

This attitude began to bleed into other parts life. Identify a low-probability event, give yourself the skills to succeed in that situation were it to happen, and then finally, attempt to influence the odds of the said event occurring.

I wasn’t able to make it in 2016, but Brakken did fly out.  He took 2nd as well, but to a Russian this time, Sergei Perelygin.


It was morning, but in name only- the sun had already cleared the jagged mountains skirting the race grounds, and it was 93 degrees, well on its way to triple digits come race-time. I was thirsty by the time my warm-up was over.

Like most championships, this race would be the Beast distance, rumored to be in the 13-mile range. The first hour would consist of open desert running before moving into the mountains for the second hour. I’ve discovered that these races are typically less-obstacle intensive than US races, meaning shorter, lighter carries and crawls, but it was rumored that there were some intense carries and lengthy swimming sections in the 2nd half of the race.

I stood there at the start line, a good 15 pounds heavier than my racing days, minutes slower in the 5k, running a race 5 times longer than my ideal racing distance, wondering if I still had “it.”

But we’ll come back to “it” later. Because this story isn’t about that.

It’s really about the first time I attempted to scratch the itch, and more importantly, how I failed.


In 2016 I was invited to LA for the taping of a new TV show. The History Channel and Peter Berg (Friday Night Lights, Lone Survivor) were teaming up to expose everyday people to Special Forces training; somehow I had been chosen. Probably, if I’m going to be honest, because I’m the cheaper Kraker. I think Brakken might have been out in Atlanta filming a show with NBC at the time.

Nonetheless, work had become quite stressful and I needed a break, so I put in for vacation and flew out to sunny Valencia, California. I saw a fun week in the sun, some long rucks, probably some pushups and planks, and an easy paycheck ahead of me. As you’re probably aware of by now, the History Channel did not share these sentiments; they had very, very different ideas of what the weeks would be like.


Side-note: There’s a strange moment where everything changes. Where in a split instant a person, a normal, everyday person, goes from “Average Joe” to “PUBLIC FIGURE.” What this means essentially is that people now are allowed to say awful, unfiltered things to you on social media. We’ve seen people end up in this position, so I wasn’t unaware of what was coming.

Fast forward to the Thursday night the show, called “The Selection”, aired, and sure enough, the comments and messages began to stream in. People, especially veterans, seemed peeved – no, legitimately upset by what we had volunteered to do.

We were disrespecting the Special Forces and what they stood for by ‘playing pretend.’ We were embarrassingly weak. We were actually actors – heck, we probably hung out in heated trailers between takes. We were soft.

Soft. Now that’s a critique that stuck with me, and for good reason.


A few days before the show began the 40 or so of us participants were shuttled via 12-passenger vans to a small park outside of the city. It was a beautiful, sun-drenched California day and spirits were high. We’d been cooped up in a hotel room undergoing physical and psychological panels for the past 3 days and were ready to blow off some steam.

There in the parking lot we were split into groups of 20 and sent through the basic army PT tests. The first sign that I may have bitten off more than I could chew? I couldn’t hit the sit-up standard of 60 in 2 minutes. Here I was, surrounded by some massive, impressive human specimens, starting to regret my (non-existent) fitness.

We’d been given maps and orienteering to study, knots to tie, etc, to prep us for what was to come, but I put off going over the materials. There was no point preparing – things would most likely be fine, and if not, I would figure it out as challenges arose.

The show began and I was anything but fine. I struggled with the lack of sleep, the never-ending upper-body exercises; the planks, push-ups, log-carries, and of course the constant, wet, bone-chilling cold. An hour in I made up my mind to leave the set. Luckily, my ego wouldn’t allow that, but I’d already accepted my departure as inevitable.  But it wasn’t the physical pain, the tear gas, or the running that did me in.

"“width=100%”

I began to feel myself losing my mental edge. We were given a very specific set of instructions summing up, among other things, communication with the instructors running the exercise. Before long I’d forgotten even the most basic one: the word “Instructor.” All I could think of, for hours on end, was the word “Inspector.” I kept my head down and tried to avoid any communication with the cadres, whose names were lost to me. I began to feel vulnerable. I didn’t trust myself, were I to be blindfolded, thrown in a box, tortured, or any other number of things. Would I have a rational reaction on camera, on national TV?

I’m externally motivated. This is great for showing up and overachieving come race day, but not so good for putting in work when the competition is gone and its time for a solo training session.

So what do you do when your external motivation decides to do the opposite, and blasts your face with a hose while telling you, rather explicitly, to quit? 
In my case, I listened.

Physically I was fine, but as I tried to find motivation it became clear I was lacking a “why” for being there.

One of the participants had cancer. He’d put off undergoing brain surgery to be here. Another had only ever wanted to serve his country, and he couldn’t imagine doing anything else in life. This was his moment to shine. But why was I here?

I never figured it out, so I stuck it out for 30 hours and then was gone, just like that, whisked off the set and to the airport for a return flight to Denver.

‘You’re Soft’ I had written, matter-of-factly, in a notebook while the plane took me east toward Denver. “Oh, it’s just an aftermath of being tear-gassed,” I fibbed to the flight attendant, who had seen my red eyes and inquired if everything was alright.

I touched down late that Sunday night, Ubered home from Denver, and slept for 12 hours. That next morning I opened Reddit to catch up on the last two weeks of news.  While browsing, I stumbled across an article from Outside magazine about Kyle Korver, one of the greatest NBA’s shooters ever, and his “Misogi”- inspired training.

Misogi is a Japanese term that refers to the Shinto ritual of full body washing, or cleansing. Korver’s training group referred to it in the physical sense: A difficult, borderline impossible task that served to strip one to the core, both physically and mentally. For their first Misogi, Korver and his training buddies paddle-boarded 27-miles across open water. The next year they upped the stakes, with an underwater, boulder-weighted, 5k relay.

Grantland explains:

“Each participant would dive down, find the rock, run with it as long as he could, and drop it for the next guy to find. Those waiting their turn wore weight belts and tread in water between five and 10 feet deep.

“It took five hours. ‘We were honestly worried about blacking out,’ Korver says. They were also worried about sharks.”

What about the aforementioned wanderer, Thiseger? A quote of his comes to mind, upon leaving a desert journey behind, one in which he’d been imprisoned by the Sultan of Saudi Arabia:

“No man can live this life and emerge unchanged. He will carry, however faint, the imprint of the desert, the brand which marks the nomad; and he will have within him the yearning to return, weak or insistent according to his nature. For this cruel land can cast a spell which no temperate clime can match.”

It hit me. Like Korver and Thesiger, l had been gifted an incredible opportunity: a chance to participate in my own Misogi. But I had walked away, no – I had quit, before allowing things to get bad. In doing so, I failed to capitalize on the experience.

This wasn’t my first time walking away from something. I dropped out of college with one semester remaining. I walked away from racing as I was just beginning to win the short distance races. Maybe there was a theme here.

Sports (and this type of experience) possess a fantastic ability to simulate the highs and lows of life while in a protected environment. How do you react when things go poorly? Who are you when you forget to wear your mask? Its why we stress athletics in children – this is not just playing, but high-stress character-building in a controlled environment.

This Misogi put me to a simulated rock bottom. It was time to fix myself.


Fix Yourself: A Two-Step Process to Physical Enlightenment

Step 1: Remember, explicitly, your thought process during and immediately after the event.

I know you’ve had lows; you’re a human, after all.  What did you think at that rock-bottom point?  “I hate myself when I overeat.” “I gossip too much.”

I used to watch the open heats at Spartan Races. You’re bound to spot someone having a really, really bad time out there. You’ve seen them. Wallowing in the mud, baggy t-shirt and basketball shorts being sucked off, or sitting off to the side on their own, taking deep, ragged breaths, eyes averted from passerby. What would happen when their race was over, once they had taken a hot shower and changed into fresh clothes, I wondered.  Did they take an Instagram photo, accompanied by a big smile and flexed biceps, throw a caption on the photo like “Crushed it” or #Beastmode, and move on with their life? Or did they, from time to time, remember what had really happened out there, the vulnerability they had felt? In my case, I pretended like it didn’t exist for far too long.

Write it down, write it all down and set it in stone explicitly while you’re still in the trenches of despair.

“Pain + Reflection = Progress,” says Bridgewater founder Ray Dalio.

Time is an optimist’s best friend, and we need to get these thoughts down before we begin to rationalize our choices, the passing months softening the rough edges of memories.

So I wrote it down. “You’re Soft.”

Step 2: Get Hard

Yes, I was weak mentally. But if I had the physical tools to succeed, would I still have struggled?

And how does someone become stronger? I decided to start with the basics. Take it back to square 1 and acquaint myself with heavy, painful movements that as a life-long distance runner, I had avoided like the plague for a variety of parroted misconceptions, including:

  1. “You’ll become too muscle-bound”
      1. and
  2. “You’ll injure yourself”

Enter the Burpee.