Spartan Agoge Namibia Preview – Racing With Rhinos?

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Josue Stephens talks about his new role(s) with Spartan and invites us all to take on an adventure of a lifetime in Namibia, Africa.

Todays Podcast is sponsored by:

2019 Rugged Maniac – New obstacles, and new tech tee finisher shirts!

Show Notes:

Spartan – Namibia Agoge

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Norm Koch Leaves Spartan Race

Norm Koch Spartan Race

Norm Koch has been a familiar face at Spartan Race since 2012. Many of us encountered him at the first ever Spartan Ultra Beast in Killington, VT. in September of that year. Back then, he was one of the only full time race directors at Spartan. He was known to design courses that tested athletes in ways that surpassed their limits. He is a visionary in the realm of obstacle course design and execution.

Participants developed a love, hate relationship with his particular style of torture.  In turn they birthed the battle cry , “EFF NORM!” This infamous cry became the racers mantra and echoed through courses (and Facebook) around the country.

His Spartan journey began as an early participant (and finisher) of the now defunct Death Races. He soon began working for Joe, and grew shortly thereafter into an iconic race director. He informed me yesterday that he is leaving Spartan Race.

These are his words:

So its finally happening, I will not be representing Spartan moving forward. My opinions and ideas are mine and mine alone. Muhahahah

I would like to thank most of the Spartan Staff for the opportunity to work with everyone on the team. We have had some good times. I will miss the build crews and a few of the office people. The best has been meeting all the volunteers and competitors. It’s been so cool to find so many like-minded people.

I do love seeing everyone at races no matter what the race series is. I am looking forward to being more supportive of OCR community.

• I would say I’m leaving Spartan, not OCR.

• My ideas and Spartan have changed, I feel an inability to make the changes that I wanted to due to the size of the company

• Everyone knows I’m proud of being part of Spartan since the early days and help shaped its growth over the years.

• I love Spartan and it will always be a part of me, literally my calf tattoo is representative of my Death Race participation – The good old days.

• This is not me leaving the sport moreover me looking to do something new.

• I would love to do something like designing courses for existing series and working with their brands to offer signature courses,

Starting a new series where I have complete creative control over the process is my goal. Any investors feel free to hit me up…. hahahaha.

Spartan AGOGE 60: Adaptive Grit Overcomes Grim Expectations

SpartanAgoge60-AdaptiveAthletesPhoto Courtesy of Michelle Stone Stairs Roy

On April 25th, Team Believe 923 received the exciting news that the 1st ever Agoge 60 endurance event was opening its roles for amputees and other Adaptive Athletes (AA). As an Agoge 48 (Class 000) participant I understood that; a) hell’a miles and labor would be waiting for us in the Green Mountains of Vermont and b) with only 24hrs to commit to participating, there was no way I could mentally prepare our team and paralyzed athletes for the hell’a miles and labor that would be waiting for us in the Green Mountains of Vermont so we reluctantly declined the invitation. However, I did ask to be assigned to another Adaptive team in case I could be of any assistance…access granted!

Stardate 94062.71 (June 17, 2016 5:30am)
Enter stage left: team Operation Enduring Warrior (OEW) consisting of U.S. Army Veterans Earl Granville and Justin Shellhammer (each with 1 prosthetic leg) and Norbie Lara (with 1 arm) at the ready who were supported by Andi Marie, Eric Schmitz, and Erica Walker.


Enter stage right: team More Hearts Than Scars (MHTS) consisting of U.S. Army Veteran Billy Costello (with a prosthetic leg), U.S. Navy Veteran Greg Bullock (on crutches), U.S. Marine Veteran Matthew Pietro (an amputee on crutches and wheelchair), Blind Pete Cossaboon (no explanation needed), and Zackary Paben, who were supported by Joey McGlamory, Wendy Paben, and me.

SpartanAgoge60-MHTS3A Photo Courtesy of Nelson Runaway Diaz

We were 14 in total who were mostly greeted with silent nods for showing up but not given much hope to make it beyond the first 12 hours. After all, this event was created by the core of Spartan Staff that produced the DNF-friendly Death Race in this very same environment.

The day began with registration from 5:30am-8am where we received an Agoge Passport Card in exchange for our car keys and Drivers Licenses; a necessary precaution for participant safety especially for those who would endure 2.5 days of undisclosed training and torture. Next came medical evaluation followed by the barking orders for mandatory gear to be splayed on the required 8’x8’ tarps. Penalties for missing gear included disqualification while food other than the required MRE’s (Military Meals Ready to Eat) and Backpacker’s Pantry were confiscated. Reward for early registration included hauling lumber and other weighty objects to and fro Riverside Farm aka base camp until the registration process was complete.

Erica and I were tasked with a running assessment of the Adaptive Athletes for the duration of their participation. I was told that when they dropped out I could continue the Agoge with the rest of the participants but understood that I would not be a “finisher” if they indeed quit. Spartan leadership (aka Krypteia) had a look of concern and slight agitation as they said they didn’t even know what to do with AA’s, they didn’t know any would actually show up, they felt this was another one of Joe’s (DeSena) crazy ideas, and that this was NOT the right venue for the Adaptive Athletes. Well, it took less than 60 hours to prove them right. And wrong.

After a brief welcome and introduction to the Agoge format, both able-bodied and adaptive participants were split into larger teams tasked with carrying 80lb. bags of concrete and 5gal. buckets of water to reinforce the famous steps on Joe’s Mountain which was built and expanded on with manpower provided by several years of Death Races. It became instantly clear to the Krypteia that the veterans of OEW would need little assistance while we of MHTS had a different set of challenges in front of us that would require teamwork of epic proportions to overcome so when asked if we were capable of participating in this “beautification” project…a silent nod was my answer and that’s all that was needed for them to send us up the mountain to join the renovation. A single file of Spartans snaked up and around Joe’s Mountain like an ant trail with the adaptive athletes melting into the numbers pulling their weight and assisting others along the way. We were joined by Michelle ‘Stone Stairs” Roy who was assigned field communications for OEW and MHTS. She is intimately familiar with this terrain from years of Death Races and for writing the names of those battling cancer on stones that she would then personally add to this landscape.

Following this 3 hour effort we were reassembled at the Farm and divided into 3 large groups consisting of 3 smaller groups. MHTS now became Team 3 Division A aka Team 3-Adaptive. We understood that our goal to complete this 60 hour event required us to NOT interfere with the experience of any other athlete and that anyone who chose to assist us could potentially miss out on portions of the event that could cost them a DQ as the event progressed. With fair warning, we accepted 4 Spartans to join our ranks for an experience of a lifetime that, if fulfilled, may never be duplicated. Enter Brian Lynch, Matt Rex, Anthony Schena, and the bearded Mexican in a skirt Fernando Casanova. We were now equipped with 5 adaptive athletes, 4 work horses, Wendy to keep Zack in check, Joey who served as Blind Pete’s guide & 1 Puerto Rican Reindeer.

SpartanAgoge60-MHTS Photo Courtesy of Nelson Runaway Diaz

Teams were assigned a slosh pipe and a kayak filled with 25 gallons of water that would later serve as our source for hydration. Team 3 however, was assigned (2) kayaks, a slosh pipe, plus Matt’s wheelchair which has been in heavy use since he lost his right leg in a motorcycle accident after returning from combat with PTSD. Another team was assigned a wooden handled fence post hole digger and wooden 4×4’s which would serve as the structure that held the metal Spartan helmet bell to be rung as the final act of those who would later succumb to the rigors of the Agoge training.

SpartanAgoge60-Bell Photo Courtesy of Nelson Runaway Diaz

As we completed several uphill miles to the Log Landing, we were given instructions to eat and hydrate quickly just as the Spartan Helmet Bell of submission first broke silence reminding us that we would all reach a point where tapping out would become a real option. Several participants withdrew due to equipment failure and medical complications while Lora Cesuga from Spain sacrificed herself for the sake of the team in light of her slower pace coupled with hearing the fate of those who chose to travel through the night into the famous Bloodroot and not make the time hacks. Lora also loaned me equipment that enabled me to keep working alongside OEW an MHTS teams.

12 hours into the Agoge and the 8 Adaptive Athletes were still in!! The toughest part at this moment was convincing the AA’s to follow a different path to the new base camp called ‘Area 51’ while the other participants trekked up Bloodroot to the same location. Fact is that only logistics prevented our teams from pressing on into Bloodroot but at the same time there were only 8 people trudging through with missing or disfigured limbs which kept the scales well balanced. This alternate path enabled Justin to stick around as he contemplated an early exit concerned whether a lengthier stay would cause him further injury and derail the limited summer time scheduled with his children.

We trekked back to Riverside Farm as everyone else powered through the night for their rest at Area 51. Before we were reunited with the rest of the Spartans, we were greeted in the morning by Michelle, cups of coffee, and Joe DeSena giving us limited time to gear up and transport building materials back up Joe’s Mountain to Muddy’s Hut, which is a rentable retreat built out of nature and recycled materials by Matt Batz.

At Area 51, another favorite destination for Death Racers, we began Physical Training and noticed for the 1st time that there was another adaptive athlete among us. It was virtually impossible to detect that Amy Palmiero Winters was an adaptive athlete until we saw her pant leg rolled up revealing her prosthetic leg. Amy would outperform many in this event even while tasked by Joe to personally assume responsibility for the fate of Spartan Editorial Content Manager David Deluca (you must read the 1st hand account of his Agoge60 experience!). The bell continued to be rung for different reasons. One international participant complained of boredom with little learned not realizing that shortly after quitting the real teaching would begin which would make the previous days torture worth it. After PT, DeSena interrupted the silence to advise that going forward NO ONE would be considered a finisher if ANYONE quits for non-medical reasons.

It was at this new base camp where our Agoge passports would be stamped as we completed evolutions including Drown Proofing in a leech filled pond (yes, blood everywhere), Raft Building, Survival Information (eating meal and earthworms), Litter Building (Stretcher), and Rolling 700lb bales of hay (through a swamp…I’m still confused about this one). Failure to complete an evolution sealed your name on the growing list of DQ’s and DNF’ers. At some point, Zack and I were asked to accompany Blind Pete to The Abyss for a 200’ repel followed by a 60-70 degree single track climb up a rock face with unstable footing as a way to assess this evolution for the other AA’s. Many faced and conquered their crippling fear of heights but to hear Pete who has been totally blind since April 2015 laughing as he stepped backwards off of the cliff to begin his descent was truly remarkable and inspiring for those that followed. Does it help not being able to see the dangers around you or does it help knowing that you are alive and thriving in spite of them? Another answered question for most of us this weekend.

SpartanAgoge60-BlindPete Photo Courtesy of Nelson Runaway Diaz

The verdict was in, Norbie and Earl of OEW were more than prepared for The Abyss while Justin stayed behind to be checked out by medics due to a fall. Also Billy of MHTS who lost his leg in a roadside bombing in Afghanistan ran against daylight to make it to this location before nightfall. The inspiration continued as Norbie began his one armed repel since his right arm was severed by an RPG in Iraq, 2004. The climb continued to challenge able bodied Spartans alike but to hear the pounding metal of Earl’s prosthetic left leg as he sometimes crawled up the stone proved that a missing limb at the hands of a roadside bomb in 2008 would not deny him victory in 2016 (nor would the cast on his left hand from a recent cycling incident…this boy has issues :).


Upon our return to Area 51, we were told that Justin was removed from Agoge due to medical issues and we couldn’t be any prouder for him since he was forced out after fighting through 32 hours of Agoge training. A fellow Spartan ensured that Justin’s green military issued sun hat made it to the Agoge graduation ceremony in his honor. That was the least that could’ve been done for this soldier who lost his leg to a land mine in Afghanistan, 2005.

Prior to the repel, OEW was the 1st team to literally hack through the uncleared woods with Andi Marie on the litter but after the repel MHTS was the last team to perform the several miles of Litter Carry. The best Krypteia Eric Roman could offer us was to be partnered up with another team should we need help carrying one of our heaviest teammates, Matt, on the litter for an undisclosed distance. As both teams set off for the carry, we found a comfortable rhythm of resting and rotating positions every 100 steps…then every 50. Zack mentioned how the friction on his hands and the pain on his wrists and fingertips was akin to what he felt at the age of 10 when he had to tear off his fingertips in a horrific accident. Watching him persevere was a fresh reminder that even the crippling hurts of our past can be reduced to inconsequential memories when you choose to fight on! This includes physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual hurts as well.

At the end of the carry Krypteia Eric told us of how the team that went with us raved about our efforts. One of them helped us with Matt’s backpack while we managed without additional assistance. It was said that they mimicked our cadence, tempo, and methods of transport. We knew that inspiration would present itself as the AA’s fought to stay in the Agoge but this bit of news demonstrated our significant value which could benefit the able-bodied Spartans experience as a whole. We had Grit and it was contagious!

About that 700lb. bale of hay…even though the swamp route was now closed it still sucked to navigate it up and down several hills around the perimeter of Area 51. A funny thing happens when all participants are allowed to sleep for a few hours and your team of AA’s still has to deal with this 6-foot tall circular bale of hay, you get it done anyway.

A few hours of sleep later, we were woken up by the commotion of a Spartan who rang the bell late night but was not allowed to leave. You ring, you leave, and try again another time was the norm but this was different. This distraught Spaniard nicknamed Hunter was brought out into the circle of the 98 remaining Spartans because he worked harder than most in every evolution but due to language barriers he was under the impression that he had to manage the 700lb. bale on his own since his team completed it prior to his return from The Abyss. Only 1 question was asked “Should he be allowed to stay?” and only 1 resounding answer was given “YES!” And just like that many cheers, hugs, and tears were shared. The language of hard work and integrity was understood and well appreciated by these Spartans.

The language of flatulence during morning yoga stretching was also understood by all. We had plenty of time to interact with others while waiting to begin the “final” 1-mile hike that would conclude the event. Turns out many had gone without eating for hours and even days since their meals were confiscated. Every ounce of shared carbs were gratefully accepted by the Spaniards and other international participants who did not have MRE’s nor Backpacker’s Pantry to purchase in their country.

We began the hike without Matt’s wheelchair since he should be able to crutch his way for a mile…then 2…then we realized we would be back in these mountains for a long time. Someone suggested we make a litter to carry Matt once his wrists had enough. Four of us were allowed to continue while the procession stopped to make the litter. It was Matt and Greg, who fell 40 feet from a helicopter during practice jumps before is second deployment, on crutches, the Mexican in a skirt, and the Puerto Rican Reindeer moving as fast as possible to avoid using that stretcher. At one point, Agoge staff caught up and mentioned taking an alternate route for evacuation which caused Matt to crutch for his life. He would accept nothing less than crossing the finish line on his foot (if there ever was a finish line). So off we continued alternating crutching with piggy-back carries up the mountain over and over again. A mile or so later Krypteia Eric caught up to us and ordered us to stop and wait for the others since we had no radio communication. Matt was convinced to use the stretcher for a short while so the rest of us would have litter carry experience in this real environment. Although this was not the most popular moment of the journey, once again things got done and Matt was back on his foot in no time.

SpartanAgoge60-Matt Photo Courtesy of Nelson Runaway Diaz

The last few miles were marched in silence and, with the help of many Spartans, we piggybacked Matt as needed with the Adaptive Athletes leading the way. After a pit stop for a refreshing river dunk, we marched the “final” mile back to Riverside where the graduation ceremony was set to commence.

We were met with applause and cheers from families and friends in attendance as well as several participants who rang out. This premature celebration was short-lived as Joe found someone whose medical exit seemed questionable to him and therefore rewarded our 60-hour efforts with disqualifications FOR ALL. However, a deal was struck where able-bodied teams had to run timed laps up and down Joe’s mountain while the adaptive teams ran timed laps through the woods around Riverside. It was chaos, it was confusing, but after 60 hours it was over.

SpartanAgoge60-Class002Graduates Photo Courtesy of Spartan Race

Several hundred registered, 139 showed up and, in the end, the Agoge 60 produced the 99 graduating Spartans of Class 002! Closing ceremony was officiated by US Marine Corps Retired Veteran, 40 years of service Massachusetts State Police hostage negotiator, Gilbert Bernard, who prompted each team to nominate 2 Spartans to receive the coveted Spartan Coin for being the most inspirational, the most motivational, and for being the reason why many were able to complete this feat. And when the dust settled, 3 adaptive athlete’s were counted among them! Congratulations Blind Pete, Earl, and Norbie!!!

While there may still be confusion on how to pronounce AGOGE, I defy you to prove that AGOGE stands for anything less than Adaptive Grit Overcomes Grim Expectations. Are you adapting?


  1. It is a very humbling experience when your character is on display in the harshest environment and it proves to be less glorious than you thought it was.
  2. The struggle doesn’t build character; the struggle reveals your character.
  3. If allowed, times of suffering can transform strangers into family in some instances and preserve family in others. Suffer well!

The final GORUCK NOGOA (No One Gets Out Alive): NOGOA West


From the eyes of a relatively new OCR/Endurance Event Junkie

“Team Leader, explain your plan!”. I was probably visibly frazzled to everyone, trying to rationalize my Gold and Black EXFIL (exfiltration or escape) plans that I had just hurriedly created in a few minutes with compass, military protractor, and a USGS area map of Warner Springs, CA. This was mere hours after a short but informative class on land navigation, led by a U.S. Army Green Beret. I thought he was aware that I was the Assistant Team Leader and that I was just trying to get our navigational plans in place for my Team Leader. I am a U.S. Navy Submarine veteran, and though confident with charts and plotting, I had never done land navigation. I paid attention during our course and thought I could best serve my team by helping with some navigation. I wanted to step up, but not too much. I attempted to correct our Cadre about my role, but that did not work out the way I thought it would.

This was a major GORUCK (GR) event, and the last of the NOGOA (No One Gets Out Alive) events, a “Custom Heavy” that two people, Scott Roberts and Mike Grobelch, poured a ton of time and energy into making a reality. People had flown in from all over the country to participate in this 24-hour plus Endurance Event. I was the “greenest” of the 40 GRT’s (GR Tough Athletes) that were in attendance and was reluctant to lead any of them during the event. As a TL (Team leader), the fear of messing something up and getting my team smoked (physical training, or PT, at a high level) is a real thing. So much for that, I was now the Team Leader, and the Cadre  “did not love but accepted” my EXFIL plan. Then it began. Damn near immediately. Headlights hit our campsite, people started yelling, shots started firing, and my team of 39 seasoned GRT’s and myself started hauling ass on azimuth 300 for “one click” while taking incoming fire. Welcome to NOGOA West!

Your standard GR Heavy event will involve around 24 hours of some pretty intense PT and involves plenty of “rucking”. Simply put, rucking is moving with weight in your rucksack, or pack. The military has used rucking for many years to condition its soldiers for battle. Strap weight on your back, move out for a planned distance, often not a quick or short evolution, move heavy things or “casualties” while doing so, and then go home and repeat tomorrow. Ever wonder why so many Army and Marine service members are incredibly fit? This is why. Rucking was named the Men’s Fitness #1 Fitness Trend of 2015.

Ruck March

NOGOA participants got to learn invaluable skills from Green Berets and then implement them in a real world scenario while rucking together, having fun, and becoming more physically fit with every step. This was all accomplished while forging new friendships with amazing people, truly what makes any GORUCK event a special thing. Cadre Kevin and Doug of GR are both fit and seasoned soldiers. They are each skilled and qualified to teach us in the real world application of what we were about to learn. They went to work fast. The event began on Saturday morning at 0800 with instructions to “not be late”. The Cadre instructed us to unpack our racks and then began to check our gear, The packing list specifically instructed us to “bring enough food for the event”. Of course, all food was then immediately confiscated at commencement of the event. This was not done to torture the attendees, but to begin the process of truly feeling what it’s like to be hungry. After identifying our food source for the evening, we began our Land Navigation Course. The most amazing thing that I learned was that one can measure distance traveled simply by counting their own steps. The method of counting pace is done by first seeing how many steps it takes for one to walk 100 meters. For me, 73 steps, on average was how many steps it took for me to travel 100 meters. The count can be measured with “Ranger Beads”, where one moves a bead down for every 100 meters traveled to help keep track of distance while navigating in the pitch black of night.

Applied Navigation

The class then got to fashion weapons and tools.  In the wild, you may need hand fashioned weapons and tools to survive. We also brought fire starting tools (magnesium stick or something to that effect) and were then told to find a safe place at camp and start a fire with a partner. My partner Chris and I had a bit of a difficult time getting our fire lit, but eventually were able to get it up and running with the help of a fellow GRT, Liz (don’t laugh at us out their fellas, GRT women are no joke). Once all fires were up and running, we spent time searching for firewood as we were going to need to keep these going for a while as we were starving at this point and would be cooking our meat on them. We learned how to field dress wild game, prepare the meat for cooking and then we roasted our dinner on the fire. That was pretty special for me as I am a bow hunter who has only harvested two animals my whole life, but I had never actually prepared game, cooked and had my meal around a fire of my own making, in the same day, ever. While dinner was cooking over all of our fires, I was tasked to start digging a hole about a 1.5 feet deep as we would be having a class on making a “solar still”. This skill could be used in the event that we were stuck somewhere that water was scarce. Once dinner was wrapped and our fires all snuffed in a responsible manner, we all gathered around the table to start the planning of an exit route in the event we needed one, and as previously explained, we did.


The next 13 or so hours were spent rucking. Once the attack on our unit occurred, and we were safely away from the incoming shots, we moved deliberately and quietly through the terrain as our pace keepers coordinated with the navigators to ensure that we were on track. After some time, we made it to what we thought was our destination and formed a security watch with all eyes looking out in 360 degrees to ensure that we could see any incoming contacts and move appropriately. While awaiting further tasking, Cadre Kevin asked if he thought we had to made it to our destination. We had. We were informed to make it up to the road, head North and wait in the field for further tasking there. At that point, we were excited that we were dialed in and when the Cadres got to the field, we did a brief assessment and I was promptly fired as Team Leader. Something to not take personal during a GR event, as they regularly change this role to put people in the position to challenge them.  Setting a TL magnifies one’s leadership strengths and weaknesses. The Cadre fire, and repeat through the event to get the most out of people. This is both a team and individual learning opportunity. GR seeks to build better Americans with every event and every activity has a purpose. Usually. We learned some “Ranger Movements” and signaling techniques in that field that we could implement during the event on our movements from Cadre Kevin. The new TL discussed the next plan with Cadre Doug. I was still unrelieved by the incoming Team Leader, and upon hearing that we had two incoming contacts while assembled in our security circle, I gave the order to move out of the field. We hid the unit under a tree, in the shade of the full moon using evasion techniques and tactics that we had just learned. I then felt quite silly for having 40 GRT’s rush across a field to hide under trees while the Cadre wondered what the hell was wrong with us, as there was nothing there but the trees. Well, we did what we were taught to do, despite the fact people were starting to see things.

We worked as a team and spent the entire night slowly moving towards our secondary objective, which was a cache of weapons, food and water that we were meant to utilize for further evolutions. The class made it to the top of the ridgeline that was the highest point and we took a few nice class pictures in the middle of the night. We screamed all at once at the top of our lungs for the role players (RP’s) to “come get us” in challenge from the mountain top. The team stopped before moving again to use the “resection method” of locating our position by recording some bearings from off the mountain. We located a few known points on the map that were visible, recorded and converted the bearings to our map, and were able to locate our position where the lines intersected. Suffice it to say, we had a long way to go to hit our target.

Night Photo

I could spend time talking about our movements until the sun came up, but the only thing truly worth noting is that Mike, one of our event planners, suffered a real world injury to his knee on the way down the mountain. We pulled together as a unit, determined to get our team member to the end of the exercise, come hell or high water. These were not your average civilians, but they are your average GRT’s. You can expect that from someone at your side during one of these events, you can expect it from them in friendship, and you can expect it from them in the workplace. “I will never leave a fallen comrade”.

Suddenly a car came speeding down the road at first light and we scrambled for the tree line, running for cover and lying prone to avoid being seen. It was Cadre Doug, and after a brief conversation, we were told to fall in by Cadre Kevin. Good news! We were about to have some fun and turn the tables on our attackers. Cadre Doug came back a few minutes but this time he was in character. He pretended to be a foreign shyster who was out for money and hoping to make a quick buck from an American unit in a hostile territory. He sold us some munitions and supplies (paintball guns, and water) for a handful of Euros (toilet paper, I believe) and drove off after giving us intel on the hostiles (RP’s) . They were back at camp, relaxing and getting ready to come out and find us. We armed a few of our GRT’s and formed a plan to ambush them with our whole unit. We came in hot, armed with paintball grenades and a few loaded paintball guns and rushed the camp. The RP’s were ready for action with weapons close and an epic firefight for the ages ensued. All participants, role players, Cadres and cars were left covered in paint. It was an epic and fitting end to the event. As usual, our GRT’s had managed to get themselves killed, again.


I have a laminated picture of the late SFC Jonathan Michael Downing, a Green Beret, zip tied to my ruck with an American Flag bandana framing the picture. Our Cadre’s allowed me a moment to speak about who Jon was and we took a few pictures with him front and center for the Downing family to have. Jon was a hell of a soldier, father and friend. He is survived by his wife Vanessa and their three children, Dylan, McKayla, and JJ. Honoring the fallen, another important piece of what GORUCK is.

SFC Jon Downing, RIP

In closing, NOGOA West was well planned and executed. It was fun, educational and I got to meet and spend time with some pretty fine Americans. I’m confident that I came out of this experience a bit more prepared to take on the Spartan Agoge for 60 hours this June in Pittsfield, VT. Hopefully, we get to ruck with you soon!

Class Photo NOGOA Patch

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Spartan Endurance Agoge 001 – Part I: So it begins

Much like the other events I’ve done this past year, the Spartan Endurance Agoge wasn’t something I planned on doing months in advance.  It was another last minute decision – similar to my introduction into the Spartan Race world late in the summer of 2015. Although, like then, I didn’t necessarily feel that I wasn’t prepared, just uncertain of what to expect.  Spartan Race Agoge 001 - Race RegistrationI was confident I would succeed based off grit and my ability to endure pain rather than being the strongest or fastest guy in the field.  Although, that wasn’t the case for the Spartan Race staff; they prepared for and executed an extremely challenging event successfully while maintaining the right amount of enjoyment.  And if you’re reading this recap, it’s more likely that your definition of “enjoyment” is slightly different from the everyday person’s interpretation.  Hopefully, my experience will help you to be more prepared than I was, because Agoge is far from a walk in the park.

With 12 years of military experience, I have completed numerous schools where my physical and mental capabilities were tested to the limit, and you would think that would be enough. What I experienced as a PFC at Calvary Scout Basic training, a year being a Knob at the Citadel, 61 plus days at Ranger School, a 12 month combat deployment to Iraq, and almost two years at the Special Forces Qualification course certainly had me questioning the experience I could gain by partaking in the 2016 48-hour Winter Agoge. However, looking back at some of the greatest lessons I’ve learned, they were at a time when I wasn’t fully prepared or knew what was coming my way.  It’s in those moments when you have to dig deep, think outside the box, understand your environment, and make a plan using only the resources you have available.  Despite all my past experiences and knowledge of survival tactics, I was solely focused on Agoge 001. I knew it was going to be difficult, and it was about to be game on.

An important factor to realize about the military and team building events like Agoge is the process of making standards difficult to appropriately select the type of person you want to be working or fighting alongside you.  Being a strong individual makes all the difference when being a part of a team.  I would not feel comfortable going to war with someone who couldn’t carry his/her own weight and who always requires the assistance of others. The purpose of a team is to work together, but when you are holding the team back because you aren’t individually carrying your weight or doing the right thing, you often put others on your team at risk.

Initially signing up for Agoge 001, all I could think about were the stressful situations I was subjected to under extreme sleep deprivation during Ranger school, and that I could probably expect to have somewhat of a similar experience during the 48-hour challenge.   Spartan Race Agoge 001 - Event TemeratureAfter doing a bit of online research about the trial run of Agoge 000 and Death Race, I was starting to question why I wanted to or should put myself through yet another cut you down to bring you up event. However, as part of the Agoge experience, you must first complete the Spartan X training program online. I started the modules thinking that the information being taught was already implemented into the way I live my life. The principles of setting and accomplishing goals, doing the right thing, and being committed were instilled in me not only when I was raised by my uncle, but also during college at The Citadel and through my military career. But what I failed to do in the past, and what I was learning from the Spartan X program, is not how I have successfully implemented finding true north in my life, but rather how I could use my knowledge and experience to help others on that quest.

Going into the Winter Agoge 48 during the coldest temperatures Vermont has seen in decades seemed fitting since 10 years ago, Feb 2006 is when I graduated Ranger school during one of the coldest classes mountain phase has seen.  As a Special Forces detachment commander one of our main tasks is to train forces in remote rural areas while living off the land and surviving in the elements.  I set a goal to help my team during Agoge in any way possible and to share my experiences with them.
Spartan Agoge 001 Registration
I arrive at Riverside Farm on time, with my equipment packed and ready to go.  I used a mix of civilian gear and issued military equipment to meet requirements set forth in the packing list. There wasn’t a known or set schedule for the next 48 hours and you could tell by the looks on everyone’s faces that no one was sure what to expect. The frigid air and initial silence set the tone until the krypteia (Spartan cadre) started to address us and give guidance. Right from the start, there was a sense of commitment as each person walked through the barn doors one by one to start Agoge 001. There were people from all different walks of life: military, fitness trainers, death race veterans, pilots, teachers, Spartan staff, and even one person all the way from Singapore.  To even be standing at those doors ready to face the challenge that lied ahead, each candidate who applied and was accepted into Agoge had to successfully complete some type of vigorous endurance event in the past.

The event officially started at 0800 so, during the first two hours, everyone registered, received a medical screening, conducted equipment checks, and started numerous physical activities. Some participants arrived late or without the proper gear, which at a normal military school they would have been dropped right there on the spot.  These “candidates,” as the krypteia called us, lucked out, but everyone didn’t get a second chance.  To my surprise there was one individual who didn’t bring everything on the packing list; he was immediately sent home. The key take away – adhere to the packing list and come prepared knowing how to use your equipment.  The items are for you to use and are what you need to physically survive during Agoge.  I would tell you exactly what I brought and recommend, but, to be honest, it wouldn’t work for everyone so my best advice is to find what works for you.

After the packing list layout was complete, the krypteia kept us warm by conducting some physical training. The events included numerous iterations of suicides, 500 jumping jacks, roll overs, and burpee long jumps over a distance of about 400m. Once everyone completed those tasks, we started the first team building event in which we had to roll over each other in a long line and give introductions.  A few people threw up during this process from the repetitive rolling around, but all-in-all it was designed to have a purpose, not just to mess with us. That was one of the immediate things I started to realize; the krypteia didn’t tell us to do anything without also explaining the purpose behind it.  They said time and time again, “This is not Death Race,” which I think the endurance veterans in the group were expecting, and you could kind of tell that by their actions as well. During the hours of breaking us down, I could tell how some were actually working hard while others were just trying to survive and play the game of beating the clock, since eventually we would have to move on to another task.

Spartan Race Agoge 001 Team Task 1 - Equipment CarryTEAM ASSIGNMENTS AND OUR FIRST TASK:
Each team included eight Spartan candidates (our group members included Amy, Albert, Tyler, Mitch, Brandon, David, Derek, and me), and we were immediately given our first task – to build an apparatus from two round table tops and the one inch tubular rope from the packing list. The apparatus not only had to carry all of our equipment on top of it, but also our heaviest team member, and it had to be lifted off the ground to be moved.  Our team quickly worked together and decided it best not to build something as fast as possible, but to make sure it wouldn’t fall apart half-way to our objective.  Some members worked on putting handles on the rope, others fed the rope through the holes in the table, and the rest tied knots for the carrying handles.  We certainly weren’t the first ones out the gate to begin movement to our objective, but it quickly showed that the extra time spent building a solid apparatus was worth it. Our solid construction combined with our rotation plan working as a team paid off when we quickly started to pass other teams. For this reason we earned the group name of “Team Ferrari”.

Spartan Race Agoge 001 Spartan X StationAll the groups moved as a team moving their apparatuses around the perimeter of Riverside Farms stopping at five stations along the way. At each station, a different skill was taught that would be used later during Agoge.  Most of the classes were focused on winter survival given the season and weather we would be subjected to during the 48 hours (-20 deg temperatures). These classes were very professionally given and provided us with the knowledge needed to get through the weekend using not only our gear, but the environmental resources around us as well. The stations focused on: frostbite/hypothermia, fire making, shelter building, true north and commitment.  I thought it was important to see that the staff hit the nail right on the head with their craw, walk, and run method of teaching us.  Although, this came as no surprise to me knowing that former members of the military like Spartan VP CSM (R) Frank Grippe were not only part of the planning but were also on ground with us. With other key staff members like Tony Matesi, Charles Piso, and Peter Borden working hard behind the scenes as well, the first 12-hour period was already coming to a successful end.

If the first 12 hours were any indication, Agoge 001 was going to test us all…

Spartan Endurance Agoge 001- Part II: The Challenges

After the 12-hour mark passed, Spartan Endurance Agoge  participants were in for the real challenges.

Spartan Race Agoge 001 - Land Navigation

Our next block of instruction was focused on land navigation. The terrain around Riverside Farm is a small valley, with numerous hills surrounding the farm. For this reason, the main technique used for navigation during Agoge was terrain association with the use of an altimeter – the idea being that you can find a point by looking at a map to pick out a terrain feature, use your pace count to determine distance, and your altimeter to know what elevation you’re at using contour intervals.  A compass is only needed during this technique to determine your cardinal direction of travel, unlike 90% of military training where you live or die by your compass azimuth when not authorized to use GPS, altimeters, roads, nor trails. During the team navigation, it was important to use all the members of our team and not just put one person in charge of all the tasks. We were successfully working as a team because each member had a separate part of navigation he/she was keeping track of: primary and alternate navigation, primary and alternate pace count, primary and alternate elevation, and two people on lookout or security.

Spartan Race Agoge 001 Equipment Check

Throughout the day it was important to consume calories and drink water, especially when fighting to stay warm and having to conduct physical activities. We were always offered the opportunity to get water and use the bathroom if necessary.  Due to the extremely cold temperature well below freezing, our water sources had to be kept close to our bodies to prevent the water from turning into ice.  At first, most people seemed afraid to eat if not told to do so or were expecting a time to sit down and enjoy their meal. The smarter, more experienced candidates were eating here and there when there was a 5 or 10 minute break in training, and the others quickly caught on as well.

Spartan Race Agoge 001 - Night Camp

At this point in the event, you could tell that the long day, cold temperatures, stress of the unknown and physical activities were starting to wear on the group.  Our next series of tasks were to execute a practical exercise of sorts to incorporate the training we received throughout the day.  The main task given to us: establish a camp site for the night. Another sign that the krypteia were there to look out for our overall well-being and safety, they conducted an inspection on each one of our sleep systems to ensure we would be able to stay warm while sleeping a couple hours in the well below freezing temperatures.  In the military, we like to call this type of camp a “patrol base,” where it’s important to maintain security, establish a rest plan, and conduct other priorities of work like eating or cleaning weapons.  Team Ferrari quickly divided tasks to build a fire, get plenty of fire wood to last all night, gather pine tree branches for insulation from the snow packed ground, and build a shelter.  It wasn’t long before all those tasks were complete and a fire watch rotation established.  We were given right at four hours to rest so each team member took a 30-minute shift to maintain the fire, melt snow, and provide security.  Having slept in similar conditions in the past, I had no issue falling asleep, but that wasn’t the case for all the other members of my team.  With anxiety high anticipating a mid-night wake-up, along with the well below zero temperatures, some were more awake than asleep.

With 24 hours in the bag, I wasn’t sure what to expect from day two. I had heard a rumor that we would be conducting mountaineering training, but there are a lot of skills that can be associated with that. For example, and what I think was on most people’s mind, a long movement with snow shoes up and over some mountains.  The rumors turned out to be correct about the mountaineering, but we were in for a much different experience than I had initially expected.  At this point, we were split into two groups with half of us going to the mountain training and and with no idea what tasks the other group would be accomplishing while we were gone.

Spartan Race Agoge 001 - Mountaineering

Our trip began with a 30-minute bus ride to the training site which was near a large frozen lake with an amazing view of the mountains. This trip also served as an important time to eat an MRE, hydrate, and get a few minutes of much needed rest.  Once we arrived, our team was again broken down into two groups of four, and we were all given different tasks. The skills we learned during day one were about to be put to the test without krypteia assistance. We were tasked to navigate to four different stations given only a map with a route drawn on it and a radio. My team was directed to the rappelling station first and with much excitement began to move through the snow packed trail system to the top of a nearby cliff. We arrived at the station and received a brief on the equipment we were about to use and directed to first rappel as a team of two, then to conduct a final rappel individually. Both iterations were fun but also extremely challenging given the arctic wind gusts and heavy packs we were wearing.  Despite the cold, ask any Agoge finisher what the most fun event of the 48 hours was and I would bet 99% of them say rappelling.

Spartan Race Agoge 001 - Fire making station

From the bottom of the rappel, we regrouped as a team and received directions that would lead us to the fire making section. We once again navigated through the woods successfully and arrived with high hopes of getting a little warmer if able to start a fire, although our task was not only to build a fire with the natural resources provided but also to boil enough water to fill an entire Nalgene bottle in less than 45 minutes.  Furthermore, we were only provided one match to use and we had to memorize an entire paragraph about leadership. However, the work wasn’t without benefit; successful completion of all the tasks ensured our team received some extra calories in the form of hot chocolate powder.  We were able to finish  all tasks in 40 minutes and split the hot chocolate into four 8 ounce portions to briefly enjoy before moving on to our next tasks.

Spartan Race Agoge 001 - Canoe Drag

With the successful completion of two stations, our team moved out on our last land navigation lane that brought us to an empty canoe. Thanks to Tyler, we made it over the mountain rather than around it to save a bit of time. The task at this station was to move the canoe and all of our equipment across a frozen lake covering a distance of about a mile to our final destination. We made use of what items we had available from our packing list, mainly the 1-inch tubular rope, and tied handles to the canoe.  This allowed us to work as a team and move the canoe quickly over the snow while trying to conserve as much energy as possible.

It’s very important during an endurance event not only to pace yourself, but even more detrimental in a winter environment to not allow your clothes to get wet from sweat caused by overworking yourself.  If the base or insulation layers of your clothing get wet, the material will no longer do its job of keeping you warm.  Therefore it’s important that you dress in layers using a non-cotton material, only work yourself to the point where you feel warm, not hot, and take off one layer at a time if necessary.  An easy way to do this without going through the painful process of dropping your pack is to remove the insulation layer on your head first.  Starting with the head will allow a good amount of heat to escape to cool you off without having to stop your movement.

Spartan Race Agoge 001 - Stand at Attention

Upon completion of our final task, we moved to the extraction point and met up with the group who stayed behind at Riverside Farm that morning.  Of course, our first question to them was what did you guys do for the past 6 hours? The immediate response was we stood at attention for 3 hours among some other tasks. Now for some people that didn’t seem like a big deal since there is little to no physical exhaustion involved, but after graduating from The Citadel and spending 12 years in the US Army, I knew this wouldn’t be a simple walk in the park. Standing at attention isn’t a test of physical exhaustion, but rather a form of self-discipline and respect.

I’ve been to the point of exhaustion at Ranger school over an extended period of sleep deprivation during which I watched Mario run across the green screen of my night vision optics tossing fireballs at dragons. It happened! During that same movement, I also watched two guys literally fall on their faces from the standing position and remain sleeping.  Those are the kinds of things the Agoge experience will represent for others who haven’t been through anything similar in the past. The ability to say, hey, I’ve tested my body’s limits and I know I can get through this. Or in my case, you’ve been through worse and succeeded so this should be no problem. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t always learn from something you’ve already done in the past. Every experience is a learning one, and if you don’t go into it thinking that, you’re never going to find your true north!

Now, what the other’s failed to mention to us, and was a key piece of information in my mind, is the fact that we would be standing at attention with our bare feet in a barn where the wooden floors were just about at the temperature for your toes to go numb after the first hour.  Once we arrived, I was called in front of the group to explain how we would be standing for the next few hours given my military background. The position of attention requires you to stand straight, chest lifted and arched and shoulder square, no slouching. Your heels are together and feet pointed at a 45deg angle, arms by your side along with your thumbs running along the seams of your pants and fists clinched. While at the position of attention, your eyes are looking forward, no talking or movement is authorized unless directed otherwise. It’s imperative at this point to rest the weight of your body evenly on the heels and balls of both feet and not to lock your knees. You will pass out if you lock your knees, and one person actually did just that during the morning session.  After that, I returned to my position in the group and it was game on.

During the first hour, I reflected on the past year of my life that brought me to Agoge and where I was standing at that moment.  I thought about another year giving 100% and taking 2nd place at the Best Ranger competition and how that wasn’t going to happen again in just two short months from now.  I reflected on how that finish drove me to train harder than ever before and the transition to what I feel was fate, finding the sport I was meant to be a part of, Spartan Race.  I came out of nowhere to shake up the last few NBC series races and win the Spartan World Championships.  But more importantly, just a month before Tahoe, my daughter Olivia was born and, by the grace of God, she overcame a very rough first two weeks. At this point, our first hour was over and it actually went by rather quickly.  We were given the opportunity to stretch and warm up with some physical training followed by a small stretching session before we were back at it again. During this session, the krypteia shared a couple of heartfelt war stories with us and how those experiences helped or changed them.  We ended the session with another round of yoga and were quickly instructed to get our gear together and meet up with the returning group.

Spartan Race Agoge 001 Plank Walk

After a full day of events, we were quickly losing daylight and the already below freezing temperatures were dropping even lower with wind chill factors into the -20’s.  Our next team task was to move our team to a turnaround point only utilizing two wooden boards and 1-inch tubular rope.  Team Ferrari once again lived up to the name and devised a solid apparatus. We started behind but finished well ahead thanks to our team’s desire to complete the task and have fun, not just to pass the time and survive.  We conducted numerous iterations of this exercise going forward, backward, blindfolded, silent, and even sideways during the final session.  The only parts of our bodies exposed to the elements during these bitterly cold temperatures was parts of our faces, and it was often difficult to see due to eyelashes freezing together from watering eyes. Our team mainly kept warm by continually moving forward, and after several long hours, the event finally came to an end.

Spartan Race Agoge 001 - Bucket Station and Fish Cooking

As a way to replenish all the calories lost from not only keeping warm but conducting physical activities all day, the krypteia provide each team with a frozen fish and the task to start a fire and cook it. We started a small fire using the techniques taught the previous day and built it up to the point where we were able to boil water from a pot.  After about 45 minutes, we had our portion of the fish cooked and headed to the barn to refuel for our next task.

Everyone knew early in the day that we would be doing some type of activity with the large buckets stacked below the entrance of the barn where we were operating around throughout the day and that time had come.  Our first task, led by kypteia all the way from Singapore, required us to work in pairs to carry a bucket once filled with water, now a solid block of ice for about 100m. We started off with twelve groups, but each winner of the heat didn’t have to participate in any of the remaining sprints. Lucky for me I had a solid partner, Tyler Fielding, and we were able to win the first sprint and sit out for the other iterations. Looking back, I’m not so sure that was the best option as we definitely got even colder waiting around while everyone else was still moving. None the less, it was an opportunity to reset and prepare for the other challenges sure to come our way within the six hours still left in the event.  Immediately after the last heat was complete, we all lined up and started our final task with the bucket. With 10 buckets, we all lined up and were given the task to pass the buckets to the left, once a bucket left your hands you had to do five burpees then sprint to the end of the line before the last bucket got there. That process was repeated until we hit the fence line about 100m away. Upon hitting the fence, we dropped the buckets off, grabbed our equipment and began to jog around the farm. After a couple laps, we ended at the barn at around 4am and conducted our final medical check of the night.  Due to the record low temperatures outside, we were given the opportunity to catch a couple hours of sleep indoors before capping off Agoge with an indoor pt session.

Our final PT / Yoga session was led by the well-known fitness guru Ben Greenfield. After getting to know Ben a little during the Atlanta Spartan series filming, I’ll have to say he’s a very committed and knowledgeable coach and athlete.  We worked up a good sweat, which for me was very welcoming after almost 48 hours straight of literally being freezing cold.  Burpee after burpee, followed by endless flutter kicks and other exercises would sum up the final hours of Agoge.  Nearly at muscle failure and past the point of exhaustion from the previous 47 hours, we were given our final task of Agoge, to hold a plank as long as possible.  I’ve never timed myself doing a plank before and rarely if ever incorporate them into my strength training, so I really wasn’t sure how long I would last.  That time ended up being 10 minutes, which really isn’t anything to brag about.  I may have managed to end Agoge as the last one still planking, but we all finished standing together!

Spartan Race Agoge 001 - After Action Review

To end Agoge, we recapped the highs and lows of the 48 hours by talking through not only why we were there, but how to make future event better. The fact that the staff took the time to receive feedback from each person speaks volumes about Spartan Race and the Agoge event. For me, like most things I challenge myself to do, it’s about testing my limits, finding my breaking point, and learning how to push past that point the next time around. It’s not a matter of whether I’ve done tougher things in that past. Yes, I have, but again every experience should be something you can learn from, and I met that goal during Agoge. If you really think about what the human body can do, physically, mentally, emotionally, and even subconsciously; it’s truly is amazing. Some people are content living life without setting goals, committing, and challenging themselves. To those out there who may be on that path, I challenge you to test your limits and find out what you’re capable of doing. I promise that you’ll surprise yourself.  If you need more motivation, look at athletes like Jared Bullock, Derek Weida, Simpson Love, Amada Sullivan, Misty Diaz, and Joss Brass just to name a few. They are the definition of no excuses!

Spartan Race Agoge 001 Finishers