Recently a few friends and I completed the Spartan Trifecta: three obstacle races of varying length and difficulty in one calendar year, all on off-road courses with varying terrain and elevation:
- Sprint: 5+km, 20-23 obstacles, 2800 meters above sea level
- Super: 13km, 24-29 obstacles, 2800 m.a.s.l.
- Beast: 21km (half marathon), 30-35 obstacles, 1850 m.a.s.l.
The Trifecta has been the greatest physical challenge I’ve ever faced, and I’m a seasoned mountaineer. The goal was set inadvertently in January at a fireside party. Some of us guys & gals had already run a few Sprints, and with us was someone who, we found out that night, had already run a Beast. With eyes wide open and sparks flying, we decided we’d all go for the Trifecta this year. We’d never attempted it before, and it was a scary proposal, but we made the pact that night that before the end of the year we would complete all three races. I almost shit my pants then – and continually during the remaining 11 months.
If you don’t know what a Spartan Race is, watch the trailer here.
Less than two years ago just the thought of attempting a Beast made me cringe with awe. “Who the hell actually runs a Beast?!?”, I’d think to myself. It was certainly not something I’d ever be able to do. I wasn’t a runner. I didn’t believe I had the discipline to stick to the required training. Most competitors are 10-20 years younger than me – and I was already past 40. How on Earth would I be able to do this?
Nonetheless, I accepted, and my world began to change right there & then.
Long story short(ish), here’s how this challenge took shape:
WHAT IT TOOK:
* First and foremost: accepting a BIG challenge that scared me and was aligned with my true desires.
Both of these factors were essential.
Had the goal been big and scary but not something I was excited about completing (“have to” vs. “want to”), it would have lost steam eventually and fallen by the wayside.
Had it been exciting but not big enough to scare me, I may have completed it but without much growth at all.
Both factors had to be in place for it to be a worthy undertaking.
* Resuming training. I had not run nor trained my strength rigorously for a few months, so I had to get started again. The first couple of weeks are always the most difficult and painful- and the most crucial. It is by enduring through this discomfort in body and mind that a new level is reached. I had to push through my discomfort if I was to get anywhere near those finish lines.
* Rearranging my activities and taking non-essentials out of my life, or at least decreasing them to a minimum so I’d have enough time and energy to dedicate to the training. This meant spending much less time on Facebook and online browsing, being aware of time passing as I went about my day, declining certain invitations, etc. This is one of the biggest benefits I reap from enrolling in these races and scheduling challenging mountain summits. It puts my Big Picture in perspective. Granted, some activities are harder to let go of than others (like meeting friends), but you know a late night with alcohol and inappropriate food will not get you through the race.
* My first-ever appointment with a nutritionist. I had always kept decent nutritional habits but thought this triad of races would require help from a pro. This required me to set aside my ego and accept guidance from someone who knows more than I do. It really helped, even now that the races are done.
* Continuous discipline derived from determination to “not die” during any of the Trifecta races. As with any endeavor, this was key. This meant that on a day scheduled for running I was going to run, and on a strength/agility day I was going to do just that. No matter if it was raining. No matter the cold weather. No matter if I would have rather laid down and watched Dexter. I would either have results or an excuse for not having them, and the latter was not an option.
That said, see the next point.
* Fine-tuning the relationship between me, my body, and my mind. This, as I’ve experienced before in mountaineering, was also key – and a rather complex process to master. This is when the needs of the body actually supersede one’s plan to train it (reality vs. the mind’s interpretation of it, respectively). On certain training days I’d get home tired after work and feel the need for rest – and face the difficult choice to either train or stay in. The trick was to discern whether it was just a temporary glitch in my energy or an actual sign the body was giving me asking for a day off. There came times when I had to (reluctantly) let go of the plan (made by the mind) and do as the body asked. I’m glad I did when this was the case – and so was my body.
* Dealing with injury. During the Super at the end of April I injured a tendon on my wrist – what is generally known as DeQuervain’s syndrome. This was my first-ever “real” sports injury (not including countless cuts and bruises while BMX-ing and skateboarding as a youngster). Naturally, this was followed by:
“Maybe life’s telling me I’m too old for this shit.”
“I won’t be able to do the Beast anymore.”
“Will this hand ever go back to normal?”
And so on…
So I had to re-commit to the original pact we had made and do what I had to do to be ready for that Beast at the end of November – regardless of what I thought about my hand.
I bought a brace (which I wore for over a month) to immobilize my thumb. I had to muster the humility to make an appointment with a physiotherapist. I purchased a book about tendon care and repair (which I highly recommend for any kind of tendon trouble). Weeks went by, and I wondered whether I’d be able to get past some obstacles at the Beast – climbing ropes, jumping over walls, carrying logs, flipping gigantic tires, crossing rope & PVC bridges by hanging from them with one’s hands…
Basically, I found myself torn between a fear-based reality and one inspired by what I desired.
I chose the latter – even when there was yet no physical evidence for it.
* Finding my own way. While preparing for my training I found schedules that barely left time for anything else and felt afraid that I may not be able to stick to something as demanding over many months.
As the races came and went I realized that I really didn’t need to train daily nor for as long. In fact, it was better that I didn’t. Through years of trial and error I’ve come to know my body improves most effectively by getting enough rest between workouts. Had I not listened to my body and instead stuck to a program without enough rest this would have been a huge detriment to my training and physical condition – and the risk of training injuries may have increased. On average I ended up training strength 1-2 times and running about twice per week, even for the Beast.
So essentially I learned to walk the line between what others recommend and what is actually right for me.
* Enrolling in other, “traditional” races (running only) to measure my progress and identify weaknesses. These stretched between 10 & 18 km.
* Variations in my training: to avoid boredom and repetitive-motion injuries. Sometimes I’d run on flat pavement, others on hilly gravel roads. For strength I’d sometimes do weights and body-weight exercises at home; other times I’d hang from exercise machines at the park. I would also complement my cardio with cycling on my commutes – in Mexico City traffic!
* Using the Elevation Training Mask. This device covers your mouth and nose to allow only a minimal amount of air through – thus imitating the effects of high-altitude training. The result is a very strong and efficient cardiopulmonary system – at the cost of more strenuous runs and workouts. Training with this mask on can be uncomfortable to get used to – at first it feels like you’ll suffocate after two blocks – but the rewards are fast and undeniable. And you DO get used to it 😉
A shout-out to them for conceiving the best investment in fitness I’ve ever made. Without it my training, races, and hikes would certainly not be as successful as they are.
So, now that I can reflect on the training, mindset, and the races that have passed here are some of the LESSONS LEARNED (which I’m still assimilating):
* First and foremost:
I CAN GO MUCH FURTHER THAN MY FEAR TELLS ME I CAN.
This is one of the most important lessons anyone can learn, ever, about any endeavor.
READ IT AGAIN. SAY IT OUT LOUD. BURN IT INTO YOUR MIND AS YOUR MANTRA.
* The body is a magnificent bio-machine. While it does have limits, the human body will adjust to whatever is needed to complete almost any task – far beyond what the mind may initially think.
* Growth can be exponential. A startling discovery is that I trained less frequently and intensely for the Beast (21k) than for the Super (13k). My gains throughout the year built on themselves, so my training didn’t have to get harder to continue making gains. I just needed to train smart by staying aware of my self-body-mind relationship.
However, decline can also be exponential if you drop your guard. Keep yourself in focused motion and you’ll stay at the top of your game.
* Age is bullshit. It’s just a number. What matters is how you interpret your number. I completed the Trifecta at 43, running the Beast with two guys about 15 years younger than me – and I was frequently the one pulling them forward.
Never use age as an excuse not to attempt something you feel is right for you.
* When you accomplish a difficult goal you’re not the same person that set it. You’ve gone through a process that has pushed you through conscious effort toward growth, and your old “pants” will not fit anymore. Be ready to take on even bigger challenges now. You can – and should. But only if you want to keep growing 😉
* The pack will go farther and longer than the lone wolf. Find people with similar goals to support each other’s challenges. In this case there were four of us from the beginning, and four more joined the team in the months that followed. We supported each other with training and nutrition tips, articles, and encouragement. When our schedules permitted some of us trained together. On the day of each race we created “sub-teams” according to our different running speeds so that everyone would run alongside someone else.
Tasks like deep focus and analysis work well when we’re on our own, but having a team backing you up will make the road seem shorter and the load lighter.
The curious thing is, the Trifecta ended up being not only a physical challenge, but an emotional, psychological, and spiritual one as well. This is why it is one of the proudest achievements of my entire life. Another big blessing I received from this challenge was the fear and awe I felt about each next race – we ran them from shortest to longest, in order, so every upcoming race was scary enough to keep me focused on it. This forced me to rearrange all parts of my life so that training and rest would take precedence if I wanted to finish at all, not to mention reduce the risk of injury. After all, the longest I had ever run in one go up until our commitment was 10km, and at which point I was 42 – 6 years older than the oldest of my teammates, 17 years older than the youngest.
So, going back to my initial question: “Who actually runs a Beast?!?”
The Spartan slogan “You’ll know at the finish line” sums up that answer. It is, I found out upon finishing the Beast, simply, someone who sets a scary goal that’s aligned with his true self and declares himself willing to go through hell and high water to achieve it. Someone willing to train when it’s cold or wet outside. To run that last lap when he’d rather go home. To do that extra pull-up when his arms are burning and body shaking, dangling from the bar like a worm on a hook. It was when I crossed the finish line at the Beast that the awareness of what this enormous challenge represented in my life came to me, all at once. It’s like a gate opened to a new reality where I suddenly felt clearer in mind, much more powerful at heart, and more aware and alive in spirit. All those months of focus and sweat paid off, and I deeply felt (still do) that I am a bigger human being than ever before.
Who runs a Beast? Someone like me.
Someone who I had previously thought I wasn’t.
Now, my point isn’t necessarily for you to go and enroll in a Spartan Race, although I can almost guarantee it will push you to grow. My point is that anyone who’s hungry and willing to grow can attain their next level by identifying their Big, Bad, Scary Goal and committing to it.
That’s all it takes to begin to open that new door for yourself.
Pick. Commit. Start.
So, in a nutshell, the crux of this post:
YOU CAN GO MUCH, MUCH FURTHER THAN THE STORY FEAR AND COMFORT TELL YOU YOU CAN. Always. The way will appear as you walk the path.
So find something that makes your heart beat with excitement, that you gotta Be, Do, or Have, that gives you the heebie-jeebies when thinking about how on Earth you’ll achieve it with nothing coming to mind.
Then SET THE GOAL. Don’t think. Thinking will keep you avoiding it and from growing into a stronger, more confident person. Set the goal, give it a date, and declare yourself willing to go through sweat, strain, and ridicule. These things don’t matter to anyone other than your ego. You’ll be summoning your future self who’s already gone through those motions to pull you on the way. And you’ll become that person more and more with every step you take on that course.
Your body will adjust.
Your mind will expand.
Your emotions will act up – and eventually handle much more.
And your spirit will grow in proportion to the perceived difficulty of the task.
Pick a big one. SET A GOAL THAT SCARES THE SHIT OUT OF YOU. One that would make you feel ecstatic if you had it and shake your head in dread of whether it’s even possible for you. And find a support network to help you through the difficult steps. The world will listen, and the assistance you need will arrive.
If you’re inspired to have an outstanding next year please share your goal in the comments below. I’d love to know what you’ll be facing!
Now get out there and BE outrageous this year.
(You can also read an edited version of this post at the Good Men Project. Just click link.)
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