The Reluctant Spartan – Part II

spartan5It was a cool gray morning at Giants Stadium by the Bay. I shivered not from the cold, but from utter terror as I watched Spartan participants run up to the very top deck of seats. I’m terrified of heights to the point where I start to hyperventilate. I could not do this. What was I doing here?

My brain ping-ponged for a solution. I stood behind my teammates, hiding my anxiety. Yvette had the logo “Bald Hill Cattle Company” printed on the back of her shirt. I did something I rarely do—asked for help. She agreed to stay directly in front of me while we traversed the stairs. I would focus on that logo, not on the vast distance between the elevation, the playing field, and the endless stretch of water beyond.

In that moment, I surrendered. I accepted that it was okay to be the laggard of the pack. Others could take the lead. I was content to follow.

spartan2It was time for Team Mendo to queue up. Bethany (who had finished her competitive race in under 40 minutes) announced she would run the course again with us. She had been the key force behind getting us to this place. She was going to see us through to the end. We walked around a corner to encounter our first obstacle—a four-foot fence to scale before we got in line.

I chuckled. Here we go.

Participants were released every minute or so in sets of 20. As each set waited, an emcee got the group jacked up by yelling, “WHO ARE YOU?” to which the group responded, “WE ARE SPARTANS!” My mind whispered, “I’m a scared little wieny.”

We were off and running down the lower deck of stadium stairs, into the basement to the Giants’ locker room where we were to perform 20 pushups. Halfway through my set I noticed the room smelled like years of embedded sweat. I found it funny that this place belonging to a major league baseball team smelled like any high school boys’ locker room.

The obstacles blur in my memory, but a few stand out. The first wall we encountered was eight feet tall. As I contemplated failure, Bethany rushed up and hunkered down with her fingers laced. “Put your foot in here,” she commanded. She boosted me up and I lurched over. Some obstacles later, we repeated the same move. Near the end was a six-foot wall. I turned to Bethany, like a child to her mother, and said, “Help me.” She said, “You can do it.” And by God I did—with a running leap I was up and over.

It was thrilling to accomplish obstacles I didn’t think I could do—like pick up a 50-pound concrete cylinder, carry it 20 feet, put it down, do five burpees, pick it up, carry it back, and do five more burpees. A shot of adrenaline propelled me onward where I got another shot and another until I was halfway through the race, shouting, “This is fun!” and meaning it.

My fear of heights was put to the test early. I kept my focus on Yvette’s “Bald Hill Cattle Company” logo and used a hand as a blinder to block out the scenery far below. Up to the top deck of seats and over, down and over, up and over again, I refused to let my gaze waiver, concentrating only on taking the next step. I nearly cried with relief when it was over.

spartanraceAbout ten obstacles later, we were told to pick up a 20-pound beanbag and go out to the stands. I’ll be damned if on the other side of the stadium—the side I hadn’t seen earlier—we didn’t have to repeat a mirror trek to the upper deck. By then I was a full on adrenaline junkie. I’d done it before, I could do it again. This time I didn’t have to rely on “Bald Hill Cattle Company.” Instead, it was “Hell yeah, bitch—I got this!”

Spartan rules dictate that when you fail an obstacle you must do 30 burpees. I only missed two—the rope climb and the spear throw. I didn’t even attempt the rope climb—in training for it, I’d hurt my back. I missed the spear throw by an inch.

The last obstacle was the monkey bars. I’d tried it a couple of times in training, barely able to hold myself stationary for more than a few seconds before feeling my arms were going to rip from my shoulder sockets. I headed toward the burpee area when Yvette said, “I’ll help you.” I jumped up and grabbed the first bar. She clutched my legs and literally carried me across. Between her and Bethany, our other two team mates also got across.

spartan8When it was Yvette’s turn, Bethany tried to assist. A Spartan monitor appeared, yelling, “You can’t help her.” Bethany said we were a team and we’d been helping each other all the way. He barked, “You can’t help her on this one.” Bethany countered, “We just helped three of our teammates with this one.” He stood firm.

In retrospect, we should have jumped him and beat the crap out of him. Instead, we watched as poor Yvette struggled halfway through before dropping. Disappointed, she prepared to do her burpees. The team told her to stand aside—we’d each do eight for her.

spartan7I rose from my final burpee and looked into the stands to find my son Harrison, daughter Laine, and her boyfriend Jeff smiling at me. (My husband Gary and daughter-in-law Kasi couldn’t be there.) I raised my arms and jumped up and down. It was one of the happiest moments of my life.

Our team ran through a series of punching bags to the finish line. We linked arms and crossed together. On the other side, our necks were draped with a ribbon holding the heaviest medal we’d ever received. We laughed and hugged and posed for pictures.

We are now part of that crazy cult called Spartans.spartan3

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The Reluctant Spartan – Part I

I’ve never considered myself a competitive person—unless you count growing up with four siblings and competing for the attention of my overwhelmed parents. During my first five decades on the planet, I also never considered myself an athlete or remotely fond of physical activity.

earth dayOn Earth Day 1971, I was a junior in high school. My sister (a sophomore) and I decided to honor the day by walking instead of driving the five miles to school. We stopped for three cigarette breaks and once to smoke a joint. At the end of the day, we walked eight blocks, decided the trek home would be too arduous, and stuck out our thumbs to hitch a ride. Our Spanish teacher picked us up and gave a lecture on the dangers of hitchhiking until he deposited us on the curb outside our house. We crept to the backyard to enjoy a smoke before going inside.

I smoked off and on for the next 30 years, entertaining myself during the off years with Dance Aerobics in the eighties and walking my dogs in the nineties. At the age of 50, my teenage son needed me to sign consent for him to join a gym. Before I knew it, I’d also signed up. I’ll admit I fell for the sales pitch of the family discount, but also hoped that exercise classes might help shed the 15 pounds menopause had piled on and make me feel less like a sausage packed into my clothing.

photo(1)My friend Kathleen and I took classes, worked out on our own, and eventually, with a personal trainer. We grew stronger and, I dare say, a little cocky. Six years into this regimen, she suggested we do a triathlon. I agreed before I fully knew what it meant (or how to spell it)—a half-mile swim, 22-mile bike ride, and 5k run. We worked out six days a week, and created a motto: To finish is to win.

We finished.

This race taught me: (1) I’m more physically capable than I think I am; and (2) I will never do it again (the open water swim was terrifying). But the experience was a tipping point—it made me yearn to challenge my body and expand my capabilities.

I started entering local 5k races. The year I turned 60, I won first place in my age category in two races—not because I’m fast, but because I was either the only woman in that category or the few others were a lot older. The year I turned 61, I ran five races, motivated by the fact that my friend Sandy would turn 60 the next year and she’s much faster than I am. That would be my last year to collect ribbons and medals. (I got four.)

spartan1This past January, a group of fellow gym rats—Beth, Yvette, and Jan—invited me to join their Spartan team for the May race at AT&T Park. My personal trainer Bethany had done a number of these and always came back battered and bruised, but high on accomplishment. I watched a YouTube video and told the group, “What kind of crazy would do such a thing? I’m 62 years old for God’s sake. I work out four times a week and run 5k races. Leave me alone.”

They kept me on their email thread. A few weeks later, I asked Bethany if she thought, with proper training, I was capable of the challenge. “You could do it today,” she said.

I signed up.

Fear of failure and letting my teammates down became major motivators. I was two, eight, and thirteen years older than the other three members of my group. I pushed myself—strength training and running six times a week. I won’t lie, training wasn’t easy. For example, I’d never run more than 3.10 miles (5k) in my life. Each quarter mile beyond that was exhausting, but I kept at it until four, four and a half, and five miles wasn’t so bad. Six point two miles (10k) was—and still is—a bitch, but I know I can do it and I’ll do it again.

I grew stronger, but no matter how hard I trained, I was the slowest and weakest of the team. In many areas of my life, I’ve excelled or been at least average. It pissed me off that I’d slipped to the lower end of the bell curve. I tried to avoid bitterness and accept my weaknesses. I succeeded about a quarter of the time. Many days I wanted to quit, but kept going. It felt good to be part of a group working toward a common goal.

Panic-in-Needle-Park-WinnI had four months to obsess on the Spartan Race. Each time I thought about it, a bolt of fear struck my heart, ricochet down to my stomach, and left me feeling nauseated.

This held true until the morning of the race as my team and I watched young hard-bodied competitors rush through the course while we waited for our 9:30 start time. We’d arrived early to watch Bethany run the competitive race. (We weren’t considered competitors—we were “fun” runners.)

TUNE IN NEXT WEEK FOR PART IIspartan4