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

Bethany Brewer

bethany8Like all Warrior Princesses, Bethany came from humble beginnings. Growing up, she had little supervision, which allowed her to roam free, picking up habits hardly recommended for a child. As a teenager, she delved into a world of drug and alcohol abuse. On the outside, she was a swaggering party girl. On the inside, her soul was dying.

***

bethany7By the time she was a freshman in high school, she was plagued by a sense that she didn’t fit into this life. She left home, lived with a revolving door of friends, and only went to school a couple of hours a day. In her sophomore year, she transferred to Mendocino, hoping to do better.

She continued to fail.

“Teachers tried, but nobody knew what to do with me. By my senior year, I was told I wasn’t going to graduate unless I hustled. I went to Noyo High from eight to noon, took a journalism class at Fort Bragg High in the afternoon, and went to the adult school at night. I was able to graduate with my age group in 1998.”

bethany9Bethany immediately moved to Medford, Oregon to care for her ailing father and grandparents. “My dad died in October, my grandpa three weeks later, and my grandma in February. They were the last of my family on that side.” Those losses were devastating. She dealt with her grief in the only way she knew—using her inheritance to douse her feelings with alcohol, drugs and cavort with people who mooched off her.

Broke by 21, she returned to Fort Bragg and worked at Laurel Deli. By 24, she was married and moved to Yuma, Arizona. “I was a bartender at an Indian Casino and loved it. I learned how to stand up for and defend myself.” The marriage was tumultuous and broke up after four years. “I lived alone for the first time in my life. I really liked being independent and having responsibilities.”

bethany6In 2010, she learned her maternal grandmother had dementia. Bethany moved back to Fort Bragg to help care for her, and worked again at Laurel Deli. “I continued to party and be irresponsible. I eventually left Grandma’s house and isolated myself from my family. At one point, I lived in my truck for three months. I felt like I had a big hole”—she makes a circle with the fingers of both hands and places it over her heart—“that I tried to fill up with drugs, alcohol, and violence.”

Bethany’s mother had moved to Willits and encouraged her to live with her. “On November 3, 2012, I started detoxing on her couch. I was really sick, but managed to go to a twelve-step meeting every day. Everything seemed less, less, less. Little did I know my life would change to more, more, more.”

bethany5Two weeks later, her friend Amie McGee encouraged her to apply for work at the Mendocino Sports Club. Bethany didn’t feel strong enough to hold a job, and was relieved when it took a month before she was invited for an interview. In January 2013, she moved back to Fort Bragg and started working at the club. A trainer approached her and said, “There’s an athlete inside you and if you want to see her, I’ll train you.”

She worked out with him six days a week for six months. The gym owner gave her a personal trainer’s manual and encouraged her to study for the certification exam. On November 2, 2013, she passed the test.

The Warrior Princess was born.bethany1

Two and a half years later, her business has grown from five clients to 140. She continues to study and receive certifications. “I love the process of learning.”

***

Bethany spends a few hours a week at Noyo High School “just chillin’” with the kids. “By the time kids get to Noyo, a lot of people have given up on them. I want them to know they can be there and be someone of worth.” She shares the story of her stormy teenage years, her recovery, and hands out gym passes. It was through this outreach that she met a teenager who would have a major impact on her life.

“She called one night [in February 2015] to say she’d been locked out of her house. I let her spend the night on my sofa. Before I knew it, I had bunkbeds with Ninja Turtle sheets in my spare bedroom. I became the mother of a 15-year old kid.” The girl had quietly struggled with her gender identity most of her life. “I know what’s it’s like to feel alone,” Bethany said. “When she told me she wanted to dress like a boy, I took her to a thrift shop and bought her clothes.”

kellenWith the support of Bethany, the staff at Noyo, and a tribe of fairy Godmothers, the girl continued her journey, embracing her male identity. Her grades improved and in the fall of 2015, she enrolled in Fort Bragg High. By this time, the girly clothes had been discarded and a masculine name chosen. Life was not without its challenges (imagine being a transgender teen in a small town) but he thrived academically and socially.

It was difficult for Bethany to be an instant mother and tough for the kid to refrain from being a mildly rebellious teen. In January 2016, he moved in with his girlfriend’s family. He and Bethany maintain a close, heartwarming bond.

***

Bethany2The hole that once scarred Bethany’s soul has healed. “I’m so lucky to wake up every morning and spend the day doing what I love. My goal is to help people realize their strength. It’s payback for all that’s been given to me.”

Bethany’s most recent project is training people to participate in Spartan Races. Some, like me, start out believing we aren’t capable of such physical demands. Over time, the Warrior Princess shakes that doubt out, turning it around until, before we know it, we’re crossing the finish line and accepting medals.

Thank you, Warrior Princess for your willingness to grab hold of life, seek challenges and share your experiences. The lives you touch are forever changed for the better.bethany4bethany11

Cheesecake

My family often accuses me of being a control freak. This makes me feel bad. Not because it’s true, but because I’m obviously a failure at controlling their thoughts.

Recently, my husband Gary and I planned a large party to celebrate the engagement of our son Harrison and his fiancé Kasi. It wasn’t enough just to plan the party. Oh no. I decided to also embark on an ambitious landscape and patio project.

partyover

Gabe

A few weeks before the event, Harrison called to ask if Gabe (a puppy belonging to Kasi’s sister) could stay with us while they were in town. “Sure,” I said. He and our dog Lucy would have fun together. The following morning, I woke at zero dark thirty in a panic. I had visions of the puppy and Lucy racing around the new landscaping, ripping it to shreds and ruining everything. No, no, no, Gabe could not come.

I sent Harrison a text telling him to have Kasi’s sister make other arrangements for her dog. He called to negotiate, and offered to erect a temporary fence around the new landscaping. I told him that determined dogs can easily knock over such a thing. He said Kasi’s family looked forward to being able to enjoy Gabe and Lucy.

I fancy myself as easy going and cool. I hate it when I’m revealed as uptight and neurotic.

“Okay.” Sigh. “Gabe can come, but the dogs will not be allowed outside unless one or both are on a leash. And I will not be responsible for supervising them.”

Deal.

Bethany2

The only reason Bethany does Spartan races is because they allow her to climb tall things and yell Cheesecake!

The next day at the gym, I whined to my trainer Bethany and friend Kathleen: “I can see it now—the puppy and Lucy will tear around the house and break things. They’ll get out and destroy the yard. Even though I say I won’t get involved, I’ll end up supervising them.”

“Do you think you can work at giving up control?” Bethany asked.

I couldn’t imagine. Like base jumping, ice climbing and crewel embroidery, I’ve never tried it. (Sometimes I really don’t like Bethany.)

I took a deep breath. “It’s going to be hard.” Another deep breath. “But yes, I think I can give up control.”

“Good,” Bethany smiled. “What will your reward be if you’re successful?”

“I think success will be reward enough, don’t you?” (I am such a perfect liar.)

“You’ve got to give yourself something, like nachos or cheesecake.”

cheesecakeYum, I remembered the nacho challenge. The reward was delicious. I love cheesecake, but rarely eat it because I can consume vast quantities in one sitting. While thoroughly enjoyable, my stomach regrets it later.

“Cheesecake! Yes, I can do this!”

withgabeThe following day, Gabe and Lucy met and became instant friends. Harrison and Kasi took them to the field behind our house and supervised while they ran and played.

Cheesecake!

Inside the house, their play was subdued and nothing got broken.

Cheesecake!

Whenever Gabe went to the door to signal he had to go outside to potty, I summoned Harrison. Not my dog, not my responsibility to take him outside.

Cheesecake!

When I discovered poop in the living room—Cheesecake!

withgabe2Puddles of pee in the hallway—Cheesecake!

When Kasi’s family arrived on Saturday and wanted to go to the beach, I declined because the party was a mere two hours away. Harrison put on his therapist tone and convinced me that everything was in order and we’d be back in plenty of time.

Cheesecake!

At the beach, I let Harrison run with Lucy while she jerked and tugged on the leash and went wild with delight.

Cheesecake!

The dogs were locked up during most of the party and when they emerged, Harrison and Kasi kept them on leashes.

Cheesecake!

Sunday morning, Kasi’s family came over for brunch. Harrison took the lead in preparing the meal.

Cheesecake!

Late Sunday afternoon, after everyone left, I sat in a chair on our new patio feeling proud. I’d spent two and a half days relinquishing control. At times it was difficult—like on our Coastal Trail walk when I wanted to take Lucy from Harrison and make her heel. But most of the time it was freeing.

I learned a valuable lesson: giving up control is a lot easier than wrestling for it.

On Monday, Kathleen and I went to lunch.

For dessert—Cheesecake!cheesecake2