Through the Fire
My wife and I have different interests and philosophies when it comes to things like fitness and staying active. She likes hiking and running for excruciatingly long distances over hills and mountains. I like chasing balls and pucks with racquets and sticks. Thus it has been forever and ever. Every once in a while, one of us will venture over into the other’s world—I’ll go on a hike (and hardly complain); she’ll swing a tennis racquet for an afternoon—but for the most part we stay in our lanes. You need your own thing in a marriage, right?
Last weekend we did a thing together. A few months ago, my wife made the executive decision that our lanes should be just a bit more porous, and so she signed us up for this thing called “The Spartan” in Bigfork, MT. I remember when she relayed this bit of news to me. I think I said something sensitive and thoughtful like, “You did what?! That isn’t a thing that I do!” To which her response was something equally thoughtful and sensitive like, “Tough, you’re going.” I sighed and decided to put this piece of information in the “future stuff I don’t have to think about now” part of my brain. I didn’t really know what a “Spartan” was, but I had this vague conception that it would be longer and more demanding than anything I had ever done in my history of zero races ever. I didn’t google it, didn’t research it, didn’t train for it. I mostly just ignored it.
Last week, I started to find The Spartan harder and harder to ignore. Preparations were being made. My wife started asking me awkward questions like, “Do you have decent trail shoes?” and “Do you want me to get you a spare water bladder?” (A water bladder, I learned, is a water container that you strap to your body with a wraparound hose for your mouth… which doesn’t sound like something you would need for a reasonably pleasant hour or two on a mountain). I heard (or paid attention to) the words “half marathon” for the first time, which I assumed was a joke. I heard (or paid attention to) comments about “the rest of our team” for the first time, which all of a sudden made me think that there would be other people—presumably much fitter and more serious Spartan-type people than me—involved in this venture, people that might presumably have to wait for me or drag me up and down the mountain. I started to gulp and whine a bit more.
Around Wednesday or Thursday of last week, I began to check the weather forecast for Bigfork, MT. The lovely citizens of northwestern Montana would be enjoying a warm sunny week from Mon-Fri, after which there would be one (and only one) day of torrential rain and arctic temperatures, before an overcast Sunday and sunny Monday to come. I sent a screenshot of the forecast to my wife. She sent a nondescript, un-comforting emoji. I began to tentatively look at the Spartan website, whereupon I encountered intimidating pictures of muscular humans crawling up and over and under things and rampaging through the forest without shirts or body fat. I saw that we were registered for a race called “The Beast” and that there were two easier options that we could have chosen (but, inexplicably, didn’t). I started to feel decidedly un-beastly. More gulping. More whining.
Friday night arrived and I was a quivering bundle of anxiety. My wife (bless her) went to bed and immediately descended into an untroubled and peaceful sleep. I tossed and turned for approximately seven hours, dozing for tortuous twenty-minute stretches here and there, before stumbling downstairs for coffee. I peered out the window and saw steady, hard rain. I wondered if they would cancel the race because it was too wet. It occurred to me that this didn’t sound like a terribly “Spartan” thing to do. I doubted very much that the Battle of Thermopylae paused due to intemperate conditions.
An hour or so later, I found myself with a horde of other folks at the starting line. Loud music was pumping. We had just crawled under a bunch of barbed wire to even get to that point, which felt ominous. Some enthusiastic bearded fellow with a microphone was yelling encouragement, telling us that we had already done the hard part by even getting his far (conquering our fears, blah, blah). I seriously doubted that this was true, sensing that a hard part or two lay yet on the horizon. And then we were roaring and chanting together. Who are you??!!! I am a Spartan!!!! I felt like yelling, I am a middle-aged office jockey in WAY over his head!, but that didn’t sound as inspiring. Also, my teeth were chattering and that many words would have been difficult. I was already so cold that I (incredibly) wanted to just get going to warm up.
And then we were off. Up and down hills. Through rivers and muddy bogs. Over obstacles and through brush. Up even steeper hills (one time my steps were so small that I had to look down to verify that my feet were in fact still moving). There were things to be carried on shoulders, heavy ropes to be pulled. There was an occasion or two where the precipitation reduced to a drizzle, but for the most part it rained steady all day. The temperature didn’t rise much beyond seven degrees Celsius. For large stretches, I couldn’t feel my fingers. Strangely, the Home Hardware gardening gloves that I had been instructed to wear for grip on some of the obstacles offered little by way of insulation.
And thus we spent the next five-and-a-half hours. It was hard and it was freezing cold. It was a psychological battle at times (for me, the worst part was around miles 4-6, the part where you’ve already been grinding a while and you know you’re not even half done). Around mile three, I cut up my calves on some cable that you have to pull yourself across upside down. But you know what, it was also kind of fun, in a perverse self-flagellating kind of way. And it was rewarding to see that hey, you know what, human beings can do hard things. At one point, we came across a guy with no legs with some kind of a trail-wheelchair strapped to his body, propelling himself (and his chair) up a mountain (a mountain!!!) with just his arms. I was absolutely astonished at the will and strength and discipline that this guy was exhibiting. Incredible. All of a sudden my frozen fingers didn’t seem like such a monumental challenge.
They really get you on the last mile of this thing. You’re feeling euphoric—I’m almost done! I survived! I did it! And then you get four obstacles pretty much back to back. You have to carry a pail of gravel on your shoulder on a mini-lap up a hill. You have to pick up some massive stone and carry it back and forth across a field. You have go over an obstacle with a rope and then—at the very end—you have to jump over a fire to get to the finish line. I think the race organizers biggest problem this year might have been that too many people wanted to just stop at the fire to try to get warm, rather than jumping over it. But my wife and I grabbed each other’s’ hands, jumped over the fire, and crossed the line together. It felt pretty awesome.
There are probably all kinds of moral and spiritual lessons that you could take from doing something like this. Paul’s words about running the race, perseverance, etc. come quickly to mind, as do obvious metaphors about the ups and downs of the spiritual life, faith being strengthened and purified through the fire, etc. But mostly, I just came away thinking, “You know what, human beings can do hard things. We’re actually more resilient and capable than we sometimes think we are. We can rise to challenges. We can push ourselves, rather than settling into comfort and safety forever (and our culture is forever steering us into comfort and safety). I don’t know if I’ll do one of these again, but I do know that I’m pretty glad I did it once.
I even told my wife that she was right and that I was wrong, so, you know, I think this officially counts as a “life lesson.”
Pic below is the finish line, through the fire.
Wow!! And that is inspiring, Ryan. Good for Naomi to drag you into that. My daughter, back in grade 7 or 8, dragged me into my first run … called the Spokane Doomsday Run. I thought I would die and it wasn’t anywhere close to what you have described. That one too convinced me that first, running was fun, and two, that I could endure more than I had thought. Also, yes, marriage works better if we sometimes cross into each other’s lanes … just so it doesn’t become a habit though.
Thanks, Abe. And yes, “lane-crossing” tends to work best in moderate doses 😉