Am I Spartan?

Posted on Jun 5, 2013 by on Marcus Travels

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I am up to my chin in cold, dark, murky water, and the petite woman next to me is on the verge of a panic attack. She does not know how to swim, and the water is getting deeper and deeper. Branches are entangling her legs and blocking her in all directions.When I first saw her, what feels like days earlier in the bright afternoon sunshine of Pippingford Park, she was all smiles, and greeted everyone jokingly with: “I’m cold and scared! How about you?” When I pulled up in my car, I nearly turned round and drove home again, because there were such extremely fit-looking people standing around – and there was no way my dignity or self-respect was going to survive intact with them for company. These are, after all, my first forays into the world of sports for leisure and pleasure, so one might forgive my self-confidence for being a little shaky. My old habits of plotting ways to avoid P.E. class back in my school days are not far gone.We were all there for a half-day of training for the infamous Spartan Race, which is an obstacle course like no other. The “Sprint” version is 5km long, and encompasses mud crawls, rope climbs, jumping through fire, throwing spears, balancing on logs, carrying tires, not to mention the terrain over which those five kilometres are run: thick forest, steep slopes, rivers, and so forth.Thankfully, I quickly worked out that all the super fit people, built like Greek gods and goddesses, had just completed their half-day of training in the morning, and were on their way home. These were the people who had ticked “Fit” and “Very Fit” on their registration forms for the Spartan Race Training Camp. Now, an assorted bunch of people with a much wider range of body mass distributions were gathering for the self-proclaimed “Unfit” and “Returning to Fitness” categories that the afternoon was dedicated to. The group ranged from a hugely built Fitness Trainer with an injured shoulder, to a triathlete who had last completed a triathlon ten years earlier, with an assorted mix of weekend joggers, ultra marathon runners, and even a running magazine journalist in between.

The petite lady had explained how she was all signed up and ready for a 100km race across South-West England, and I desperately tried not to feel ridiculous while wondering how on earth someone can run that far, when my own personal distance record is around 10km to date!

However, while I have been learning how to build up the distance with my Zombies, Run! app practice, I have also been doing body weight resistance training with another app called You Are Your Own Gym (YAYOG). It is designed by a chap who trains Special Forces, which one might consider Spartans an early variant of?
 
I did not think that reaching the end of the first 10-week programme called Basic (Entry level programme for beginners) was much to brag about, but it has certainly given me some arm, grip and leg strength that I did not have before.Back in that cold, muddy water, I realise I have the YAYOG programme to thank for my right arm’s strength, which is now hoisting up the petite ultra marathon runner by her armpit, keeping her head above water, and holding her tightly by my side to give her some security while she hyperventilates. She is shivering all over. My feet keep getting caught up in invisible branches on the bottom of the river, sticky mud that is dead set on pulling off my shoes, and slimy vegetation that is disintegrating under the surface, which, if daylight could reach it, would surely only be described as the colour and smell of Yuck.

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And, just to make things more interesting, we are also carrying one-and-a-half metre wooden logs on our shoulders, weighing us down even more and messing with our precarious balance in the waters. Michael the coach, who wears Vibram shoes that are like foot gloves with individual “fingers” for each toe, is doing his bit to turn us into tree-huggers, quite literally. I swear to myself that I will not let go of the petite lady – OR my log – until we reach safety again.

As I take another step forward, and sink down yet again into a mud pit somewhere on the bottom of this murkiness, I suddenly crack into a smile. I actually feel glorious! Wading through the mud to help this fellow trainee has completely taken my mind off my own fear… and pain, and cold…

Suddenly I have a greater function than priming my skills for survival in the Spartan Race. I am of service to someone else. I am happy. We move forward together, with the more able helping the less able.

This is the essence of what Michael is teaching here, beyond the running, mud wading, crawling, river crossing and log throwing: Oneness. One with nature, one with each other, one body-mind-soul inside us. He puts these concepts forward to the trainee Spartans who come here from all walks of life, in between getting us to shout “AROOOOO!”, in response to his rousing “SPARTANS!” roar. He is not the sort of guy that anyone with a snide smile would dare call a hippie.

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At another point of this long afternoon in the woods, Michael, who actually looks like a cross between Bear Grylls and Shaun Bean, wants us to practice our log throwing techniques. “What log throwing techniques?” I wonder, as I had never thrown anything the size or shape of a log before. I desperately try to recall Braveheart, and other epic Scottish films, for any notion of how one is supposed to approach this traditional sport in the Highlands, but all I remember is blue paint on faces and wondering if it was cold under those kilts.

Thankfully, Michael quickly demonstrates a whole variety of ways to throw a log, and that is how we cover the next 200m of uphill terrain. We toss our logs ahead of us – with loud grunts or roars for extra effect – and then dash up to the logs to throw them again, and so forth. Sisyphus comes to mind several times, as I catch glimpses of others’ logs rolling down the hillside when the occasional toss goes a bit wrong. However, I am floating on a cloud of elation, unbothered about anything in the manifest reality, as Michael had said the strongest should go first, to ensure they did not throw their logs on top of the others who might advance more slowly. Then he pointed at ME to begin the uphill log toss.

“Me?! The strongest?”

I felt a seismic shift in the story of my life – the story I had been telling myself all these years, about NOT being strong enough. That story had made me reach for the creative, the metaphysical, the abstract – anything that was not the physical reality of being incarnated in a body. Now someone was beckoning me forward among the strongest, in brute force physical reality. I do not need for all the P.E. teachers of my childhood to hear it. I do not need for a single other soul to hear it, in fact. I just heard it deep inside, and my perception of myself suddenly gained a new degree of freedom. Sometimes I am not strong. Other times I am strong, and sometimes I am one of the strongest. Such freedom to be all of me!

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As the afternoon pushed on, and we continued our running, skipping and jumping through the woods with the logs on our shoulders, it dawned on me that the human body – including MY human body – is incredible. With training, it adapts, and becomes strong, fast, flexible, enduring and such a great companion to take on adventures. I can teach it how to jump like a frog through stacks of pine needles, walk like a crab down steep and muddy inclines, grapple like a bear up those same slippery slopes, and crawl like an alligator alongside rivers. It fills me with wonder, like I have just met my body for the first time, and properly climbed inside to go for a jaunt through life.

As the end of the day approached, our team of trainee Spartans pushed up a final hillside together, some carrying two logs to help the ones who could barely take another step, and others gritting their teeth to give it every last ounce of energy to make it to the very end. If anyone ran ahead, Michael made them run back again so everyone stayed together, constantly checking on others, cheering them on. And we made it. Gloriously and together, all back up to the top of the hill, where we unceremoniously tossed our logs to the ground and let out a final “AROOOOO!”

The Spartan Race uses the motto “You will know at the finish line”, in answer to the question “Are you Spartan fit?” As I stood at that imaginary finish line, after those many hours of training, dripping wet and muddy all over, adrenaline pumping, and with a ominous feeling that I would be too sore to get out of bed the next morning, I knew. On the 25th of August, my mind, body and soul will be out there as one, helping along my fellow Spartan racers, and heading straight for that finish line.

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