A Spartan's Journey
Spartan Race is an obstacle mud run started by Joe DeSenna to challenge people to overcome adversity and change their perspective on life. The simple premise is do something you are not sure if you can complete, seems a little out of reach, is totally out of your comfort zone, and conquer it. For thousands of people this is exactly what it has been. For thousands of others that are in good physical shape it is a challenge to see how fast they can conquer these challenging obstacle courses. This particular story is about how I used to do Spartan Races for fun, to not being able to even take part in the races, to using Spartan Race as inspiration to make my comeback!
I have had a lot of athletic journeys and lifestyle changes in my life. I have competed in football, swimming, track and field, and powerlifting. I have gone from 150lbs to 250lbs and back down to 165lbs as an adult. This particular journey starts back in 2011. I was back from Army basic training, in the best shape of my life at a lean 165lbs and looking for something to challenge myself. I stumbled upon the sport of obstacle racing. My first event was the 2011 Chicago Urbanathlon on October 15, 2011. This Urbanathlon was an 11 mile obstacle course through the streets of Chicago. It included monkey bars, marine hurdles, walls to jump over, and cargo nets. I completed all 11 miles with obstacles in 1:23:46 that is an 8 minute 22 second mile average. This was fun and I was actually decent at it; I was hooked.
The next event I found myself looking forward to was a more hardcore series of races called Spartan Race. The first Spartan Race I competed in was the Indiana Sprint on April 21, 2012. This was a 5 mile race through hilly terrain with crazy obstacles and lots of mud. I was in heaven, it took me and several buddies almost 2 hours to complete this extremely difficult course and I loved every minute of it. I immediately set my sites on next years and on April 27, 2013. This one was completed with 2 of my coworkers and once again was a blast.
Now having two Sprints under my belt the urge to complete what was called a Spartan Trifecta started to build up in me. A Spartan Trifecta is where you complete all three race distances that Spartan offers. There is the sprint that is 3-5 miles, the super that is 7-9 miles, and the beast that is 13-15 miles. This was my ultimate goal for 2014; but then something crazy happened.
In March of 2014 I got sick, extremely sick. I started with what I thought was the flu, got diagnosed with a sinus infection; but something didn’t seem right. Over the next few days I had zero appetite, couldn’t bring myself to eat, had zero energy, and craziest of all my eyes and skin started to turn yellow. I immediately went to the Dr. who was afraid my gall bladder needed to come out. Unfortunately when looking at ultrasounds of my gall bladder it was fine. After several Dr.'s and man tests I ended up at Rush Presbyterian Hospital in Chicago for liver failure. It was determined that I suffered acute liver failure due to an unknown source. After it was all said and done in the course of a month I lost over 30lbs, was in and out of 2 hospitals, 3 different outpatient procedures, and spent a week on the liver transplant list. It was finally determined that my liver was severely but not permanently damaged and would make a long slow full recovery. Unfortunately hopes of a 2014 Trifecta was out the window. My new goal was to look healthy for my wedding in September.
My return started slow, I was a skeleton with skin with very little injury. I went from the healthiest person that my friends, family, and clients knew to a shell of a human and it was shocking. I couldn’t work more than half a day without needing a nap and the clients I did train I had to sit down the entire time. This was a very rough time for me. I went from doing 11 mile obstacle courses for fun to not being able to walk through a grocery store with my then fiancé no wife. As the months went by my appetite slowly came back, the weight slowly came back on, and I slowly got energy back. By my wedding in September I looked like my normal self again. This was big step one in my recovery goals. That night at the reception I had enough energy to dance the whole night and I cannot tell you how happy that made me. Settling into married life was easy (I have the best wife in the world) and as I started to get healthy again I set my sites back on the Trifecta.
This time my goal had a different feeling. Before I was in the best shape of my life, the trifecta was going to be easy. I was physically and mentally in the best shape of my life. My illness didn’t only rob me of my physical strength but it allowed room for mental doubt. I found myself thinking am I crazy, is my energy and strength really back, can I be the athlete I once was again. Never being one to back down to a challenge I told myself I can come back better than I was. I started to train, strength and endurance came back slowly but surely and I made the biggest commitment to my goal I could. I signed up for all three races as once. I committed to the Miller Park Spartan Sprint on May 23, 2015, the Ohio Beast on May 30, 2015, and the Chicago Super on August 15, 2015.
You wouldn’t believe how quickly the sprint snuck up on me, I was in pretty good shape, had just ran a half marathon, but was I strong enough to do the obstacles. I traveled that morning to Miller Park with my wife, one coworker, and her husband. The old competiveness in me started to return. My coworker and her husband were starting the race 30 minutes before me and I decided my goal was to catch them. I started the race by jumping a wall, it felt great, I started running up the ramps of the stadium and it felt like home, I hit the sandbag carry and realize I’m not struggling, this is fun. I run out of the stadium, hit the rope climb and fly right up it. After a little over 3 miles and a little under 1 hour I completed the first leg of my Trifecta. I didn’t catch my friends, but I did make up 15 minutes on them and it felt great.
One week after the sprint leg 2 of my Trifecta was schedule, this was the hard one, this was the beast, this was 15 miles of mud and obstacles, and hilly terrain. My wife and I travelled to the middle of nowhere Ohio. Have I mentioned how wonderful my wife is, she sits for hours outside in the heat in areas with no cell phone reception while I run these races. I don’t know how I got so lucky! Back to the race though, this was my unknown one. I had no idea how long it would take me, how hard the distance would make it, or if I could even do it. I had a little confidence from the sprint, but this could be 5 times the distance. I set a goal of 5 hours and no penalty burpees (if you fail an obstacle you have to do 30 penalty burpees). Before the race I walk up to a wall Spartan Race has where the want you to write why you race. I pick up the marker and write “To prove I am healthy”. While doing this I actually teared up and thought to myself, “If I complete this I am really me again, my liver failure doesn’t win; I DO!!” This gives me extra motivation as I walk to the starting line. The race starts and I take it out at a nice easy pace with the hopes I will leave enough energy to complete the obstacles at the end. Throughout the race I start hitting obstacles and flying through them, no problem at bucket brigade, no problem at the barbed wire crawl, fly through the monkey bars and other climbing obstacles, swing over a moat and then I miss the spear throw. Goal of no burpees is now out the window, but I still have 5 miles to go and want to stay under 5 hours. About mile 13 of 15 I am running next to a man who is disappointed that his goal time just elapsed. I ask him what was your goal? He says 3 hours. I am confused, I have a goal of 5 hours, I am at mile of 13 of 15 and it’s only been 3 hours!!! I was ecstatic, I am crushing this race!!! This motivation carried me through the last 2 miles, and several obstacles. All said and done I finished the 15 mile run in 3:56:39 (over an hour under my goal). It was the hardest race I have ever done and I crushed it. One year after liver failure and I can do this!!! I was back, one race to go and my goal is complete.
This brings me to the Super Spartan; I arrived at The Cliffs Insane Terrain Park for the Chicago Super Spartan on the morning of August 15, 2015. This race had an entirely different feel to it than the previous 2. Gone were the doubts, gone were the nerves, these were replaced with my old confidence! I had already conquered the beast; there was nothing to worry about. As my wife and I walked around the festival area, bought some Spartan Race Gear, and got a lay of the land the only feeling flowing through me was a desire to get on the course. As usual I set a couple of personal goals for this race. I wanted to finish in less than 3 hours and most importantly I wanted to nail the spear throw. I take the race out easy as the course leads me up short steep hills, down into creek beds, and through heavily wooded paths. I hit a few familiar obstacles with no problem and finally come up to the spear throw. I set up and just let it fly not wanting to over think it. Boom, the spear sticks right in the center of the hay bale. I give myself a quick fist bump and continue on my way. When it was all said and done I covered 8 miles of obstacles in 2:18:20, over 40 minutes under my goal. I collect my medal and just like that it’s over. I did it I completed the Trifecta!
I first set this goal two years ago when I had no doubt that it would be an easy task to accomplish. Unfortunately life had different plans and challenged me with an illness. I reset the goal before I was fully recovered. I was determined to climb back to who I was. Liver failure was not going to rob me of my strength. I had a long journey back, lots of hard work, and a lot of mental challenges when things that were once easy were all of a sudden nearly impossible for me to do. Moments that were once full of confidence suddenly became full of doubt. This is when setting a lofty goal is the most important. It gives you something to reach for and to drive you. It doesn’t allow for failure. That is what completing the Trifecta was to me.