How PTSD turned one woman into a beauty pageant-crushing endurance beast

(This story was originally published on Spartan.com.)

Neely had always been an adventurer. A confident and curious native of Vermont, Neely loved backpacking and took several classes with the National Outdoor Leadership School. In college, her sense of adventure in the outdoors translated to a major in wildlife biology, and she explored the topics of her classes with the same confidence she had brought on her outdoor adventures. However, no amount of confidence could protect her from what happened next.

In fall of 2010, Neely was assaulted by a close friend and peer.

Shortly afterward, she discovered the body of her assailant after he took his own life.

The trauma shook Neely to her core. Blindsided by “shock…guilt…and darkness,” Neely lost her sense of self. Anxious, she retreated from social interactions. She stayed indoors. In class, words that once came easily to her got stuck in her throat. Largely unsure of what she was feeling or whether she could ever recover, Neely sought solace in the “typical distractions of college life” — but to no avail. She began to sink into a belief that “this was the way things were now.” It wasn’t until her junior year in college when Neely decided to seek help.

With the help of a counselor, Neely finally put a name to her nameless pain: PTSD.

Although Neely was still far from recovery, getting a diagnosis was a solid step forward. “It became something I could start working on,” she says. “Something I could get better from.” Looking to find her confidence again, Neely thought back to the times when she felt most happy. It did not take her long to realize that her next step to recovery would take her 5,000 miles south — a semester abroad in Chilean Patagonia.

A Return to “Primal”

For four months, Neely lived in a tent in the mountains and carried all of her possessions on her back. She worked with a group called Conservacion Patagonica, drank maté with the gauchos (“the South American version of cowboys,” in Neely’s words), became totally immersed in her research, and returned to a profound state of awareness that she fondly calls “primal.” “It was amazing,” she says. “[I was] really getting to know my environment… It’s a whole different appreciation of the outdoors and [my] place in it.” When she finally returned to the United States, she as if she had found herself. She was healed, recharged, and filled with her old confidence.

Neely set out to do everything that terrified her. She got an invitation in the mail to compete for Miss Vermont USA, and at first she (as well as her friends) laughed. “Everyone said, that’s hilarious,” Neely remembers. “I looked at [the invitation] and I said, this sounds terrifying, this sounds like a challenge, this sounds like everything I am terrified of right now: being on stage, being in front of a crowd, public speaking, interview skills.”

But despite every reason not to try, she decided to go for it. “I wanted to push myself…reconnect with the person I was before the PTSD.”

On the road to Miss Vermont, she found herself with a concrete goal to work toward as well as an opportunity to raise awareness of PTSD and give back to her community. Along the way, she made an unexpected discovery that would give her campaign a razor-sharp edge.

Beyond the Breaking Point

At the time, some of Neely’s friends happened to be participating in a Spartan Race. Although Neely had never run an obstacle race in her life, she decided to get her feet wet in a Stadium Sprint. “[It] didn’t sound too aggressive,” she laughs. “[Sounded] like something I could do.” It was not long before Neely achieved her first Trifecta and discovered, in the arduous Killington Beast, that she had a talent for endurance. Over the next year, she completed the Vermont 100 Ultramarathon, the Ultimate Suck (Gut Check Fitness), the TARC 100, and the Mexico Death Race, which combined her love of endurance with her love of the outdoors.

“There shouldn’t be any box that women should have to fit into.”

Neely will be the first to tell you that nobody expects a pageant girl to participate in endurance events, but that’s part of the reason she loves competing in both. As Miss Vermont USA, she says, “I get to come in and be the person I am and also be this super feminine girly girl. I feel like I’m knocking down all these barriers.” And Neely hopes that other women will follow suit. “There shouldn’t be any box that women should have to fit into.”

Besides having the opportunity to break down gender stereotypes, Neely loves endurance events because they bring her to a physical, emotional, and spiritual breaking point. “Any event I do, I look for — and this is something I also preach when I direct races — look for that moment in a race or in an event when I absolutely want to quit,” she says. “[It’s the moment] where absolutely every part of me is done.” Once Neely has reached “the wall,” she acknowledges it and decides to move forward despite everything she feels. These moments of decision, she believes, can be found in relationships, work, and other aspects of life.

“Any event I do, I look for — and this is something I also preach when I direct races — look for that moment in a race or in an event when I absolutely want to quit

Beyond the Breaking Point

Neely has most recently taken a leadership role as a Krypteia (event leader) in the Spartan Agoge, an extreme outdoor adventure challenge where participants test their limits while learning and applying practical skills. The Agoge takes participants through physical training and team-building exercises, which, as Neely puts it, “[increase] in intensity until you have that breaking point moment.”

Once participants reach that point, the Agoge makes a sharp departure from the “Death Race mentality.” Unlike the Death Race, “[the Agoge is] an event, not a race,” says Neely. “A race has a winner and a loser. [The Agoge] is teamwork. We’re way more focused on the medical safety of the participants, and…while we’re not holding your hand, we’re going to push you.” Death Race, in Neely’s view, epitomized the phrase, “You can’t do this.” The Agoge is the opposite: “You can do this.”

For those who intend to complete the Agoge, Neely has simple advice. “You have to respect the event,” she says. “You’re not going to come out of the same you were. It’s emotional and spiritual.” The people who will get the most out of the event, she says, are the people who go into it for more than “just bragging rights.” In Neely’s words, “The Agoge isn’t about cheating; it’s about integrity, it’s about helping each other out. We want [participants] to finish together instead of trying to beat each other.”