Saturday, Dec 10, 2017, 6am. I’m standing in a parking lot with a heavy backpack and a black shirt, along with 72 other people with heavy backpacks and black shirts. The only difference between me and them is that 70 of them appear to be distant blood relatives of the Hulk. We’re here to do something ridiculous: an endurance event featuring an unknown set of physical challenges. For the next 12 hours, a couple of squad leaders, aka Hulk 1 and Hulk 2, will yell at us to carry heavy shit from here to there — in the mud, up hills, duct-taped to a partner— you name it. They’ll cut those of us who are too slow.
Yes, we paid for this.
I first got into obstacle course racing in 2016. It started out all fun and monkey bars. But after the first couple years of mud runs and Spartan races, my friends and I got into the fringe sport of endurance obstacle course racing and rucking. We traded circus-level weird for straight-up ridiculousness.
While 10,000 people are racing 8 miles on a charted course, we huddle on the side with 100 other misfits, ready to do whatever the hell is asked of us, for as many hours as we are told. One time an event started with 90 minutes of burpees while holding bricks. Another time, we partnered up with strangers and spent the next few hours carrying each other up mountains. I’ve watched the sun rise while holding a squat beyond any feeling in my legs, and I’ve watched it set while lugging a full bucket of water to the top of a hill while trying not to spill a drop. I’ve finished events, and I’ve failed at events. I’ve woken up the next day unsure if I’d be able to move.
The first obvious question about this sport is: why? Why do something so foolish and arduous and obviously painful? What kind of person reads the story of Sisyphus and says, “where do I sign up?”
The kind of person who isn’t forced to go through every day hiking uphill with an oppressive boulder on their back. The kind of person who has been lucky and privileged enough to walk on flat ground. The kind of person who could stay on the couch, but maybe, on some gut level, suspects they could do more.
I believe the best way to train for adversity is with absurdity. Most of the hardships life throws at us don’t make any sense. Neither does this sport. It is stripped of the conventions that make other sports seem less ridiculous. There are no points. There’s no score. No one cheers. It doesn’t even have a consistent name.
This absurdity makes it fundamental, simple, even pure. I think of it like holding my breath. It’s a challenge with no stakes, the hardest and the easiest thing in the world. You can always work to push yourself a bit further. And you can always give up. At some of these events, the majority of people give up.
December 10, 2017, 1pm. We’re five hours in when the first people get cut from the 12-hour event. They hadn’t gotten enough sandbags from point A to point B in time. I watch them leave with a dull sense of accomplishment. At the moment, I‘m more hungry than proud to still be standing. I’m focused on granola bars, not body count.
All that changes in hour seven. We’re told we have five minutes to lash together a long chain of filled sandbags to carry over a mountain. People jump into action with duct tape and cord. But there are too many of us, with no clear leader, so different pockets of the group approach the task differently. By the end of five minutes, we have a lumpy chain up on our shoulders, with a few precariously weak links. We start trudging forward, our toes jamming up against the heels of the person ahead of us in line. Suddenly, we stop. Two huge guys, their sandbags stuffed like sausages, fall apart. The chain snaps. They look at each other through a shower of sand and start cussing each other out. Then one guy yells, I QUIT! The other guy yells, NO, I QUIT!
And they’re out, stomping off to the Hulk preschool timeout station in the sky.
I’d first watched this altercation with a sense of numb gratitude. These men had paused my slow weighted shuffle up the hill. But when they quit, I am flabbergasted. These guys gave up? 20-something beefcakes who could benchpress me in their sleep gave up? I feel giddy. For the first time all day, I start to wonder if I have something they don’t. If all these menacing guys are pushovers in Hulk costumes. And if I might be something else, something stronger.
If there are two kinds of people, I always figured I’d be the kind to give up. I’ve never had a high pain tolerance. I like fun challenges, not ugly challenges. When I imagine a tiger chasing me, I assume at some point I’d get tired and just stop running, close my eyes, and accept the inevitable. I’ve even done this — once in a bad bike accident, several times when boxing. One of the reasons I stopped boxing is I would always close my eyes when someone swung at my face.
Not anymore. I love this sport because it helped teach me not to give up. Whether I’m at an event or just out training, I know it’s 100% my choice — every moment — whether to continue. There’s no team relying on me nor a buzzer to ring. Do I really want to carry that next sandbag? Do I want to do those pushups in the mud? Or — a better question: will I carry that next sandbag? Will I get down in the mud and get back up, even if it’s cold and wet and painful?
Yes I will. No I won’t. It’s my choice.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I got into this sport at a time when I was struggling, in some pretty serious ways, with my work leading transformative change as a museum director. At the time, I was fighting to build a public plaza, to open up the museum to new people in new ways. There were plenty of skeptics. There was nasty public backlash. And there were hundreds of fair weather friends, happy to show up but just waiting for me to fail so they could say I pushed too far.
Why lead change? Why court people’s dissatisfaction and skepticism? Why put your dreams on a shaky platter and take them to Rotary clubs to poke and prod and laugh at and slip a dollar under?
The answer, of course, is that it was meaningful, satisfying, meaty, important work. Work that made my community better, made the museum stronger, and made me more aware of my own potential impact in this world.
But I couldn’t make that impact from my couch. I had to find a way to push past all the times I wanted to close my eyes and give up. As disability activist Mia Mingus says, comfort and transformation don’t live in the same block. As endurance racers say, embrace the suck.
Endurance racing gave me a zero-stakes training ground to embrace discomfort. I was able to tackle stress about things that really mattered by stressing my body with something completely pointless. During the work week, I’d battle it out with the planning department and naysayers and the people who sued us and the people who couldn’t be bothered to help. Then on the weekend, I’d sweat it out, climbing hundreds of stairs with a weighted pack on my back, doing burpees in the surf, crawling for miles in the sand.
I didn’t get started on this journey on my own. For me, the initial motivation was external. I met some people who did it. They invited me to events. I signed up. I was a willing participant in someone else’s sadism. All I had to do was stick it on my calendar and show up.
But when I did show up, it became clear: no one was going to do this for me. No one was going to cheer when I crawled to the top of the stairs. Everyone else was in their own little zone of pain, carrying their own little boulder, cursing at themselves to keep going. Someone else might be telling me what to do. But whether I did it or not — whether I quit or not — was up to me.
I knew I’d turned a corner when I showed up one Saturday morning at 8am for a workout and found out it had been canceled. Fuck em. I hefted my pack and pummeled myself alone for a couple hours. I embraced the suck.
And I learned: this isn’t so bad. I’m not giving up. This physical suck is easier than the work suck. It’s making me tougher — physically, emotionally, and mentally — so I can do both. I learned to stop closing my eyes. I learned to relish setting off up the mountain. I learned to believe I wouldn’t give up.
Night falls hard on December 10. By hour 11 of the 12 hour event, I am exhausted, cold, hungry — and buoyant. There are only 22 of us left of the original 73, and only one more task to do. We each have to get five filled sandbags back to the beach where it all started. It sounds easy, like a pop quiz on the last day of school, after everyone already got their diploma and is halfway to the beach.
It is not easy. It is impossible. Actually, it appears entirely possible for about fifteen people. But me, my husband, and a few other guys are not making it. I watch sandbags accumulate on the beach as if by magic, incredulous that other people’s piles are so high when mine is so low. It is dark, and it feels dark. My husband and I each get our third sandbag down to the beach at about the same time, near the end of the 12th hour. Hulk 1 at the beach tells us we aren’t going to make it. We say we aren’t giving up now, thank you very much. So we keep going, even when we can’t make the cutoff, even when others are lying spreadeagled on their beautiful, improbable piles of five sandbags, soaking in the moonlight.
At 12 hours and 30 minutes, Hulk 2 calls an end to the event. The final tally: 19 people finished the entire event and receive a medal. Three more had disappeared into the night, leaving orphaned sandbags on the trail. My husband, me, and one other dude get cut. The end.
How does it feel when you work that hard just to be told, at the very end, that you didn’t make the grade?
It feels fucking amazing.
I didn’t need a medal to know how tough I was or how hard I worked. I didn’t need a medal to remind myself that I never gave up. That night, I felt like I could tackle anything. I felt like the next time the tigers showed up I would run and run and run and keep my eyes open if they overtook me. I felt like life is suffering, I had given myself over to it, and now I was unstoppable.
I went on to build that plaza, settle that lawsuit, make that change, lose some battles and win a heck of a lot of other ones. I built the emotional and mental toughness I needed to lead change by training myself to embrace the suck. By doing hundreds of burpees in the waves and daring the water to keep hitting me.
And yeah, I couldn’t walk the next morning. It was worth it.