“You have to keep going if you want that belt”, said the woman that was trying to coach me into my next step.
“Fuck that belt!”, I shouted back.
Reminiscing, this seems rude. But when you’re pushed to a mental and physical barrier you’ve never felt before, emotions take precedence over manners.
She roared back “Then why are you here?” This brought me to my theoretical knees. It’s a question so basic, so fundamental that I was mortified to not have a deep enough answer. But before we move forward, let’s take it back.
The journey started two and a half years ago. I was living with Ryan, a new friend at the time who would become the closest thing I’ve ever had to an older brother. Ryan and I dared each other to do a marathon. While neither of us had run 6 miles before in a single jaunt, we felt called to the challenge. As two former collegiate athletes and lifetime competitors, we signed up. We trained, competed in and finished the marathon, marking one of the best days of our lives. Thus began a new tradition, our annual misogi.
A misogi is an ancient Japanese tradition as a day of mental, physical and spiritual cleansing. Following Jesse Itzler, I’ve come to pivot this philosophy as putting one big thing on the calendar each year. One thing that challenges you, pushes you to the limit, breaks you down so that you can build up from ground zero.
The next year, Ryan and I set our sights on a different competitive misogi: Spartan Races. After completing several short-mid distance races, we upped the ante with the 13.5 mile Spartan Beast World Championships in Lake Tahoe. Accompanied by two other great friends, we followed suit and completed our mission, equally as grueling as the marathon in the prior year. Misogi complete.
At 9:30 am MT on Thursday, we land in the Denver airport. With thousands of people scurrying around at the airport, it was a sign of the dizzying weekend ahead. Our sights were set at the Spartan Ultramarathon.
Remember the misogi last year? The one that was the toughest thing my mind and body have had to endure? Well, this year’s test is more than double the distance and time commitment of that race. It takes place in the Rocky Mountains, at an altitude I’ve never had my morning coffee in, let alone an endurance race. Pray for me.
As we stand at the starting line, I gaze at the orange hazy sky that only an Aspen sunrise can convey. When noting how many “first-timers” there are at the starting line, all the race director can do is laugh and bid us good luck. He clearly knows something that we don’t.
As dozens of us all chant “Aroo!” I glance over at Ryan to my left. Dressed in Nike gear topped with his purple pinny, I see confidence brewing. I try to borrow some, like a desperate neighbor looking for sugar in the middle of a Thanksgiving baking spree. And before we know it, we’re off.
We trot through the first few miles as if the finish line was moments away, fluid with full strides. After nailing our first few obstacles, I fall down while attempting to scale a 10-foot wall, sideways and with limited areas of grip. The purple pinny on my chest doesn’t spare me the 30 penalty burpees I receive for the unfinished task.
I joke that Tom Brady says he doesn’t even get into the game until he receives a hit from an opposing lineman. This was my first shot of pain, blind to the journey of suffering ahead. Ignorance is bliss. And I’m not Tom Brady. Onward we go.
As we begin an uphill descent, I think about our preparation. Not about the workouts I did or missed, that would come later. I thought about the hours we spent the day before picking our Camelbak backpacks with fluids, hydration tablets and sandwiches. I thought about the ‘drop bag” that awaited me at our halfway point for more nourishment. About the flurry of comments I heard about the altitude, how you never know when it’ll hit you, how you need to get out in front of it, stay hydrated. To combat this, we are constantly sipping our hydration pack, gulping two water cups at each aid station and snacking once an hour to keep our calorie count high.
As we get near the top of our first ascent, we steal a moment. Our back turned to the path, we look over the Rocky Mountain range and natural beauty around us. With each ascent that presses on our calves, comes an equal descent that chops at our quads like a lumberjack conquering an oak tree, slowly but surely.
I’m a believer that everything in life requires a price to be paid. At the surface level, we know this to be true every time we buy a pack of gum, new running shoes or monthly rent to our landlord.
At a deeper level, this theory remains. A marathon requires a certain level of training, nutrition, stretching, and mental preparation. A loving relationship requires commitment, vulnerability, selflessness. Even showing up to the airport on time may require the price of an early wake-up call or disruption of your morning coffee ritual. This race was no different.
With water obstacles ahead, you’re advised not to carry any phones or headphones with you during the trek. This leaves you to your own thoughts for, in today’s society, an ungodly amount of time. And this theory of paying the price kept creeping forward to my brain. Every rugged uphill step was one I had to pay for in training. Every wall I climbed, burpee I completed and barbed wire I crawled under was mapped back to the money I had left in my energy piggy bank.
As we began mile 5, we felt a wave of confidence. We finished our first small loop. Our path had us doing a 4-mile loop on our own, before two 13 mile loops of the entire course. Mile 5 was our first mental checkpoint.
We continued at a fluid pace for the next 5 miles, while constantly putting forth more money from our energy piggybank to the mountain. Downhill trot? That’ll be a quarter. Sled drag? Fifty cents. Uphill ascent to the heavens? Ten bucks. Hand it over, pal.
I feel my heartbeat in my throat as if it were a frog looking to escape. In a meditative state from the green mountains around me, I think about the days prior to the race. We had received an outpouring of respect, love and well wishes from family and friends. We got high fives, pounds and “here we go, purple!” from nearly everyone we encountered on the mountain. As I recounted all of the belief others had in us, our self-belief was spiraling downwards.
With each passing mile, we see familiar faces rocking an identical purple pinny. Instant respect. As Ryan and I walk to catch our breaths, our newfound friends pass us. On the next uphill, the tides turn and we passed them. Like a ping-pong match, we go back and forth.
One girl catches our eye in particular. She appears five feet tall and a hundred pounds soaking wet. She’s running solo, which is a confident and potentially dangerous choice for this distance. We see her fall on her face from a wire several feet off the ground. I see her lurched over her rock-filled bucket on a nasty uphill swing. Yet at each water station, we see her ahead of us. Her relentlessness inspires us. I named her “Charlotte” in my head, but we don’t speak.
At mile 12, I feel my legs feel like they’re made of heavy iron and my lung seems to inhale 1/10 of their usual input. Every step feels sharp on my blistered left toe, while the altitude pounds on my head as if it’s a drum solo at the end of a farewell tour concert. Another five dollars out of the piggy bank.
It’s made clear to us at this point that time is a serious factor in our ability to finish this race. The first 17 miles, which we estimated to take about 5-6 hours, was excruciating. With 5 miles to go in this first loop, we were already 4 hours deep into the race. Because of the constant hills to start the loop, we were confident it’d be level ground and a time to make up for our time gap. Once again, we were wrong.
“Fuck me!” I yelled as we rounded a corner with hope of an easy trot, only to be forged by another tenuous mountain. Despite traversing with my friend the entire day, I felt so alone. So beaten. So hopeless on this mountain. Due to the massive elevation and back-breaking obstacles, we were moving at about a 1 mile per hour clip. Not nearly fast enough if we wanted to finish this race.
Which brings me back to our original scene. A battered man, I had almost nothing left to give. So when I heard the comment about the belt we’d receive for finishing the race, I had no other response but “fuck that belt!” What else could I say?
My mind flashed to registration the day before, where a slim African American man was holding his young daughter, who he was pulling for motivation. To the young couple we met prior to the starting line, down 100 combined pounds since Christmas, racing with motivation. To our friend “Charlotte”, who had the relentlessness of a person that was going through the fight of her life. As if this race was her only option for survival.
We didn’t have that. Competition? Pushing ourselves? For a weak “why”, we had certainly accomplished this feat at mile 17. But to give more – way more – requires a deeper purpose. And more money left in our energy piggybank. A piggybank that began feeling lighter than a feather.
As we weakly plodded to our transition zone, we were coming into mile 17 at just short of 8 hours. Not only was this 3 hours longer than any previous race I’d done, but it was also the cutoff point between being able to continue forward and being removed from the race.
Without words, one look in each other’s eyes told the story that we had nothing left to give in this race. To imagine that after 8 hours, we’d need to likely push for another 6-8 hours just to finish this race was incalculable. The race director came toward us with the ultimatum of moving or being disqualified. Like a beggar asking a fellow homeless person for change, we couldn’t scrounge anything up. Not a single quarter.
Our piggyback was empty and we were finished.
If you skipped past from my first f-bomb to see how the story ended: we didn’t make it. But I haven’t had too many days on this planet where I’ve learned more about myself, about how the world works.
I have so many lessons coming off of this event. The great bonding experience with my brother. The relief after a battle of pushing yourself to the brink. The gratitude from the support we received both online and at the race. And a clarity around how to apply this experience to other avenues in life – anything you want has a price to pay.
No doubt we will do another race together and many more challenges personally and professionally that we’ll undertake to stretch ourselves. All we can do moving forward is to make sure we have enough cash in the piggy bank when the taxman comes knocking on our door.
So if you wished us well before the race, thank you. If you walked and ran past us on that godforsaken mountain, you know what it was like. And if you have an opportunity to create your misogi, do it. Because it’s not about the result. It’s not about that goddamn belt buckle. It’s about the effort. The moment where you feel lost. The sharp pain in your left knee as you climb that mountain. It’s about the journey.
“Ever try. Ever fail. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”