One Month at a Time: Taking the Spartan Race 10,000 steps at a time

CHRIS DORST | Gazette-Mail
Reporter Bill Lynch runs at Coonskin Park. For this month’s One Month at a Time, he’s been preparing for the Spartan Race on Aug. 26 at the Summit Bechtel Reserve.

A gold Pontiac sedan pulled up to the edge of the main drive in Coonskin Park. The car had come down a side road and paused as I approached and passed.

The old guy behind the wheel looked right. He looked left. Then he tapped the gas and lunged forward while I leapt to the side, just narrowly avoiding becoming a Captain America-themed hood ornament.

The car didn’t stop, and neither did I. I still had almost 2 miles left on my run.

As the weeks progressed for this month’s One Month at a Time project to take part in the Spartan Race Aug. 26 at the Summit Bechtel Reserve, in Fayette County, I’d stepped up my workouts, which meant running again.

For years, I’d been a weight lifter and occasional swimmer, but I dreaded the running.

In high school, I ran two seasons of cross country. I wasn’t particularly fast. My best time for a 3-mile race was just under 21 minutes, but usually I was closer to 22 or 23 minutes, which was slow.

Most of the time, I finished in the rear, well behind the team gazelles, who could bust out a six-minute mile.

I’d gotten away from long-distance running after my second year.

Between my ninth- and 10th-grade years, I put on 20 pounds, and I didn’t keep up with any kind of running in the spring and summer months.

So when cross country season came back around in the fall, I was terribly out of shape. I trained too hard, too fast and wound up with shin splints that turned into stress fractures in both legs.

The pain, recovery and humiliation of being too fat to run made me shy about trying it again for most of my life, probably, but I was seeing some progress. I decided to take it slow. I stretched before I exercised. When I ran and my legs began to hurt, I walked.

I kept up with a running schedule, but I took days off to rest. I was getting better, though very gradually.

On a flat course, I could almost run 3 miles without slowing. On the occasionally rolling course I mapped at Coonskin Park, I could really only run about half that distance. I walked a lot, especially going uphill.

With the Spartan Race only a few weeks away, I began to think, “Maybe I ought to drop down to one of the shorter races.”

There were pros and cons to that. The pros were obvious: The Spartan Sprint or even the Spartan Super were both much shorter races. The Sprint was about 3 miles. The Super was about 8 or 9, whereas the Spartan Beast was at least 12.

The Sprint was closer to what I could comfortably run, but it seemed to fall short of being the huge challenge I envisioned — also, who wanted to see me modestly tested?

Former radio talk show host Jerry Waters told me, “Your weekly thing is a lot more interesting when you’re in mortal jeopardy.”

Jerry has kept up with my writing for years, even before I joined the Charleston Gazette 10 years ago.

“You write better when you suffer,” he told me.

I don’t disagree, but I also don’t want to end up in a hospital bed.

So I began talking to the Spartan Race organizers about switching to one of the shorter races. They put me in touch with Joe DiStefano, Spartan’s director of sport and training.

Joe has been with Spartan for seven years — “Back when it was a bunch of dudes sitting around a table wondering if this was going to work,” he said.

What began as a novelty event has grown to 200 races worldwide with more than a million participants. It’s an ambitious international brand.

Joe said the hope was to get Spartan to become a professional sport as well as a physical challenge for the everyday athlete, but that was more of the business side of Spartan.

The Spartan philosophy isn’t about professional sports, corporate sponsorships and television deals. Joe said it’s not about being in superior shape.

“Spartan is a mental experience,” Joe told me. “We’re not putting a wall in front of you because we want to know if you can climb a wall. We want to know if you can sock adversity in the face and just do what needs to be done.”

The Spartan Race is a metaphor for life, he explained.

The challenges, whether they’re climbing a rope, scaling a hill while carrying a bucket full of rocks or crawling under a canopy of barbed wire, are all about reminding people they can overcome adversity.

“It’s about what it means to be human,” Joe said. “I think we lose sight of that.”

None of the challenges for a Spartan Race are beyond the scope of singular human athleticism, Joe told me.

Other obstacle races, he said, focus on teamwork. The challenges are designed to encourage cooperation and are mostly or nearly unsurmountable without some kind of help.

The Spartan Race is meant to encourage camaraderie, which can lead to cooperation, but the course is designed for individuals.

“Everything you need is inside of you,” Joe said.

We talked about my training. I told him I ran a mini-triathlon last year and had thought some of that might transfer over, but he said it probably wouldn’t.

“Spartan is night and day from triathlon,” he said. “It’s the opposite of triathlon.”

A triathlon is usually three segments. It’s a swim, followed by a bike ride, finished with a road race. Like Spartan races, they come in different sizes. A standard course triathlon is a 1 mile swim, a 25 mile bike ride and a 6 mile run. A sprint is about half of that, and the Iron Man is a grueling 2½-mile swim, followed by a 112-mile bike ride and a 26.2-mile marathon.

“Triathlon has specific distances and specific events,” Joe said. “So you know exactly what you’re up against.

“We don’t want you to know what you’re up against. We don’t want you to know what you’ll exactly have to do. We want you to focus on your performance and have confidence in your own skin to take to the mission that you can put to the test on a Saturday morning.”

I wasn’t so sure and told him I was thinking about dropping from the Beast to the Sprint. My running wasn’t up to par. It wasn’t going to be up to par. No matter how hard I tried, I was not going to be able to improve my distance running to 12 miles.

Joe sighed, said it was my choice, but that I could still do the Beast.

It wouldn’t be an easy day, but it could be done. I just needed to be ready to stay on my feet for about five hours.

“Nobody is running the Beast,” he said.

At least, most people aren’t.

Again, he said, the races aren’t necessarily about competition — at least between racers.

“Whether you come in first or come in last, you get the same medal,” he said.

Where most people go wrong with training, Joe said, was in their daily lives. They put in 60 minutes at a gym three or four times a week, maybe do a little running, but then spend the rest of their days in a chair.

The amount of time it takes to do the race is often the amount of time they spend training for the entire week, which really isn’t enough.

To get through the race, Joe said what I needed to do was make sure I got more than 10,000 steps in per day, do 25 flights of stairs each day and make plans to hike on the weekends — to get used to moving on rough terrain.

He encouraged me to do burpees. Those weird, uncomfortable push-up-and-jumping-jack combo exercises would come into effect if I failed to do one of the many obstacles.

“It’s like getting a speeding ticket,” he said. “Like in life, there are penalties sometimes.”

Being able to pay those penalties would be important.

Other than that, I just needed to be able to hang from a bar for a minute, since some of the obstacles involved climbing or swinging from rings.

“So if you can do that, can do the 10,000 steps and the 25 flights of steps and can touch your toes, you’re probably going to survive,” he said. “You might not enjoy it, but you’ll survive.”

I decided to stay in the Beast race. I bought a fancy, water -proof fitness monitor to help me keep track of my steps and worked on my upper body strength.

When I jumped out of the way of the gold Pontiac, I almost laughed. There was time. I was on the right path.

The same could not be said for the driver of that car.

On the final leg of my 6-mile run/walk, the Pontiac pulled up beside me. If the couple inside recognized me from 15 minutes earlier, they didn’t say.

A woman rolled down the passenger-side window and asked, “Is there a way to cut through the park to Greenbrier Street?”

I told her no.

“They changed that a while back due to the airbase,” I explained. “Sorry. You’ll have to go around.”

Reach Bill Lynch at

lynch@wvgazettemail.com,

304-348-5195 or follow

@LostHwys on Twitter. Follow Bill’s One Month at a Time progress on his blog at <URL destination="">blogs.wvgazettemail.com/

onemonth</URL>. He’s also on Instagram at instagram.com/billiscap/.

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