GLEN JEAN — The starter and emcee had us huddle up close to the Spartan race starting line and then asked if this was the first race for any of us.
The crowd of racers, all here to tackle the 13-ish mile Spartan Beast obstacle course race, looked around.
Three of us sheepishly raised our hands, including me.
Everybody else smiled. We had no idea what we’d gotten ourselves into.
“Thank you for spending your Saturday with us,” the starter laughed and then gave a few house rules.
We could blow through the race — run as fast and as hard as we humanly could — or we could take our time. The Boy Scout reserve was beautiful and the view from the top would be fantastic.
But there was a time limit. It was 1 in the afternoon. Sundown was around 7:30. If we had a light source on us, we might continue on for a little while, but there would come a point where enough was enough and race officials would pull stragglers off the course.
“And you should have trained better,” he said.
I sagged a little. I wasn’t sure if I’d trained well enough.
Ready, set, go!
We started by loudly chanting “Aroo-Aroo-Aroo,” the Spartan call, and then ventured out across the field and over a short wall of hay bales blocking the trail that led up a hill.
A couple of racers bolted across the grass, went over the wall and scrambled upward, while I took it at a medium jog and cleared the wall almost lazily.
The day was going to be long, and I needed to parcel out my strength.
Up the hill, we followed a gently rolling path. I ran most of it, only cutting back to a walk on the steeper inclines.
Eventually, I came to a wooden barrier. It was slightly higher than the wall I had hopped to get to the starting line, but not any trouble. Then came the monkey bars.
The first complicated obstacle was in a clearing and had about eight lanes where racers could take their shot at crossing 10 or 15 yards just using their hands and the strength of their arms.
This kind of obstacle was a Spartan standard, but I hadn’t really trained on them. I felt weird about hanging out alone at elementary school playgrounds, so instead I just got better at pullups.
But I wasn’t so sure about swinging from bar to bar like an ape — and the bars were placed unevenly. I wasn’t sure if my short arms would reach.
Failing to cross, you were obligated to do 30 burpees, which are a cross between a pushup and a jumping jack — another Spartan standard.
With over 30 obstacles on the half-marathon course, I figured I’d be digging into the burpees at some point, but I wasn’t rushing to get started.
I let a few others go ahead of me, watched what they did and then shrugged. My best idea was to pick a lane next to the support structure holding up the bars. If I couldn’t quite reach a bar, I could hold onto that instead.
I hopped up on a box, grabbed the first bar and began.
That worked just fine. Nobody stopped me. Nobody said anything and I got across easily.
I didn’t have a lot of trouble with the obstacles, really.
Early on, there was a platform at the top of a wall with nothing to grab hold of. You needed to be able to leap like a grasshopper to get up there or be able to cling to things like Spider-Man, but I don’t have much of a jump shot and I’m not a Spider-Man guy.
Then Jared from Philadelphia asked me, “Do you need a leg up?”
“I’ll take it,” I said, and he helped me to the top.
I offered to pull him up, but Jared didn’t need me.
Meet The Spartans
Along the way I talked to a lot of people. It was something to do while running or hiking to the next obstacle.
There were cancer survivors and thrill junkies or gluttons for punishment who did these kinds of races every other weekend or more.
I met a man who told me he’d lost 140 pounds and the Spartan race had given him something to focus on, something to train for that helped with keeping the weight off.
I told him I could relate.
People were from everywhere. One group carried a Puerto Rican flag with them and spoke Spanish to each other. There were student groups from China and, I think, a married couple from South Korea.
I might have heard someone speak Swedish.
I ran beside groups of veterans, paramedics and policemen, as well as engineers and people who worked in restaurants.
We talked about how far we’d traveled to be here (a lot were out-of-staters), other races we’d tried and how this course compared to others.
A couple of times I heard the course in Asheville, North Carolina, was harder, but no one seemed to think the West Virginia course was a cakewalk.
Some people seemed driven to just get it done. They pushed ahead and passed the rest of us by.
One racer’s ordeal was another’s party. One guy brought a Bluetooth speaker and played show tunes from his phone.
At the bottom of a cliff, getting ready to climb with a rope, a bunch of us sang along to “Let It Go” from “Frozen.”
That was pretty weird, but a lot of fun.
As I ran, I watched people take selfies, tweet and update Instagram. That seemed silly to me, but they probably had better insurance.
Everyone seemed friendly. Around the sixth or seventh mile, when racers started getting leg cramps, people shared mustard packets, which can help ease muscle cramps.
It’s true. It works.
We encouraged each other. At the rope obstacle, one of the volunteers stood underneath the rope and urged me to keep climbing, yelled that I almost had it — and I did.
I reached the top and tapped the bell hanging there.
When I threw my spear and sank it into the target, the line of racers behind me handed me high-fives and shouted like I was a hero.
I heard and spoke the words to others, “Just five miles left. Just four more miles. We can do this. We only have another two miles to go.”
It wasn’t an easy race, but the months of preparation had paid off. Some of it had to do with my time spent running long distances, but the endless deadlifts, squats and random strength-training workouts at CrossFit WV helped — a lot.
The workouts and the lessons all came in handy when I had to carry a log through thigh-deep water, tote a bucket of rocks or a sandbag, pick up a cement ball or climb a rope.
More than anything, they’d taught me how to embrace being uncomfortable in the short term to get something done.
By the end, I only failed three obstacles out of more than 30. The worst was a set of mismatched rings, bars and chains you were supposed to use to swing across a section of the course.
This was near the end of the course, but when I got there, I was worn down. The palms of my hands were rubbed raw. I could scarcely make a fist.
I was glad to do the burpees.
It was an amazing day. I climbed up and over walls like a monkey, flipped a 400-pound tractor tire like a gorilla and scaled up the sides of a mountain like a goat.
At the finish line, with a ridiculously oversized medal hanging from my grimy neck, I couldn’t stop grinning.
Somehow, I had pulled it off.
My time was somewhere in the middle. I finished in about five hours, which was neither incredibly fast nor especially slow. Others took six, seven or even eight hours. The guy who won the thing finished in less than two hours.
I have no idea how that was possible. He had to have been flying — like, with actual wings.
For most of us, I don’t think the time mattered all that much, just the finishing.
That’s all I ever wanted, anyway — to get it done and put myself to the test.
I’d done that. I’d passed. The race showed me I was stronger than I thought, more resilient, tougher — and in a small way, maybe brave.
I felt amazing.