There are times in life when things just feel right. When you know you are where you are supposed to be.
And as soon as I pulled up to the site of World’s Toughest Mudder 2014 in Lake Las Vegas last Friday, I knew it was one of those times.
Hugging old friends, meeting new ones, we all anxiously set up our pits areas, commenting on how the Vegas desert was the FURTHEST thing from Raceway Park in Jersey that we had all grown accustomed to over the past few years. Excitement ran high. We were ready to begin.
But 8 weeks ago, I didn’t think I would be there in Vegas, preparing to race. 8 weeks ago, I was mourning the loss of running the Spartan World Championship, and undergoing surgery on a bum knee. I had mentioned to my surgeon that I would love to make it back in time for a “24 hour race,” and he rolled his eyes.
The typical interview question will go something like this: “So why do you think you are successful in obstacle racing?”
It’s a question that has given me pause, and has stumped me for as long as I’ve been hurdling over walls and throwing myself under barbed wire. I typically will stumble through it with some answer about a mixture of speed and strength, and how you need both in obstacle racing.
However, it took me a 2014 CrossFit Open workout for me to finally realize the answer to the question that’s been there all along:
I’m not the fastest, and I’m not the strongest, but I’m REALLY good at suffering.
Perhaps almost too good.*
By way of illustration, let’s take CrossFit. Putting aside all the arguments for and against it (NOT going there…just…not…step off that Rogue soapbox), it constitutes the bulk of my training for obstacle racing. And for the past two years, I’ve competed in the CrossFit Open (which, by the way, there is nothing that will make you feel like a more mediocre athlete than to measure yourself by a score against the world’s top CrossFitters…but I digress).
Anyway, just like with races, I shine at long, high rep, panic-inducing WODs. Give me short and heavy and I die. My Olympic lifting form is wonky, I have a unsteady right shoulder from years of softball and rotator cuff abuse that refuses to lock out in heavy overhead lifts, and I blame my puny squat numbers on extremely awkward and long femurs.
I am, by all measurements, an extremely mediocre Crossfitter (sorry – “CrossFit athlete”). But with two workouts in this year’s CrossFit Open – the first and the last, I excelled, even with a max snatch and a max thruster 50-75% of the most women CrossFit athletes out there. So what was it about those two?
In announcing 14.5 (an absolutely awful combo of thrusters and burpees), one of the CrossFit talking heads said something about the workout being about a willingness to go to a dark place: a willingness to suffer.
What we do in obstacle racing is so much more than being fleet of foot, or having raw strength. It’s enduring the bumps and the bruises, the utter fatigue of a mountainous sandbag carry, or raw and bloody appendages, sometimes on an almost-weekly basis. It’s facing the unexpected and the unknown, and it’s confronting a new course every time you race with different terrain and different obstacles. It’s the mental game that comes into play in longer races, the ability to push yourself into that dark place, and to come out on the other side. It’s about testing your limits, and mentally blocking out the chatter. And it’s the willingness to go back out there, again and again, even when your body is thrashed and exhausted.
Of course, this is all fine and dandy and good to tuck away as an “a-ha”, but listing “suffering” as a strength on an application isn’t going to win you any awards. Unfortunately, being good at suffering is not going to make me that much faster. I’ve got some former road-racing speedsters I need to chase down nowadays. But I suppose if I excel at suffering in CrossFit, I can learn to suffer through speedwork? (heh…heh…)
Likewise being willing to suffer is not going to save me as I fall magnificently on my face competing at the North Central CrossFit Regionals this week (Go Team Foundry!).** But for a girl without much of a stellar athletic past, I think I’ve been surprised how much the ability to suffer can make up for the lack of other, more marketable, skills (at least for the time being).
And yes, it totally explains the Death Races. And World’s Toughest Mudder.
I’ve heard people ask: “how do I get better at obstacle racing?” Or Death Racing, whatevs. Sure, you can give answers about training and nutrition, but from my perspective – it’s the mental side that everyone should hone. It’s the setting aside of boundaries, the mental grit to not just survive, but to compete.
So here’s to suffering: I think all obstacle racers, to some degree, excel in it. Some of us may even thrive in it.*** And it explains why I never feel those damned bloody knees.
*One could argue, for example, an ability to suffer led to ignoring injuries until too late…hence, my recent months on the DL.
** And I LITERALLY will be falling my face, epically, during the max handstand walk event. And the strict HSPUs. Oh dear. Humans were not made to walk on their hands – God gave us feet for a reason. Epic dismounts for everyone! Side note – damn you, gymnasts *shakes fists*
***Now, let me be clear – I’m not advocating that being good at suffering is a GOOD thing, or a “normal” thing. It’s probably not the wisest move in terms of the whole Darwinian natural selection thing. It’d behoove most people to stay away from disease infested waters and carrying axes for 72-hrs. There are plenty of us oddballs out there to take this masochistic abuse – someone smarter than myself should probably be responsible for the fate of the human race.
It’s been a hibernation kind of winter here in Chicago.
And for most of it, I’ve buried my head in the sand. Thrown myself into work (lawyering like a BOSS), rehab (so many Jane Fondas…), and recovery (which means rest. Which blows). And football, of course (Thanks Seahawks for salvaging an otherwise miserable winter. #LOB baby).
It’s a humbling experience to watch your friends compete and race, knowing that you’d give anything to be out there. It was with much fear and trepidation that I still traveled out to World’s Toughest Mudder in November, worried about how awful it would be to have to watch from the sidelines.
The odd part? It really wasn’t that bad. If anything, it was extremely rewarding and eye-opening. I cherished the opportunity to sit back and watch the race from the other side. And to put aside my own sadness at not being able to compete and share in the joy, pain, and raw emotion of the competitors. To see old friends and to meet others. And to really take a step back and marvel at the outright ridiculousness of it all.
Surprisingly, as time ticked by while I sat on the sidelines, it got easier, not harder. I learned to build a life outside of racing (oddly, and perhaps pitifully, hard), I learned to listen to my body (even harder, and it’s still a struggle), and I learned how to readjust my goals and priorities surrounding OCR.
There were points where I was sure I’d never recover (and to be fair, I’m still not quite sure “pain-free” will ever be a familiar concept again). Where I had to be driven to work because even walking to the ‘L’ stop brought me to tears from pain. All while seeing specialist after specialist, all with different diagnoses but no real clear recovery/rehab plan or explanation of what was going on with the ever shifting leg pain, back pain, numbness and weakness.
And here we are 4+ months later and with no clear label (and dear God, do people, including myself, always feel the need to have a label). But slowly, I began to recover. And feel better. I managed a few 400’s. And then a half-mile. And then one mile. And then 3. Nothing feels FANTASTIC, but I’ve been getting there. Some days I feel great, others I’m hobbling around. And it’s difficult to tell sometimes what sets it off.
But I finally got to the point where I can’t wait any longer. The need to get back out there is strong. And so I am. Smartest decision ever? Probably not, but no one has ever accused me of being wise.
Am I nervous? Extremely. Do I feel ready? Not exactly. Am I back in “race shape”? Definitely not. So we’ll give this a go and see how it feels. No expectations, no regrets (if I tell myself that, maybe I’ll believe it).
I hate it when cliches are true: one moment, you feel like you are on top of the world, and the next – things coming crashing down. And you sit and struggle with “why me” and kick and scream and fight, thinking timing is never fair.
Such is my life right now. I’ve been mum on this subject as of late, laying low on social media, hoping/thinking things would resolve, ashamed to admit what I hate to admit to myself: I’m hurt.
As someone who has been fortunately injury-free for a long time, it’s been devastating. Compound that with my calf injury pre-Spartan World Championships, I’ve been hesitant to let people know about the injury for fear of what other people think (I’ll call it “FOWOPT.” Deal with it). But you can only go so hard for so long until something has to give. And it gave, at a horrible time (admittedly, there is never a “good” time).
About a month ago, I pulled out of the Omaha Spartan Sprint 10 minutes before the Elite heats started after being seized by hip pain and debilitating sciatica. Since then, it’s been a month-long endeavor in pinpointing the cause and battling ever-present nerve pain. All signs point to some combination of pelvic misalignment, SI joint, and piriformis issues (back is cool, ohthankyouJesus). Some days I wake up fine, other days every step sends shooting pains down my legs into my feet (and the leg choice seems to rotate). X-rays, MRIs, ART, countless physical therapy sessions later, I’m making steady progress thanks to a combination of incredibly boring, seemingly wussy strengthening exercises and enduring torturous weekly sessions of my hips and legs being abused by dry needles. In fact, I was pretty confident about my WTM prospects until I suffered a flare up this past weekend, and I’m back to nowhere close to 100%. I’ve managed a few 2 or 3 mile runs, only to be stopped short by seizing pain or a completely numb leg. On the bright side, I’m learning how better “not to drown.” (hot damn, swimming is HARD. And boring. I have utmost respect for all you swimmers out there).
Oh, the irony: the so-called “Queen of Pain” is now in immense pain. Amelia Boone is now crippled from the simple act of sitting at her desk for 10 hours a day or walking 2 miles to work.
So while I’m currently going stir crazy not being able to train, “that one big race” looms in a week. Where I am supposed to “defend my title” and “win it all.” And nothing drives me to tears right now more than the thought of not being able to compete.
I’ve blogged before about the special place World’s Toughest Mudder has in my heart: it’s the race that started it all (or, the race that ruined it all). In 2011, it was a community of less than 1,000 of us with no idea what we were getting into. And the thought of not being out there again, mostly with these people, just kills me. Despite how much I bemoan what a miserable race it is, how it’s a battle in fighting off hypothermia and boredom, I can’t deny that I love this race.
So what do I do? All signs point to “sit out.” Aside from the fact that I could risk setting myself back even further in my recovery, my training has been severely limited (hello Airdyne sprints!), I’m in pain, and I’m obviously not 100% – making “defending my title” a Herculean task right now.
I wish I could just go out to WTM, run a few laps for “fun,” and be fine with that. But as someone reminded me the other day, I don’t have that luxury, because “people expect me to win.” In other words, “if I’m not going out to win, it’s not worth going out at all.”
HOLD UP – it’s not? With that comment, it really hit me: this is not what I signed up for when I got into this a few years ago. What happened to to obstacle racing being a stress release for me? Of being a hobby, a pastime, a fun outlet? I suppose that all went out the window when I started winning. Somewhere along the way, amidst sponsorship offers, magazine articles, and documentaries, I lost myself. (or, to quote Macklemore – “lost the compass where self is”).
I started racing because I loved the sport. And I still race because I love the sport. As I’ve said before, I’m not a professional and I have no plans to make this my sole occupation. I’ve struggled to reconcile the pressure of winning and of people’s expectations with going out there and having fun, regardless of how I do. Suddenly, winning becomes an expectation, whether I want it to or not.
But as long as I love the sport, why should it matter?
I keep praying for a miracle in the next week. Of going out on race day, feeling fine, and breezing through without pain (well, aside from the crippling pain of running 90+ miles). But you can’t fake 24 hours. And you certainly can’t fake it when even a few miles wreaks havoc on your body right now. While I’m chomping at the bit to get out there and tear up a course, I also have to listen to my body telling me there is something seriously “off.” That the entire left side of your body going numb isn’t “normal.” And as frustrated as I am that the doctors can’t exactly pinpoint a cause, that rehab isn’t coming as fast as I want it, ignoring the reality isn’t a sound “recovery strategy.” And when I started PT after Omaha, doctors and physical therapists warned me that, try as I might, WTM didn’t look good. Granted, I’ve never been one to listen to doctors.
So I can’t tell you what I’m going to do come next Saturday in Englishtown, New Jersey (though the new race format looks AMAZING. So awesome). For now, it’s a day-to-day struggle. More than anything, I want to run. Whether that can be competitively, I don’t know. But I don’t feel like there should be any shame in that.
Regardless of whether I’m out there or not, I know I’ll be back to healthy very soon, smarter and stronger. We all know there is nothing more frustrated than watching from the sidelines. You can’t keep me down for long: a new race season awaits.
If there is one thing I learned from the Reebok Spartan Race World Championships this past weekend, it’s that you can EASILY get rope burn through clothing.
Ok, I might have learned more. But that was, by far, the most painful lesson. Tegaderm is now my friend.
It’s been a year since the first Spartan Championships, and it was undeniable how things have changed. It was evident not only from the caliber of athletes that showed up this year, but even the feel and mood surrounding the race with the cameras and press and hoopla. While I laughed and joked with other racers and tried to appear calm, I’m pretty awful at hiding my nerves.
If there is anything that is calming, however, it is being back in Pittsfield. Ironically, the home of the Death Race and days and days of suffering tends to have a calming affect on me – go figure. Pretty sure I told several people I’d rather being doing the Team Death Race with my DR family. (Note – I probably would have recanted that come Sunday night after the TDR’s finished up the Ultrabeast at the end of their three days of misery).
But I think it’s safe to say that, while many of us had run the Championship the year before, none of us knew what to expect from either the course, the competition, or the mountain. While I knew I had come far in a year – last year’s Ultrabeast was actually the first Spartan Race I ever ran – between an iffy calf, nerves, and stiff competition, I wasn’t sure if I had come far enough.
But aside from learning the painful way about rope burn, there’s something that became abundantly clear to me this weekend:
Obstacle racing may be the perfect combination of strength, endurance, and speed.
I’ve said this before, but in the back of my mind, always felt like speed in running could compensate
for inability to do obstacles. In fact, I’ve never considered myself “good” at obstacles compared to some women. Coming into the weekend, there was quite a bit of chatter over whether the “obstacles” in obstacle racing were negligible, and instead, would be dominated by elite runners even if they failed numerous obstacles.
I think this course, and the results, proved otherwise.
The mountain. I love this mountain. And it probably shouldn’t be that way, considering I live in a city where the biggest hill is the overpass at mile 25 of the Chicago Marathon. However, as soon as we crossed the starting line, we started to ascend straight up to the summit. Calves went numb almost immediately, and Morgan Arritola, the Olympian nordic skiier turned professional mountain runner, left us all in the dust. I held second, but quickly lost sight of her. As we caught up to the men’s Elite heat, guys started telling me just HOW far ahead she was: 15 mins, 11 mins, 20 mins (obviously, they all had different ideas). But aside from trying to run that mountain (which is a feat in itself), we hadn’t hit any real obstacles.
The obstacles. And then we hit the tire drag. And the 60#(ish?) mile-long sandbag carry. And the rope climbs. And walls. And other heavy things. And this was where, without strength, you would die. Here, I hit my stride. By mile 7, the time we came down to the water, I had caught up, and never felt better. I ran my race, and had a blast doing it: smiles all the way home.
To me, this course showed that obstacle racing is a unique discipline, and one that can’t be dismissed. Obstacle racers must train to find that perfect balance between speed and strength, and skill and expertise come with practices (hence why I’m still marginal at the spear throw – something I don’t have the ability to practice in my downtown Chicago high-rise). But throughout the race, and in the days following, I realized that I’ve been blessed and fortunate to ride this obstacle racing waive to the top. Whether it’s a lucky streak, or something more, remains to be seen. For the time being…
Thank you, stairs. You are the closest thing I have to hill training around here. And you are much more forgiving on the body than running dozens of miles on the pavement on a weekly basis.
Thank you, CrossFit. Yes, I drink the Kool-Aid. But as a training tool for obstacle racing, I’ve found nothing better. That sandbag carry? We work with sandbags regularly at my box, The Foundry. Rope climbs? Monkey bars? Check and check. Grip strength? Honed by pullups, farmer’s carries, and barbell work.
Thank you, Death Race. In Summer 2012, I carried a 60# concrete bag 3 miles to the top of Joe’s mountain. In Summer 2013, we carried massive paving stones. Having survived both of those, I repeated to myself through the mile-long sandbag carry “this is nothing.” I believed it…kind of. Further, in every Death Race, we always seem to carry buckets (mostly handle-less), mostly filled with gravel (in the words of Andy Weinberg, “who comes to a Death Race without a bucket?”). So the Bucket Brigade obstacle felt like…home? At least I hadn’t been up for 72 hours.
Thank you, Pop-Tarts. Mid-Tyrolean Traverse, race director Mike Morris got on the megaphone and yelled out to me “Amelia, what’d you have for breakfast this morning?” I replied, “Pop-Tarts.” I wasn’t joking. But I should have added “Pedialyte.”
Thank you, friends. I’ve said time and time again that it’s largely the people that keep me coming back. When I arrive in Killington/Pittsfield, I arrive “home” to a dysfunctional family of misfits, but one that has great love and respect for each other. So while winning a race is awesome, spending time catching up with my “race” friends, and meeting and bonding with new friends, is a special kind of awesome. From seeing the Team Death Racers get their skulls after three days to introducing newbs to the treasure that is the Pittsfield General Store to sharing post-race beers with good friends, there is nothing more magical than a race weekend.
I most recently blogged about the challenges that obstacle racing faces in its struggle for legitimacy as a sport. The Spartan Championships were another step towards that, and one that gives me hope (says the girl who won – I know, I know). I’m grateful to be a part of this growing sport, one that now, more than ever, is here to stay. And while it’s tough to get to the top, I know it’s tougher to stay there (cue groans over that cliche). So I’ll enjoy the time here, thank those that have supported me, and keep on doing what I love: racing.
At my grandma’s 90th birthday party following the Pacific Northwest Spartan Sprint, I found myself
in a conversation with a family friend, who I hadn’t seen in years, trying to explain the race I had just run that morning. Granted, I’m not known for being able to express coherently when speaking (yes yes, and I’m an attorney…bla bla bla), but I found myself saying things like this:
“So it’s a trail race, typically pretty hilly, and you have a few dozen obstacles on the way – climbing over walls, crawling under barb wire, dragging tires, etc.”
*for me. (like I would proclaim universal truths. pshaw)
(1) The Death Race isn’t fair
Andy and Joe should really keep a running tally of the number of times racers complain “but this isn’t FAIR.” Newsflash, buttercup: NOTHING about the DR is fair. In fact, it’s designed to be completely and totally unfair, in every manner possible.
World’s Toughest Mudder registration went live two weeks ago, and judging from the Facebook and social media reaction, you would have thought TMHQ had punched a baby.
“NO qualification process?!?” seemed to be the resounding outcry. Hundreds (read, in reality: dozens) of
affronted people, worried that the race wouldn’t be “elite” enough, or that the out-of-shape masses would crowd Raceway Park in New Jersey, leaving the finishers to step over frozen bodies littered around the course after 24 hours. I skimmed the new changes, and the only thing that came to mind was “meh”.
As I passed a group of guys at the sandbag carry during the Indiana Spartan Sprint this past weekend, I heard “Are you kidding? She’s passing us. A girl. Fuuuuuuuuuck.”
Yay me, right? Woo women! Go chicks! How empowering and badass and wonderful!
So why did it feel so horrible? And why did it bother me throughout the race, and still bothers me, almost a week later?
Because “chicking” shouldn’t be a big deal.
I don’t know the origin of the term “chicked,” but if you are in any type of runners circle, the term gets thrown around. It’s the idea of a woman passing a man, beating a man. It was created, I believe, as a term of empowerment, and I think serves that purpose well – you can see this in groups like the ever-expanding “Spartan Chicked,” which is an incredible forum for female obstacle racers to provide advice, tips, encouragement, and support for each other.
In the eyes of men, however, the term turns ugly. It’s a blow to the ego to get “chicked,” and it’s used by men in a derogatory manner. I get it, doods, that it hurts your ego that you got “beat by a girl,” but get over it. Your chest hair isn’t going to fall out, your biceps have not atrophied, and the size of…things…are still the same (I think).
The Elite heats at Spartan Races lead to a particularly interesting phenomenon surrounding chicking. The male heat goes off at 8am, and the females 15 minutes later. Since this has been the case, the top females have started catching up with the back of the male pack, sometimes a matter of miles into the race. In Indiana this past weekend, I caught up with the first guy on the barbed wire crawl, which was less than a mile in.
As a result, I passed close to 100 guys during the race. In Vegas, it was likely more due to the sheer number of runners (and the top two females passed even more). This requires a breathless “excuse me,” or “can I get through” or “on your left!” every few minutes.
For the most part, the guys were supportive and courteous. There were shouts of “you go girl!” or “killing it!” and those that would step aside to make way for you. But a smaller number were NOT so happy, failing to get out of the way on a single track portion, or murmuring less-than-kind things. (I suppose this is further exacerbated because they realized they got a 15 minute headstart, and the women were catching up to them).
It brings me back to my World Toughest Mudder experience this past year, when people realized I was mere minutes behind Junyong Pak. TMHQ was flabbergasted, people were besides themselves trying to understand: HOW did a female manage to get within minutes of Pak?? That’s impossible!
And the entire time, while people were running along side me to run faster, to catch up to him, I thought to myself “what’s the big deal? And more importantly, WHY are we making a big deal out of this?”
I guess it’s a reverse feminism-type of thing: while it’s empowering for a woman to beat, or be on par with, a man, the more attention we draw to it by declaring it “unreal” or “amazing,” the more we reinforce the stereotype that females aren’t, and can’t be, equal to males.
[Yikes. That’s the most feminist thing I’ve ever said. And that’s a lot of phrases in a sentence. I’ll stop now.]
Don’t get me wrong – I’m beyond proud of my finish at WTM, and at races like Indiana. But, in a way, it saddens me to think that people still believe that it’s “abnormal” when a woman can beat the vast majority of the men at an event like this. And it’s frustrating that men are affronted by the fact that a woman could possibly best them.
So let’s change the conversation. While running with the “lead” girls at the Kids Race, I noticed that none of the little boys were saying similar things as the girls flew by. So here’s to hoping we can take the negative out of “chicking,” and just realize that some girls kick ass.
[stumbling down off my soapbox]
"The timorous may stay at home." ~ Murphy v. Steeplechase Amusement Co., 250 N.Y. 479, 483 (N.Y. 1929)