I was finished chopping my wood and stacking it, except for this bastard of a stump about 3 feet in diameter, knotted to hell, and frozen solid. The thought entered my mind “there’s no way I can chop this up. There is absolutely no way.”
And at that moment, I knew I had to snap out of it. Because that’s exactly what they want: once they have you mentally defeated, you are toast. Might as well throw in the towel and call it quits.
And snap out of it, I did. We were only 12ish hours into the race, and a piece of wood wasn’t going to break me. I would get it done. So on the advice of a wise DR veteran, I started hacking around the outside. Slowly, over the next half hour, the stump came apart.
From that point on, I knew that nothing would break me. Throw at me your worst, Andy & Joe, and I’ll do it. I will go until you tell me to stop. Because what I learned from the Winter Death Race, above all else, is that your attitude determines your success. But I had it easy.
Over the course of the 32+ hour race, I witnessed attitudes that ran the gamut from my fellow racers. While there were a few minor exceptions, I was continually impressed by the spirit and the resilience of my fellow racers, especially those racers that weren’t leading the pack, but continued to stick it out. Those racers are the true inspiration, and are the ones for whom I have the utmost respect.
Think about it. It’s “easy” being in the lead, or at least towards the front. You don’t really know what is ahead of you, so you do things as Joe & Andy tell you to do it. I hung towards the front of the pack for most of the race, but was never out in front. So while I knew certain things coming to me (say, another run up the mountain or another 1000 burpees), it was never an overwhelming amount.
For those racers that fell behind initially, the list of what is ahead of you grows…exponentially. And to know that, for instance, you have 2000 more burpees, 2 more mountain loops, a dip in the pond, and more wood to chop, can be mentally devastating. Moreover, knowing how hard it would be to catch the leaders, or even go fast enough to finish, is enough to make any sane person want to call it quits.
Take, for example, the lovely and badass Jessica Pineault. She had the unfortunate occurrence of having to roll a log that had split in two, which forced her way behind the pack. As several of us were working on our 3rd set of 1000 burpees about 24 hours into the race, she was working on her 2nd set, knowing that she still had an additional mountain loop and a dip in the pond before she even made it to her 3rd set. But she soldiered on, laughing and joking with us as we all did burpees together on the frozen ground. “Burpee drunk,” she said. And unwavering, with a smile on her face, she continued on.
It’s times like this that show your true character. And I’m honored to race with those that embody that spirit, and inspired to conduct myself in the same way. I only hope, that the day when I’m faced with that feeling of hopelessness, that I can carry myself with as much integrity and respect that I saw out there this weekend.
Everyone congratulates the winners and the finishers. I’m proud of what I accomplished by finishing in those 32+ hours, and I’m proud of how I got there. But we had it easy–the unknown gave us a mental advantage, one that wasn’t shared by all the racers.
So fellow Death Racers and future Death Racers: soldier on. Don’t let them break you. And realize that sometimes the greatest source of inspiration comes from those that may not finish at all.
T-minus one week til Winter Death Race. And I feel like I’m missing something. It’s this weird nagging feeling, that something isn’t exactly right.
So as I’ve been fighting that, I’ve realized that it’s a theme that I’ve come back to time and time again: preparation.
Confession: I’m about as Type-A as they come.
Ha–that didn’t surprise any of you, did it? So I plan everything down to the last details: my workouts, my grocery lists, my social functions. And while I’ve fought it most of my life, I’m a certifiable control freak. WHAT YOU DO YOU MEAN I DON’T KNOW WHAT I AM GOING TO DO FOR THE NEXT 24 HOURS.
My closest friends and family are well aware that is my worst nightmare. I test, I plan, I do trial runs, I plot my running of tangents on the course map, I pack and repack. I NEVER “wing it.” And if you throw off my routine (especially my 4am gym time), you better be prepared to incur my wrath. So it’s rather odd that I have been drawn so magnetically to adventure races, and especially races like the Death Race, where anything goes. I’m not an “anything goes” type of gal.
You think I would be more suited to, say, marathons or triathlons, where you put in the mileage, you follow the regimented program, and you know exactly what you are getting.*
But (A) I’m petrified of going fast on bicycles (that will be a subject of another post sometime); and (B) running on concrete gives me stress fractures.**
More importantly than (A) and (B), road races are a snooze fest. Training looks like this: run in a straight line. Run faster in a straight line. Run slow for a bit and then run really fast in a straight line. Lather, rinse, repeat.
I also have an adverse reaction to timing myself. I’ve never owned a Garmin. I only learned last year what a “negative split” is. I’m still rather mystified as to what a “tempo” run is, and I giggle at the word “fartlek.” Don’t get me wrong–I love to run. In my mind, there is nothing better (ok, maybe a few things) than a pre-dawn 20-miler along Lake Michigan. But the pacing, timing, and pressure to finish in under “x” time takes all the fun out of the sport.
Enter obstacle/adventure races (can someone come up with a catch-all term?! please?!). Way more laid back, and way less stress. People go out there, kick ass, but also enjoy fun things like booze and red meat. I remember the first time someone asked whether anyone was using their Garmin for World’s Toughest Mudder. I just about fell over laughing (as did everyone else I believe). Seriously, dude? (1) You are going to destroy it; (2) what are you going to track? Negative splits between obstacles? Yes, there are winners for (some of) these races. But finishing is a big enough honor on its own.
Perhaps adventure racing has brought out another side of me. Perhaps I’m not as type-A, control freak as I thought. Or perhaps adventure racing is teaching me how NOT to be like that. I’m growing–growing as an athlete, growing as a professional***, and growing as a person.
So maybe what is really bothering me lately is that the unknown and lack of preparation…isn’t bothering me at all.
Pittsfield, I look forward to meeting you in a week. Let’s do this.
*”Yay, I got a 26.2 sticker. So has everyone else, including my 300-lb neighbor
**Yes, I AM doing the Chicago Marathon this year just to check it off the bucket list. I don’t really plan on “training.” Training is when injury happens.
***And by growing as a professional, I mean trying not to get fired for taking so many Fridays off and telling people I’ll be out of pocket and not able to answer my email for 24+ hours.
Now would be about the time to panic, no? There is one thing, and only one thing, that you know you will be doing going into the Death Race or Winter Death Race: chopping wood. For a race where virtually EVERYTHING is unknown, you would think it would behoove me to train for the one thing that is. Yet I have fully neglected this critical skill, mostly because I live in the middle of freakin’ downtown Chicago where carrying an axe and chopping down the park trees is, I imagine, some type of crime.
This doesn’t sit well with me. You see, I am a planner–an overpreparer by nature. I make my lists, I triple-check them, and I come as trained and ready as I can be. I’m not comfortable with winging it (unlike some freaks of nature that I know). But work lately hasn’t allowed me to start preparations. Life lately hasn’t allowed me to either. So here I am, rather unprepared and it’s killing me.
But there are logistical problems with wood chopping. First, I don’t have a yard. I have a balcony 15 stories up in the air. Even if it was big enough to swing an axe, I’m quite positive neither the neighbors nor the pedestrians on the sidewalk below me would not appreciate any attempts to split wood on the balcony.
I do not have a sledgehammer nor do I have a tire (what you may think would the closest thing to chopping wood). I still mustering up the balls to pony up for closest Crossfit box ($250 a month? yeesh. But I want to be cool and WOD with y’all so badly!), but even there, they don’t have a sledgehammer and/or tire. I suppose I could buy a tire and a sledgehammer and bang away in my apartment. Again, neighbor problems.
I’m a klutz. A certified klutz. For example, I suck at running down mountains because, most of the time, I trip and go ass over teakettle and break things. Now imagine me with a very very sharp axe in my hands.
Most importantly, the city of Chicago doesn’t really like people chopping down their trees in, say, Lincoln Park. I haven’t attempted, but I’m fairly sure that it would be frowned upon. Otherwise, where do I get wood to chop? I mean, I can go BUY firewood, but it’s already chopped, and that kinda defeats the purpose. I feel like this is basic knowledge that I should have learned somewhere along the way, but I’m starting to realize this is where being a city girl for the past several years is starting to bite me in the ass.
So I suppose the only feasible option is to pack my shit up and drive out to a state park somewhere. Maybe I’ll start with the shrubbery. Again, I’m fairly certain state parks don’t want you chopping their trees, but at least there’s a smaller chance of being caught.
3 weeks. Let’s do this. (and Winter Death Racers–give me my room when I’m chopping. For your own safety)
[Fair warning: this post may be full of typos and grammatical errors. I’m tired. I’m freakin’ tired. 15+ hour work days, pre- and post-S.E.R.E., have left me running on empty. So bear with me.]
When I arrived this past Friday in D.C. to for the inaugural S.E.R.E Challenge, I really had no idea what to expect. And I was excited by that. As the members of Class 001B gathered at our RP next to the Washington Monument at 10pm (or 2200, if I want to go all military on you), I was ready for unknown. But what I didn’t realize was that, before all was said and done, the most important thing that I would take away from S.E.R.E. were the lessons that I would learn–about myself, about others, and about life in general.
But because I hate being too serious, I’ll give you the “fun” lessons first:
Never underestimate an allergy (a.k.a. “Don’t be a freakin’ idiot”) I have a tree nut allergy. So the fact that unknowingly packed a bar whose first ingredient was CASHEWS makes me retard #1. When our rations were returned to us several hours into the challenge, I tore into the first available thing. And I immediately knew I was in deep shit.
Let’s be clear: I’ve never suffered a SEVERE reaction to cashews; typically, my throat swells and I get nauseous and need to puke it all up, but it clears up after awhile. But for whatever reason, this reaction was worse than the others. But the throat was swelling, and the vomiting began. Leave it to trusty Joel to realize that there was something seriously wrong for me (more than just the “I puke when I’m awake for too long syndrome.”)
No, I don’t have an EpiPen and I didn’t have liquid Benadryl. And neither did anyone else. So at 4am in the middle of Georgetown, I sat on the curb, puking my guts out through a swollen throat. Joel, Cory, and Jon sprinted to the closest 24-hour CVS, and brought me back some liquid Benadryl. (Note to self: biting into LiquiGel Benadryl will immediately stop the reaction. But it also tastes like absolute ass. Or what I imagine ass would taste like.) So Class 001B, thank you. I apologize for the 20-minute delay. And I apologize for the chunky rainbow show. Lessons learned: take your allergies seriously. Come prepared. And for the love of God, read labels.
A pelican case is an awkward thing to snatch. Tee-hee, I said snatch. After leading the team low-crawling through sewage and rocks, I was told to start squatting the pelican case while I waited for my class to finish. Brilliant me decided that the best way would be to snatch the pelican case and dropped it on my pack. With some poor form, the case ended up on my head. Pelican case 1; Amelia 0
I cannot chest to deck with a 40lb ruck on. Well, I can do one minus a half. Time to work on that upper body strength. I can, however, do Hello Dollies ALL. NIGHT. LONG.
If I had to low crawl over rocks to save my life, I would be dead. JHE, with his sniper skills, would have picked me off in a minute from a mile away. Or less than a minute. The bright teal hat also probably would have given me away.
The occupy D.C. people were not occupying their tents at 4am. As we ran through, nary a soul stirred despite the loud heckling, swearing, whistling, and shouts of “occupy my ruck!” They must go home to sleep at their mommy and daddy’s house.
Always carry ketchup. It would have made those raw eggs taste waaaaaaay better. During our first mission, we were given an egg to carry with us. The only rule: the egg can’t break no matter what. Obviously eggs got broken. But even during our low crawls, I managed to keep my egg intact. So when we were told to get rid of our eggs, but that we couldn’t throw them on the ground, some dsparkle had the brilliant idea to eat them, shell and all.
So let me get this straight–my reward for not breaking the egg was to pop a whole raw egg into my mouth and eat it, shell and all? Excellent. Yum. So down went the egg, shell and all. At least it tasted a hell of a lot better than liquid Benadryl.
But S.E.R.E. wasn’t all fun and games. I learned a few important lessons, and ones that shouldn’t be taken lightly…
Trust in my leadership ability. I’ve always considered myself a leader, and a pretty competent leader at that. I prefer the leadership role, and have been one in multiple capacities: sports, school, work, etc. But when Todd was fired as our leader at 2am (WTF–who fires Todd?!), and I was told to take over, panic set in. I had to fill the shoes of a trained Army staff sergeant? And gain the respect of my 37 member class, a sizeable number of whom were active and former Marines and Army? Intimidated didn’t begin to describe it.
And I failed at first. I failed to mobilize my class, and I failed to lead effectively, due to that voice of doubt in the back of my mind. And that insecurity that crept in: why would any of them respect and/or listen to me, a civilian city-girl that sits in an office for 14 hours day? I believed I was wholly underqualified, and I choked.
But, entering the WWII memorial, and starting our second mission, I was handed a puzzle. No, not a figurative puzzle. A legit 1000-piece puzzle that the team needed to solve to find our next rally point. And something clicked. This was where I excel–I lead with my mind. And, as we made up 2 hours of time through quick-puzzle solving, I began to find my groove.
Nut up. Bad pun? Not really. Nut up, as in “grow some balls and do the unpopular thing.” I was told by the operators to peer people out. (As an aside, I did not know what “peering” someone out meant until last week). Our class was moving too slowly, and we were suffering dearly for it. People were cold, packs were heavy, and I tried to get people to run. But despite my efforts to pick up the pace, I kept being yelled at from the ranks to slow down. Others told me to put the slowest and the injured at the front of the class, and let them set the pace. So I did.
And because of that, much to my frustration, the pace slowed. Class 001B, I love you guys, but I should have grown some balls and peered people out. And because I didn’t, our entire class suffered. It’s not a popular thing to do, and one that isn’t common in other challenges. But S.E.R.E. was a different kind of challenge. And despite being told to drop the dead weight, I chose the path of least resistance.
It’s the people around you that make a difference. In a team challenge such as this, you live and die by your fellow classmembers. So thank you, Class 001B. Thanks for listening to me, thanks for supporting me, and thanks for teaching me a lot about myself. I look forward to seeing all you crazies out there again soon.
If you looked up the definition of “creature of habit,” I would be highly surprised if there wasn’t a picture of me sitting there. My alarm goes off at 4:22 a.m. every morning, I hit the gym, I go to work, I come home, I eat, I sleep.
Repeat ad infinitum.
If you asked my parents how I handled change or the unknown growing up, they would answer: “Simple. She doesn’t.” I admit–you threw me off my routine, and I would kick and scream. But at some point, during some strange event of maturation, I began to crave the unknown. I began to want to take risks. Perhaps years of routine have finally pushed me over the edge…
Enter my next event, the inaugural S.E.R.E Challenge. Next weekend, I will fly to D.C. with 39 others to partake in the first challenge, Class 001B. And while there has been much speculation among our ranks, very few of us, if any, know what to expect.
This makes it difficult to explain to, for example, my co-workers why I will be out-of-pocket next week. The convo goes a bit like this:
Co-worker: “So why are you flying to D.C. next weekend? A race?”
Me: “Ehh, it’s really not a race. More of a challenge.”
Co-worker: “A challenge? What does it involve?”
Me: “Um, not sure. Starts at 10pm Friday night and lasts until mid-day Saturday. All I know is that we have to carry 20% of our body weight in sand in a ruck, bring the required items on the packing list, and that there will be some type of swimming/water involved.”*
[Co-worker slowly backs away. This seems to be a reoccurring pattern in my life]
I mean, I suppose I can elaborate a little. It’s a 12+ hour urban mission-based adventure to test you physically and mentally, with emphasis on survival, team-building, and evasion. (Evasion? Please tell me this involves chasing me through the streets of D.C. at 3am. I can’t wait to get someone arrested) While this sounds AWESOME to me, I apparently am so batshit crazy that I decided to participate in the extended mission: S.E.R.E. OPCON. According to the S.E.R.E founder, Keith Jolly, OPCON is
“Where hand picked athletes selected from a the 12-18 hour grueling Basic Challenge, also the first of its kind, will be put through a mental challenge that will push most seasoned war fighters to their brink. Playing off the already physically fatiqued athletes, S.E.R.E. will compromise them in ways unimaginable to most. These athletes will push through the continued sleep deprivation and learn who they are or are not!”
Soo…let’s make that 12+ hour mission into a 40+ hour mission in which we REALLY don’t know what the eff is going on. Sound like fun? For sure.
So, in no particular order, here are the things running through my head one week until 40+ hours of massive suck:
(1) While I’ve done 24-hour races, and worked for 30+ hours straight, 40+ hours is going to be the longest that I’ve ever been awake. And, really, it’s more than 40 hours. I’ll be awake starting 6am Friday morning (to fly to DC) until at least 2pm Sunday (assuming I can sleep on my flight), but more likely 7 or 8ish Sunday evening. So we are looking at 50-60 hours of no sleep. And work Monday morning. Wheeee!
(2) My stomach does not like sleep deprivation. At about 24 hours awake, I’ve learned I start getting quite nauseous. Hence, me puking on Joel during World’s Toughest Mudder, or me puking in the bathrooms at work on a 30 hour stint. So watch out, fellow OPCON’ers–it’s boot and rally time. I’ll try to puke solely on Joel again.
(3) The team packing list includes a “16-18inch bike with pink streamers” and an inflatable boat. Enough said.
(4) I’ve met a lot of crazies through adventure racing, but my fellow SERE Basic and OPCON’ers might be the cream of the crop. I’m looking forward to reuniting with some of my favorite crazies: Joel, Todd, MCCABE, Webb + Deavilla (the “Handwarmer Duo”), Petrizzo, and Ms. Sherry Post and Simple Fuel-goddess herself (partnering with S.E.R.E!), and, of course, meeting dozens more. Special douchesparkles, you all are.
(5) It goes without saying, but I have no military experience. I am the furthest thing from a “seasoned war fighter.” It took me about 15 minutes to realize that “RP” meant “Rendezvous Point,” and I had to google “MOLLE” before I realized that we weren’t talking about a girl. Thankfully, I do know how to read a topo map. So I can get us off a mountain. But that’s about it. I can also scream real loud for help.
The unknown awaits me. Letsdothis: I couldn’t be more excited.**
*Current temperature of the Potomac: 35.4 degrees Fahrenheit
**Unless it involves ketchup and bacon. Then I could be more excited.
To the consenting [willing], no injury is done. In the law, the Latin maxim of “volenti non fit injuria” is typically used as a defense in a tort action–voluntary assumption of the risk. To most of us, it’s what we so lovingly know as the Death Waiver.
Lately, however, I’ve realized that this maxim applies with equal weight to the abuse I inflict upon my body: when I injure myself doing stupid things, I have no one to blame but myself. I have only become painfully aware of this in the last year, and especially in the few months leading up to, and post, World’s Toughest Mudder.
Let’s take inventory:
Issue: After WTM, I was left with gaping blister holes on my heels. It’s painful to put on any enclosed shoe, including any type of running shoes.
Smart Decision: Wear some supportive clog with an open heel, and take some time off.
Amelia’s Decision: Walk around and workout in Injinjis and flip-flops for a few days, and then suck it up and deal with the pain and put on running shoes anyway.
Result: Blisters, that could have healed within two weeks, are now just starting to heal. Running shoes are now virtually pain-free. I may have permanent holes there, however.
Issue: As a result of the 24-race and wearing unsupportive flip-flops post race, I have a loose bone chip in my first metatarsal. This chip is digging into my tendon, causing extensor tendonitis.
Smart Decision: Per podiatrist instructions, chalk up $$ for laser therapy on the tendon, and rest.
Amelia’s Decision: Chalk up $$ for the laser therapy, and train for S.E.R.E. by climbing stairs for an hour a day with a ruck on my back containing 20% of my body weight in sand. Lie to my podiatrist about this.
Result: Laser therapy was a waste of money, and I still have tendonitis. Anything in a plank position, including push-ups, is painful. Running is manageable, but not great. Again, I can’t wear heels for work (hell, it’s been months since I can wear heels) and had to go to court the other day in some marginally-acceptable flats. Hide feet to pray judge doesn’t see.
Not only are Amelia’s Decisions a current problem, but it seems to be a pattern. For example:
Issue: Shin splint in the right tibia while running, jumping, and training all last year.
Smart Decision: Take some time off from training and do physical therapy.
Amelia’s Decision: Do physical therapy, but continue training. Eat Advil like it’s candy. Buy KT tape in bulk. Run several races and continue to train for the marathon.
Result: Tibial stress fracture. 6 weeks in a boot. Missed marathon. WTM almost put in jeopardy. Rage ensues.
So yes, it’s my own damn fault. The sad thing is, there is a simple solution, and it’s one that very few of us athletes are willing to do.
Like many of you, I am the world’s worst rester. I cringe at recovery days. I get antsy sitting around on the couch watching TV, and I crave the endorphins. Let’s face it: we are a group that gets our kicks by abusing our bodies. We wear our war wounds proudly: our missing toenails, our frostbitten fingers, our dislocated shoulders. But to ever admit that we are hurt is a sign of weakness. A sign of being, excuse my French, a pussy.
So it’s time for me to admit that I need to start taking rest days seriously. I took three days off after WTM (which is a record for me), but was not nearly enough to let my body heal. In an unfathomable turn of events, I’m taking the next few days off. Sometimes it’s the strongest thing that we can do.
A tangential conversation that took place between my girlfriend and I a few weeks before WTM:
GF: “So how are you getting out there?”
Me: “We’re driving. 12 hours or so.”
GF: “We? Who are you driving with?
Me: “Two guys also racing.”
GF: “Have you met this guys?”
Me: “um, I met one at TM Wisconsin.” (lie. I haven’t met either.)
GF: “So you are driving to New Jersey with two strange men? Please don’t tell me you met them on Facebook. Where are you staying?”
Me: “In a house on the Jersey shore with like 15 other racers.”
GF: “Have you met this people?”
Me: “Some” (also a lie)
GF: “You are going to end up raped and murdered in a ditch.”
(Little did she know that I carried a switchblade in my bra the entire way there. Smart girls always come prepared.)
I’m happy to report that I didn’t. Nonetheless, I understand what was going through my friend’s head at that point. It’s odd, really. Thanks to the amazing rockstar Margaret Schlachter, a group of about 100 of us prepping for WTM came together back in July in, yes, a Facebook group. And over the next few months, a strange thing happened: I began to feel connected to people that I had only ever met online. I began to consider them “friends.” And I began to respect and admire people despite never having met them in person.
Creepy? I suppose.* But, I mean, if online dating is no longer creepy, then staying in a rental house with 15 people you’ve only ever met online is totally legit, right?
But a funny thing happened. When we finally all met in person, it felt like we were meeting long-lost friends or family. There was no awkwardness. There was only the excitement of coming together with like-minded crazy mother-effers that made you look sane in comparison.
And while everyone I have met has touched me in a different way,** it’s been the women that have continually impressed me. Boys, I love you, but it’s time to talk girl crushes.
Let’s take, for example, Margaret, whose blog Dirt in Your Skirt I began following several months ago. I was stoked to find a strong female blogging about her racing experiences. (and, not going to lie, a bit intimidated). Not only was she a badass athlete, but she was smart and successful in her career as well. After so many months, I had the pleasure of meeting her and racing with her at World’s Toughest Mudder. And let me tell you, she is every bit as awesome as she seems on her blog, and incredibly down to earth and humble as well.
Or let’s take the lovely Miss Carrie Adams. Fact: I have never met Carrie. Yet we spent a Friday night, her with a bottle of merlot in Omaha, me with a bottle of cab in Chicago, sending either other modern day versions of junior high mixed tapes. If that’s not love, I don’t know what it is*** (note that she shares my same unadulterated love of ketchup, and is known to put ketchup on her bacon).
Jokes aside, however, I have never met such a strong group of women. Carrie and I discussed this at length: in our society today, it seems impossible to find strong female role models, healthy both in body and mind. Let me tell you, I’ve found them. They are here, embodied in the form of a female adventure athletes. While we are a minority in races such as the Death Race or World’s Toughest Mudder, the contingent is growing.
So tonight, dear interwebs, I raise my glass and salute you. You are apparently good for things other than stalking old high school sweethearts and looking up porn (not that I do either of those things).
*Before the WTM group, I vowed to never be “friends” with someone on FB that you had never met in real life. As you can tell by my addition of 200+ friends since WTM, this vow has gone out the window.
**NB: Mostly figuratively, some literally.
***While she and Ms. Definition of Hot Badass herself, Katy McCabe, already have committed themselves to a commune in Colorado, they’ve graciously offered for me to tag along as the third wife.
I live in the middle of a concrete jungle. Picture downtown Chicago, and insert me right there. I live on the 15th floor of a 24-story condo building, and I walk a mile to work to my office on the 32nd floor of a 46-story building.
I am, by definition, a city girl.
Which totally and utterly sucks for training for these types of races.
I became painfully aware of this in my preparations to compete at World’s Toughest Mudder. While other racers were sharing their workouts of jumping into local rivers or lakes to test out their wetsuits, or running sprints up the nearby mountain, I tried to figure out how to run through downtown Chicago in a wetsuit without getting mistaken for an escaped mental patient, and how to jump into Lake Michigan in said wetsuit without getting arrested for “Unauthorized Activity in Water” (Chicago Municipal Code 10-36-185 and Chicago Park District Code Ch.VII B.4 B.1-2).
It wasn’t always this way. I’m a born and raised Oregonian (GO DUCKS), and grew up with the mountains an hour away and the beach an hour away. While I’ve been in Chicago for the past year and a half, I spent the previous four years in Seattle. City living, yes. But with stellar hikes and backpacking ventures within an hour or two drive. Weekends consisted of hiking or trail running, and lots and lots of dirt. And the mountains–I love running hills.
I miss the mountains. So I have to improvise. Part of my training and blogging experience is going to be an experiment in urban adventure/obstacle race training, and all the idiosyncrasies that go with it.
Part I: Hills
The closest thing I have to a hill in Chicago is: (a) the incline on a treadmill; (b) overpasses and parking garage ramps; or (c) stairs. Let it be known that I HATE the treadmill. I think the treadmill is the world’s worst torture device (and it seems to aggravate injuries). And overpasses and parking garage ramps can be, well, a death wish given the drivers in Chicago. But I do love stairs.*
I’ve learned that you do get funny looks on the giant stepmill at the gym with a 50lb pack on. Whatever. They just can’t handle my awesomeness. (Yeah, that’s right Mr. “I can’t touch my elbows” arms and chicken legs. I see you over there doing your bicep curls and flexing in the mirror, checking me out. Don’t hate me ’cause your undeveloped legs can’t handle this).
But even the stepmill bores me after awhile. So I’ve taken to running the stairs up to my 15th floor apartment. And carrying my groceries up from the parking garage. And doing sets of the 24-floors with my pack on. Walk to the top. Take the elevator down. Repeat. My doorman thinks I’m certifiably insane. I tell them I’m training for Everest. Next up, assuming I can get past security, the Sears Tower.
Dear Chicago: Can’t you have a hill? Just one hill that doesn’t consist of an overpass or a parking garage. I understand that I voluntarily moved to urban wasteland, but you’re killing me, smalls.
Part II will likely consist of adventures in urban wood chopping. I imagine carrying an axe around downtown Chicago chopping down park trees isn’t going to to go over too well.
*NB: I have been informed by my dear buddy Joel that stairs are not exactly the best substitute for hills because you aren’t working your calves consistently like you would on a hill. That’s why you see me go all ballerina and shit on those stepmills. Adapt and overcome.
While there were many different types of crazy at WTM, it quickly became apparent that many people underestimated the cold. Compression gear, whether CW-X or Under Armour, does wonders, but mostly only when it’s dry. When the 40 degree water hits (as it did in the second obstacle), all of those wetsuit-haters began to realize that they had made a critical tactical error. I was one of them. Given that it was a sunny, mid-40’s day, I didn’t plan to put on my wetsuit until after the first lap. Needless to say, the first lap was perhaps the coldest, and most miserable, that I was during the entire 24 hours. Once I was fully armored in layers of neoprene: socks, hood, wetsuit (and 2 wetsuits in the later laps), my core stayed toasty, even during the full submersions.
Of course everyone asks about chafing. Lube up, people, and you will be fine: Bodyglide, vaseline, buttpaste, diaper rash cream. All work wonders.
(2) Thou shall dry off completely between laps
That’s right. Strip your ass down and get nekkid. I know its cold, and I know you are wet, but as most outdoor survivalists tell you (of which I am not), when you are hypothermic, getting everything wet off is key. Bring towels–lots of towels. I went through about 6 just drying myself off between laps. Once naked, jump in your sleeping bag, conveniently warmed with handwarmers or MRE-heaters shaken and thrown in the bottom. I repeated this routine between every lap (save the last two–no time, which made the last lap miserable). Getting the core temp back to normal saved my sometimes-boney ass.
Yes, your wetsuit is going to be wetsuit (or sometimes, completely frozen solid. WTF?) when you reemerge. But through on some dry compression gear underneath, and get back out there to embrace the suck.
(3) Thou shall know the beauty of aid stations
Yeah yeah yeah. We all run road races where we are “too good” to stop at the aid stations. We learn to drink our water while running (it’s an art, really). But when you are going for 24 hours, pace is the key. And learning how to utilize what is out there on the course is just playing smart. By the final three laps, Joel (my partner-in-crime who will get a full introduction later) and I were stopping at almost every aide station and medical tent for one main reason: the hot water. Not to drink (though it’s helpful if you do that as well), but to warm the frozen phalanges. We figured out the best way to do so: pouring the hot water in cups, and basically dipping the fingers (this is assuming you are wearing neoprene gloves. If not, hello third degree burns…) until they regained feeling. For the feet, pour the hot water down into your neoprene socks.
It may have looked funny, but I came away with all my phalanges with little to no frostnip. Win!
(4) Thou shall learn how to climb tactical ladders
Yup, those dangly nylon bitches are actually quite simple if you know how to climb them: reverse grip (palms facing towards you), stepping up wrapping your legs around and hooking them into the rear of the ladder. Coming into WTM, I heard horror stories of the “Rope a Dope” at Tri-State. People stuck, ass over backwards, trying to get up the ladders.
Come WTM time, once again, I saw the same thing at both sets of tactical ladders. [begin rage] On the first lap, I waited for 15 minutes at the bottom of the Massive Turd waiting for some dickwad to pull himself up the ladder. And he sat, spinning and spinning helplessly. It kinda reminded me of a fly in a spider’s web. Except that this fly was giving me hypothermia from waiting for his ass to die. For the love of god, climb the effin ladder or get down so I can show you how its done [end rage].
(5) Thou shalt not underestimate the power of logrolling
At a certain point, an endurance race comes to choosing the past of least resistance: saving energy, and just getting through. While I have always been adamant about belly crawling through Kiss of Mud, Turd’s Nest, Shake n’ Bake, etc. But by the third lap, energy conservation became key. And my knees and hips were so mottled, belly crawling became an adventure in finding the one non-bruised spot.
Enter the power of the logroll.
You all know you did constantly when you a kid. I used to climb to the top of really steep hills (we had those in Oregon), and logroll down like it was a professional sport. So while it may not look as bad ass, logrolling under those barbed wires or over that turd’s nest is just plain sexy. I mean, smart. Next up: learning how to logroll uphill (damn you Kiss of Mud).
(6) Thou shalt not get wasted the night before
I did not. And I felt great the next day. Others, however, thought shots of everclear limoncello were a perfect carbo-loading opportunity (*cough Joel cough*). Not getting wasted also prevents you from making an ass of yourself in front of 50 of your newest friends and fellow racers. And biting women’s nipples. And dick-punching dudes you just met. Lesson: save the beer, tequila, and everclear shots for after the race. I mean, we are “athletes” after all, right?
(7) Thou shall get your ass into the water
Standing there, staring at it, isn’t going to make it go away or magically get warmer. It’s December. In Jersey. Normal people don’t get into freezing bodies of water at this time of year. And they definitely wouldn’t do so, voluntarily, repeatedly, over the course of 24 hours.
So I have two musings on this point.
First, to you people trying to walk around the outside of “Jesus Walk/Mud Mile?” Grow some balls and get into the water. This is your first obstacle, not your first attempt at Twinkle Toes on the embankment. You signed up for it, you knew it was going to be there, so get your ass into the water.
Second, the anticipation of the water was 10x worse than the water itself. I have to extend a congratulatory bitch-slap to TMHQ for strategically placing (most) of the full submersions at the end of the loop (I assume they did it strategically, but sometimes even the dunce gets an A). Running through those woods after the Massive Turd, knowing that 4 (potentially 5) submersions await you may be the worst mental torture out there. But, assuming you are wearing wetsuit (or two and a half), once you were in there, it really wasn’t THAT bad. Right? Sure, standing up on top of Walk the Plank at 4am when its 20 degrees out is a complete mind fuck, but that’s the lesson: you don’t stand up at the top of Walk the Plank. You get up there and jump like a Pointer Sister. That is, unless you agree to jump simultaneously with your race partner. And you do for the first two times and then he screws you on the last one by jumping without you. Thanks, Joel.
(8) Thou shall smile (and thank your volunteers)
You hate yourself. You’ve been doing this shit for 20 hours, and all you want is a hot shower and a bottle of tequila. Every three steps you are saying out loud “this is so effin retarded.” Every spectator is telling you that you are crazy (but then again, there are no spectators at 4am).
The only thing to do at that point is to realize the ridiculousness of it all, laugh, and smile. As cheesy as it is, smiling totally makes anything bearable. Oh, I have to crawl through water under live wires?? How fun! Oh, you want me to get up this 12 ft wall alone? Not a problem! You mean I get to jump off this 25 ft platform in the middle of the night into a 40-degree lake? HELL YES.
Along the same line, you can never be too grateful for your volunteers. As previously mentioned, at 4am, there are no spectators. There is no one cheering you on except for those volunteers at aid stations and certain obstacles. And if you smile, and thank them a lot, they may do things for you. Like let you eat bananas out of their hands. Or stick energy chews in your frozen mouth. Or tie your shoes when you can’t feel your fingers. Or offer you wine from their tent (did not take that one up). Or talk to you for the entire length of the Mud Mile/Jesus Walk (thanks Fuzz!). Thank you volunteers. I almost felt that you had it worse having to stand around in the cold during the middle of the night. At least we were moving.
(9) Thou shalt not stop for bathroom breaks
Truth: There is nothing better than peeing in a wetsuit. Especially when it’s cold. Before WTM, there was a lot of naysaying about wetsuits: chafing, dehydration, etc. But despite wearing 13mm of neoprene at one point, I never found myself remotely close to dehydration. I attribute this to the fact that I was guzzling water at every chance, not because I was thirsty, but solely so I had more fluid to pee in my wetsuit, warming myself up.
You got that right, I’m the classiest lady that you’ll find around here. Any takers, boys?
(NB: I have heard that you are not a real man until you shit in your wetsuit. I don’t think I want to be a real man)
(10) Thou shalt never travel alone.
Scene: 8pm on Saturday night. My tent. I had just finished my second lap, and was huddling in my sleeping bag with MRE heaters at my feet, trying to get up the courage to get back out there again. It was cold. And miserable. And I was alone. WTM had set up the pit areas in a line about a mile long, and, while I had met dozens of fellow racers the night before, I had no idea where their tents were or if they were even in them. I had ran the first two laps on my own, not sticking with any particular person. While this was tolerable for the first lap due to the number of people out there, the second lap was only bearable thanks to the amazing Tom Keller that followed me, taking pictures, and encouraging me every step of the way.
But I was lonely, cold, and a bit depressed. My wetsuit and my shoes had frozen solid from being outside my tent for a half hour. And I was scared at the prospect of getting back out there for more laps. By myself.
Suddenly, I hear a familiar voice from outside my tent: “Amelia?” The tent unzips and Joel’s head pokes through, wearing his infamous “I’m Joel” hat: “You ready to head back out there?” My body told me to stay snuggled up and warm in my tent, but I knew I was in this to compete. Hell yes, I’m ready to go back out there.*
And so began the journey of Amelia and Joel. Over the course of the next 14 hours, we laughed, cursed, bitched, and probably learned more about each other than any two people (that had just really met the night before) should ever know. I used him as a stepstool over the Berlin Walls, and he let me break through the ice and find the holes in the Jesus Walk/Mud Mile. A reporter interviewed us as we were warming up in the wetsuit tent. Unbeknownest to this poor reporter, we were both peeing in our wetsuits** at the time. Sorry for the smell, bud. And for that odd puddle that formed around my feet.
Together, we took probably the least sexy shower known to mankind both covered in 10+mm of neoprene (see left). The shower was a desperate attempt to dethaw before the final lap, in which I also proceeded to vomit on him (note to self: the orange FRS is not my friend. Note to everyone else: apologies if you used that shower afterwards). And all we could do was laugh at the absurdity of it all. It was a true suck, and one that could only be embraced together.
As we embarked on our final lap at 6:30am, the sun was rising. Throughout the night, volunteers kept saying “things will get so much better once the sun comes up.” We dropped our headlamps and crossed our fingers. What those effers didn’t say, however, was that the wind was going to pick up tenfold. So began the lap of misery. Of me being certain that I was going to lose a few fingers to frostbite. Of us wrapping heat sheets around our gloves to try and block the wind. Of aide stations no longer being manned and out of hot water. Of dizziness and the inability to walk in a straight line. Of Joel picking up heatsheets along the way to wrap around me to attempt to control the uncontrollable shaking. Thanks, bud.
And we crossed the finish line together, holding hands. The asshole still somehow managed to finish 3 seconds ahead of me according to official time. Figures. I can’t describe the feeling at that moment. Did we actually just do that for 24 hours? Did we actually slog through sub-20 degree air temperatures and 40 degree water temps with the prize being…a kettlebell? Do I still have all my fingers and toes? Check, check and check. And I couldn’t have done it without you, Joel.
*Note that I wasn’t quite sure if I was ready to go back out there in the dark, in the woods, with the drunk-ass dude that tried to bite my nipples the night before. I should have brought my rape whistle.
**Shout out also goes out to Turtle, Joel’s girlfriend, for letting me borrow her wetsuit which I proceeded to pee in about 20 times. I’ll buy you a new one.
"The timorous may stay at home." ~ Murphy v. Steeplechase Amusement Co., 250 N.Y. 479, 483 (N.Y. 1929)