Lessons from Iceland: 24 Hours of Spartan Ultra

I don’t do race reports. If you want to know what it’s physically like to cover 37 miles in the dark and freezing rain/snow/sleet, repeatedly climb a mountain in gale-force winds, carry sandbags up icy hillsides, climb walls and complete 605 burpees, just watch a Nicholas Cage movie. The suffering is the same.

I do life reports. I compete in ultra races to learn something about myself and my position in the broader world. For instance, here are lessons from What I learned while running 120 miles.

A few weeks back, I competed in the Spartan Iceland Ultra World Championship. This was a 24 hour race from noon Saturday until noon Sunday on a 6+ mile loop with about 20 obstacles per loop in the middle of the bogs, mountains, snow and thermal springs of Iceland. If you’re not familiar with Spartan races, look them up.

My life lessons follow, but first hats off to the photographers at Spartan for grabbing this shot at about 1AM on Sunday. The northern lights were inspirational at a time when I needed something …. literally anything …. to keep going.

Brooks - Northern Lights - Spartan

With a few weeks behind me to settle back into my comfy California life, here are my reflections.

  1. I’m good alone. I compete with myself. The only reason I signed up for this race is a close friend, who is dedicated to Spartan and obstacle course racing generally, wanted me to experience his passion. I’ve never done a Spartan before, so this was jumping into the deep end (a 24 hour suffer-fest). At the 11th hour, a work emergency kept my friend from participating. And yet I never really thought about dropping out. Doing the race became a personal mission. In the worst moments, you would have heard me talking out loud to myself, cajoling and criticizing, calling myself names, but never considering quitting.  Like this….Brooks - Spartan - Misery
    And I think if my friend had been able to compete, there would have been a risk that rather than turning my motivation and anger inwards, I would have turned it towards justification on why WE could quit. I would have been focused on convincing him to convince me to give in. When it’s just me, the quitter in me gets very little airtime. He’s ostracized brutally. I could probably report myself for bullying. So while I understand the benefits of group dynamics in training, my lesson is you can’t outsource your motivation and spirit. They don’t say ‘dig out’ when it’s time to push yourself. They say ‘dig down’.
  2. People cheat. I honestly don’t get this shit. You pay thousands of dollars to compete in a race in the middle of Iceland. Why are you skipping burpees, dropping your sand bag or pouring out gravel before you carry a bucket? Why cheat? What’s the point? Can you leave feeling complete? And the lesson to me is, if people will cheat in a race that was completely voluntary AND they paid for, imagine the cheating that goes on in the real world broadly; when the stakes are higher and the competition is for resources, jobs, mates and a life, not just a medal. You think folks on Wall Street are playing by the same rules as you are with your 401K investment? Think again. I hate the cynic in me this lesson brings out, but assume everyone is cheating.
  3. Set the target higher. I have done a few ultra races. As a result I thought 50 miles was well within my grasp for a 24 hour race. I was wrong. That goal was clearly unachievable after the first 6 mile lap took me close to 3 hours. I immediately re-adjusted my objective to 5 laps, which would put me over 30 miles for the race and therefore qualify me as a finisher. Those 4th and 5th laps were brutal, but given my original goal was 50 miles, it was not even a question that I would get it done. BUT – after I finished I found out that you only needed to do 4 f*cking laps to get the 30 mile finish. My math was wrong. So I did 5 laps or 37.1 miles (as did many others who were equally confused). But now that it’s over, I’m THRILLED I did the 5th lap. It sets me and others apart from just squeaking by. And while I compete against myself….yeah….I also compete with all the rest of you. By setting a higher target (initially 50 and then 37), I and many others gave just a bit more. God hates a sissy.
  4. Strangers will help. Ask for help. There is no shame. After desperately trying to do the Hercules Hoist and failing, I turned to a guy next to me who barely spoke english and, without a pause (even though he too had a night of racing in front of him), he hopped onto my rope and helped me bang through the obstacle.
    1. Sub Lesson – When it’s freezing and the sand bags are wet they will become frozen to the ground. Don’t choose a sand bag that is frozen to the ground. You will tug an pull and look like an asshole.
  5. Sometimes it’s easier to go around the obstacle, but it’s better to learn that only AFTER you kill yourself trying. By the early morning hours of Sunday, my arms were beginning to shake and I was fearful I would fall off some of the climbing obstacles and seriously hurt myself. One such obstacle was the inverted bar wall. You had to cross this obstacle twice and if you failed it in one direction the ‘penalty’ was crawling under barbed wire in knee and hand scraping ice. Not fun. On my 5th lap, I finally had the presence of mind to ask what the penalty was for the return direction and found out it was a casual run a few hundred yards around some greenhouses. So all night I was struggling over this wall, and then on my final lap found I could have just run around it….and running is my favorite.
    I’m glad I didn’t know how easy it would have been to go around until the very end. I wouldn’t have struggled over it another 4 times throughout the night, shaking and scared, and proud as a peacock every time I did it without ending up on my ass.

So life lessons from Iceland are that simple. Set high goals and be your own biggest critic. Ask for help but remember people cheat (so be careful). And don’t look for the easy way out until you’ve bled a bit. Then, by all means, take the elevator.

2 thoughts on “Lessons from Iceland: 24 Hours of Spartan Ultra

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