It was Saturday morning at 6:45 AM and my husband placed an egg spinach scramble in front of me. He saw me making it for myself every day for weeks during my training period for the Badass Dash and he knew about the weird vision I had of a spinach fairy during the relaxing part of a yoga class. Clearly, he loved me both thoughtfully and irrationally because he was not a man known to touch spinach or believe in fairies. So why did I repay him by bursting in to tears? Tears that rapidly plunked on to my egg plate even as I steadily shoved the eggs in. But I didn’t have time to talk about my feelings or even examine them just then because I had to hop along to the outskirts of Chicagoland to take part in an 8 K obstacle race. My equally foolhardy pal Mary (and her family) would be joining me there in less than an hour.
The 45 minute ride far exceeded the trials of the obstacle course itself. Every time I would get myself calmed down, tears would begin again uninvited. My thoughts were all over the map, but my body obeyed the GPS and kept me heading towards the dreaded obstacle course. What was happening? Why was I so emotional? I had been training for 3 months for this. Yes, true, I could not yet do an actual chin up, but I had gone from zero push-ups to 15 over the past few weeks. Plus, Mary and I had a plan, we would just laugh our way through it. We’d laugh at our old bodies, hover above them and cackle at them as they climbed over truckloads of pallets and logs, plunged in to cold murky waters, and slipped in mud. We would celebrate and cherish what we could do, and what we couldn’t do we would just find hysterically funny. It seemed like a healthy approach for newcomers who had no clue what to expect.
As I pulled up to the parking lot and saw glimpses of some obstacles in the distance, the excitement that spurred me on to sign up in the first place kicked in. I was doing this to prove to myself that I could. I was not here to win or impress anyone. I was there because getting there was what got me out of bed 4 or 5 times a week over the past 3 months to workout. I was there because I wanted to see if I knew my own limits and could step a bit outside of them and survive. I would not be the fattest or oldest person there. The cry alarm inside me turned itself off with the definitiveness of a power outage. What had been driving it was just the unknown. Would I hurt myself? Would I die? Would I maim myself? Was I an idiot to think I could do this? I had a husband, two children and 2 dogs that depended on my able bodied presence. I saw the waiver. I signed it. It basically listed every possible way a human could be injured or die, including stress induced heart attack which had been my injury of choice up until that point. Probably because it was the one I could control the most, unlike everything else about the ensuing experience.
But now the air was clear,the day was sunny, the line was short (because I am a worrywart punctuality freak), and I loped in ready for action with all of the angst behind me in the car in the form of some salty splotches drying on the upholstery.
Most of the obstacles were not visible from the starting line, so we were left to wonder what we would encounter. Soon we were in the bull pen waiting to be released, our ears pummeled by the bellowing optimism of the DJ who had been hired to pump us up. He promised us all there would be no electrification or fire obstacles. I guess I’d have to face those demons another day. We watched the heats of elite shirtless racers take off before us like Greek Gods. They finished the whole thing in the amount of time it took me to pee and tie my timing chip on to my sneaker. Our group was a little more ramshackle. Mary and her daughter and I shuffled around restlessly. We had been in a few 5Ks, so we knew the drill. Her husband would follow along walking and taking pictures, none of which I’ve seen yet, so I gather that middle aged women scaling great heights might be more triumphant from the inside than visually.
When the horn blew, all of the actual runners took off and we joined them in our own manner, soon jogging at the tail end of an eager pack. In past races our running usually lasted for less than 5 minutes until we slowed to a brisk walk, although Mary’s brisk walks tended to be the same pace as my medium run. But this time I had been training and had pumped up my running skills. We made it almost to the first obstacle, a push-up station, before we had to start walking. They were easing us in with the push-ups.
A few obstacles later, after Mary’s daughter had vanished ahead with the other track stars, Mary and I faced a bunch of railroad ties-arranged like inclined balance beams. We noticed the second heat, released 5 minutes after us, was beginning to overtake us. This is where we began to laugh. Oh dear, the young people with bullhorns were trying it all, shouting encouragement from the little book of personal trainer euphemisms, “You got this, ladies! I know you can do it? Run,run, run!”
Walking up an inclining narrow board to a height of 8 feet was not hard physically, but for me it was a mental stretch. The ground below was pavement. There was no one beneath to catch me. I stopped midway up briefly paralyzed by the earth swaying below. My body and mind belatedly agreed they wanted no part of this, but to go backwards seemed as terrifying as going forward. Mary stood on the ground below awaiting me, “C’mon Kimbers!” she shouted, “Keep moving thisaway!” I looked at her and shrugged away the fear. There was no other way out and no need to be traumatized by it, I decided. It was an alien and calming feeling when I switched off the fearful part of my mind, even if it was the second time that day. For the rest of the race it didn’t revisit me often and I was able to face each new barrier with nonchalance as if I were stepping over a log. How had I gotten to my mid-forties without learning how to do that? I hoped it would be a transferable skill.
We found ourselves running now between obstacles most of the time simply because it wasn’t fun to have youngsters whizzing by us so brazenly. The speed we ran at did not stop them from doing so, but at least we were putting in an effort and the happy bullhorn trainers were way more supportive. If we did walk briefly, we would pick up the pace whenever Mary’s husband appeared around a bend with his camera, on the off chance he would think we had been running the whole time. There was a pile of forestry sized timber that we enjoyed clambering over while chatting about our summer plans. Some of the giant logs seemed loose and capable of causing a spine crushing log roll avalanche, but we dodged them okay.
The next big obstacle was a chain of floating bridges over a murky pond. Some people chose to do a surefooted prance across the bridge and made it. Others tried to step methodically and experienced crotch smashing slips in to the cold drink. Still others crawled across in a painfully slow wobble. Mary chose the crawl, which I was also planning to do…until I saw a heavier man laying flat out on the floaties and clutching them for dear life, unable to move forward and rocking the whole bridge. I knew the possibility of falling in would cause a similar conundrum for me, possibly shutting down my forward motion. Mary was picking her way slowly across as I shouted my support and reconsidered my strategy. I just wanted to swim/walk. I was hot, I was likely to fall in, and it would be quicker. So I jumped in, the first of my ilk to do so. The water was an eye-poppingly cold drench and deep with ankle twisting rocks and unexpected drop offs. I had to swim, so I did. Just like with the balance beam boards when no one was there to catch me if I fell, I caught myself wondering why they didn’t remove the rocks or pick a less treacherous part of the pond. Then I remembered my role in this. It was about me adapting to the challenge, not the landscape being sanitized to be safer for me. Now I am connected again to my animal self, moving through space and time like a Badass, I thought as I climbed over the rocks and mud to the path ahead, dripping satisfying mud trails. It reminded me being 7 , my cousins and I intentionally wiping our bikes out in mud puddles and jumping out of our homemade treefort in to piles of wet leaves.
Mary made it over without falling in, one of the few who did, and she was happy to have escaped the cold. I was so proud of her I drenched her in a soppy hug immediately. Now we scoffed at our previous fears. We’re doing this, right now, we assured each other. It’s not that terrible or impossible, right? From that point on it was a fantastic parade of challenges, some simple (car tires? Pfft!), some modified to our age (we did 10 push-ups as an alternative to the somersaults which made us dizzy. Old people and their inner ears!). Some challenges we modified to our ability level (stepping gingerly over hurdles did seem kind of lame-but it was hard to train for those at home) and some so exciting we met the challenge as eagerly as our old 7 year old selves would have (climbing a vertical net wall 15 feet up and staring down upon the gravity taxed humans below). We settled in to our pace, trotting to the next challenge, climbing an 8 foot wall of hay bales while discussing the bittersweet experience of our growing children leaving home, outwitting a maze of rubber stretchy stuff and water sprayers while thinking back on the water park days of early parenthood. Nothing seemed too daunting now and it all felt like a vaudevillian stroll with a girlfriend. Yeah, we skipped a few that we weren’t able to do (chin ups, a narrow PVC tunnel) but we relished each obstacle that we did do, which was all of the fun ones anyway.
The two weeks before the dash I’d stop halfway through my training run at the local grade school and hang like a defeated sloth on the monkey bars, unable to lift my own body weight off the ground. While I hung there I pondered just how many pushups and benchpresses it would take to give my arms the power to lift my own self. I was not overly concerned; after all, I had run there, hadn’t I? A month before that I would only have been able to walk there. When the day of the race came, we got to see instances of people being brave and supportive all around us. At one point, everyone paused in the monkey bar hustling to give a struggling overweight lady the shouts of support she needed to make it across. Sadly, I wasn’t the lady in this instance. I was busily doing 20 push-ups and 20 sit ups because the drill sergeant who ran the thing said I’d better do it if I was going to opt out. I cheered that woman like it was the future me.
There was an inflatable wall and pit of mud that could not be scaled be mere mortals. At least ones under 6 feet tall who were unaccustomed to hurling themselves over towering partitions. As we crowded in the wobbly pit, watching the people ahead of us slip repeatedly down the sides and eventually get hoisted over, I briefly considered stepping quietly out of the mix and doing more push-ups as penance on the sidelines. Mary had already gotten a boost from a nice guy when another man near me got on his hands and knees and shouted “Here! Step on my back!” “I don’t think that would be good…” I said. Mary was already calling to me from the other side. “Maybe you can just make a stirrup with your hands?” I asked tentatively, even as I imagined him trying repeatedly to hoist me while I slipped and stepped on his head. The brave man made a stirrup and gave me a mighty shove upwards. I landed in the mud on the other side already scrambling to escape before the next person landed on top of me. Mary fished me out and we moved along to the next trial. I never got to thank the guy.
The obstacle I had been most looking forward to was finally in front of us. We clambered on top of a bunch of broken cars and felt blood and victory coursing through us. “Zombie apocalypse!” I shouted dorkily, raising my fist to the world. As a Walking Dead fan, I had been looking forward to the urban blight tone of this particular barrier. I was not alone. Every person who climbed on those beat up cars couldn’t resist a fist pump and the admiration of the oncoming crowd who had yet to arrive there.
Soon we were funneled in to the bowel s of the stadium nearby where a long segment of running up and downs the stairs to each section ensued. It seemed cruel and pointless after all we’d done. I looked around the whole stadium and saw people trotting up and down, creating an endless human snake. But tedium is an obstacle too. Mary taught me how to look only at the next step and not at the top or the endless rows ahead. She had climbed half the height of the Hancock building once in her spare time this way. It worked. Somehow it didn’t matter, because if I could do the next step that was good enough. I briefly tried to appreciate the effect as a metaphor for surviving hard times elsewhere in life, but my heart was distracting me as it pounded from the effort as we exited the building for what I found to be the toughest obstacle of all, a harmless looking tarp over a hill with a rope net on top.
People were climbing/sliding up on their backs slowly like ponderously upended ladybugs. Mary had just eliminated a back ache 2 days before the dash. Sadly, the event planners had not been concerned enough to find a level, rock-free zone. I told her I hoped it felt like a nice hot stone massage for her. Her uproarious laugh in response gave me a little energy boost, but still, pulling ourselves up a hill face up by rope with arm and foot power while the sun blinded us took the intense concentration of natural childbirth. Although no one was holding my hand and exhorting me to push, the look of strain and anticipation on everyone’s face was the same. While we struggled to progress an inch or two, one climber beneath us accidentally grabbed Mary’s foot instead of the net. Others were floundering behind and ahead of us. There would be no defeat without taking down the whole hill. There was only upwards and out. When we finally reached the summit of the shamefully short hill it felt like bursting in to a heated room from a blizzard. But there was no time to savor it because the racers eager to finish shuttled us onward.
The very last obstacle was another rope net that ended in a water slide. The climb was straight up and the slide was vertical with just a slight bend for show. We went down holding hands, thrilled to be completing the dash together. I didn’t hesitate to slide down, even if at first glance it looked like some angle the former me would consider mathematically daunting. We hit the muddy water pool below at such velocity that my elbow smacked the pavement underneath the thin rubber barrier and split open, causing a tiny blood bath and a few days of bruised inability to rest my elbow on anything. I looked at it and laughed. It was the last obstacle and that was as bad as it was going to get.
We placed 913 & 914 out of 1134. Mary’s daughter placed 122!
Time 1:34 time pace 21:30 MPH