Spartan Sprint: Arizona 2016
Originally posted by Stephen on March 3, 2016
I told myself that if I was going to go through with this, I wanted to do it as honestly as possible.
I wanted no reference for my location or any visual aspect of the race. The course maps that were being posted online were quickly scrolled away. I even contemplated going to bed the night before with the blindfold on, so that I could truly start the day as a blind person. “You’re going all ‘method’ with it”, as Aeni would say. The entire notion was frightening. Even walking down my hallway with my eyes closed for a few seconds had me in a panic. An internal struggle ensued as I lay in bed, but in the end, I didn’t have the nerve to wake up with no vision. Instead, I settled for removing my eyes during the ride to the race site. The yellow band covered tightly – my lids held shut underneath, with an X drawn over each eye, if nothing else, as a visual statement to others. After all, this was being done to raise awareness for an organization called BlindStart of America that works with the blind to empower them with training, resources and to help them to cross finish lines in events just like this.
After pulling into the parking lot of this place, I stepped out of the vehicle and out of that protective bubble. By this time, I had already adjusted to the realization that I would not be able to use my sight for the next several hours. It would likely be the longest time I would ever have my eyes closed while being awake. I clutched the car, as my last vestige of orientation, like it was a buoy and I was floating in the middle of a dark ocean at night. Aeni’s hand was the current that swept me into the unknown, and from that point I was at the utter mercy of those who would help me. I can’t even express the feelings of helplessness that came over me. Each of my steps was measured with caution. I had to be constantly reminded that I was in a wide open space so that I could walk more freely and at a reasonable pace. I started relying on my hearing more than I ever have. Each little voice, footstep, or sound around me was like sonar, giving me little blips of spatial awareness. It was not enough, but it had to be.
I could hear the music from the starting line get louder as we approached the registration tents. “Everybody is looking at you”, Aeni told me. “Yeah, so what’s new?” She found my bib number on the wall and filled out my waiver. I fished out my ID for the staff member who then attached my wristband for me. 10AM was the start time for myself and the three other athletes who were going to do a blind lap. Kyoul Cha was the mastermind behind this idea, and we were joined by Jeff Nelson and Lauren Marquez. I was thankful for being offered the chance to participate and took some solace in knowing I would not be alone. I was escorted to a tent where these three were already waiting. Fans of The Painted Warrior approached and wanted to take photos. I happily obliged, but could never quite tell where the camera was, so sorry if I was looking elsewhere! My wingman, Travis Nelson, met me at the tent. From the beginning, he had volunteered to be my guide through this sightless voyage. I was very much appreciative to be under his care. Start time was approaching so he led me to the starting corral. I followed him through the festival with my hand fixed to his pack, like a trailer attached to the back of a truck. We discussed our communication strategy and I requested that I would be ‘off the leash’ as often as was reasonably safe, though I knew I would still be completely reliant on him the entire time.
We remained at the back of the crowd, so as not to be in the way of any other racers. My blindfolded teammates also gathered around, from what I was told. It was an interesting experience not knowing who was near me at any given time. I had several people wish me luck but not everybody’s voice was familiar enough to recognize. “Thank you. Who is that?” I’d sometimes ask. As the emcee began hyping up the crowd, a fellow racer behind me was giving the best Spartan yell I think I’ve ever heard. “AROOOO!” Damn, I wish I could yell like that. I could not hide my grin at his enthusiasm. Moments later, we were released to the course. I did not know what lied ahead in those 4.2 miles, but I was surely going to find out.
With extreme intimidation, I started off at a slow trot, as the ground was still pretty flat. Already, I was going faster than I had expected to. I didn’t anticipate doing anything faster than a walk to be honest. “Veer left… now veer right… straight”, Travis would call out. I followed orders. It was on edge, nervous about tripping or running into something – everything. As we approached the first hill, I slowed back to a walk. My toes stubbed into the incline and my perception of where I was had to quickly adjust. At the top of the hill, I was told that it was going to immediately head back down. I had no way to calculate what was more than just a few feet ahead of me, which left me living each step in the literal moment. I wouldn’t know if I was approaching a gulley, embankment or a hill until it was upon me. This was a very different experience from being able to see your surroundings and prepare mentally and physically for the terrain ahead. Once we started navigating the technical sections of trail, my ears were glued to Travis’ every word. “Veer right. Right. Right. Straight. Rocky section ahead.” It was my lifeline. There were times where he instructed me to crab-walk down steeper sections for safety. When he would announce that the area was very unstable with rocks, I would lift my legs extra high, like a prancing horse. I’m certain it looked ridiculous.
My previous experience with all of the obstacles was a huge advantage. For most of them, my sight was not required. I could easily hop over the walls, 6ft, 7ft, 8ft – it didn’t matter. Of course, being a tall fellow is hugely helpful in that regard. Throughout the event, I would be asking for updates on where my team was. I could never tell who was ahead of who and our general goal was to stick together. As weird as it may sound, the obstacles were the relief for me personally, because I was so familiar with them and knew what to do once I had reached them. Navigating the terrain was the hardest part. I must have knocked over 5 or 6 of the directional course markers as I shuffled through. There were times where Travis felt bad if I stumbled or walked into a bush. It was hard for him to keep up with the instructions during the really snaky sections of trail. There were some moments where I thought he had a harder job than me. I had to reassure him that he was doing an amazing job. Every so often, a wave of runners would come charging through. I don’t think that many were aware that I was blindfolded. From the back, it probably just looked like a bandana. I found out later that Kyoul was wearing a day-glow orange shirt with the words “BLIND RUNNER” boldly written across the back. If I wasn’t The Painted Warrior, I think I’d be wearing that shirt too! Those that did notice were more than kind, and offered their support as they passed by.
Cargo Nets, Inverted Wall, Hurdles, Rope Climb – all these things came pretty naturally, other than flailing my hand around like a helicopter looking for the dang bell at the top of the rope. Travis was right there doing the obstacles with me. After mile 2, the obstacles started to get a little trickier. The sandbag loop was probably not too bad in general, but having to go up steep technical hills with a 60 pound bag and not being able to see, was more difficult than I was ready for. I held on to Travis’ pack and let him lead the way. He even carried his own sandbag. This was the first time I felt like the pace was a little too fast for me. My arm was outstretched trying not to lose him, but too unsure of my footing to go any faster. After a long trek upwards, and switching shoulders a couple of times, we began to loop back around. The trail became sandy and dropped steeply, so I was instructed to side-step down until things leveled out. It felt good to unload that bag. The sun was directly above and it was beating down without mercy. My blindfold was drenched with perspiration. Travis handed me a cup of water at the aid station before we continued on.
Soon came the barbed wire crawl. I’m so thankful the wires were higher this time, because it was hard enough without them being a foot off the ground. The thing is, I couldn’t see them, so I still had to treat them as if they were low to allow clearance from getting snagged. I switched between a crawl, drag, and roll to get through this one. It took me quite a long time and I ended up halfway outside the lane a few times. After looking back at the photos of this obstacle, I learned that the crawl was uphill. The funny thing is that I had no idea at the time. How could I not realize that?
Not long after, we came upon the Uneven Monkey Bars. Not gonna lie, this one worried me a little. The bars are staggered at 3 different heights, so knowing the order of that was critical. Travis told me the order, but once I was up there, it all went out the window. We actually found a better method though, and that was for him to just call out the height of the next bar, whether it was UP or DOWN from my current location. The few months of rock climbing that I’ve been doing have set me up very well for obstacles like this. I felt very comfortable on the bars. When I’d hear “UP”, I would generate a swing and over-reach for the next bar, usually hitting it somewhere on my wrist, and then quickly hooking my fingers around it. After advancing a few bars, I had no doubt that I would clear it. The hardest part was actually finding the bell at the end. Now that is what I call team work!
Next up was the Bucket Brigade. Normally one of my strong suits, this was a kick in the teeth as a blind man. I could only move at maybe a third of the speed. Still listening to Travis for guidance, I had both hands occupied with 80 pounds of gravel and was very nervous about tripping with this much weight in hand. There was no way I could suck it up and beast through this carry. I had to set the thing down a few times. The uphill portion was especially scary, but my guide delivered me back to the gravel pit unscathed, save for a tired back. I felt like our system of communication was getting better as the race progressed. As he would direct, I would naturally respond without having to process it as much. My anxiety about the situation was also diminishing. I was learning to trust in Travis and let go of the fear of the unknown, even full-on running for a brief section of the course.
Many more obstacles came and went – Wall Climbs, Rolling Mud, Atlas Carry and I had yet to pay any burpees. The Spear Throw was announced as the next obstacle in my path and that got my attention. I knew that my muscle memory on this obstacle was strong. You all know by now, it’s one of my favorite obstacles of all time! I had practiced a few times the week before the race with my eyes closed and I knew that if I could be pointed correctly at the target, that my chances were actually very high of landing it. It was very important to me to succeed at this. I took a lot of time preparing; even mock throwing a few times so that Travis could determine if my aim was true towards the target. He gave the green light, and during a long moment of pause, I tried to visualize the hay bale in my mind. I knew I needed to throw AT something and not just haphazardly into the black void that was in front of me. I pinned a dot on the ghost target and gave it my best attempt. Seconds later, I heard the cheers and gave out a smiling sigh of relief. I was a little stunned that I actually did it.
From there, I was led towards the next obstacle, which was the “rig”. I was briefed on the set-up, which started off with a POLE traverse, then followed by a series of RING x 4 / ROPE / RING / ROPE / RING / BELL. With some help, I stood up on the stool to begin my attempt. I tried to visualize the actions I would take. Being able to locate the rings was paramount. Fixing both hands to the pole, I shimmied across towards the first ring. Lowering my body down until my arms were outstretched, I rocked side to side and then gave a blind reach out towards the first ring. I knocked it with my knuckles and it began swinging back and forth. I think I attempted about 6 more grabs before I finally connected. With one hand still on the pole and the other on RING #1, I generated some momentum and swung towards the next one, successfully grabbing RING #3 on the first go. I set up again and tried for RING #4, which took a couple of tries before fumbling it into my grasp. For the next move, I wanted to skip the rope entirely and go for the next ring, which I almost did, but I knocked the ring with my knuckles again. After the miss, I swung back and forth like a pendulum on one arm and gave several more passes, frantically trying to find the elusive ring each time. At this point, my grip was starting to weaken and I knew I had to try something else. Against my better judgment, I transferred both hands over to the rope. I knew that I’d have a harder time supporting my weight with one hand from this position, so I made a final reach for the dodgy thing but came up empty handed and fell to the ground. 30 burpees it was!
A short walk from there, the newly implemented slackline obstacle was waiting. Travis mentioned that it was a two-part obstacle, with the second half veering towards the right. I am pretty decent with balance on a slackline, mainly without shoes, but still I figured I’d have a little edge on most. I didn’t know what the posts on the end of each line looked like or how the were constructed. I did not feel very stable even standing on it. Turns out it was crazy difficult for me to find my balance at all without any kind of visual bearings. In short, there was no way I was completing this on my own, and it wasn’t even really safe for me to be trying. I accepted some help on it as my guide supported me from behind to make the walk across.
The effects of the sun as well as the constant heightened anticipation required by my body were beginning to add up. I found myself becoming more frustrated with the blindness towards the end of the race. Maybe it was just the fatigue. There was no way I was aborting the mission, but I was ready to finish soon, and luckily we did not have far to go. The Z-Wall was the last obstacle of significance for me, though I had high hopes that my grip strength would not let me down. Aeni selected a wall and I began my horizontal dance across its wooden blocks. Right away, the top of the blocks were hot to the touch. The afternoon sun was baking them pretty well. Travis described the location of the next holds as I maneuvered through the maze. Once again, the rock climbing was paying huge dividends. I felt shockingly at ease (other than the blocks burning the hell out of my fingertips), not just in grip strength, but improved body awareness and footwork. I glided through it and caught the bell with my elbow on the way out.
The few remaining obstacles led me to the dunk wall and ultimately the fire jump, where I was reunited with the rest of my team. We wanted to jump the fire together, but after what felt like 10 minutes of “Ok, do we hold hands? How many steps until we jump?” the plan fell apart. I couldn’t tell whether there was much of a flame coming off the fire pit, but I could certainly feel the heat coming from it as we stood there. Eventually we all took our turn jumping, and I made sure to give mine some extra oomph so as not to burn my tail feathers on the way over.
The finish line was right there and I crossed at 3 hours, 18 minutes to receive my medal for this incredible challenge. I would have to say the mental demands far exceeded the physical ones. It was truly a relief to be finished. Throughout the race, I would often think to myself “What if I really was blind? This is how life would be.” For all intents and purposes, I was a blind man during the race. I was walking in another’s shoes for those 4.2 miles. It was a sobering thought, and made me all the more thankful that for me, this was the end of the challenge. I got to take the blindness off, while so many others out there aren’t afforded that option. I lingered in the moment a bit longer before removing my blindfold. I was especially curious to see what it would feel like to see once again. Living this instance was the real reward for me. Would it be anti-climactic? Perhaps no different than what it’s like to wake up in the morning? Would it feel like being reborn into this world? I was finally ready to find out. Untying the fabric and peeling it away from my face, I slowly opened my eyes after almost 5 hours of them being shut. The painful brightness of the daylight flooded into my retinas followed by a rainbow surge of colors coming at me as if I was going into hyper speed on the Millennium Falcon. I could start to make out people and objects, but everything remained blurry for quite some time, almost like I was looking through the bottom of an empty coke bottle. It was an emotional thing, but I internalized it. This one’s a keeper – I’ll frame it high on the wall of my life’s best moments.
I must bow down in thanks to my guide, Travis Nelson. Without his competent help, I would not have had such a fulfilling and SAFE adventure. Seriously, he was amazing. It was scary at first, but in the end, I did feel a sense of empowerment after completing this challenge. I assure you that is probably the same sense of worth and independence that is gained by ACTUAL vision-impaired people with the help of BlindStart of America. I hope I have done my job well in bringing some positive attention to them. If my experience has struck a chord with you, please feel free to learn more about this organization and even donate to their cause. Thank you to my blindfolded teammates, Kyoul, Jeff and Lauren for enduring this alongside me and of course their wonderful guides who all had a difficult task as well. Thank you to my wife, Aeni, and friend, Cole Cameron for documenting my race with photos and video so that I am able to share it with you all. She killed it on the body paint too, didn’t she?! Thank you to all my friends who were there to offer encouragement and/or additional coverage along the way. Lastly, thank you to my sponsors who help me to do the things I do: Core Power, Athletics8, BeetElite, Born2Run, and Reel Creations. Love you guys! I hope this has been a good read, and I very much appreciate those of you who follow along with the blog. As I am slowly ramping back up to good health and being free of injury, I look forward to my next event in two week’s time: TPK Endurance. It will be an 18+ hour endurance event with many stages and surprises, including my first go at legitimate outdoor rock climbing. It will be the longest event I’ve participated in, and I’m sure it will leave me with another good story to share. Until then, happy trails!