Hurricane “Heatwave” 2014

Originally published in the Forged in Mud blog September 2014.

The Spartan Race Hurricane Heatwave is an non-timed, team challenge that took place at the Vail Lake Resort in Temecula, California on September 20th, 2014. [Ed: Due to the excessive heat during the Saturday “Hellmecula” Beast race, Spartan Race canceled the Sunday Sprint. This free Hurricane “Heatwave” event took place the following weekend was one of the things Spartan did to help make-up for the canceled event.]

I have been competing in Spartan Race events for about a year now and I always try my best which, up until this point, has meant getting to the finish line as quickly as possible. It was not easy for me to shed my mentality that finishing faster is how we should judge our team’s success or failure. Fortunately, fate intervened and some amazing people taught each other lessons on teamwork, leadership and compassion which we would not have learned had we simply sprinted through the course.

Each team was formed from among those who happened to be standing next to us in the registration line. Twenty-five people, most of them strangers, were thrown together without any attempt to balance our strength, experience or gender. We were told to stick together under the threat of severe punishment by the Spartan Race officials.

An interesting thing about teams is that they are all alike in some important ways. No matter whether the team members are veterans or beginners, every team has a few people who are terrified that they might be the weakest person on the team. They are worried that they will be holding everyone back. They are worried they will let everyone down or even that some insensitive teammate will treat them badly.

Similarly, each team also has some people who are capable of operating at a level far exceeding most of their teammates. These team members are the ones who are giving up the most in terms of personal accomplishments in order to be on a team.

I learned quickly that success today had to be defined in a different way than I was used to. The race was not timed and therefore our success or failure could only be measured by our teamwork. I put my mind to trying to figure out what I could do to be the best teammate I could be.

Our most experienced team member, Albert, was assigned to be team leader. Albert asked for team name suggestions and one person timidly offered one. Albert walked closer to her so he could hear her better. He said loudly to the rest of us, “Let’s go with the team name “Crushers” since she was brave enough to suggest something”. I liked Albert immediately for this. After a short pre-dawn warm-up we were released from the starting area and onto the trails leading up into the hills above Vail Lake.

Early into the run we were already facing difficulties staying together. The trails were too narrow and winding to see more than a few feet ahead or behind, so we had no sense of how together we were as we climbed. I ran to the rear of our ranks to talk to Joel, an amputee and trauma nurse who took on the task of ensuring that nobody on our team fell behind him. Joel’s determination is amazing and I know we were all inspired watching him persevere throughout the day. Our team moved at Joel’s pace and it afforded us extra opportunities to get to know each other and really take in all that was happening.

Only minutes into the trail run, several members of the team were stung repeatedly by some yellow jackets we had somehow aggravated. The bees were stuck to our teammates and many people jumped in to help, pulling bees and equipment off of them until the threat was eliminated. We checked on the injuries and called the medics to make sure everyone was okay. The bee attack actually served to bond us together and for the remainder of the day anytime we took on a tough challenge someone would yell out, “It’s better than bees!” as a way to put things in perspective.

One of those stung repeatedly was Maria, a 35-year old mother of 5, who had bees stuck in her hair. About a year and a half ago, Maria was 70 lbs. overweight and completely out of shape. She now works out twice a day seven days per week and is extremely strong and fast. She, more than any other, suppressed her ability to achieve as an individual in order to participate in a team event.

A steep hill on the course slowed us down and gave us many opportunities to check in with struggling team members. For some, it was clear, that this was one of the most difficult physical challenges they had ever faced. Others provided as much encouragement as possible and often just walked next to people to keep them company.

The next two obstacles provided some interesting challenges. At the 8 foot wall several of the guys put our backs against the wall and let team members step on our knees, shoulders and even our heads to get everyone over the top. A short distance away was the Spear Throw obstacle. Most of us missed the target and the team pitched in together to knock out the hundreds of burpees Spartan Race demanded as a penalty. As each team member finished their assigned burpees they asked if anyone else needed extra help with theirs.

Offering physical help to teammates was the easy part for me but offering other, more subtle forms of help is where the team shined and what I learned the most from.

For example, Maria pointed out a teammate, Julie, who was participating in her first Spartan event. Maria and my wife, Jill, saw to it that Julie had food and water whenever the team rested. Maria was also seen crawling with Joel’s prosthetic leg during an incredibly long bear crawl at the end of the day.

I also saw that team leader, Albert, did not just lead the way and stay at the front of the line during the trail run. Instead, he walked back down the line to check on everyone. During the grueling crab walks he went back out onto the course after he finished and shouted encouragement and even dropped to the ground to walk with Jay.

One of Joel’s kids found some rusty barbed wire on the trail and he and Jay worked to remove it before anyone else tripped or got scraped up. Jay, by the way, was someone who moved more slowly after surgeries on both knees but he had no quit in him.

There were lots of little shows of concern for each other. Whenever someone had a cut, scrape, or blister there were multiple people surrounding them to see what help could be offered. Electrolytes, and snacks were offered and shared and nobody got up off the ground or went over a wall without a helping hand being offered. Cheers and encouragement flowed freely and we clapped and congratulated each other after every successful obstacle.

Of course there were plenty of moments of physical teamwork required as well. One that sticks with me especially is that I watched Duncan, another bee attack target, jumping in to help save us when our tractor tire tilted precariously and threatened to drop from above team members’ outstretched arms. While waiting in the registration line earlier in the day we learned that Duncan joined the Navy for a very specialized job but a broken back got him discharged. Post-surgery he will never be the same but he still has a great attitude. It took some guts to throw himself under that tire.

We spent the last hour of the day tied together by a 50 foot cord but by the time we bear crawled across the finish line the cord was completely unnecessary — no way we were leaving anybody behind. Thoughts of our finishing time or comparing ourselves to other teams had long vanished and there were high fives and hugs shared among 25 strangers who were there for each other throughout the challenge.

A big thank you to Spartan Race and to Team Crushers for such a fantastic experience that I will not soon forget.

(some photos borrowed from jon_mudder, mayalita and s1jermz. Thank you!)

Obstacle Course Racer. Endurance Racer. Old man athlete.