A few weeks ago, I ran in the Spartan Race at Fenway. It was my 10th obstacle course race, since I began doing them in 2016. It’s going to be my last, for now. These days, I’m focused on yoga. But I want to talk about the important role that those races played in my life.
When I began as a faculty member at Boston College back in 2014, I had two children, ages 5 and 8. During the previous eleven years of my life, in grad school at MIT and then in my postdoc training at Harvard, trying to balance moving forward in my career, with raising young children, had taken a huge toll on my overall health and well-being. While maintaining an exercise routine had been important to me when I was in college, I hadn’t regularly exercised in any meaningful way for over a decade. I was very out of shape and I was more overweight than I had ever been in my life. I usually made it a point to not pay attention to what my body looked like or how it felt. After all, I figured that I had more important things to do, such as taking care of my kids and trying to be successful at my career. I didn’t make time to take care of myself. And like many women in our society, I hated my body and I had done so for as long as I could remember.
Then, when I started at Boston College in 2014, all new employees were given a free Fitbit, to monitor their steps. I liked free stuff, so I happily accepted it. I was told that people should try to get around 10,000 steps a day to be healthy. But I quickly noticed that I usually achieved no more than 3,000 steps a day. Huh. That wasn’t good, I figured. And I am a goal-oriented, achievement-driven person. So, I decided to set the goal of actually reaching 10,000 steps a day. What did I need to do, I wondered, to achieve that daily goal?
So I began walking more. And, lo and behold, it felt good. But it took too much time out of my day to walk 10,000 steps. So I wanted to do it more quickly. I bought an elliptical trainer to get my daily steps in less time. It took me about 30-40 minutes to get enough steps in order to reach 10,000 for the day. And I realized that doing cardio exercise for at least 30 minutes was enough to trigger a pretty lovely flood of endorphins in my exercise-deprived body.
I got high off the exercise. It inspired me to do more. And I started losing weight, for the first time in years, and it felt great. I began to turn my obsessive compulsive tendencies towards learning more about exercise and body health maintenance.
At one point during my cardio routine, in 2015, I developed pain in one of my knees. I went to an orthopedic specialist and she referred me to a physical therapist. The physical therapist told me that I simply needed to strengthen my leg muscles. She gave me a few exercises but suggested that I make an appointment with the personal trainer there, as he could help me further.
And that is how I started weight lifting. I loved it. I also appreciated that strength training would help me stave off the muscle atrophy and bone density loss that is normal for women as they age, and in my late 30’s and approaching 40, I had definitely started feeling my age. So I used a combination of cardio, lifting and high-intensity interval training in my almost-daily workout routines. During this period, my focus was on losing weight, being healthy, and feeling good.
Then, everything shifted in 2016, when a friend from high school that I had recently reconnected with (at our high school 20th reunion in May 2016) suggested that I do one of those obstacle course races, called a Spartan Race, where you run a course, climb over walls, carry heavy things, and tackle other obstacles. I was naturally risk-averse and I thought it sounded insane. I had never done anything like that in my life and I thought to myself, absolutely not.
But somehow, the idea was like a grass seed in a sidewalk crack. Somehow, even though I didn’t give it much soil, it took root and slowly grew. And so after some consideration, one day, I asked my grad student, Beth, if she might be interested in doing the upcoming Spartan Race as a “lab bonding experience.” She said yes.
And so Beth, Garrett (another student), and I did the Spartan Race together in November 2016. (My student Burcu was supposed to join us, but she had an unexpected injury right before the race and so was there to cheer us on instead.) The race was fun and wasn’t nearly as difficult as I thought it would be. I had been training for it and was decently prepared. I even surprised myself by being able to do the monkey bars. That was my favorite obstacle. When I first saw them, they looked daunting, and I almost did not even try. But my friend (who was also doing the race with us) encouraged me to at least try it. And, to my surprise, I made it across! It felt like a huge accomplishment and I was so excited.
Near the end of the race, one of the final obstacles was the rope climb. There were warning signs posted that said one should not try that obstacle if one is not prepared, as it could be dangerous. And I was definitely not prepared, having never climbed a rope in my life. And so I skipped that one, as I had planned. However, I saw Beth so gracefully and adeptly climb the rope. She made it look easy. And I was inspired. I figured that if she could do it so easily, I could learn how to do it for next time, too. And yes, there would be a next time, I knew.
And so that is when I seriously began training. I set up a monthly schedule with my personal trainer, from the physical therapy place, and I told him that I was committed to being able to climb a rope and do all the upper body obstacles. I wanted to become strong enough to do an unassisted pull-up. I had never been able to do one in my life, not even when I was in great shape in college. But I so clearly remembered watching Linda Hamilton do pull-ups in the movie Terminator 2, and I remember being so impressed by how badass she was in that movie.
My trainer gave me a detailed daily workout plan, and each month, he would switch it up for me so my body was continuously challenged. He also taught me everything that I needed to know about how to do all the various lifting exercises. I learned how to do deadlifts, squats, bent over rows, kettlebell swings, olympic lifts such as clean and jerk, and more. My focus was no longer trying to lose weight and be thin. My focus was on becoming strong. Beth also helped me with my desire to learn to climb a rope, as she took me to an Aerial Arts place where she used to go, where I learned the proper form for climbing a rope while using your feet and lower body strength as well.
Beth and I did another Spartan Race in May 2017. It was a muddy course. The rope obstacle was at the end. I had trained for months. I got up about halfway, but then the mud on my shoes and on the rope was leading me to slip, and I got nervous. While I had practiced on other ropes, the Spartan rope was thinner and more slippery than my practice ropes, and I did not yet have the confidence to make it to the top. So, I gave up this time. But I knew it wasn’t over. This just gave me more drive to conquer this obstacle in the future. And in November 2017, again with some of my grad students and friends, I finally did it. I remember telling myself that I just needed to close my eyes, believe in myself, and get up that rope. To not let myself even think that I might not do it. And I did it. And it was awesome.
Obstacle course racing became an outlet for my OCD, and I usually did at least two a year from November 2016 until November 2019. Not only did I do both Spartan Races held in my city every year, but in 2018, some undergraduate students in my cell biology class invited me to join them in the Savage Race in July 2018, which was even more fun. I must admit that it was especially satisfying that, because of my several years of focused training, I was more adept and successful at navigating the most difficult upper body obstacles than even very fit college-age athletes in my classes. I also used to take groups of students from my classes to a local outdoor obstacle training course and show them how to do various obstacles, and it made me feel quite proud of myself that I could impress these young people with my own physical prowess.
I was simply amazed that, at 40 years old, my body was more fit and muscular than I ever thought possible. Most women in our society struggle with body image. I recently read a CBS news article that a recent survey showed that 97% of women have a negative body image. 97%. Up until I began doing obstacle course races, I was part of that 97%. But by 2019, because of weight lifting and obstacle course racing, because of the strength and power that I could feel in my body, for the first time in my life, I did not hate my body. I was proud of my body. And it had only happened when I STOPPED caring so much about what I looked like and focused instead on what I could do with it, how I could become stronger.
But then, at the end of 2019, a series of real-world major obstacles and life challenges led me to take a step back from my intense training. I still exercised off and on for a while, and I had signed up for the Spartan races in 2020. But the covid pandemic led to both of them being canceled. But there was one scheduled for May 2021. I convinced Beth to fly out to Boston (from Oregon, she had graduated and moved there for her postdoc in the summer of 2019) to do that one with me. And she agreed and I was so excited. But then, at the last minute, that one was postponed until later in August because of covid too, but I did not like the new venue so decided to skip it.
Finally, in November 2021, the Spartan Race at Fenway was being held. At this point, the stress of various life struggles had taken its toll on my body and mind, and I just didn’t have the motivation or interest in seriously training for these races anymore. I still did the race anyway though, since I had already signed up, and I convinced my 15 year old son to do it with me. And I still had a great time with him. I even successfully traversed the upper body ring obstacle, which was delightful. I decided to not bother climbing the rope though. I could have, if I really pushed my body. But these days, I’m working on reigning in my achievement-oriented impulses and obsessions. My goal was different with this final race. I wanted to prove to myself that I could still have a great time without “succeeding” at conquering every obstacle in my way. I can choose to skip some, sometimes, without feeling like a failure. That is what I’m working on, these days.
And so my current daily “exercise” routine, nowadays, consists of soothing yoga where I focus on relaxing my stressed out overly tense muscles. I will write more about that another day. But I look back fondly on my Obstacle Course Racing days, and I am grateful for the role they once played in my life.