Citifield: Top 10…Reasons to Give Back (and a mushy reflection on Spartan in general)

The Citifield experience began a little differently than expected. It pays to read emails, it seems. Minna, one of my fellow Spartan OEW and Team Ilene teammates, and I hopped in a cab to arrive at the stadium for the start of the 8 am elite heat. Well, the elite heat actually started at 7:15. Not exactly the plan, but allowed for plenty of time to get together with team OEW, Todd Simpson Love, Earl Granville, and Amanda Sullivan before start time. Despite many attempts, this turned out to be the first time I was able to coordinate a time to participate with this amazing group of individuals. Experiences such as these prove to be more fulfilling and exciting than competition, as you are surrounded by inspiring individuals who make no excuses and except no limitations. These experiences are why this blog/race report may be focused a little differently than most I write.

The spirit of Spartan really has to do with the people, the encouragement, and the inspiration. When you are out in the open heats, enjoying the time to get to know those people out there who are participating in their first race, or who are using Spartan to overcome their mental, physical, or emotional hang ups or problems, you see the real human experience. It is in this venue you see the full gamut of how obstacle course racing has bettered the world, the community it has built, the family it gives to those who are misunderstood. This particular race embodied all that I found in racing with teams before I participated as an elite racer, and what I was surprised to find when I met the elite women I would run with so often. The reason that OCR became so near and dear to me revolves largely around how it reprogrammed how I saw others, trusted, and bonded in a way with my fellow teammates in ways that most don’t get to experience in everyday life.

In chatting with Todd, Earl, and Amanda along the way, it was easy to see why others used these three in particular as inspiration. Never have you met more positive people. In the face of adversity and issues that should leave them bitter and broken, they decided (and yes it is a choice, and a strong one) to make the most of the life they had, regardless of the circumstances. Unless you really have the chance to get to speak with them, you really don’t understand that at times they are fearful, truly fearful, of an obstacle or an event. However, with support from friends and fellow racers, and with their fortitude in general, they take the leap and overcome. It is as the old saying goes “if it doesn’t terrify you, then it isn’t worth doing”. No complaints, just pushing your own boundaries. However, it is not just these individuals that make it special. The people that come together to participate for fun, a cause they believe in, because they have full hearts and want to give back, are the real reason these teams work.

On to the course…which was heavily Crossfit focused. After the Tampa stadium race, I found this much different, especially as there were no opportunities to have changes to the field conditions and the outdoor areas outside the stadium. The obstacles included stairs, ramps, banded ankle hops up the stairs, walls, hand release push up stations, box jumps, rope climbs, heavy rope jumps, medicine ball slams, monkey bars, cargo nets, strings in which you had to football foot through/go under in a bear crawl stance, heavy bag alley (as I like to call the row of heavy bags replacing the area where gladiators with pugal sticks were once located), water jug carries, traverse wall, over/unders, and Hawaiian squat, atlas carries, the dreaded spear throw (aka the burpee obstacle), and military walls. I will state that this was one of my favorite courses to date. The staff and the volunteers were all fantastic, with more enthusiasm than usual, and the music and announcing by T.C. set the mood for participants to drive themselves to the best performance.

Saturday proved to be nearly sold out, the venue packed. The kids race one of the largest I had witnessed in my time as a Spartan. However, all of this could not compare to how the day ended. I was fortunate to be one of the elite racers asked to participate in the special needs kids’ race toward the close of the day. Prior to dedicating my life to fitness and health, I was a teacher for 10 years. No question that making a difference to a child of any ability resonates deeply. Several of us, some dressed as superheroes, were able to meet these exceptional children and their amazing families as we led several waves of kids through a modified kids’ course. This sentiment and experience was also shared by a few of my fellow teammates from Prosok as well. Though I ran with several children that day, just two made a lasting impression on me above and beyond for many different reasons. Sam and Eric. Sam has a very rare disorder, so rare I had never heard of it, despite my background in both psychology and teaching. Sam has Phelan McDermid Syndrome. As a result, Sam is nonverbal, and has symptoms close to those of autism, delayed onset of developmental abilities, etc. Sam has an incredibly gentle disposition, along with the most supportive and kind mother and sister you can imagine. Eric has autism and was accompanied by two great men who assist and work with Eric daily. Eric was very enthusiastic to begin with, but later during the course became overwhelmed by the sounds and people, a common sensitivity. At some point, perhaps half way through the kids’ course, Eric stopped and would not stand any longer. His counselors tried to get him to come with them, but we found that he was most content being carried through the course in my arms. We crossed the finish line together. As the mother of a child with EBD (emotional behavior disorder), the inclusion of these amazing families and children at this event was so dear to my heart. All differences in children should be celebrated, no matter their abilities.

In all the races I have done, this event was the most meaningful. I am beyond grateful to Spartan for allowing me to be part of this amazing experience. On a parting note, I had a great elite performance during the Sunday elite heat, placing in the top 10 despite missing two obstacles and having to burpee out. While this is a great accomplishment for me, it all seems pretty insignificant compared to the experiences I had with OEW, Team Ilene, and the Special Needs Kids’ Race. Sometimes we all just need to be reminded what really matters. However, I will throw in some photos for weekend reference ;)

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Sin City and a Barefoot Spartan

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Vegas began with packed men’s and women’s elite heats.  Dust blowing as the trucks come by to spray to control the potential dust bowl. April 5th was beginning with your typical desert morning weather, a bit of wind, and chilly.  I arrived on a whim, deciding just a few days prior to attend when I was not going to be pacing a friend in an upcoming race.  My very talented photographer friend, Oliver Booth, came with me to take some photos for the Prosok / Athletics8 gear that I would be racing in that day.  Last minute sign up took no time at all, saw friendly face who had me ready to go.  Headed over to the SGX tent, spent some time with my fellow elite women – which by the way are the best mix of talent and speed, we are all out there for the experience and the love of the race.  

The start line is packed, definitely one of the largest elite heats I have experienced in quite some time.  My goal for this race is a top 20 finish, and judging by the talent in front, to the side, and behind me, that is a lofty goal.  Hey, we all have something to shoot for, and that makes us move a bit faster and hit those obstacles a little harder.  I was a little weary after my asthma attack at the Charlotte Sprint, post falling from the top of the rope climb.  That and a tight hamstring from the 200 mile relay the weekend before, but this is a VEGAS Super, so no way I miss this, if but for the experience alone.  Out of the start line, we all gave a good pacing speed, the top 8 already flying ahead, with the likes of TyAnn Clark, Amelia Boone, KK Stewart-Paul, and Rose Wetzel-Sinnet leading the pack.  

We found ourselves going over large stones and rocky terrain, up sand and gravel hills.  Obstacles included over/under, tire pulls (where we HAD to sit on the ground), a new version of bucket carries (no shoulders due to a recent participant injury), cargo nets, tire flips, inverted walls, traverse walls, rope climps, hoists, sandbag carries, farmer carries, barbwire crawls, slick walls, more sand/gravel hills, and miles and miles of rocky terrain.  At the end, no gladiators (also due to recent participant injury), instead a halfhearted gladiator at the wall to the start line.  I will say that I think the gladiators need to have strict guidelines as to where they hit people, lower to the torso area vs. the face or head, but to do away with them did seem a bit less like spartan as you jump the fire pit into an empty void of nothingness. 

I spent a good bit of the time running with the amazing Laura Messner and Margaret Schlachter, until, that is I started to feel something in my shoe.  I found myself trying to shake it out, only to realize that the bottom of my well used shoe was breaking in half at the mid-foot strike area.  I attempted to clear the debris from the shoe, but the larger rocks just kept coming up between the shoes and stabbing the right foot.  At that moment, I made the decision to ditch the shoes and run the remainder of the four plus miles of the course in just my Prosoks.  You have to imagine that this slowed me down significantly.  I had two choices, not finish, or finish with a somewhat “crappy” time, though not the last of the elite females.  Of all races, the rocky, gravel filled desert – and yes, don’t forget the cacti, I had quite a few near misses with these beastly tidbits of desert vegetation.  In addition, I got to put my Prosoks to the ultimate test.  These socks saved my feet once again, as I wore them through rope climbs, barb wire crawls and across the rocky terrain.  Not a single hole in those socks when I finished.

As athletes, we have mental blocks when things don’t go our way in the race.  However, I can say that instead of seeing the negative side of this situation, I found myself pretty stoked at the idea of doing something different in a race, something I had never done.  Though absolutely unplanned, it gave me the opportunity to run with new people, that I may not have met if I had raced as expected.  I met two men, who were somewhat down on themselves and feeling discouraged in their first race, and my moments of “ouch” followed by laughter made them see the fun in what they were doing.  Here I was laughing it off that my race times were now terrible, and that the temporary damage/bruising to my feet would most certainly prevent me from wearing those fabulous heels I brought with me for that night.  They thanked me for the encouragement, and spent most of the time running and chatting with me about their training and challenging each other to do their first OCR.  

Along the way, people took to calling me the “Barefoot Spartan”, patting me on the back and having a few laughs at my expense. It is in moments like these, that we need to remember why we love this sport.  It was not my best race by far where time is concerned, but it was certainly the most fun I have had in ages.  Who knows what is next for me?  Perhaps I will PLAN to complete my next Spartan barefoot, or in a pair of Prosok again.  

Many thanks to the volunteers, I liked them tough and rule bound.  The course was great, and I cannot wait to meet it again next year, but perhaps with a newer pair of shoes!Image

Grab the bull by the…RUNNNNNNNNNN! – Adventures In Mexican Death Racing

Three short weeks after the freezing temperatures of Pittsfield, VT, I found myself on a flight into Mexico City.  Another passport stamp, and a new way to figure out how to smuggle items from the gear list across the border without going to jail.  Who knew you could get in more trouble for taking a carrot through Mexican customs than a knife and a brick?  The rest of the list was a breeze, well if you could easily find a marble statue, shark’s tooth on a leather necklace, sand bags (not so easy to find in the south), a photo of “the Virgin”, a red shirt, backpack, hand shovel, $6 in one dollar bills, 2 carabiners, and a marble sculpture.

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Upon arriving in Mexico City, I met up with Ben and Brandon to go for Pizza in Mexico City with our fellow death racers and DR staff, Tony, Heather, and Angeline.  Nothing like another group of death racers to make you smile, these fantastic people that get your personality and think you are completely sane for the shenanigans you get yourself into.  Yes, I ate the food, and yes it was delicious pizza.  The cab rides were interesting and we asked a lot of questions in some seriously broken and terrible Spanish, but we were able to figure out the distance to the Angel of Independence, where we were meeting in the morning, and determine about how many Pesos we would all need.  Just needed to figure out if we could all catch a van together to the statue, as many of us were staying in the same place…oh and to find carrots some where in the airport while waiting for Luke and Anna to arrive.  I will never forget the word for carrot in Spanish “zanahoria”.  Surprisingly, you can buy them at smoothie shops in the airport in Mexico City for a small cost.

We spent most of the night, until about 12-1 am packing and making sure we had the minimum we needed to carry.  No crews for this race, and we were unsure if there would be water available to us.  Packing complete, we all added about 6-8 liters of water to our packs, in addition to our water filters and purification tablets, bringing packs to about 40-50 pounds when all items (food, required items, many pairs of socks, medical and snakebite materials) were packed.  So much for light packing.  For this race I used my Osprey Kyte 46 liter pack.  As I go through this recount of my amazing journey, you will have a new respect for all things Osprey, this little pack went through hell and back and came out the other side only slightly beat up, but fully functional.  Clothing laid out – Columbia hiking pants, sports bra, Prosoks, Kerrits cooling/warming arm sleeves, under armour tank top, inov8 Roc Lite 286 GTX boots, and an inov8 buff – sleep.

Everyone does food differently in death race, some of us eat a small breakfast and plan things out, others…well we stuff our face with as many calories as we can and hope that we can stay on top of what we eat throughout the race.  At times we find we cannot eat much during the night and toward the end.  Early morning breakfast buffet in Mexico, absolutely delicious and filled with just the right carb/protein options and amazing coffee.  Luke, Anna, Ben, Sarah, and I enjoyed the last meal while we all planned the trip over to the Angel and where to find Brandon, Pete and Jonathon.  All of us deciding this may be the most exciting race we have ever done, it is completely unknown.  You can speculate, but the truth is you have no idea where we are going, what we will be doing, and how it will all turn out with no crews or support.  We are our only support, other death racers, and we take care of our own.

We all take a van to the Angel, arriving about an hour early, where we meet some of our fellow racers (and where Mark Webb lets me try the strongest Starbucks blend I have ever had – the real secret to completing DR).  We happen to notice Andy is across the street at the statue already.  I am the first of my group of people to head across the street, aka I was the frog in Frogger.  We are asked to sign in and Andy puts us in order, so the fear begins, and yet the relief, knowing you were not the last to sign your name.  As we wait for the busses to arrive, and we met the Mexican athletes, the Policia inform us that we cannot have the large crowd on the steps of the monument.  I assume all the people and backpacks were making them nervous and we were told we would be arrested if we did not move off the steps and go across the street.  We cross the street, load our packs into the bottom of the bus, take a few group pictures and get to know one another, and then load the bus.  Andy informs us that we are taking a 2.5 hour bus ride to our venue.  The bus ride made us all hot and sore, but it was really the most amazing experience.  It gave us all time to get to know our fellow athletes from Mexico, names, stories, etc.  We also got to see parts of Mexico City and also the rural outskirts, beautiful and sometimes entertaining.  I will say the size of fast food restaurants are triple the size we have here, like complexes…HUGE.

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After about 1.5 hours of bus riding time, Rodrigo (in charge of Mexico Spartan races for Joe), comes to our bus from the other and plays a video for us.  This video shows bull fighting gone wrong, with men being impaled through various body parts.  In addition, it shows not only all of the meanest, nastiest poisonous spiders, insects and snakes…it shows the effects of begin stung or bitten by one of these lovely residents of this area of Mexico.  Not long after, our bus stops at a gas station because it is “lost”. Then we stop once more at this small building in a tiny town, where we see a truck drive up with lots of dead things in the bed.  Our last stop on the bus journey ends at a gas station, where we see police and cattle trucks.  Immediately, we know we are going in those for the duration of our trip.  As we step off the bus, Andy hands us a dead, freeze dried cricket and tells us to eat it because we will be needing the protein.  Of course I tell him how much I love those things…what?…I have had them before and they are rather tasty, kind of like a dried pumpkin seed.  We chew these lovelies and then we are to fit 6-7 people and packs inside one of these small cattle truck holds.  Our little slice of heaven has 2 males and 4 females (Luke, Anna, Sarah, Jill, me, and another Mexican athlete who did not speak English).  We were told we would be in these trucks for the next two hours, it seemed more like 45 minutes to the venue.  We all had our heads out of the vents at the top of the truck while we drove and tried to stretch our legs, eat and hydrate a bit before we got there.  As we got closer, the truck kept slamming on breaks, sending us all over the place and slamming into one another (my boob took a beating on Jill’s elbow).  The last thing I said before we stopped was that I bet they would hose us down, concentration camp style (not meant lightly at all) – just before the water came over the top of the truck.

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When the trucks stopped, they opened our door, in line with a ramp into the bull corral, all the while spraying us with water.  Everyone was placed in one large corral, while Joe, Pablo and Andy made the announcements about the race.  What to do when we encountered the many snakes that hide in the rock walls we would be next too for the duration of the race, and last but not least…how to handle ourselves when they released us in the ring with the bulls to find our bib numbers and bibs.  The first group went out, and the rest of us patiently waited.  All of the sudden, the screaming began, and the look on Andy’s face was one of pure joy, shock, and complete comedy.  He proceeded to give us a play by play commentary of the events taking place in the ring…Mino had just been tossed like a ragdoll, Alex is in a standoff with the bull and cannot move, Mark Webb got clipped, and Mike had wrestled the bull to the ground while his hands were zip tied together.  One group before us, and after they go in, we find our hands being tied with string and then zip tied by Joe himself.  We wait anxiously, I guess you could say we are all sick for being excited instead of scared.  Andy then yells to Joe to untie our hands, because it is just too difficult for the racers to defend themselves and get their bibs, especially when they bring in a fresh bull.  At this point, we have no idea what size bull we are talking about, but when we are released we realize they are juvenile bulls, however no less aggressive due to their size. 

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Peak photo: Anthony Matesi

We all shoot out in different directions once released into the bull ring.  The bulls do not bother with color as many believe, but rather movement.  I see from across the way that one of the red walls is the one they told us had our bib numbers.  The bibs have been gathered by other racers, from the center of the ring to the safety walls.  People are calling out numbers for those who entered the ring.  Sarah ran over and was calling out my bib number and hers, this after she got clipped by a bull horn on the arm.  I have never sprinted so fast before.  We all have our packs on, which makes it impossible to get behind the safety walls, and I reach one with the bull behind me and push my arms and legs into safety.  The bull’s horn snagged the mesh pocket in the front of my Osprey pack and left a nice little hole and then it trotted off after another death racer.  We toss off our packs and continue to run looking for our bibs, all the while calling out the bib numbers we find so we can help others.  Once you are done, you leave the ring until the rest have found their bibs. 

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Photo: Anthony Matesi

Immediately, we head out for a little hike.  We grab out sandbags and fill them with rocks until Joe gives us the thumbs up, men and women weights differ.  As soon as we get the go ahead, we start our trek through knee high creeks with loose and slippery rocks, carrying our packs and the sandbags full of rocks, which I rest easily on the top of my osprey pack so it sits just behind my head and gives me full mobility.  In the water, out on to rocks and sand, back in the water.  At one point we hit a set of rocks that require you to almost side step with back to the wall, there is a deeper section of water below us, and this is where we spot our first snake.  Going to throw this out there, but when snake has bright blue colors on its back and a shiny silver head, I am will guess its poisonous.  Those will snake fears are shaken, but those of us in the south with constant interactions with water snakes are crazy enough to not care.  This only made worse by coming down from the rocks and right back into the water. Once we clear the water area, we rope climb up the side of hill, made of stone carrying our bag of rocks.  Many of us work together to get our rocks up the rope so we can climb.  As I am toward the top, my trek poles get caught on a tree and I have to detangle them before I can move my pack. When we reach our destination, some of us are directed up the hill to a quadrant of land and given a DULL machete, with which we are supposed to clear our plot of all vegetation but those marked sacred by yellow caution tape.  After a few goes with the machete that could not even scratch my skin (yep, I tried), I decided to use brute force instead.  I put on my Youngstown utility gloves, and they prevented the thorns from digging into my hands.  I started tearing away at the dry and dead trees/brush, and with the living trees, I broke limbs and twisted them until they could be pulled off.  I was able to clear my area remarkably fast with this method.  At this point, Andy comes to see us, and tells us later we will have to worry about the mountain hikes ahead of us, the altitude was an issue even for the staff. 

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Photo: Anthony Matesi

Once we were given the okay to leave our quadrants of land, we were sent to fill 5 large sandbags (4 full, and 1 half for men – 4 half and 1 quarter full for women).  The sandbag weights for women were roughly 80 (half) and 40 (quarter), double that for the men.  We had until it got dark, as Joe yells that we will DNF otherwise, to fill the bags.  We all search for loose soil, some of it wet, making the bags a bit heavier.  I fill mine to what appears half, as I look at others who have filled their bags and were carrying them up the hill.  Nope, re-open and fill to the line they came to mark.  We are in such a hurry we barely even pay attention to the spiders, centipedes, and other creepy crawly things that are being shoveled into our bags.  When checked, we have to carry one bag at a time to the top.  When finished, we are given a bracelet, told to move our packs and our quarter (or half for guys) sandbags off to the side and help the others…if we all did not finish, none of us finished.  I have just enough time for my only sock change (prosok) prior to meeting with Joe and Pablo about going up to see the “devil” on our first mountain hike. 

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Photos: Anthony Matesi

We are put into groups based on our bib number, and we all start the hike in that order, following Joe up the road to the trail point where Angeline and Heather are waiting to check us off as we go up.  I pull out my trek poles, Leki corklites, and stupidly have trouble adjusting them, and with no time, I keep moving on.  We start this steep hike to the top of what seems like an endless mountain with our packs on our backs and our sandbags, which I nestled on the top of my pack and behind my neck.  First low tree branch we encounter, I smack my head really hard.  Mark Webb stops to check that I am okay (thanks for that!), and we continue on.  We find ourselves having to vertically climb to reach parts of the trail, and this is very slow going. My trek poles were in one hand and got caught, and I pulled a muscle in my shoulder at this point.  A few people passed me, but you could hear others waiting at the bottom of the climb.  There are points in which we check in with volunteers as we have to crawl under beams in what looks like a water runoff area.  There is bull shit everywhere, and all I can think is “how the hell do these big animals get up here”.  Each time you think you have made it to the top, you look up and see headlights ahead of you.  Finally, after a brutal climb/hike, you have to climb over a stone wall, drop the sand out of your sandbag and climb over a set of boulders to find the trail for the descent. 

The brush on the ascent was not nearly as bad as what we had going down.  We had to follow markings that stayed along the stone wall, down this steep slope.  Pete and Ben were with me on the way down, and we took turns leading ourselves down, as the brush would smack you in the eyes or face and disorient you when looking for the Spartan streamers marking the trail.  My shoulders and face were taking a beating from thorn trees, so I was thankful for the sleeves I wore on my arm.  At some point ben took a thorn to the eye, and I took one to the corner of my mouth (where it promptly stuck).  As long as the trip up had been, the trip down seemed just as tedious.  Trek poles were a tremendous help in maintaining my balance on the way down, but also to move the trees and branches out of the way.  Once we reached the bottom, we take a water and food break, though very short.  We get our bracelets, and Joe then tells us to climb in and out of this silo looking concrete structure with three holes from the bottom to the top.  We then pick a rock (pink markings for females, orange for males).  The female rocks weigh about 30 pounds, give or take.  Everyone has to turn in their picture of the virgin.  Ben told Joe that the mountain had been the hardest most of us had experienced, and made Vermont’s look like hills.  Joe laughs and tells us we will LOVE the next one. 

The hike up to the virgin, or to see the angel as we were told, was without the vertical climbs, but came with a more painful challenge.  We had to hold the rocks in our arms the entire time, could not put them in our packs.  As I discovered when we would hit difficult terrain, it did not sit on the top of my pack well either, and I dropped it on my arm a few times…so no more of that.  In addition, the trees and brush that we were led through on the trail, were so low, that we had to bend over the entire time we walked through these sections.  Thorn trees catching our packs made it a little more difficult and we found ourselves detangling each other.  The loose rocks and dirt sections, both up and downhill, made this an exhausting hike.  Jill, Ben, Rob, Crupi, and I made several rest stops along the way in order to get water and food, but to also take a break from the weight we were carrying.  At some point, I had to dump water out of my pack in order to lighten the load of the 80 or so on my back.  Unlike the Devil, this did not go straight up, instead there were sections were we went up, then over, then down a slope of loose soil that was impossible to walk on, therefore we all slid down the hill.  Jonathon kept referring to it as the Mexican bobsled team training grounds.  Trek poles were no use and we used our sand bags to toss rocks down before us.  Another section had a crawl under in the fences, and yet another where the volunteers checked the color of our rocks to make sure we had the right ones as we crawled under the piping in the water runoff area.  At the top, the hike became a climb up rocks, where there were volunteers with a fire pit.  They told us to leave the rock and our sand bag and continue on the descent.  Jill, Ben, and Rob ended up moving quickly down the hill.  Crupi and I went carefully down the hill under the low lying brush and through the loose rocks until we reached the bottom, where we were directed back to the ranch.

Once at the ranch, we were placed either in the inner circle, or the outer circle along the wall of the bull fighting ring.  Those on the outside had finished both the hike up the devil and the virgin.  Those on the inside only completed he hike up the devil.  While we waited for the rest of the people to return, Joe had us go around the ring ten times (for those on the outside) doing burpee jumps.  We had also learned that 5 had officially DNF’ed, including Kenny when he tore his ACL.  Volunteers then asked us to remove the required gear items from our packs.  Andy took the carrots, and the rest we placed back in our packs for the last few tasks.  We were told that we would be leaving at 7 am, and there were two tasks we must complete.  A swim, and harvesting 100 boulders/stones.  Everyone had until 12 noon to return to the bull ring.  We all must return, or none would finish.  At 7 am, everyone was told to leave the bull ring, but we could not use any doors, we must all climb over the walls.  Everyone scrambled to help each other over the walls, and then set off.  We walked/hiked through fields, climbed over stone walls, and then reached an area where Brandon, Jill, Sarah and I saw ground hornet nests.  We thought we heard them buzzing and took a different path, it turned out to be the go pro remote control plane thing.  The next area was a climb down into a gully where there was a lagoon like water area.  You had to go 20 meters to the rock and back, either swimming or pulling a rope.  The water was insanely cold – muscles immediately cramped, and at this point, I could not put my chest in (asthma) and was unsure if I had my inhaler in my pack with me.  I punked out and was given a 40 burpee penalty on the rocks before I could leave (only because of a medical condition). That makes two death races with hysterical sobbing, I am woman enough to admit it.  Jill and Sarah waited for me at the top, we agreed to finish this together and make sure we all got back on time. 

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Photos: Anthony Matesi

Our next task was to walk to the pasture that contained the stones we would dig out of the ground, supposedly for use in building the walls.  Joe and Andy wanted us to see what it was like to work on a ranch, and how these men built huge and long sections of wall each day on their own.  We were given a tool, and told to find 100 stones.  If we carried extra large stones, Joe would count them as two stones.  “Cowboy Juan” was in charge of making sure we had all the stones before we could continue on to the finish.  We started gathering, helped each other, and were thankful that the volunteers from the ranch were able to help many of us unearth the stones around us.  Joe and Andy told us that we had approximately 30 minutes left, after I had been there 10 minutes, to gather stones and then carry a medium size stone up the hill.  If we took any longer than this, we would not be back to the ranch in time for the noon cutoff.  We worked fast and picked up any we could find, grabbed our medium stone, and headed up the hill.  At the top, Jill, Sarah, and I walked together to collect our “skull” (hand carved stone medallion), greeted Tony Matesi, took our pictures, and headed back.  On our way out we saw Annabella finishing up her last bit of collection, and we told her she could do it and make it back! 

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Photos: Anthony Matesi

The road back to the ranch seemed longer, but we had good company and we spent time discussing whether we really were finished when we returned, or if there would be additional tasks.  We had met nearly 24 hours ago in Mexico City to start this venture, and we were sure we would have more to do.  We spent time carefully coming over the stone walls on our way back, and clutching our medallions carefully.  We had to return with them intact, or we were out of the race.  The three of us got to ranch with 40 minutes to spare on the time cutoff.  Upon return, we were immediately told to put our packs down, return to the bull ring and chisel our numbers in our medallion as quickly as we could.  That was it.  We had just completed the first Traveling Death Race, Mexico.  I had just finished two back to back death races, 21 days apart, and finished 3rd overall female. It still seems remarkably unreal. Volunteers and friends handed us cold beers, swag, offered hugs and congratulations. All of us waited to cheer the last of the athletes on as they entered the ranch.  The women from the ranch made the most amazing food, and we all ate together and shared stories of the adventure we just shared, enjoying the new friends we had made in our fellow athletes from Mexico, knowing we were the first to accomplish this feat.  It is a feeling that none of us can really explain to anyone outside of this group, not and do it justice.  If you want to know what we experience, join us out there next year, because most of us will be going back.  In fact, many of us have already registered to return in 2015.  If you want to know, join us…www.youmaydie.com.

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Photo: Omar Carrera

“Slippers on Ice” – An Interpretive Winter Death Racing Production

It was not my intention to participate the Winter Death Race this year.  In fact, I had only planned to do Summer DR.  There is something about Andy Weinberg saying you should check it out that takes away all common sense, but who needs common sense anyway.  Perhaps this is how we keep getting in trouble with our significant others, our inability to tell Weinberg no.  In retrospect, I will say this was one of the best decisions I have made in quite a long time, either that or I have gone completely off the deep end, which is a distinct possibility.

Weeks of preparation, which I say lightly, as I had only 4 weeks post signing up to prepare for this event.  There was travel, lodging, nutrition, oh and GEAR, lots and lots of GEAR.  We don’t have too much snow here in the south, so that made things interesting as I stared long and hard at my Wardrobe.  Thank goodness we had The Backpacker, this place is the only reason I survived the cold.  A wee bit of panic did set in, as I realized the packs that Osprey sent me, would not arrive (along with a pair of sealskinz I ordered) due to the snowpacolypse of SC.  Death Race began with the night I left for the airport and the task of waiting for UPS, who lied to me.  I grabbed my old North Face Terra 55, with the fear that sucker would just die on me during the DR.  Instead it held up, with the exception of not having that great of a hydration chamber.  My fellow DR buddy, Ben, thankfully pointed out that my bladder had leaked all over the pack, its contents and the floor just as I was ready to head to wood splitting, but more on that later.

Pittsfield, VT does something to people.  Maybe it is the bonds made with crews and racers, or the great things accomplished there, but when you arrive, it feels like you are coming home.  My crew member, run/climb coach, and amazing friend, Mellisa, got to see this first hand as we arrived at the Original General Store.  Describing it is not enough, you have to see it to understand.  Random DR people gathered around the best food, laughing, joking, trading stories, strategizing, contemplating what lies ahead.  These bonds that grow with every race, as well all take in the company,  because the adventure begins the next day.  The unspoken thrill, nervousness, excitement, and sometimes dread creeping into our minds.

Not going to lie, anticipation is the death of all rest.  It really sucks.  You want your brain to shut down, especially as you listen to the members of your crew sleep like babies with their musical snoring – to which I may or may not have created a drum line beat session - and you just stare at the ceiling mentally checking gear.  Food prep, how much will I need and how often will be regroup in the barn, etc.  Freaking torture, like a kid that cannot wait for Santa to arrive.  I had packed my osprey hydration systems, Joyce (Swiss Farm Inn) let me borrow sealskinz, gear buckets labeled and stocked, required gear readily available, and clothes laid out.  Thankful that Minna was able to stop and get the very last minute required gear (sent at 9 pm)…an Altoids tin, also finding we women were only required to have 35 pounds of sand, rather than 70.  Even the monster size tub of aquaphor to lube every part of the body, yep, death race is sexy…lube.

Breakfast at the OGS brought the masses, our last real relaxed meal together – stuffing my face with the world’s most amazing French toast – just chatting.  All this interrupted by Peter taping signs up for a job, for anyone that wanted to earn some extra cash prior to the start of the race.  We could all wood split at Amee Lodge.  My plan was to attend, though after the extra work tales from summer DR, I was not sure it would be fruitful.   However, as I wanted to experience the whole of WDR, I prepped to go.  Unfortunately, the bladder in my pack leaked all over everything, leaving me with a disaster.  My crew and I scrambled to blow dry shoes, throw clothing and socks in dryers, and blow dry my pack.  I made it to the barn, with others just in time to be told we would miss our time trial and possibly not be able to start because we needed to be at Amee splitting wood to earn our “registration fees”.  Mellisa stayed, while Minna, me, Ashley, Dan, and Ben jump in a car with axes ready.

With my Youngstown gloves and trusty ax (Sam), I set into finding a base and a log to split.  Splitting and banter as Tony and other task masters watch us to make sure we are splitting at the rate we need to be in order to earn our $5.  No guarantees we will participate in the time trial, while we have knowledge that four others are out there completing it as we split.  When Joe shows up, the rate of splitting and carrying wood to the pile goes on fast forward, no one wanting to be singled out this early for burpees.  Clearly, we stop making jokes about touching each others wood, and we hustle.  As the pile got smaller, only the truly large logs remained.  Teams of death racers converged on these large logs, being told we need only to split them so the pieces fit in a large fireplace.  Ashley, Melody, Mark Harvey, Val, me and the “Shanes” all set in on splitting a few of these, taking different angles and approaches to weaken the wood.

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Photos: Anthony Matesi

The $5 acts as our registration fee, and we sign up, pay this cash, grab our first puzzle piece, grab swag and the coveted DR bib, and wait outside of the Riverside Farm barn.  We are told we missed our time trial, we are to wait for the others to return, and to start prepping for wilderness education. We are asked to cut small strips of cloth to be used as “char cloth” for fire building.  Two men are there to explain to us the proper way to make a fire with flint, steel, bundles of cedar or birch, and char cloth.  Char cloth is made by placing the cloth in the tin and letting it sit over a fire until you see smoke come out of the three holes we punched in our tin.  This takes several rounds of fire so that the cloth is just dark brown and easily flammable. 

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 Photo: Anthony Matesi

Post hypothermia, frost bite, and fire lectures, we are told to gather our gear and that we will all be heading over to Amee Farm.  At this point during the hike I am thinking this is the part where we go exercise for hours on end to exhaust us before the race begins.  We trekked through snow covered trails, over frozen river areas, and were met by Peter when we arrived.  Peter tells us to put our gear down in the basement and to get our interpretive dance clothing on.  As we get upstairs, there are crew members lounging and sitting on stairs, we find out that we are going to be doing ballet for the next 3-4 hours.  Relief is not a strong enough word, this I could do, and I was smart enough to keep my socks on – Thank you Prosok.  I was looking forward to seeing how some people did with the “class”, as ballet is a lot harder than most think.  Though it was hard, we got at good stretch out of the moves, and we laughed and joked.  Andy asked if we had expected this to be part of the race, and we could honestly say they shocked the hell out of us.  Move after move, Ilene (our instructor) kept us constantly learning, until Joe arrived.  He set right in on making sure we had to stand on one leg with our arms in proper form…if our foot touched the floor, he added a minute.  This lasted 14 minutes, then it was 20 minutes of plié squat holds, in which we smartasses decided to start twerking while his back was turned. Meanwhile, Keith Glass starts mocking Joe’s voice until he, Pete, and Mark Webb nearly get us all in trouble.  They end up doing burpees out in the duck pond and snow.  During this time, we eagerly watched the battle between Joe and Ilene on how many toe touches we would have to do on each leg.  Joe of course voting for 1500 + and Ilene telling him she would be vetoing that suggestion, and bless the woman we only had 500 each leg.  Stretching, and then we were sent back down from our fun ballet session to get dressed.  All I can think is that I need to remember the moves we worked on, in case we end WDR with having to put together some sort of sick ballet choreography and show – weirder things have happened.

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Next we head out with our partners, back to riverside, where we are to make a fire using only flint, steel, and char cloth with our partners.  Followed by a sand bag carry in addition to our packs, up Joe’s mountain.  It is here I see the biggest flaw in my preparation…no trekking poles.  Instead, Flo and I head up the mountain, and I use my ax as leverage up the snow and ice covered rocks, thankful for my microspikes.  On the way back down, two things happened.  First, I fell and hit my knee, while also dislocating my fourth toe in two places, which pinched a nerve in my foot (I at the time thought it was fractured).  Secondly, Flo falls on the ice directly on her elbow.  We shake it off and continue down.  Drop our sandbags, check in, grab all puzzle pieces, and make fire again.  This time it takes a few more seconds, but we can use other materials.  Again, up the mountain.  Those who could make the time to get three laps in, found themselves ahead in the end.  If not, you had a small reprieve to change shoes and clothes before the 5 am cutoff when we were to leave for our next task.  Ed helped me dry out clothing and gear, and get myself moving again.  My crew, Mellisa, Minna, and Mathieu miss me by several minutes before we leave for the hike to Sable.

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Photo: Anthony Matesi

Andy tells us most will be gone 6 hours, and that we will be hiking roughly 14 miles.  We set out using the markings laid for us.  Hills, snow, roads, and finally Sable.  We can choose to do 100 burpees at the bottom prior to hiking, or afterwards.  I am in a great deal of pain, thinking the bone I saw sticking out was in fact a fracture, so I chose to hike first and then take my chances with the 100 burpees.  I enjoyed hiking with Val, Keith, Matt, and Jellybean mostly. The part we love, the time with other racers.  Sable was quite the challenge.  The terrain was straight up hill, many portions of the trail requiring us to climb up.  Those of us without trek poles have found sticks that get the job done, and we are trying to cover as much ground as we can quickly.  When you arrive to the top, you have to climb a rock to sign your name, then you head back to Riverside.  On the way back, we crossed some treacherous spots, but were also able to see the perfect penis sculpted in snow and resting on leaves.  It is at this point you wonder if you are hallucinating things in the snow.  Jellybean was quick to point out that it was in fact this shape I was seeing, therefore saving my mental mindset just a bit.  Once we get to the bottom, I choose to do one legged burpees.  My crew made sure to have eggs and bacon, Zico coconut water and medical supplies in case the toe fractured through the skin.  On the trip back, I was certain I was done, and Keith kept encouraging me to move forward, even when we all started seeing things in the snow that were not there.  Like me asking how the hell a white Cadillac got all the way to the top of a mountain…

Arriving at Riverside was rough, I was in so much pain.  Andy told me he just didn’t think I would make it to getting my skull this time around with as slow as I was moving.  He had medics look at me to determine if I could continue.  At this point my crew is MIA (turns out they had been in a car accident), and I am calling my husband for advice.  I tell the medics that I do not want to quit, and Maxime and Ben are telling me that I should think of what races are ahead and ask myself if I want to take the chance of serious injury, as I may have a stress fracture. Luke Gregory finally arrived and encouraged me to keep at it. That and a call from my husband with a message from Camille Adams, telling me to get my ass moving, along with some mountain dew and a Goody powder for pain, and I am off to the time trial.  I am so late in the game that I am asked to carry extremely long and cumbersome lumber up toward Sable to Miguel’s cabin.  Miguel saves my life with a VPX bar, just what I needed to eat to keep going, and I find myself determined to finish this race.

I take my sandbag to the next task at Amee Lodge…holding it over our heads for 45 minutes.  Luke provided me with Trekking poles, which may have saved my ass and my race.  We fashion a system from webbing to my pack that allows me to use the Trek poles and my body weight to pull my sandbag to Amee.  I am able to place the sand bag on my head with a pulley like system using the webbing, this allows me to keep the bag in place, but also to elevate my foot while we complete the task.  We were only told we had to keep the bag on our head, no one said anything about the methods to do so.

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Next task had us rushing back to Riverside to make the time cutoff for Peter’s house, where we were to find 30 pennies in the snow.  My crew is hiking back with me, and the Shanes and I are running to make sure we can get there to head out in time.  Mellisa and I check in at Riverside and I set out for Peter’s with a second wind, moving faster than I had since we started.  When we arrived at Peter’s, our left wrist was zip tied to our left leg shoe lace, only made difficult by my inov8 Roclite 286 GTX boot laces (small and tight). Of course I make a joke about the kinky nature of this venture while Peter is binding hand and foot.  We had to find 30 pennies in a 1/4 acre radius.  I went to the left side of the property first, finding no luck there.  Wearing goretex pants, in case we were put in the water, saved my butt literally as I scooted across the driveway.  As I was moving toward the center of the area, I noticed penny wrappings from rolled coins.  These led me to a spot that was untouched, and as I cleared away the first bit of snow, there were so many copper goodies waiting for me.  I drained my cup of mountain dew, and started filling it with pennies.  Ben, who had been there for a while, stared as I gathered them all to be counted, and then headed back out to Riverside with time to spare.

The rest of the night is a blur of emotion, exhaustion, and pain. I have yelled at my crew and everyone around me.  I am hallucinating things in the snow and woods and am near hysteria. We are to build a fire, go up Joe’s mountain, come back down, check in, and repeat.  We had to complete our required laps by 12 am to continue, and were then given a 2 am cutoff.  Fire, up, down, fire, up, down. Anna Bella and Mischa joined us and stayed with me during the fire making challenges.  Then more checking in to receive our puzzle pieces.  At this point, I realize some of the pieces I had laid out, are missing.  I am coming close to the time hack, and Andy tells me that I have an hour to get up and down the mountain.  Mellisa had taken me up for the last several laps, bribing me with coke and the soup that Roger and Joyce had made me, as I could no longer eat any other type of food.  In my fastest time ever, I make it to the barn in 45 minutes and let Andy know.  However, I still have another lap.  Mat Lo takes the last laps with me and encourages me to suck it up and get the job done, telling me how close it is to being over.  When I have but one lap to go, I get to the barn, check in and am crying hysterically as I realize that I have one last lap on this horrible foot, and my puzzle is MISSING.  Not pieces, but the entire puzzle has disappeared.  At this point, I am the last one left to finish.  Andy hands me a puzzle for bib 158, I am 193.  This is not the puzzle I had memorized and built most of the way, it is new.  This was a brutal hike to the top, where for 8 minutes I spent in agony and near hypothermia, trying to put this simple toddler puzzle together.  Norm and Mat waited patiently for me to finally finish this task.  Once complete, I proceeded to jog/run down Joe’s mountain.  Though I wanted to slow, I began to hear people cheering as they saw our headlamps.  When I arrived, I was given my skull and hugged by friends, crew, and the rest is a blur.  The knowledge that so many waited there for me to finish, when they were cold and exhausted, reminded me why I love this community.  My crew, best backbone a girl could have. My sponsors (Prosok,Osprey, The Backpacker, inov8, Grab the Gold, Fleet Feet Columbia, Youngstown Gloves), the gear performed beautifully!  I look forward to the races ahead, and of course, I signed up for 2015.  Andy knew just what to say to motivate me, he told me I could not finish.  Damn I hate that. :)

So many things and moments that were left out of this blog, if you want to experience what it is like to be a Death Racer, sign up.  http://www.youmaydie.com

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The Backpacker saves my arse…

Not being in a cold weather climate has its definite perks.  I would never have thought to say that I was sad to live in a place that was warmer than from where I hail.  That was, until I signed up for Winter Death Race in Pittsfield, VT.  For those of you that are not familiar with the Spartan/Peak Death Races, please visit www.youmaydie.com for a quick tutorial.  There is nothing else out there that compares, in my crazy opinion.  Watch the Winter Death Race video in particular, and you will get a taste for just how much The Backpacker saved me…

Let it be said that I literally owned one warm weather jacket, yep a North Face Denali, the same one everyone here in Columbia, SC owns.  It is warm enough for the occasion it gets super cold here, and light weight enough to not be a pain – plus, it comes in fun colors.  I owned no base layers, though I do have a few pair of running tights, so that counts, right?  Down jackets and fleece base layers? Forget it.  Microspikes, say what?  I just run in Inov8 Oroc if I encounter ice or winter conditions during an ultra.  Regular old hiking boots?  Check.  So pretty much, completely winter gear stupid.  This stuff can be super expensive, too.  I found myself in a pretty bad spot, considering the gear is going to keep me alive in the cold up there.

Enter The Backpacker Quality Gear, here in Columbia, SC.  I remember buying my first real hiking pack there in college, I was about 19, and never stopped going afterward.  The place is just relaxing to walk into, and still find that the prices there are way easier to manage than internet stores and shipping.  I like to shop locally, these are the places that hold our economy together, and subsequently the ones that save your arse when you find yourself in a bind.  I contacted them to see what kind of help they could give me, as I am way out of my league.  Courtney, the manager, went above and beyond.  I explained the race I was doing and the type of gear I would need (or thought I would need), and they agreed to make me an ambassador for the company!!!!  It is these places, the ones we have loved for years, the ones that remember your name, that will take a chance on you when no one else will.

Needless to say Courtney and her staff had their hands full when it came to me.  Not only were they patient with my ignorance of the gear needed for the climate and the possible temperatures, but they spent about 2 hours helping me get it all together.  I would like to say this is because I am special, but as I looked around, they were giving each of their customers the same type of attention, helping with every little detail for their adventures.  Courtney offered me her undivided attention as I took her through each of the possible tasks we could think I may have, and then told her I had to expect many surprises, including possibly submerging in water.  We discussed the temperature possibilities, the need for wicking clothing so that in the event I did  sweat I would  not have as much trouble regulating my body temperature.  She expertly walked through the store and made sure that each part of my body would be adequately covered with the right layers for night and day, taking care to have me try the layers with each other and make sure that I had the appropriate sizes for the layers.  Most importantly, she made sure that each of these layers were easily broken down and stored in my pack without adding excess weight to amount I would already be shouldering.  Everything I had researched was there in the store, but without this assistance, I don’t think I could have prepared properly for what I will be doing in just a few short days.  In short, the gear used includes: saws; climbing rope; GTX boots; wigwam wool socks; North Face gloves; Mountain Hardware base layers, gloves, liners, wicking fleece; North Face Fleece; Patagonia down; head wear;  microspikes; Black Diamond head lamps; hand and foot warmers; shells (both jacket and pants), etc.  I never fully appreciated the amount of winter gear we had here in Columbia, right under my nose the entire time.  I know I have gone in there for hiking needs and water filters, camping gear, etc., but never had I really given a thought about winter needs.  SCORE!

Just a day after I acquired all my needed gear, I tested the layering in activities like I will be performing in the WDR.  I discovered during an overnight run in 26 degrees that the base layers themselves were actually making me pretty warm.  I could not feel biting cold, or wind.  As I split wood, I put on all of my layers to test the movement capabilities in the coldest conditions.  Surprisingly with all that gear, I was able to move freely and easily while staying warm.  I even tested the gear whilst doing many burpees, and I was still free to move pretty easily.  Let’s face it, I will be doing a lot of those.  In other words, I think I may actually be able to keep myself from freezing, but still be able to get tasks done.  Now, that I have the gear, it is just the mind and body that have to keep up.  Stay tuned!

 

 

Winter DR – the reality hits.

As I sit here, reviving a long dead blogging habit, I reflect on how I got to this point.  By point I mean, six days before I leave for Pittsfield, VT to attempt getting a skull at Winter Death Race.  Sure I had planned to do only Summer Death Race there this year, but there is something about Andy Weinberg asking you to do WDR that makes it hard to say no.  I think Andy gets us all in trouble this way, who really ever says no to him?  And then they announced the challenge…

Winter Death Race means a whole new type of training, and a lot (if you live in warmer climes) of gear to prepare for the weather you will face.  This Midwestern gal was long ago transplanted in the south.  I had a month to incorporate the winter type training into my routine to prepare for the other races.  Of course this means splitting wood in nothing but my undies in 16 degree weather, while then be doused with water, but that is just a regular Saturday in the suburbs, right?  Splitting wood, night runs, rucking heavy weight, night hikes, sleep deprivation training, climbing, running ultra marathons, walking barefoot through freezing water up to your thighs, nutrition intake tests, gear testing, and then the regular workout routines in heat with some added SISU favorites are included in the training.  One would like to think this is enough, but it isn’t.  It is the thrill of the unknown, the challenge in the mental capacity that really draws the crazies and extremists to sign up for these races, which are considered by most, the hardest in the world.  It is this drive that makes us feel we are never really prepared, and are always seeking to be better.  It is that draw that makes want to do these in the first place.

Prior to this Winter DR, I have crewed for SDR.  Other than that, I am your average endurance/OCR athlete.  I enjoy a good ultra marathon to torture the mind and body, and then get my speed work in on the obstacle courses.  So I am often asked why the hell I would want to do this, didn’t I see the messed up shenanigans when I crewed?  Nope.  What I saw was some of the most amazing people, not just physically strong, but those with the mental steel.  Sure there were some that dropped out, some that were injured, and some that got there and realized this was not for them.  On the flip side, you watch as the athletes that remain form a bond, one that even the crews experienced.  You see the DR taskmaster, who is a really nice guy, turn into the scariest guy you have ever met…but you cannot help but like him even more when he is threatening you with death by burpees.  Andy, Joe, Peter, Don, and all that volunteer to help or hinder the athletes are amongst the most creative people you can imagine.  If you like the thrill of not knowing what the hell is coming next, of not knowing what the hell to believe, or when the race will really begin or end, then consider these people the artists of adventure. However, they are also the ones that will push you to the limits of what you are capable of, and then encourage you to take the next step beyond that point.  So, why the hell would someone like me NOT want to attempt the death races?

Will I finish?  That is the question we all ask ourselves, but the answer is yes, or die trying.  I will push myself to the limits.  My crew will be there, and I have one helluva crew, to push me further and help me succeed.  But in the end, it all depends on me.  It is my own race, my own test, my own battle.