When I began this journey, I figured that every facet of my life could be fodder for a weekly challenge, considering that I was about as masculine as a Twinkie. But if there was one aspect I thought I had under control, it was my workout schedule. In the months before our wedding, Q and I did what I imagine most couples do to prepare for the big day – make completely unreasonable fitness goals and remove everything substantial from our diet besides green veggies and clear liquids in the pursuit of a physique that can only be obtained with a healthy amount of Photoshopping or a Swedish genealogy.
In hindsight, binging on dieting and workouts may have backfired in the long run because as soon as we returned from our honeymoon, I avoided the gym and instead chose to work out my mouth on delicious, delicious sweets. I really didn’t stand a chance – everything tasted better in the wake of our pre-wedding fast. I’m still convinced something happened in donut technology while I was away that made them exponentially better than I remembered. Needless to say, the gym became a faint memory, and I’m more than a little embarrassed to report I haven’t set foot in a gym in seven months.
Despite telling Q that loving the out-of-shape me was certainly something that appeared in our wedding vows, she made the right decision to sign us back up for a gym membership. As part of our new membership, we received a trial session with a personal trainer. The old me would have never taken advantage of this, but the new me, who embarrasses himself in some capacity on a weekly basis, saw no reason not to sign up. I figured I was at least in good enough shape to survive one hour-long low-impact session. Readers of the Krav Maga entry should already know where this is headed.
Although the exercises weren’t very demanding, I still huffed and puffed through them, becoming lightheaded before we even reached the end of the hour. In our post mortem, the trainer explained that even though I looked like I was in shape, my actual health was worrisome. My fast heart rate after three minutes of step aerobics put me in the “very poor” bracket. I knew I had let myself go, but I was still shocked to see how much I had deteriorated in only seven months. It was the kick in the pants I needed. I wanted to return to good health and I knew that working towards a goal would keep me honest. The Survival Race provided that.
The Survival Race is a 5K obstacle course, complete with ropes, walls, ladders, and lots of mud. I have never run an endurance race in my life, knowing from a young age that long-distance running would never be my forte. I was the kid in elementary school running the mile who was always in the back of the pack, gasping, “Water… oxygen…” with every stride.
A few days before race day, I meet with my cousin Lindsay to jog around her neighborhood. I have been preparing for the race for the last two weeks on the treadmill, but I still wanted to run with a veteran of endurance races to glean some tips and tricks. Lindsay has been running 5Ks and half-marathons since 2011 and whenever she’s invited me to run them with her, I’ve always made a lackluster excuse to avoid joining the race. The last time she invited me to a 5K on Thanksgiving morning, I said I couldn’t because I was preparing for Black Friday shopping, which I suppose wasn’t entirely untruthful.
As she jogs around her neighborhood and I try to keep up, I ask her what she does to prepare for a big race. She says she doesn’t run the day before and tries to eat a carb-loaded dinner that evening. In the morning of the race, she’ll eat something high in protein like bread and peanut butter, but will avoid anything acidic like orange juice. She’s confident that I’ve trained enough for my first 5K, but I’m concerned that I’ve focused too much on running and have neglected to prepare for the strength portions of the Survival Race. After the jog, I head back home thankful for Lindsay’s advice, but unsure of my survival probability on race day.
Q and I drive about two hours outside of New York City to an outdoor paintball field in New Windsor, where the Survival Race will take place. The race organizers specifically hid most of the obstacles from our view, but some of them are still visible from the parking lot. Each obstacle I spy will test a particular weakness of mine. The hurdles pinpoint my appalling flexibility, the walls confront my aversion to splinters, and the mud pit heightens my germaphobia. It’s good that we’ve had to drive two hours out of the way to get here; if we were any closer to home, I’d probably turn back now.
As we check in, banners portraying past participants line the field, and one in particular catches our eye because the man on the banner, who is depicted crawling through mud with a terrifying look on his face that screams, “IMA GONNA EAT YOU,” is actually here today and marvels at the super-sized version of himself. As he asks his buddies to take a picture of him in front of a picture of him, I notice that the man’s neck is thrice the size of my bicep. It doesn’t give me a lot of hope for my performance today, but I understand why the race organizers wouldn’t want to put a picture of me on a banner. Said picture would probably depict me crawling underneath hurdles, hoping no one is watching, or perhaps a shot of me gingerly walking through the mud pit, holding my shoes up, while a speech bubble shoots out of my mouth and says, “Can someone please have some hand sanitizer waiting at the finish line?”
Standing at the starting line with about five minutes to go, Q and I realize there’s only one way for us to compete with the best of the best. We christen ourselves with more powerful names that might make up for our lack of training and/or strength.
Q decides on Stud McBurgess, a no-nonsense burly man who takes no prisoners and no bull crap from nobody, and especially no bull crap from prisoners. I choose Hank Thornbush, a silent stoic type who simultaneously is known as the most vicious enemy and most loyal friend one could hope for. Devising Hank and Stud may have been our greatest achievement because when Peter ran out of steam, Hank was there to pick up the slack without needing so much as an attaboy.
As the DJ starts to countdown from ten while “You’re the Best…Around” plays over the PA, I feel a surge of energy. The worry has departed my body and been replaced with a competitive edge. I (not to mention Hank) am ready to blow the roof off the Survival Race. As the DJ yells “GO!” and the music kicks up several decibels, I throw a fist in the air, signaling to the race gods that I’m here to win.
Or so I think until I realize that running with a pack means that it’s nearly impossible to race at full speed. Over the half-kilometer it takes to finally break away from the large clump of people, I’m beginning to lose steam and lose grip on the power of Hank Thornbush. Still, the fact that I’m not running at full speed means that I’m conserving my energy and for the first half of the race, which mostly consists of running, jumping, and crawling, I’m happy with my performance.
However, by the time I reach the tire run at the midpoint of the race, my stamina is diminishing fast and I have to walk portions of the course. Fortunately, my partner in crime Stud McBurgess is not the kind of person to leave a man behind. He’s a veteran of long-distance running (coincidentally, so is Q), and his encouragement and energy fuel me in the last couple kilometers of the race. It’s unfortunate that as we progress in the race, the obstacles seem to get more difficult and strenuous (almost as if it were designed that way!). Just when I think balancing on a rope to cross a dirty creek is exhausting, launching myself over a series of walls proves to be much more problematic. And just when I’ve surmounted that obstacle, I have to trek through a bacteria-laden cesspool masquerading as a lake, which trumps everything before it. Though it begins to feel like I’m stuck in an infinity loop of muddy obstacles, somehow the finish line appears in the distance, less than a quarter-kilometer away.
As the official race photographer snaps pictures of Stud and Hank, my narcissism and a final adrenaline boost combine for one helluva runner’s high. I call out to Stud in my manliest baritone to give ‘em everything he’s got as we jump over hot coals. I don’t know who “’em” referred to at the time, but you can be assured it sounded pretty awesome. Right before we finish, I stretch my arm out so the computerized chip on my wrist will clock my time a split-second faster than when the rest of my body crosses the line. In hindsight, a split-second doesn’t matter much when I finish in 248th place for all males, but I’m not thinking that now. All I know is that I just ran the race of my life.
After crossing the finish line, it’s stunning to see how fast Hank Thornbush wears off. Hosing the dirt off my body reminds me how icky that last kilometer was and seeing seven- and eight-year-olds with numbered bibs reminds me that this race was, as its website promoted, a family-friendly race and perhaps not the Iron Man challenge I had made it out to be.
And yet, on the ride back to the city, I’m unable to shake an overwhelming feeling of satisfaction. Just three short weeks ago, I was told that I was in “very poor” shape and now I had survived a race in which the very chance of my survival was mocked. Nothing could take away the fact that I finished this race, an endurance test that would have crushed the old Peter who gasped for oxygen on his elementary school parking lot. Even though I’m not in pre-wedding shape, it’s nice to know that I can still break new ground with even the slightest bit of hard work and exertion. A visit from Mr. Hank Thornbush doesn’t hurt either.
ON THE MAN SCALE…
Did I finish the race in record time? No. Did I continue my training at the gym? Not really. But I’m still going to chalk this challenge up in the win column if only for the fact that I completed my first real race and pushed myself harder than I have in a long time. 2.75.
NEXT WEEK: The secret of the carnies.