Turning Turmoil Into Triumph: Obstacle Racing As a True North

The last year and a half has brought out of me a newfound dedication and passion for training. Despite my new resolve to train and compete, immediately before the Sacramento Super Spartan race, I found myself in a state of lull I haven’t experienced since my final few months as a collegiate track athlete.

Why am I doing this?

I’m certainly going to fail and I don’t care.

What difference does it make anyway?

Those were just a few of the thoughts going through my head in the week leading up to what was supposed to be my benchmark race. The come down off the high of the Tahoe World Championships was a rough one. That combined with the fact that I was going through a difficult break up with my then fiancé, made for a sort of surreal experience as I tried to get my mind right for the Sacramento Super Spartan race.

After my mediocre performance at Spartan World Championships I was pretty humbled and disappointed. I placed much lower than I would have preferred. There were points in that race that my physical ability was called into question. The bucket crushed my soul. That left me questioning every aspect of my training and in a tough place mentally. But if I have learned one thing in the past two years it’s that you have to just keep going. Despite the doubt, despite the pain, don’t stop. Just keep going. Even if you aren’t doing things perfectly, you are making more progress than if you are standing still or regressing.

The sun struggled to escape the horizon the morning of the Sacramento Super, as I left Folsom, CA on my way to the Van Vleck Ranch. As I made my way towards the ranch, I chocked back tears. I’m not exactly sure where the emotions were coming from.  I felt very alive and alone. It’s for that very reason that I am so thankful to have Spartan Racing in my life to keep me grounded and be my true north. Recently, I have had to spend a lot of time battling my demons. At times I have relented. But just like in training, you have to just keep going. I tell myself all the time it’s not the mistakes you make, but how you respond. Sometimes those words are hard to live by.

To complicate things further, I had been battling a tender piriformis. For those of you who don’t know, it is literally a pain in the butt. The piriformis is a deep muscle that attaches to the greater trochanter (hip bone). So sensation in this area is fell under the glut. It kinda feels like your butt hurts, though technically it’s not the glut.

It would only act up when I ran above a certain pace. This prevented me from running much faster than tempo pace in the weeks leading up to the Sacramento Super. As you could imagine, in every way possible my confidence was shaken going into this race. Physically and emotionally.

In my general life, I tend to be overly analytical and stress a lot about tiny details. When applied to Spartan Racing this means looking over the course map repeatedly, watching youtube videos of past races on the course, planning my fueling strategy to the minute; the list goes on and on. There is a fine line between being prepared and being obsessive. I have always had a hard time toeing that line. There were so many factors about the world championship that were different from all of the other races this year. This caused me to swerve over to the obsessive side of the preparation spectrum.

There was the altitude to contend with which impacts fueling and pace. There was the expected time on course (3-4 hours) which influences everything. There was the cold air and cold water. Then the layout of the aid stations, considering the weight of the water and fuel. It was a lot. I didn’t want to have a blowout on the course and be rendered a cramping mess.

Sacramento was different. I had no real expectations. I had been there before. Those two things combined with the fact that I was relatively distracted in other ways, meant I didn’t really have a chance to stress out about this specific race. I even slept the night before which tends to allude me most race eves.

Back to the morning of the race. I started my warm up later than normal with the hopes of finishing it as close as possible to the actual race start time. The extended corral holds have been a major issue for me lately. I wanted to do as much as possible to mitigate the damage caused by all of these long holds. Funny enough this is a large aspect of my race strategy. Today my plan was to report at 7:25 for the 7:30 start. This plan almost backfired due to an emergency last minute bathroom stop. Luckily, I made it just in time as they sang the national anthem to start at the front of the pack. The song ended and after a short hoorah, we were off! The leaders went out pretty fast at about a 5-5:30 mile pace. I didn’t think I would be able to maintain that so after about 1/2 mile I decided to pull back and settle into my pace which is like 6:30 to 7:00 on flats. The difference this year is even though the race winners were about 7 minutes ahead of me by the end of the race, I kept “contact” with them most of the way. Last year I just remember seeing a tiny dot off in the distance that turned out to be Cody Moat. The obstacles in the beginning of the race seems to be mostly thinning the heard devices, walls, over under throughs. Stuff like that. About midway through there were an onslaught of strength obstacles including an uphill tire pull, tire flip, Herculean hoist and the bucket. My monkey mind was certain the bucket would kill me because I had not had a chance to work on it much during this training block, but I crushed it. I actually felt like a crushed all of the obstacles. I still need to work on my speed through the obstacle and be less cautious.

When all the dust settled, I finished in 9th place. This was my first top 10 and I am very happy about that. I learned 3 things in this race. First, if I ever want to win a race, I am going to need to average at least 30 seconds faster on my average moving pace and I will need to strip at least 30 seconds from each significant carry. Second, If I can do that, I have a chance to podium or win, depending on who shows up. The third thing I learned is that it might be better to not stress out on the preparation aspect. The hay is in the barn so don’t fret on all the little details. Take it as it comes and be smart in the moment.

My second season of racing is now in the books. Overall, I consider the season a success. The first year was highly reactive.  I had to figure out a new sport and how to train for it. This year my goals were clear and I hit all of them. I qualified for the Elite heat at the world championships, earned a top 10 finish in a non-stadium race and I never finished outside of the Top 20 in any Elite heat race other than the world championships. As an athlete who remembers a time when I rarely lost and was always in contention to win, it’s an adjustment to slowly crawl up the rankings, being happy with small successes along the way.

With two seasons of racing in the books I have become a much better obstacle racer, but I still have a long way to go. The mountain always gets steeper as you approach the summit. Some give up, some realize other things are more important than summiting, while others still realize they are not capable of reaching the summit no matter how hard they try. I’m not sure what camp I fall into, but I do know these two things are true: I’m having a lot of fun finding out. Also, I’m growing a lot as a person during this long ascent.

Written by elijahn5@gmail.com

Hello, My name is Elijah Markstrom. I am a personal trainer and fitness coach. I live a dynamic life and I love to give people access to how they can live a dynamic life as well!