Winters are hard when you work for yourself.
Especially in the winter of early 2018. Business wasn’t going as well as I would have liked (see: job search) I was out of shape, and I was nursing a badly injured back. This kept me inside for most of every day. Usually, I would walk my daughter to school regardless of weather, and then get her the same way each day. This went away thanks to the back problems. (Thankfully, Keith Madden of Madden Chiropractic Helped me with that. )
Long story short: I became very, very depressed. Nothing seemed worth doing anymore. I simply wanted to get up, have a cup of coffee, and get back in bed every day. It was a rough time.
But winter gave way to spring, as it always does, and as I emerged from my cave of self imposed despair I vowed to myself “never again.” I wouldn’t let seasonal depression come around and rule over my existence again.
The summer went on, and business became better than it ever has been. I got in shape. I also made new friends in the fitness world. One of which was USA Powerlifting Team pro Adam Kent. Before Adam was throwing around 500+ pounds in competition, he was a competitive obstacle course racer. He still loved to do the races as cross-training, though. I told him I had done a Spartan Race before, and would be interested in running a race with him.
That’s when Adam recommended I look into Shale Hill.
Shale Hill was (Shale Hill is currently closed to the public, and is for sale) an obstacle course in North Central Vermont. It had gained particular notoriety for its Polar Bear Ice challenge, which was set in the dead of winter on their 10 mile course with more than fifty obstacles. Even the most elite racers often dropped out with terrible cramps, dehydration, fatigue, or frostbite.
A registration fee that made marital relations strained, and a waiver that would scare away any sane person later, I was signed up for February second.
What do you do when you sign up for a race that could seriously injure you, if you’re not fully prepared?
Worry about the shame of your friends laughing at you, at first. Then you get to work training, and preparing.
Because of this race, I forced myself out into the cold, the snow, and the freezing rain at least three days a week. I would gear up just like I was running the race. I would go out onto the trails behind my house and run them. If you haven’t ever run on snow, let me tell you how it is: When you run on sand, it feels good at first, as there’s almost no impact. Then, you start to get exhausted because of how easily your feet slip. Snow is about half as bad as sand in this regard, but you’re also constantly afraid of slipping on the ice below. It’s seriously difficult.
Around Christmas-time, I noticed something. I wasn’t getting depressed yet. Usually right around Christmas (the shortest days of the year) is where I would start to feel pretty bummed out. This year: nothing. Business was good, my family was happy, and I was going to defeat the Polar Bear, and my seasonal depression.
Then it got harder. The days never lengthen as fast as you think they will. Those few minutes of extra sunlight don’t help nearly as much as you want. Three runs a week became one, and suddenly it was “I’ll just do cardio on the bike at the gym” instead. I was getting more and more tired. This was not good.
Then my wife surprised me with an early Anniverary Present: Jack.
Jack was a 2 month old Australian Shepherd Puppy. Jack isn’t going to watch me ride a stationary bike at the gym! Jack wants out on those trails!
And so out we went. For the week before the race, I Power-walked with Jack (his little joints aren’t ready for running yet) all around those trails. We trudged through the snow and the ice, and I wasn’t as tired anymore. I looked forward to being outside again. And all of a sudden: I wasn’t scared of the Polar Bear anymore. In fact, I was excited about it!
We went up to Shale Hill the night before. I was spellbound. the entire area reminded me of home so intensely I was prepared to never leave. I am a Vermont native, and I grew up in the far back country of Vermont, with my nearest neighbor being about a half mile away, and generally never home anyway (he was a trucker.) The vast distances between homes, the untouched forests, and the pure, clear night sky were more than enough to make me realize that this race wasn’t just about physical fitness. It wasn’t just about working my way through my depression or my personal issues. It was about feeding my soul. It was about coming back home, and realizing that it’s still there. It was about giving myself that freedom to go where I wanted to, and pamper myself in that when I needed it. It was a crash course in personal spiritual health, and it was exactly what I needed.
I ran the race. I completed the race. It was cold. It was miserable at times. I watched people fall and get severely hurt. I saw several people with frostbite in varying stages. My cohort Adam even had the beginning stages on his toes when we finished our lap. It was intense, brutal, painful, and the single most fulfilling thing I have ever done, short of taking care of my daughter. True struggle, and hardship, and fear of pain or death puts the whole world into perspective in a way that nothing else can do.
When we completed the race, we were exhausted. We made a trek back to Adam’s truck to change, and the walk back up the hill to the “party barn” for the lunch buffet was the longest walk I ever remember taking. Something miraculous happened when we entered there, though.
Nobody was on their cell phones. Nobody was looking for something else to do. Nobody was “instagramming this” or, “checking in” on anything. They were all present. They were all “with” each other in a way that I feel has been lost in our technology age. Every face you smiled at, smiled right back, and asked how your race was. Everyone said “great!” even if they were nursing injuries, limping around, or otherwise truly beaten. There was no “upset” even if you didn’t hit your pace, or finish, or win. Everyone was great. And they really were.
It was like witnessing a room of 150 people all in a meditative state at once. We were all there for each other. To celebrate what we can accomplish. To help each other if needed. To congratulate each other on this amazing goal, no matter how it went, because it truly was amazing. I have never felt so close to a room of 100 strangers in my life.
Was the race expensive? Hell yes. Was the race difficult? The hardest thing I’ve ever done. Was it dangerous? Absolutely. I was in direct fear for my life about 50% of the time while running the race. Was it worth it? Not only was it worth it, but it fed my soul in ways that I cannot even comprehend.
If you’re looking for a moral, or an ending, I’m not sure there is one. The only thing I can recommend is this: do something that challenges you, and do it as often as you can. Struggle past who you are physically, as that’s the only way to feed your soul. And if you miss home: whether its the mountains of Vermont, or the skyscrapers of NYC: go home. That place has missed you, too.