Sometimes we come across stories or receive private messages from our community-at-large sharing with us just what Operation Enduring Warrior means to them in regards to empowerment. It is quite a testimony to the power of our impact when we read these stories and really think about the message that we are getting back from those who cross paths with us on a course, or road, or trail. One such e-mail recently came across our desks and we felt the desire to share it in full. This one moment in time has led to a unique and inspiring partnership, two years later, with one of the fastest growing veteran-based, non-profit organizations in the U.S. On October 28-29, OEW is honored to share the weekend with the Chris Kyle Memorial Run for their Friday evening benefit and then to honor one of their own, LCDR (SEAL) Amir Pishdad, as our Adaptive Athlete Honoree for the Dallas Spartan Beast.
This is the story of how it all happened, from one of the organization Directors.
“While this whole story starts with me, I’d prefer if the story wasn’t about me at all. I am here to pay back a debt I owe to men much greater than I. As long as I can remain in the shadows and give back to the community in relative anonymity, I’ll be perfectly happy.” ~Anonymous
I started running OCRs in mid-2014. Six months earlier, I had reconnected on Facebook with a friend I had not talked to in about 12-14 years. We “friended” each other and got caught up. Over the next few weeks and months I saw him posting pictures of various races… with tons and tons of military-style obstacles. Being a military brat growing up on Air Force bases my whole life, and then going on active duty myself in the Navy, this looked like a lot of fun to me! So, we started talking about these races, apparently called Spartan Races, that he was doing all over the country. We got to talking about it and he finally said, “Hey! You should come out and join me! There’s a race in May just outside of Austin (where I live).”
At this point I feel a need, on my own behalf, to mention that there was a time when I was a pretty damn good athlete. I played a wide variety of sports all the way through college, and was pretty successful at all those that I found interesting. Previous to this I was a competitive body builder for 12-13 years, and at the time of this race, I had been a competitive power lifter for about 6 years. Now… all of that is to say that I went into this with more than a little arrogance. I knew that I would “dominate” all the obstacles. And, what’s it going to be? Like… 1/2 mile between each obstacle on average?? “No problem” I told myself. “It’ll suck a little on those runs, but, I’m not setting any land speed records so I’ll just take it easy.” Boy, was I in for a surprise!
The morning of the Austin Spartan Super came. I had recently joined an OCR team by the name of The Lone Star Spartans. My OCR buddy had introduced me to them and gotten me added to the team. We did a quick warm-up before our 9:00 am team heat and proceeded to file into the starting area. Getting TO the starting line of a Spartan Race typically requires that you jump a couple wooden fences… and today was no different. I walked up to the first 5′ wall, readied myself, jumped and promptly tore my left groin. I knew it immediately when it happened. I had a few teammates help me over the second 5′ wall… it was then that I knew I was in for a looong day.
We get about 1/2 mile into the race and I’m having to favor my left leg pretty significantly. Then, as luck would have it, as we’re coming down a slightly technical area with a lot of loose rocks, my right foot slips out from under me, I slide down about 2 feet, catch some traction on my shoe and roll over my right ankle, spraining it pretty badly. So now I’ve got a torn left groin and a sprained right ankle. Not exactly how I had envisioned the day going…
Fast forward about 3-4 miles… and I can begin to feel a very dull, non-specific pain in both feet. Having gone through this before a few times, I immediately recognize the initial symptoms of stress fractures in my feet! Several days later, when I’m at the doctor’s office getting checked out, I find out after x-rays that I would end up with 3 stress fractures in my right foot and 1 in my left! But, at the time, I just keep trudging on.
This is the point in this story where I like to rewind just a tiny bit. As all people who have done these types of races know, people are started in waves that go off from the start line in regular, timed increments… usually every 15 or 30 minutes. That Saturday morning we had a start time of 9:00 am. And, every 15 minutes after that, until 3:00 pm the Spartan Race officials sent off another wave of runners. Now, mostly due to my horrible cardiovascular conditioning and training, and less to do with my actual injuries that day, we were most certainly in the very rear of our heat/wave. So…after about 30 minutes or so from our start time, the 9:15 am wave began to catch up to us! I’m quite certain that these experienced runners could take one look at me and tell that I was laboring and that I was in for a very bad day. Yet, a solid one-fourth of them would say something positive and encouraging as they came prancing by me like a group of wild antelope! “Good job man!”….”Keep working hard big guy!”…”Way to go! Don’t give up!” were all said as these younger, fantastically conditioned men and women bound past me. Now being a hyper-competitive kind of guy, these statements rang pretty hollow. In fact, they all came across completely disingenuous! It was like these runners were taunting me… talking smack to me right to my face on the course!! I was getting peeved! But, eventually, that 9:15 wave finished passing us and I could go back to putting one foot in front of the next…
And then the 9:30 am wave fell upon us! And not surprisingly, I get berated by even more runners! It was more of the same… same wording… same verbiage. Same sentiments. And… I responded just like I did the first time… PISSED. But then, it happened again… another 30 minutes later. And then it happened again, 30 minutes after that… and again… AND AGAIN! Slowly it dawned on me that it was pretty unlikely that ALL these people were Grade A – A-HOLES! Maybe… just maybe, they were actually being sincere?!!?
This process went on ALL DAY. I would eventually finish that race with a time of 7 hours and 17 minutes. And, I can honestly say that literally hundreds of complete strangers cheered me on to that finish line all day long! I felt a brotherhood… a camaraderie with them that I had not felt since I was on active duty in the Navy. Frankly, I didn’t even know, until that exact moment, that I was even missing it! But, I knew once I had a fresh taste of it that I was exactly where I needed to be.
I crossed the finish line there in Burnet, Tx. in just over 7 hours with a new friend from the Lone Star Spartans, Dani Voelkel. We found each other at about the halfway point of the race. She could tell I was in pain and suffering with every step. But, she had a smile on her face and she helped me though the rest of that race. I would find out a week later that she finished the race with 2 broken ribs from falling at an obstacle right before we met up! But, she never once let on that she was even hurt… instead, focusing her energy on making sure that I was OK. Dani and I are still very good, dear friends and we see each other at most of the Texas races.
My girlfriend at the time had gone ahead of me with a few others and finished well before I did. As Dani and I crossed the finish line 2 simple words rang in my head over and over again, “NEVER AGAIN!” I limped my way back to our team tent, took off my shoes, threw a towel over my head, and cried like a baby for about 5 minutes…not because of the physical pain mind you. No, I wept because I knew that I had found something my heart and soul had been longing for! I felt like I was home again.
After we all got cleaned up, we headed out to dinner…we all ate and drank like Visigoth barbarians! Now, here I should pause the story and mention that Spartan Race, for the first time ever, was trying a new race configuration. Usually, Spartan sets up a single course and runners come out and run either Saturday or Sunday….but everyone runs the same exact course. THIS weekend, for the first time ever, Spartan was changing the race configuration from Saturday to Sunday. The Saturday course was their mid-distance event, called a Super. On Sunday, they completely changed the course around and configured it for their shortest distance event, a Sprint. I had originally just signed up for the Sprint with my buddy. BUUUT… my new girlfriend had sweet talked me into also signing up for the Super on Saturday, which I had just completed. Now, as I sat there in the team tent immediately following my Super finish, I KNEW there was no way I could race again the next morning… shorter course be damned! I was going to have to tell my girlfriend that she was going to run the Sprint without me the next morning.
We get through all of dinner and I haven’t thought of a good way to tell her I cannot run on Sunday without sounding like a whiner. We get back to our hotel room… we shower… watch some tv… lay down and go to sleep… and no, I still haven’t figured out how to tell her!
We wake up on time to the alarm Sunday morning and, lo and behold, my feet actually feel half-decent! I tell myself that I’ll go out to the venue and spectate and cheer everyone on! My body can certainly handle that. So we eat breakfast, pack up, load the car and head to the race venue…and no, I still haven’t told my girlfriend a thing! We walk down to the team tent, meet and greet everyone then we start a big team warm-up for our team wave (which I skip). And then all of a sudden the team starts to make it’s way to the starting line. I walk alongside my girlfriend knowing that time is up and I have to tell her now! Well… in an odd twist of circumstances, I get distracted by a friend asking questions, there’s another distraction up at the front of the line, someone tells a joke, and then we’re OFF! What in THE hell just happened?!?! It’s honestly still quite a blur, but yea, sure enough, despite my best intentions, I was back there out on the course Sunday for the Spartan Sprint!!
Now, the previous long diatribe is ALL preamble for what I’m about to share. It only took about 1/2 a mile before my feet started hurting badly! I knew I had stress fractures in both feet… and that this was going to make them much worse. But, I was there… let’s just get through this!
Somewhere around the 3.5 mile-mark was an obstacle called the inverted wall. It’s a wooden wall set to a 45 degree angle and all you had to do was climb over it… but you had to do it from the opposite side! So, effectively you were climbing backwards! I was able to complete this obstacle the previous day with help from about 4 or 5 teammates. On Sunday, I found myself alone as we came up to the inverted wall. The trees in this area got thicker, forcing a bit of a natural bottleneck leading to the 2 walls. I fell into single-file line behind 3 guys… telling myself that I’m just going to skip this one today. There’s just no way my feet and calves could stand up to it. And THAT is where our story really begins…
I look up, wallowing in self-pity and notice that the guy directly in front of me is wearing an Operation Enduring Warrior t-shirt!! I mentally say to myself, “Nice! I love those guys!” And then I notice it… the guy only has 1 arm. I look ahead of him and THAT guy also has an Operation Enduring Warrior shirt on! And…on closer examination, he only has one arm and one leg!! Then I see the guy at the front of our line… yes, also wearing an Operation Enduring Warrior t-shirt. And…this guy has ZERO arms and only 1 leg!! And, right as I notice…he begins moving up to the wall. I watch on intently, surely his buddies are going to help him… right!?! NOPE! He attacked that wall like it owed him money! He gets to the top, flips himself over the top and disappears on the other side. The next guy does exactly the same… as does the guy immediately in front of me!
Suddenly, my feet don’t hurt so much… and my calves aren’t quite so fatigued! And I say to myself, “there is NO WAY IN HELL I am going to disrespect THOSE 3 men by walking around this obstacle when I have full use of all 4 of my limbs, and they obviously don’t!” Without ANY help or assistance, I yank and pull and squirm my way over that damn wall. And, the 3 OEW guys are there on the opposite side as I come down, one of them just smiles and gives me a nod before turning to his brothers and moving out.
There were a LOT of very emotional moments for me personally that weekend. But, being a proud Navy veteran, raised in a career military family, that one sequence with 3 guys whose names I’ll likely never know, was more profound than my poor vocabulary can properly express.
So, when I talked to LCDR. (SEAL) Amir Pishdad (spinal injury, confined to a wheelchair) about joining us for the weekend, I knew exactly who to contact when he began asking questions about the run itself and if he could do it!