When I arrived at the site of the inaugural Extreme Nation race this past weekend, I had no real set of expectations for this race. Although there was a part of me that knew that it would be a highly competitive event, I don’t believe I could have imagined to what extent the competition would actually be. But being that it was essentially the first race of it’s kind, there was a part of me that was skeptical about a 1.6 mile race being something that would both challenge racers while also proving to be enticing enough to stick around for future events. So I went into this race as I do many races, with the simple expectation to have fun and come away with a great experience. Little did I know that I was going to pour so much of my heart, soul, and tenacity into this race, that I would come face-to-face with the harshness of personal weakness and the threat of failure, and finally walk away just hours later with not just a medal, but an immense amount of emotion, pride, and inspiration.
I met with my team, sponsored by local race Mud Endeavor (whose Race Director also took on the task of working with OCR legend Hobie Call to put on Extreme Nation), shortly before the 8am instructional meeting that was mandatory for all elite teams. We were excited, even a bit nervous, as we each confided to each other our individual concerns about which obstacles would challenge us, and also about where we hoped to excel during the race. Unanimously we all voiced our insecurities about two specific obstacles; the unique set of monkey bars, which consisted of an ascending then descending series of bars, with a rope in the middle intended for racers to grab the rope once they had climbed one side of the bars, swing across to grab the opposite bars, and then descend the other side. The bars were spaced far apart, and slick due to the light rain, making the incline even more daunting than normal for most female, and some male, participants. The other concerning obstacle, the great equalizer, was the rope climb.
All elite teams met at 8am to receive our final instructions from the Race Director. It was deemed that the monkey bar obstacle may be too challenging for some female competitors, so although men were required to attempt till completion, women were to try the full obstacle, then try climbing the middle rope to swing to the descent, and if both attempts were failed, 20 penalty burpees would release the female participant to continue on. Women were also only required to carry one 50lb sandbag instead of two, and although men were required to hold their sandbags at their sides, women were allowed to carry theirs in any way we saw fit. Outside of that, all other obstacles were to be completed by all competitors in the same fashion. Teams of 4 men and women would be competing against each other for cash prizes, and as we stood together receiving our instructions I realized that this race would be no easy competition. The likes of World’s Toughest Mudder winner Junyung Pak, Spartan Race Elite Racer Hunter McIntyre, and Spartan Race Elite/Body Builder/All Around Beast Mode female Ella Kociuba showed up with hopes to win the coveted cash prizes, taking the competition from intense, to all around insanely fierce. We knew that to place anywhere above last place, we would have to give this event all we had.
The elite men began at 9am, one team of four beginning each minute. This gave us the perfect opportunity to spectate as team after team was sent down the course, tackling the 20+ obstacles one by one. We watched as they tackled many obstacles with ease, and formulated a hopeful plan-of-attack where they seemed to struggle. After the last team of men was sent down the course, it was our time to line up, it was time for the women to take on the course.
Eight female teams gathered in the starting corral. 32 powerful, determined women, ready to tackle the course the men had just taken on. We lined up, said our well wishes to our team mates, and before we could blink we were on our way. My focus for this race was on pacing. I didn’t want to start too fast, only to find myself with no gas left in the tank by the final obstacles. To me, the race itself was a course built to play toward a man’s strength, with a heavy emphasis on upper body challenges. Monkey bars, tractor pull, sandbag carry, parallel bars, rope climb… these obstacles alone are tough enough to challenge the most seasoned elite males, which makes me even more proud to have been a part of the amazing group of women that took on this course.
Despite the shorter length course, this race was no cake walk. The barrage of upper body challenges and obstacles left even the fiercest competitor feeling zapped of energy by the time the finish line was in sight. I took the obstacles in stride, knowing that I was not the fastest competitor present, I planned to use my strength in obstacles to surge ahead of my competition. The sandbag carry and tractor pull did not phase me in the way that it crippled many racers, and the series of cargo climbs and over/unders were completed with ease. My attempt at the monkey bars was quickly followed by the 20 burpee penalty, as I was unable to keep a quality grip to maneuver the obstacle. And as I rounded the bend toward the finish, with only the rope climb to complete, I felt confident. I was ready to claim a quality finish.
Now I must explain that although the rope climb has given me a bit of a struggle at previous races, I’ve never failed a rope climb, nor have I had to attempt the climb more than once. Each time prior to this race I had moved methodically up the rope, taking a quick break if needed mid-climb, but I had never failed. Well apparently Extreme Nation was determined to shake that confidence a bit, and I was forced to come face to face with the shattering reality that I may not be as strong as I thought I was, because at this race, I struggled with this obstacle more than any obstacle I have ever faced.
I reached the rope climb, and quickly realized that my entire team was there with me at the same obstacle, attempting to reach the bell at the top which would release us to finish the race. I felt confident that I could lead my team to victory, planning to climb the rope with ease and then dash ahead to the finish line. But with increasing despair, we each attempted to ascend the rope, and time after time, we each failed. I recall hitting a point where I looked over at my husband on the sidelines, discouraged, my forearms burning and my hands shaking uncontrollably, and I said, “I don’t think I can do this.”
I had never spoken those defeated words during a race, and allowing that phrase to escape my mouth in a desperate plea to be given mercy felt like a punch to the gut. I felt like a failure. I felt foolish to have believed that I could compete against the women who had effortlessly cruised up the rope as though it posed no challenge whatsoever. I looked around at those who remained at the ropes, all of us struggling to overcome an obstacle that, with each failed attempt, seemed to grow taller and more ominous. As I watched the frustration building around me, I came to the resolve that this obstacle would not defeat me, and that I would not leave this race feeling as though I failed. I mustered all of the strength I had remaining, gripped the rope with a resolve to finish my race, and climbed that rope.
I hit that bell with a triumphant ferocity, it’s ring announcing that I had not been defeated. With a renewed strength I shouted out my victory, a sense of relief and empowerment washing over me. I eagerly descended and crossed the finish line, thrilled that I didn’t give up, that I didn’t allow the voice inside me telling me that climbing that rope was impossible. I had won a personal battle, and it was a pretty amazing feeling.
The championship wave quickly arrived, and the top 10 male teams lined up to compete for their spot on the podium. The competition was fierce, and as they battled it out on the field, the 8 female teams prepared to again tackle the course. With my recent struggle still fresh in my mind, I dreaded my 2nd turn at the rope climb, but resolved that I would push as hard as I could to complete the obstacle more quickly this time. I wanted not only to make myself proud, but to make my team proud.
Happily, that is exactly what I did.
I traveled the course again, taking on obstacle after obstacle. And as I neared the rope climb, I watched on as my first two teammates conquered the rope on their first attempt. Their excited screams echoed through the air, and I told myself that I too, was going to follow suit. I arrived, noticing that a few of the other competitors who had struggled initially were again attempting their climbs. Not this time, I told myself, I’m not going to get stuck here again.
Deep breath, tight grip, and climb! I dug deep and climbed to the top of the rope, swiping for the bell.. and narrowly missed by a fraction of an inch…. Feeling defeated yet again I found myself slipping toward the ground, dumbfounded that I had not hit the bell. Upon reaching the ground, I took a moment to calm my nerves, and again reached upward, ascending the rope with profound determination. This time, I succeeded! I was able to finish the championship wave with a time that I was proud of, I helped my team earn a 6th place win and $400, and above all with the knowledge that I did not let the course get the better of me. That, to me, has got to be one of the best feelings in the world.
I came away from Extreme Nation having experienced a vast array of emotions. I arrived hopeful and confident, experienced time of major struggle, became discouraged and doubtful of my abilities as a competitor, felt elated when I finally achieved a result I’d begun to believe was not going to happen, and left with a pride in myself and in my team that in almost indescribable.
Despite my initial skepticism, I’m now left with an intense gratitude for having run this race. I am grateful to have been provided with such a fantastic experience, proud to have pushed through pain and self-doubt to finish a race that I, at one point, thought might be impossible, and am empowered to continue growing, learning, and building my own abilities for future races. Although the future of Extreme Nation may have a few hills and valleys as they discover what exact formula will fit their ideals best, I do hope to see this one stick around. They have a great, challenging race, and it’s one that I know I will always be proud of.
PS. A huge THANK YOU to Randy of Mud Endeavor for asking me to be a part of the elite female team, what an honor! And also to my team mates, Ashley, Amanda, & Crystal, it was a pleasure running with you!