It was 35 degrees fahrenheit in the morning of October 27th, 2012. My friend and I were headed to a rural area outside of Chicago to try out this new thing called a “Spartan Race”.
Having played sports throughout school, I had always been athletic and competitive. But like many other former athletes, I had let myself go in recent years. To try to turn this around, I signed up for several 5K runs in Chicago just to stay active. I enjoyed them, but I don’t really have a “runner's body” (I played lineman in football) so I knew that I would not become elite.
This Spartan Race sounded interesting though. It was an obstacle course where you ran through trails, rather than pavement. The obstacles required strength as well as endurance, which would play to my advantage. And I also grew up in the Pacific Northwest, so running in the woods sounded like a nice change from the concrete of Chicago. So my friend and I signed up, and ran into the cold forest of Marseilles, Illinois.
That first race was the most athletic fun I had since high school. I felt like a kid again as I ran through the trails, the mud, got to climb over walls and throw spears. I ended up finishing 334th in the race, but something told me I could become elite at this if I tried hard enough.
2 years, 4 days, and 8 Spartan Races later, I crossed the finish line in 7th place overall.
It has been a long journey, and one that is far from over, but making it in the Top 10 for the first time has made me reflect on what I’ve learned over the past 2 years. And I wanted to share the lessons with you:
1. Think big, but start small
I was excited after that first race. 334th almost seemed embarrassing. I wanted to make major improvements and fast. So I set a workout program to lift every morning and run every night.
This program lasted a week. My body and my willpower broke down. I spent the next couple of weeks wanting to workout, but ultimately either sleeping in, or hitting the couch after work instead of the gym. This wasn’t sustainable.
So I set a more realistic workout program. I started small and made sure that I was consistent. However, just because I started small didn’t mean that I thought small. I always had my mind set on the Top 10, but I knew it would take a lot of time and effort to get there.
2. The middle of the journey is by far the hardest
It’s easy to find motivation immediately after you just finished a race. You see your results, you see your progress, you see where you need improvement, and you set your plan to do better next time.
It’s also easy to find motivation when you’re close to your next race. You get excited as you get closer to race day. You want to improve as much as possible in the little time you have left.
The hard part is the middle. When the motivation from the last race has worn off, the next race is months away, and your alarm clock goes off in the middle of the winter. This is when one day, one workout, and one bag of Cheetos all look insignificant.
It took a lot of willpower for me to stay focused during these months. To get through them, it helped me a lot to remember that this is the hardest part of the journey. And if it was the hardest part for me, it was just as hard for the competition. So If I could push through it, I would have an advantage.
3. Strive for progress, not perfection
Again, as much as I wanted to be in the Top 10 right away, I knew it would take time. So with each race I sought to just do better than the last one. Unfortunately with Spartan Race no two races are the same, so you can’t measure your previous times, just your previous places.
Here are my places over the last 2 years:
Chicago Oct-2012 – 334th
Indiana Apr-2013 – 78th
Chicago July-2013 – 50th
Nebraska Oct-2013 – 21st
Miller Park Nov-2013 – 30th
Dallas Dec-2013 – 24th
Indiana Apr-2014 – 16th
Monterrey Jun-2014 – 14th
Chicago Sep-2014 – 15th
Miller Park Nov-2014 – 7th
The level of competition was lower in Nebraska, which is why I placed higher than others at the time, and I missed a key obstacle in Chicago that set me back. But other than those 2 races, my results showed a clear progression.
If I had set a goal of Top 10 for each race, I would have walked away disappointed each time. But by setting a goal for progress, I walked away more confident with each result.
4. The higher you get, the harder it is to climb
There are 3 types of growth: linear, logarithmic, and exponential.
Linear growth is steady improvement over time. Exponential growth is when improvement is small at first, but gets greater and greater over time. Logarithmic growth is when you make major improvements at first, then see fewer and fewer improvements over time.
Going back to the results, you can see I made a big leap from Top 400 to Top 100, then smaller from Top 100 to Top 50, then smaller from Top 50 to Top 30, etc.
Yet, with each passing month my training was getting harder. I needed to work much harder to see any type of major improvement. When you hit this peak, you need to start thinking outside the box to continue to make improvements.
5. Diet matters
There are two major changes I made to help me get from the Top 30 to the Top 10. The first was a change to my diet. After about a year of training, I was fit but not healthy. I ate whatever I wanted because I was burning so many calories that I could get away with it.
Then I heard about the benefits of the Paleo diet from a friend who owns a gym. He told me to give it a try to see if it helped in my training. So I picked up a book called The Paleo Diet for Athletes and followed their detailed diet plan.
After following it for just a few weeks, I saw major improvements. I had hit a plateau and this diet helped me push through it. I got stronger, faster and was able to recover much more quickly. I still follow it almost a year later.
6. If you’re serious, hire an expert
The second major decision I made was to hire my coach, Owen Brittan. I was doing the same thing over and over again in my training and needed something new. I felt I had reached the limit of what I would be able to accomplish on my own, so I hired him to oversee my training.
This helped me in 3 major ways.
First, someone who knew more about the human body than I did was now setting a specific plan for improvement. I didn’t know about things like super-compensation or the specific exercises that would help for each obstacle. He set a plan that would help me improve much more specifically than just running and lifting.
Second, he forced me to do the things that I didn’t want to do. I hate burpees, but they’re absolutely necessary for the Spartan Race, so he pushed me to do them. The same goes for box jumps, rowing and lunges. This helped me improve in areas that I would never have worked on by myself.
Third, he provided social pressure. By setting a workout myself, I don’t really have to do it. I can cut corners, and I can justify skipping it because I only need to answer to myself. With a coach, though, I would have to answer to him. For some reason, excuses don't sound nearly as rational when you tell them to others.
7. Willpower is the best ally
When Arnold Schwarzenegger was asked what separated the champion body builders from the rest, his answer wasn’t genetics, diet, expert coaching or the perfect training program.
His answer was “what do they do on the last rep?” 
Champions are built on the last rep and the last mile. This is when your body and mind are telling you “for the love of God STOP!!” And you need to summon the strength to keep going. If you can push through this pain, you create new limits of what your body is able to accomplish. That is how you make real improvements. 
Genetics, diet, and coaching are all factors for sure, but they do not matter as much as mental strength. If you don’t push yourself beyond your comfort zone, you will never improve – regardless of the other factors.
8. The only person you need to be better than is the person you were yesterday
The sport of obstacle course racing is growing every year. They now have TV contracts with NBC, new races springing up everywhere and international expansion. With this growth will come increased competition.
I can’t focus on that though. I cannot control who shows up on race day, how they trained, or what their history of racing is. All I can control is my effort and focus. The only person I need to be better than is the one I was yesterday. If I continue to keep that mentality, whether I make it from 7th to 1st or not, I will know that I did my best, and I am a better person for it.
Anything worth doing takes a lot time. Patience has been my best ally through this process. I knew when I came 334th 2 years ago that I had a long road ahead of me. I know now that I may have an equally long road ahead from 7th to 1st. But I’m ready to work even harder to make that leap.
This same process can be applied to any one of our goals. Dream big, but start small. Find inspiration when you’re in the middle of the journey – those days are going to be the hardest. You’re not going to be great on day one, so strive for progress, not perfection. Understand the growth curve that you’re on and set your expectations accordingly. Think outside the box – like I did with changing my diet and hiring a coach. And always remember, your willpower is your best ally. No matter how hard it is, or how hard it gets, you always have the willpower to do what’s right.
- Pumping Iron. Dir. George Butler. Perf. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Cinema 5, 1977.
- Adler, E. M. "How Do Muscles Know to Grow?" Science Signaling 3.109 (2010): Ec50.