Greg White attempted at 53 what he had once accomplished at 18, hoping just to live…
It’s good to be alive.
Recently, as I boarded the bus to compete in the Spartan Race in Malibu, memories of arriving at Parris Island to join the Marine Corps popped into my head like mean drill instructors storming a bus. Bus transport held no appeal then and holds less now. They’re great—I’d much rather leave the driving to someone else—but once you’ve been screamed off a bus, the gentility of being chauffeured is over. The Spartan Race is as challenging as any USMC event. There are some differences…
Of all the organized Marine Corps challenge courses, the Spartan Race was most similar to the ass-kicking Endurance Run at Officer Candidates School (OCS).
When I joined the Marines with my best friend Dale, he was fit but concerned that I’d never run a mile. I’d hurried through plenty of malls, but the stores I frequented were too close together.
When I first ran in the Marines, it was hard and painful. The only good thing about physical training was that we got to momentarily trade in our ball-juggling boxer shorts for junk-hugging jock straps.
Sort of like I hadn’t exercised before entering boot camp, I didn’t train for the Spartan. I prayed that muscles had a fantastic memory, that the mind fuck provided by my drill instructors was still easy to recall and would drive my legs forward. I was 18 then, I’m 53 now.
While I can’t wiggle my nose back to it’s original shape or make myself younger, I can exercise my right to buy better equipment. I hit the sporting goods store in search of protective gear. The salesteen asked me what size knee pads I wore. “Knobby?”
Armed with plenty of padding and all-terrain running shoes, I hit the ground … jogging. Pace is key, those sprinting out of the gate onto the trail’s loose rocks are voted “most likely to be carried out on a stretcher with a leg taped up with a stick as an emergency splint by a hungover volunteer.” #notwinning
I wasn’t drafted into the military, I enlisted. When in the middle of an incredibly rough task I remembered that I’d asked for this—I was free to walk away at any time. Hand in my M-16, hug my bunkie goodbye and slink out and away from my peers and fears.
The same with the Spartan. When the going got tough, I could’ve easily darted off the rough, steep, jagged, muddy trail at any point. But the love of friends is a powerful motivator.
Dale had recently suffered an injury and a case of common sense and couldn’t join. I ran the race with his wife Laura—it was her original idea—she was celebrating and honoring her father on what would have been his 90th birthday. Now that’s seriously sweating to the oldies.
In boot camp when the shit got crazy, all I had to do was look over at Dale who tossed me his dimpled smile. Sincerity hammered in by dimples calms even the most savage nerves.
Along the Spartan course, I found that same comfort looking over at Laura. We’d silently hit a wall—not the wall of exhaustion, an actual wall we had to scale—and we’d look at it together, figuring out the best way to overcome it. As we ran off down the trail, I heard her sweet voice as she slid alongside me. Maybe she knew my lungs felt like sizzling bacon as she suggested “Want to pick up the pace?” My feet lightened and off we went.
As individual as accomplishments are in life, the buoyant attitude provided by my fellow Marines still carries me through tough times. On the Spartan trail, Laura and I hollered encouragement at a stranger struggling to heave a cement bucket 50 feet in the air. After he succeeded, he tossed us an eyes-only high-five as he hobbled off to the next obstacle. Camaraderie is a fantastic motivator.
I thought about death while on the race course. Once my footing was secure, I looked out and over the beautiful mountains at the costly Malibu estates with room for a pony and a landing strip. My chest was on fire, my legs reeked of the jelly cronuts I’d eaten three days before, and as I began to believe that I was going to cross the finish line alive—a thought wedged it’s way in to my delirious mind. If I survived this, I hoped my heart wouldn’t ironically decide to steal the spotlight from my victory and walk off the job as I slept that night. Fuck you, I quit.
It was already the coldest day since time began in Malibu. And it never rains in Southern California unless I have a race to run. We would have trudged though mud made by the mad men organizing the race, but God wanted to add a little. I think he’s still pissed about Alanis Morissette misinterpreting irony.
The most intense pain I experienced in the military was shin splints. That crippling irritant no longer flares up when I run, but I experienced a pain on the Spartan course that was so raw and unimaginably horrible that I’d give my left nut not to have ever felt—but I can’t offer that trade as my nuts are no longer accessible—the icy blast from hitting the water obstacles sent them retreating to another dimension. I now have the crotch of an aging Ken doll.
As soon as I hit the black icy water, my only reaction was to emit a scream that resembled a mechanical bird being shot over the skies of Tokyo in a clunky horror classic. My panic intensified as I tried to find the squishy pond’s bottom. The competitor in front of me spat out an apology for kicking me, but the direct jabs in my face from her shoe’s cleats were welcome respites from the sharp shards of excruciating pain the freezing water stabbed in my chest over and over and over with each stroke. I was Janet Leigh in Psycho but with better hair. I swallowed some of the rank swamp water and will probably fight off intestinal complications for years, but at least I’m out of and away from that fucking water.
In OCS, it was most advantageous to be among the first to run this course on test days because the thousands of other recruits muddied the slippery slope of the water torture element, known as the Quigley, making our escape from the pond of impossibility even more challenging. Hit it early and you resembled James Bond chicly emerging to kill; get there late and you looked like Jerry Lewis buttering wiggly toast with his entire body.
Just like in the Marines, we had to crawl on our bellies over a muddy, rocky path, keeping our heads low to avoid the barbed wire just off the ground. Here in Malibu, this obstacle went on a lot longer and was helluva lot steeper than the same element at Quantico. There I had a steel helmet to protect my head from the barbed wire. Had we not donned gloves along with our knee and elbow pads, I would’ve limped off the course right then, but I pressed on. I passed plenty of great-looking, buffed-out chiseled young men whose impressive eight-pack abs probably got them laid the night before, but were ineffective on this hill. The cries caused by their naked, bloody knees still haunt me.
As I climbed the last wall, a long incline we had to scale with a rope, I was glad to have watched all that Batman. At first I thought he had it easy—Gotham City skyscrapers weren’t slippery from mud, but then I wasn’t burdened with a cape. Once over, I turned back to see Laura perched on the top, having a hard time. In a flash, two guys—each sacrificing their own finish time—stopped and grabbed her arms and gave her a boost. We’re born alone and die alone, but while alive we’re in this world together.
It was dark when we finished the Spartan course. I hopped over the burning log obstacle, not caring if I fell and toasted my frozen body like a weenie on a stick at a campfire. Three different guys hit me with giant cotton swabs known in the trade as pugil sticks, and a pretty girl slung a ribbon with a medal on it around my neck. I shivered my way into the men’s changing tent, grateful for the heat being generated by an electric heater and live men.
There was to be no Spartan group cleanup like in the Marines, where we crowded in under the shower nozzles asshole-to-bellybutton close, soaping each other up because it was easier.
I felt invigorated and thankful to have finished the race. As my breathing resumed closer to my normal pant, I thought to myself that I might be in the best shape of my life. If I can do these things, civilian or military, anyone can. I encourage everyone to exercise that confidence and push themselves physically.
The bus ride was quieter than it had been on the way to the race. I climbed in my car and pointed it home, fingering my medal as I drove realizing that this is rewarding work. Like the Marine Corps’ muscle and mind building challenges, the Spartan event not only gives you a medal but the chest to pin it on.
When my eyes opened the next morning, I lay in bed for a second, appreciating that miraculously simple flutter of my eyelashes. I gently wiggled my body like I was checking a box to see if the contents were shattered; I needed to assess the severity of the damage. My lower back was a bit sore, but I sprang up from bed and hit the ground running to make coffee. Pain slapped me in the abs and whispered, Whoa, tiger, you tried to kill us yesterday and we’re pissed. You need to show us, and our neighbors the Quads, some tender love. PS old man, your butt isn’t what it used to be; you’re gonna need to sit slowly for a few days.
I’m proud and happy to have endured this with Laura — equal to what I felt after graduating boot camp with Dale, whose mother looked me in the eye and said, I didn’t think we’d see you alive again. After the Spartan race, Dale confided with me that the same concern raced through his mind as my 53-year-old body sprinted off into the Malibu woods. Of the 5000+ competitors, I finished 30th. In my age group.
Will I do another one? My track record flips over like a hazy 8 Ball and says, cannot predict now.
It’s good to be alive.
Feature photo: AP/Rachel La Corte