By John Brown III
Each one of us is on a journey. We have different choices, different opportunities, and different paths to follow. At times on our journey, we find ourselves on similar paths. At other times, we choose to take a different path because we see an opportunity—or because we lack the confidence that we can face and defeat an unforeseen challenge.
On March 9, 1998, I found myself on a path I did not choose. That day has been with me, as part of my present, future, and past, for almost 20 years. It was on this day that my life was turned upside down. I suffered a severe traumatic brain injury in a motor vehicle accident. On the way to the hospital, my heart slowed and I was given atropine. It didn’t work. I coded, and was resuscitated after my heart had stopped.
That isn’t even the scariest part. One of the doctors who was there when I arrived at the hospital (where I would remain for the next eight days) told me that I was “ashen gray” and my survival odds were marginal at best. I have read the survival statistics for my injury, and his estimate was pretty spot on. Apparently, in my case, this was not God’s plan.
I spent the first two days barely registering on the Glasgow coma scale, which is used to assess consciousness in people with brain injuries, but for some reason, after 58 hours, I woke up. I was unable to speak and had no use of my right side. The road to recovery was going to be long, and the bar for that “recovery” was set pretty low.
I was transferred to a rehabilitation hospital on St. Patrick’s Day and spent the next six weeks learning to walk, talk, and function on my own. (It was supposed to be six months.) The prognosis was that I would get to a certain point and then most likely be transferred to a long-term care facility to live out my days.
One thing my friends will say about me is that I am a competitive SOB (sometimes they remove the word “competitive”), and if you think I can’t, I’ll show you that I can. I spent the next six weeks pushing myself to get back every bit of me. In my mind, I feel I am at about 40 percent healed and will not stop until I get to at least 97 percent.
After six weeks of inpatient “two-a-days” for physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech therapy, and therapeutic recreation, I was scheduled to be discharged to my sister’s care. Then I could continue therapy at an outpatient facility. During one of my inpatient PT sessions, I had told my therapist that I would do 10 minutes on the Versaclimber and 50 push-ups the day I was discharged. When that day came, I did.
I spent the next several years working out with no purpose but to stay in shape. I couldn’t play contact sports and lacked the balance due to my brain injury to do much of anything but lift and walk. I ran a couple of 5Ks (I hated running then, and I still hate it now), but there was still something missing. In 2015, I found the missing puzzle piece.
Spartan Race was founded in 2010, long after my accident, but ironically and without my knowledge at that time, March 9, 1998, would turn out to be the night that my Spartan journey began.
Fast-forward to 2015.
While working out, I noticed one of my gym buddies was wearing a cool T-shirt. It had a Spartan helmet on it and said “Finisher,” so I inquired. He told me all about it and introduced me to his wife and a few others who had done Spartan races. They tried to convince me I could and should do a race. I said I’d check it out. I went home and looked up what a Spartan race was, but immediately fear of failure, lack of confidence, and doubt set in. As I pondered my next move, I realized life, in an odd way, really is about the free T-shirt.
The next day at the gym, I made every excuse for why I couldn’t do a Spartan race. I lacked balance, speed, coordination, and the endurance I would need to finish. I told them I knew I was strong enough, but that wasn’t my fear; my fear was what I felt was the lack of ability to complete the obstacles and finish. At that time I weighed close to 215 pounds, could dumbell press 100-pounders, bench press 295 max (should have tried for 300), and could put eight plates on each side on the hack squat machine. I was strong but not in shape. My friends pushed back and told me they would help me and make sure I finished. This was August 2015. The Fenway Park Stadium Sprint was a little over two and a half months away. Time to get to work.
They showed me box jumps. I was terrible at them. I should mention I had very little feeling from the knee down in my right leg, so completing them safely took extra effort. I got my first “box jump tattoo” and didn’t even feel it. (You may be jealous.) My friend Nikhil walked over and asked if I was OK. I said “Yeah. Why?” His response was, “Your leg is bleeding.” I looked down, said “ouch,” and then walked to the front desk to get a bandage. The wound was nowhere near healed when I ran Fenway.
The day arrived. It was a cool November day, but the sun was strong, the breeze was light, and I was ready to take on this challenge. I ran the Fenway Park Stadium Sprint in an afternoon heat (with my friend Emily) in just over an hour. My goal was under an hour, so I was not happy, but I was hooked. I knew I would do another sprint, but it never even crossed my mind to try a Spartan Super or Beast—they seemed impossible. I changed my training a bit to get into race shape, but still wasn’t in the shape I wanted to be in. In 2016, I went to New York City and ran the Stadium Sprint at Citi Field, then later ran a sprint in Barre, Massachusetts, where I injured my left shoulder and ended my season. Disappointment set in. Then came 2017.
I decided that in 2017 I would up the ante and try to complete a Spartan Super. I traveled to Dallas to run at AT&T Stadium, came home ran the sprint at Rutland, Massachusetts, and then the super at Barre. I decided I wanted to earn one of the Spartan Honor Series medals, so I completed the hilly course at West Point. My season would conclude, as it usually did, at Fenway. After running the hills surrounding West Point, I realized I was not in the shape I needed to be in to even try to conquer Killington this season, so no Trifecta this year.
Fenway arrived. I was blessed that day in many ways. I was given the opportunity to perform the national anthem before the elite heat on Saturday before running, and that experience is one I will cherish. I finished Fenway in 52 minutes and was OK with that, but something was missing. I now had a red (sprint), blue (super), two stadiums, the Honor Series lanyard, and the T-shirts that went with them, but the Spartan Beast green lanyard and T-shirt were missing. I felt like I had already failed; I had to try to complete the final leg of my journey.
As I stated, I truly felt blessed at Fenway and this was for many reasons. I had met a very nice person at one of the OCRs I had done this year and said I would look for her at Fenway. I saw Megan all dressed in her usual patriotic attire, and when I finished she said, “There is a Beast in Florida. You need to go complete your Trifecta.” Initially I let doubt creep in, but when I thought about it, she was right: my Spartan racing year should not be left unfinished. I wanted to join the “Trifecta tribe.”
I signed up, trained my butt off, ran almost every day (if you didn’t know it, I hate running), ran close to 1,000 flights of stairs, did pull-ups, core work, and you know it, everyone’s favorite thing to do, burpees. As the date approached, some doubt crept in. Was I ready? Had I trained enough? Had I trained correctly? I did all I could do to keep these demons in my head from winning the battle. I set a goal of five hours to finish. I arrived in Florida relaxed and ready to go. When it came time to start this part of my journey, I was ready. When I got tired or felt a cramp starting, I sang Christmas songs to push through the pain. I finished it in 3:44 minutes.
The bottom line is this: we all have journeys we get to take through life, and sometimes things we don’t expect or want get placed in our path. It is at that point we have choices: stop and give up, let the path take us where it wants to, or clear the debris and move forward to create a new path. In my case, I cleared the path and continued on my Spartan journey to join the “Trifecta tribe.” I feel truly blessed to have been given the opportunity to create and navigate this path. Aroo!