For most teens, hauling stones, climbing ropes, and crawling through mud would be an awful punishment. For John Sanders, a 14-year-old from West Virginia, it’s child’s play.
Last August, Sanders was inspired after his school wrestling coaches entered the Spartan Super in Asheville, North Carolina. Sanders decided he was going to race too. The problem? He was just 13, one year shy of the age requirement to run in the adult group. So he ran in the Kids Race, and as he crossed the finish line, he knew he’d be back. “After completing the two-mile course, I was hooked,” he says.
Sanders turned 14 last November, and in less than year, he’s already completed a Trifecta—a Sprint, Beast, and Super. He hopes to earn his second Trifecta in a single weekend at the West Virginia races in August.
We may find our inner Spartan at different times in life, but the benefits of racing span all age groups. We asked Sanders why he races, and his answers are amazing.
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The challenges help him build mental strength When Sanders faced his first Atlas carry, he couldn’t keep hold of the stone. His second race wasn’t much better—he was dealing with a sore back. But by his third face-off with the obstacle, he was ready. “I blocked my thoughts of how heavy it was and that I already failed at it twice,” he says. “I just ran up to the stone, picked it up, carried it, put it down, did the burpees, picked it up again, and brought it back.” Failing is frustrating, but Sanders is learning that with resiliance he will eventually succeed. “You can be as strong as you want, but as long as you have mental toughness, you can go on for days,” he says.
Racing teaches him to trust in himself and others There’s a strong sense of camaraderie at Spartan races, he says. Even solo racers often treat one another as teammates on the course. At one race, Sanders recalls helping the man in front of him regain his footing when the man started slipping at the Z Wall. He can relate: At 5-foot-2, Sanders has his own struggles on the walls. But someone almost always gives him a boost. “You’re always going to meet at least one person on the course that’s going to help you,” he says. “Once you’ve completed an obstacle, you build up so much confidence in yourself and in other people, too.”
Exercise helps him manage his ADHD Sanders gets frustrated, has a hard time concentrating, and can be hyperactive because of his ADHD. “When I don’t take my medicine, I can be a bit of a handful to the people around me,” he says. But when he’s training for his next Spartan race, he finds that he can focus on the task at hand, even without his medication. “My mind is zeroed in to whatever I am doing, and that is all I am fixed on,” he says. The benefits go beyond his workouts. “Over the past several months, it seems that if I am off my medicine, I can maintain focus longer than when I was not training.”
Racing makes him a better all-around athlete He raced his first Spartan event less than a year ago, but Sanders has been active his whole life. He loves biking, and he’s been waterskiing and wakeboarding since he was 4 or 5 years old. During the school year he wrestles, plays soccer, and runs cross country and track. “The Spartan races keep me motivated to train, not only for the races, but as a cross-training tool for my other sports,” he says. And all that hard work could help him reach his ultimate goal: to one day qualify for the Spartan World Championship.
He loves the community Besides the rush of racing, Sanders loves meeting fellow Spartans from around the country. As a young competitor, he’s surrounded by older athletes who have more experience than he does—but that doesn’t intimidate him or keep him from building relationships. At each of the three races he has competed in this year, Sanders has run into the same volunteer, who always wishes him good luck and asks how he performed. “It’s more than just a race," Sanders says. "It’s a social experience teaching me how to interact with older people. I truly feel they view me as an equal and not some kid running amuck on a course.”
Ready to give Spartan a try? Here’s everything you need to know to find your race.