The Civilian Military Combine: Bryce, Virginia
One of the toughest physical moments of my life was a grueling 9 minute CrossFit pit that opened the start of the 2012 Civilian Military Combine race. The race started in “The Pit,” and was continued with a 7-mile military obstacle course race. When I completed the whole thing–over two hours later–I had never in my life felt more proud of myself and my team members. This is my experience.
You are not going to get nervous about this Stephanie! I tell myself as we drive up the mountain looking at all the yellow tape roping off the seven mile obstacle course race. You just came to have fun, I think as we pull into the lot and I see row after row of barbells and kettlebells in “The PIT.”
Ali, Cammy, and I get out of the car, meet our other teammate, Terri, and pose for pre-race pictures.
We know that we are about to venture into more than we expect but we have made a pact to stay together and finish. Just simply finish. After making our way to registration, we pin our bibs on our tanks and nervously await our start time. We drink caffeine, suck down energy gels, eat bananas—anything to keep us calm, give us fuel, and make us feel mentally prepared. Just finish. That’s all. We start, we finish. All around us, competitors stretch, jump, practice swinging, re-tie their shoes, tape their ankles. The boys from the Naval Academy look especially hard-core. Is that guy running the race in boots? Crazy! I think. The competition in the pit is about to begin. The four of us, team STACk’d, all nervous and excited, line up to watch heat one. We hang around the pit for about three intervals before deciding to go back to the car to hydrate and stretch. About 15 minutes before heat four start time, we make our way down to the pit’s waiting area.
We enter the pit and I shake my judge’s hand. I think I stand a chance. You’re a badass Steph! I chalk my hands and get my kettlebell in place. I hear the announcer, “…3…2…1!” And I grab that sucker and swing my heart out.
I know I’m not going to be fast in the obstacle course, but I think I stand a chance here in the pit. It’s my time, right here. 8, 9, 10…do it Steph, don’t stop! “You’re killing it!” says the guy with the tattoos and the bullhorn. Does he mean it or does he just say it to keep spirits up?Someone snaps a picture and moves on. “3…2…” 69, 70! “1! Time’s up! 30 seconds to rest and move to your next station!” says the announcer. I aim for 30 repetitions at each of the next three stations. The thrusters are tough but I think I get close to my goal, and the burpees—well—looking back I think I could’ve pushed harder, but I walk out of the pit with smile. 167 reps—the judge shows me. Is that good? Damn. I might place! I grab water and as I start walking I realize that both of my quads have cramped up. I tell Ali in a panic, but she has faith: “Keep moving Steph, you’ll push through!”
We grab sandbags and take our time with them. No rush. No hurry. Just the finish. We crawl under the trucks. This is fun! I hope the pictures turn out ok.
We cross a little stream. The water is cold and I think how my socks and shoes feel squishy on my feet. Our first obstacles are four hay bale stacks. Awkward, is all I can say. I’m only five feet tall—or short—and though I never let my height get in the way of a workout, it’s a little different here. It’s not as easy to step through the hay like those tall Marines ahead of us. But somehow I climb though. Next obstacle? Several fences. I’m guessing they are about four feet high. I’m also guessing that several tall guys can just jump those suckers. Luckily I’m able to push myself up and climb over. I’m starting to think there should be a height category in these awards. Obstacles are not so easy for us shorties.
And then we start our first hill. Monster hill. I’ve said a hundred times before, “I love running hills!” but not today. I’ve never run a hill like this one. I’ve never run a hill with cramped quads either. And it’s steep. Too steep. My team doesn’t run at all. We walk the whole way up. Finally at the top we have to come back down—which you’d think would be easy. But downhill is just as steep and it’s through the woods, with too many moving sticks and rocks in which to roll our ankles. So we walk down the hill as well. Just finish. Safe and sound. I hear Erik before I see him. “Good job Steph! I’m proud of you! Keep it up!” I pick up my pace and then see a pile of logs before me. “No, go to the left! It’s easier!” I hear him say. I run to the left and jump through what looks like a lumber jack playground.
After the log run, what awaits me is a very long stretch of mud. Before I jump in, I hear Erik say, “Stay to the left! It’s higher off the ground!” But what’s off the ground? The barbed wire. I dive head first into the mud, under the wire, and holy crap! Where did these sharp rocks come from?! I bruise my arms, cut my shins, and rip my pants.
Finally through the muck, or more appropriately, the rock-wire bed, we face…aw, eff. Another hill. And this one seems steeper than the first. Is that even possible? I will not put my hands down, I will not touch the ground! Team STACk’d walks to the top. There’s no other way to do it, really.
Almost there I look up, see a group of Combiners cheering us on as we approach a cargo net. Hmmm…this looks fun. Never climbed a net before. How hard can it be? Net—hand—hold—foot—let go—WHOA! Suddenly I’m suspended in the air and I have no idea how it happens. Someone grabs the net from the other side and holds it down. It’s the only way to get across. And I’m almost convinced that the net might be the toughest obstacle on the course—minus the devil hills. After I climb over, I take my turn holding it for other competitors. I really feel a sense of family at this point. Maybe it sounds a little corny but here I am in this crazy adventure and everyone is going through the same experience, having the same feelings—and maybe this is what it feels like to be a part of something bigger than yourself. Maybe this is the point of this race in the first place. But whatever it is I feel, it feels nice.
After the cargo net accomplishments—yes, there are two—we come upon the first hydration station. Thank God! We stop and chat with the volunteers—who are crazy nice by the way—drink some water, and move on. One of the volunteers yells after us, “It’s all downhill from here!” and she is right. I follow Terri as she weaves her way down the slope towards the bottom. I can hear Erik and Katie and Gary cheering us on. I’ve never felt so pumped! Who cares about my cramping quads—this is life!
And then I see the ropes. Rappelling ropes. Here we go again. We rappel down the riverbank, cross a river which feels great on the muscles, and climb out the other side.
We probably spend the next mile or so in and out of the water. In, out, in, out…at one point I find a shallow part of the river and run—well, high step it—through, over, and around the rocks.
I’m feeling especially awesome with my second wind—until my next step finds a river-hole and I plunge face first into its depths. Fail. I stand up, laugh, another competitor offers a hand and I blush, saying “I’m fine, but thanks.” I look ahead and quickly realize that no, I’m not fine. There’s a cargo net hanging about a foot over the river. A long cargo net. I too soon find myself on all fours, crawling the river bed, knees slamming into rocks, hands groping through the sludgy bottom, and praying a snake doesn’t slither by. I feel like a fish caught in a net about to become dinner for the evening. And somehow I think I’m smiling. I find my way to the net’s end, stand up, and continue the course. I see more obstacles ahead and I’m just thankful at this point that I’m not in water anymore. The climbing I see ahead is definitely going to be a challenge but at least these obstacles are sturdy—meaning no moving nets! I got this! I climb several walls—some straight up, some angled, some with ropes and some with footholds; and with my teammates all around me. The first angled wall is pretty tricky and I have to use all my upper body strength to hoist myself up and over.
The good thing about the climbing is that when you do it once, you know exactly how to handle—or not handle—the obstacle when it comes up on the course again. The one obstacle I cannot get the hang of to save my life, however, is the damn hay! After climbing a wall of loose boulders—which I did not know were loose until I almost crushed my foot between two—I come upon the largest hay bale I’ve ever seen. And I’m from Churchville, VA—the country. I get a good running start, leap through the air, reach for the hay, and SMACK! Face first into the bale I land. I end up having to get Terri to give me a lift.
But too soon after we get through the hay, the boulders, and all the climbing, it’s time to run again. I pass a fit looking guy who seems a bit out of breath, and I won’t lie—it feels awesome to do that. I think we probably run a mile—maybe it’s a little less because of all the rocks and mud we are running through—but I quickly realize I am coming up on another water obstacle. So in the river I go and I’m instantly confused. Why are there men—covered in a light, tan-colored mud—running towards me? “Is this right? Am I going the right way?” I ask. “Yes!” they reply. And, “Watch out for that log there—you can’t see it!” True, because when I find it, it is quite the obstacle. So over the log and through the river I wade and wade and…you get the picture. Within all the wading is probably one of the more frustrating obstacles—the over/unders. Imagine logs lined up perfectly so that you must duck under one only to rise and crawl over the next. And repeat. Many times. I call it frustrating because the rapid river water is extremely muddy and I am trying really hard NOT to dunk my face completely under. The guy in front of me, however, has such long legs that every time he tries to go under the log he kicks his feet and splashes the mud water right into my face. And while trying to breathe, I cannot tell you how much mud water I snort, swallow, and choke on! Ugh.
Needless to say, I am thrilled to finally see land again…until I don’t see anything but land…for a long, long time. I am running. Again. And run indeed! Ali—our runner teammate—must have sensed the miles that lay ahead because she flies past us all and I never see her again until the finish. So I run as well. And run. And run. Quads are feeling the force of every foot-to-ground impact. But I keep pushing. Most of the running is pretty flat ground—but it’s wooded, muddy, and rocky. You can’t move fast is what I’m saying. My knees start to give way to sharp stinging pain and I send a silent prayer up to Dad asking him to help me get to the finish. I’m not a natural runner and this is probably the toughest part of the whole day for me. I am relieved when I see the water again. I catch up to a group of guys who are lowering themselves into the lake. The two men manning the obstacle say, “If you can swim, it’s much faster!” So the men in front of me swim and I doggie paddle my way through the water. Boy does this water feel good. After the lake crossing I have to run again. My legs are shaky and I think about walking for a bit, but I am determined to get to the finish line ASAP. I see ahead that I’ll be swimming again and I wonder how far I have run already and how much of the course I’ve covered. I’m on the outskirts of the lake and about to make my way back towards the finish but it seems like I have been running for hours and I know I have a long way to go. I wonder about Ali—how far ahead she may be and every now and then I looked back to search for Terri and Cammy. When I come to the second lake crossing, I’m told, “Jump in! It’s deep!” Ok…here goes nothing.I jump, surface, and start my doggie paddle. When I realize my paddling is getting me no where quick, I flip over and swim backwards towards the shore. I might look silly from a spectator point of view, but I’m glad I do it. The view of the trees, the bright blue sky, and white cotton-like clouds will always be the picture in my mind of this day. Time stops for one moment and all is absolutely beautiful in the world. I am alive and truly living life. When I hit the shore I am more than ready for my continuing run. My quads and knees are KILLING me by this point but I am refusing to even think about them. And on the long stretch back, I have to climb many more obstacles, but luckily nothing new. I have gotten used to stepping up with my left leg first to alleviate my right quad—the worst one—and I have figured out how to overcome putting too much pressure into the wrong quad.
I am never so happy as to come out of the miles-long clearing and to see Erik waiting at the next obstacle. As I approach, I realize that this must be where those guys I saw in the river earlier with the tan mud came from. I must be getting closer to the river! Close to the river means closer to the finish! I ask Erik how Ali managed this one—did I mention that Ali hates mud?—and he says that she flew through it. I take my cue and dive under the tubes and crawl through the disgusting gloppy mess. One last mud crawl down, a water tunnel that smells strangely fishy, and the last river traverse.
Remember that same log I was warned about earlier by the tan-mud guys? I forget about it. Until I run right into it. I summersault head first right over the log, land on my feet on the other side and push my head up out of the water. “I found the log!” I joke to the race volunteers on shore. Some guy with a camera on his head runs up to me and asks if I would do that again—I wish now that I had—but I am only focused on one thing right now—the finish. A bit more running and one last stretch of climbing obstacles, and OMG the end! I climb over the last ten-foot wall and jog straight into the finish. I did it! I really did it! I am ecstatic and I try so hard not to cry. It helps when I hear a lady say “Come get your t-shirt!” Yes! Clothes! And Ali is there waiting for me and both Terri and Cammy are not far behind. Team STACk’d made it to the end! I’ve never been so proud of myself—my friends—in all my life. During the awards ceremony we are shocked to find out that our team placed third. THIRD?! We totally did not expect to place. And we’ve been on cloud nine ever since—convinced that we can now conquer the world. Who would have thought—four girls, four gym-enthusiast friends who decide on a whim to enter the race of all races, would walk away victorious and with memories to last a lifetime? We certainly didn’t, but are more than thrilled that we did.
For more information about the Civilian Military Combine, please visit www.civilianmilitarycombine.com