I’m keeping my head above water. And that’s the problem.

Staying true to my goals for 2014, I finally started learning to swim. I dodged having to swim at the Gravel Pit Spartan Race, but I doubt I’ll get away with that again at Vail Lake for the Spartan Sprint in September. Turns out, I’m not that far away from being a swimmer.

Trouble is, I haven’t mastered the breathing techniques necessary to efficiently swim freestyle. In my first trip to the pool, I mastered not turning my head from side to side when my face is out of the water — that’s huge progress for me. But when I put my face in the water? Instant choking.

Intellectually, I know I’m perfectly safe in the pool. I can touch bottom at all times, and I float without trying (which is why I cannot for the life of me swim underwater for more than a few strokes — buoyancy is my superpower). I’m naturally rhythmic, so picking up the choreography of swimming should be easy for me. Somehow, though, I struggle to trust all these things about myself and breathe in air without water.

I’m going to keep working at it, and I’m going to let my head drop beneath the surface as much as I can. Most of all, I’m going to fight my urge to give up on something at which I’m not immediately perfect, so I can find good enough.

To me, this is scarier than trying something new. I can be a beginner. But being mediocre? Feels an awful lot like drowning.

Who am I? I am SPARTAN!

Last week, I drove to Las Vegas to run a Spartan Super. It’s taken me a week to wrap my head around everything I accomplished in those 9 miles of gravel and mud.

I signed up to celebrate my dad’s birthday by living out loud as only someone running a race with no map, no warning, no preparation can do. In the weeks leading up to the race, I went from paralyzing fear of failure (wall climbs are HARD!) to crippling loneliness (my Spartan who signed up for the race didn’t know whether he could make it — turns out he didn’t — and my dad would’ve been the person I’d talked to about running this thing alone) to a surreal resignation.

By the time I climbed into my super-tall Jeep and took off across the Mojave, I realized a few things:

  1. I can run the longest distance a “normal” Spartan racer has to conquer, and this race wouldn’t be that long.
  2. I can do burpees all day. Especially when I get a break in between.
  3. There was no way I’d dishonor my father’s memory by NOT doing what I signed up to do, so eff it.

With those points squared in my mind, I arrived in Vegas to meet my bffff for a visit. She flew out for the weekend, simply to cheer me on, and somehow that made everything a little easier. Then, at the last minute, I learned that my Santa Barbara girlfriend was coming to meet me and run with me! So, on top of celebrating my dad’s birthday, we were celebrating hers, too. (It was the day before the race.)

Vegas, baby! And then, a race

Fast forward to Saturday morning. I was scheduled for the 11 a.m. start, SB for the 10 a.m. start. So we agreed to try to meet early enough to start at her time. Well, that didn’t work out. She and her boyfriend showed up right behind my bfff Sherpa and me, and after we walked what seemed to be miles to the entrance, we realized we’d never make it to her start gate in time. And I got another surprise — her boyfriend was running with us, too! He hadn’t trained at all, but he wanted to be there to help us. Loneliness and fear morphed into companionship and support. Before we even reached the starting line, I was choked up.

We ignored the fact that SB and BF weren’t scheduled for my start time and approached the starting gate. Here was the first obstacle — climbing a wall to get to the starting line. (Well, there were also Spartan dudes with pugil sticks, but a winning smile goes a long way toward not getting beaten too badly.) Up and over went BF. SB took a hop, fell off and tried again, clearing the wall. I panicked for a second — SB is a personal trainer, and her not making it the first time didn’t bode well for me.

Then, I stopped looking at the wall and looked around. I saw the braces holding the wall and decided how this day was going to go for me — I climbed the braces, slung my legs over the wall and hopped down with a smile. I got a round of cheers from the women who’d crossed the wall already, many of them saying “Yes! Work smarter!”

We went through the chanting, the claiming of our purpose — “I am SPARTAN” — the AROOs. Then, it was off for the race that would test me like no run ever has.

Leave it to me to find the most ridiculous way to run a Spartan Race

The Las Vegas course was unlike any I’d seen in person, in pictures, in video. It was rocky, dusty and full of gravel. In the first mile, we hit the first of what would be a series of rocky and sandy hills — almost straight up and straight down, with no simple way down. Up was easy — I had trained on the bluffs in Bakersfield, so this was familiar territory. But the first rocky hill down scared me half to death.

I asked the women around me if it was safe to use my hands and half-slide down. The woman next to me said “Sure, but don’t put your butt down!” As if on cue, my feet slipped just enough to plop my butt down — right on a sharp rock. It snagged on my shorts, and I felt the rock dig into my behind as my favorite compression shorts ripped away. Thankfully, the shorts didn’t rip completely — just a ridiculous hole that bared my entire right butt cheek to the world.

I am not exaggerating. As it happened, the guys behind me cheered encouragement like, “Spartans did this stuff naked — you’re more of a Spartan than we are!” The women, on the other hand, stopped to minimize damage and solve the problem. One lady had an extra set of safety pins. When those wouldn’t close the hole, another asked how attached I was to my shirt. Once I took it off, she and SB helped me patch the hole with it. I kept going, laughing at my situation and determined to finish the race naked if need be.

And so I kept going. I climbed over walls, with lots of help from SB and BF, who both claimed to be copping feels, not boosting me over. I fell off the monkey bars and did burpees. I rolled a rock boulder up my arms, drawing blood, and lugged it around. I carried a sandbag with such balance I didn’t need my hands. I fell over trying to throw a spear — more burpees!

Just call me Motivation

My favorite obstacle, though, was a mud pit. I crawled/rolled/slid under 300 yards of barbed wire through the rockiest mud I’ve ever seen with that ludicrous hole gaping as the safety pins gave way to the weight of the mud in my shirt. One of the guys behind me told me he felt like he owed me $5 for the show — I told him I was proud to deserve more than singles, and that got a rousing round of cheers from my comrades — and another group dubbed me “Motivation” because I kept them crawling toward something other than burpees.

I’m sure some women would be offended by all this, but I found it hilarious and oddly comforting. I learned my quick wit and lack of shame from my dad. I was there to honor him, and I did in ways I’d never have predicted.

A stroll in the desert

SB, BF and I walked most of the course. Sure, we could’ve run it, but BF summed it up perfectly about 2.5 hours into the race. He said, “I feel so free! We could be pushing ourselves for time and miserable, but not chasing a time makes this so much more gratifying.”

And he was right. I was having so much fun just ambling — running, walking, even skipping between obstacles. I realized I hadn’t completed a race without caring about the time in at least 5 years. And here I was, in the toughest race of my life so far, having FUN because I didn’t care how long it took.

Ending with a mud bath and a bang (of my knees on a wall)

This race was decidedly dry by Spartan standards. But at the end, we hit exactly what I’d anticipated: A muddy hill lined with barbed wire. I cleared that ok, waiting patiently for the guy in front of me and ignoring the cries of “hurry up” behind me. After all, those people didn’t have the threat of snagging their bare asses on barbed wire in front of all those spectators.

Once I cleared the barbed wire, I saw what was next — a muddy downhill slide into a huge mud puddle as deep as SB’s chest. Even though the weather was mild — the temps were only in the 70s — I was thrilled to run headlong into the water and cool off. I caught up to SB and BF, who were surveying the wooden wall towering in front of us.

See, the bottom of the wall was under the surface of the water. I looked around and saw several Spartans frozen at the edge of the puddle. Some were downright panicking. I couldn’t figure out why. This seemed simple compared to what I’d been through! Just dunk under the water, crawl under the wall and pop up! There were course officials screaming from the sidelines that anyone who chickened out had to do 50 burpees. Seriously?!

I shrugged, took a deep breath, held my nose and dropped to my knees. With my free hand on the bottom of the wall, I slid under, pushed up and gasped. Ok, that was COLD! But it was easy. Way easier than what stood between me and the finish line.

The last major obstacle was a painted, wooden wall at a 45 degree angle. It had ropes attached, and those ropes had knots in them. BF basically ran up the wall, no problem. SB and I went up next. She slid a little on the soaked, muddy wall. I slid a LOT, but I made it up behind her. Out of nowhere, a course volunteer popped up, hand outstretched. I reached for his hand. And slipped. And fell to my knees. I was holding with every ounce of strength in my body to his arm and the rope. I was determined NOT to do that climb again. I pulled, he pulled. I got one elbow up, and I knew I had it. (Thanks to SB’s 4-year-old son, I learned I could climb out of anything as long as I remembered “Elbow, Elbow, Belly, Knee.” Seriously, it works!)

I had no idea what to next. So I asked/yelled the question. The volunteer coached me though swinging my leg over (nearly kicking a dude in the head, my Sherpa told me later), planting my shaking hands and feet on rungs and climbing down to my friends. We grabbed each other’s hands, ran toward the fire pit and jumped. I felt the fire beneath me, and I almost cried. I’ve rarely felt so alive.

Knowing myself has a whole new meaning

That dusty, muddy day in Vegas taught me so much about myself. I know now just how capable I am. I faced a fear of heights, of being alone, of failure. It taught me how safe I am in my own body and how my mind can be my best friend or worst enemy. I finally made friends with my mind.

More than that, it taught me about my relationship with my dad, about what living beyond my dad’s passing means. Until then, I had been coping. I had decent days. I had heart-wrenching cries.

But that day, I connected to the pieces of my dad that live on within me. Not just the courage, bravery, toughness and lack of shame my dad instilled in me. Those things all served me well, but there was something more. The gentle honesty in my eyes when some women around me wanted to give up and I told them I believed in them. The dogged determination to climb hills and walls and all manner of rickety, high-up things that made me shake and want to cry.

Most of all, the piece of my dad that awakened is the love in my heart. Love for the families around me — my Santa Barbara family, my other-mister sister and my Spartan family — and a love for living that filled my heart with unrepentant joy. My daddy taught me to love, and becoming a Spartan led me to love my journey and my life without holding back.