Much like the other events I’ve done this past year, the Spartan Endurance Agoge wasn’t something I planned on doing months in advance. It was another last minute decision – similar to my introduction into the Spartan Race world late in the summer of 2015. Although, like then, I didn’t necessarily feel that I wasn’t prepared, just uncertain of what to expect. I was confident I would succeed based off grit and my ability to endure pain rather than being the strongest or fastest guy in the field. Although, that wasn’t the case for the Spartan Race staff; they prepared for and executed an extremely challenging event successfully while maintaining the right amount of enjoyment. And if you’re reading this recap, it’s more likely that your definition of “enjoyment” is slightly different from the everyday person’s interpretation. Hopefully, my experience will help you to be more prepared than I was, because Agoge is far from a walk in the park.
With 12 years of military experience, I have completed numerous schools where my physical and mental capabilities were tested to the limit, and you would think that would be enough. What I experienced as a PFC at Calvary Scout Basic training, a year being a Knob at the Citadel, 61 plus days at Ranger School, a 12 month combat deployment to Iraq, and almost two years at the Special Forces Qualification course certainly had me questioning the experience I could gain by partaking in the 2016 48-hour Winter Agoge. However, looking back at some of the greatest lessons I’ve learned, they were at a time when I wasn’t fully prepared or knew what was coming my way. It’s in those moments when you have to dig deep, think outside the box, understand your environment, and make a plan using only the resources you have available. Despite all my past experiences and knowledge of survival tactics, I was solely focused on Agoge 001. I knew it was going to be difficult, and it was about to be game on.
An important factor to realize about the military and team building events like Agoge is the process of making standards difficult to appropriately select the type of person you want to be working or fighting alongside you. Being a strong individual makes all the difference when being a part of a team. I would not feel comfortable going to war with someone who couldn’t carry his/her own weight and who always requires the assistance of others. The purpose of a team is to work together, but when you are holding the team back because you aren’t individually carrying your weight or doing the right thing, you often put others on your team at risk.
Initially signing up for Agoge 001, all I could think about were the stressful situations I was subjected to under extreme sleep deprivation during Ranger school, and that I could probably expect to have somewhat of a similar experience during the 48-hour challenge. After doing a bit of online research about the trial run of Agoge 000 and Death Race, I was starting to question why I wanted to or should put myself through yet another cut you down to bring you up event. However, as part of the Agoge experience, you must first complete the Spartan X training program online. I started the modules thinking that the information being taught was already implemented into the way I live my life. The principles of setting and accomplishing goals, doing the right thing, and being committed were instilled in me not only when I was raised by my uncle, but also during college at The Citadel and through my military career. But what I failed to do in the past, and what I was learning from the Spartan X program, is not how I have successfully implemented finding true north in my life, but rather how I could use my knowledge and experience to help others on that quest.
Going into the Winter Agoge 48 during the coldest temperatures Vermont has seen in decades seemed fitting since 10 years ago, Feb 2006 is when I graduated Ranger school during one of the coldest classes mountain phase has seen. As a Special Forces detachment commander one of our main tasks is to train forces in remote rural areas while living off the land and surviving in the elements. I set a goal to help my team during Agoge in any way possible and to share my experiences with them.
0600 – RACE REGISTRATION:
I arrive at Riverside Farm on time, with my equipment packed and ready to go. I used a mix of civilian gear and issued military equipment to meet requirements set forth in the packing list. There wasn’t a known or set schedule for the next 48 hours and you could tell by the looks on everyone’s faces that no one was sure what to expect. The frigid air and initial silence set the tone until the krypteia (Spartan cadre) started to address us and give guidance. Right from the start, there was a sense of commitment as each person walked through the barn doors one by one to start Agoge 001. There were people from all different walks of life: military, fitness trainers, death race veterans, pilots, teachers, Spartan staff, and even one person all the way from Singapore. To even be standing at those doors ready to face the challenge that lied ahead, each candidate who applied and was accepted into Agoge had to successfully complete some type of vigorous endurance event in the past.
The event officially started at 0800 so, during the first two hours, everyone registered, received a medical screening, conducted equipment checks, and started numerous physical activities. Some participants arrived late or without the proper gear, which at a normal military school they would have been dropped right there on the spot. These “candidates,” as the krypteia called us, lucked out, but everyone didn’t get a second chance. To my surprise there was one individual who didn’t bring everything on the packing list; he was immediately sent home. The key take away – adhere to the packing list and come prepared knowing how to use your equipment. The items are for you to use and are what you need to physically survive during Agoge. I would tell you exactly what I brought and recommend, but, to be honest, it wouldn’t work for everyone so my best advice is to find what works for you.
After the packing list layout was complete, the krypteia kept us warm by conducting some physical training. The events included numerous iterations of suicides, 500 jumping jacks, roll overs, and burpee long jumps over a distance of about 400m. Once everyone completed those tasks, we started the first team building event in which we had to roll over each other in a long line and give introductions. A few people threw up during this process from the repetitive rolling around, but all-in-all it was designed to have a purpose, not just to mess with us. That was one of the immediate things I started to realize; the krypteia didn’t tell us to do anything without also explaining the purpose behind it. They said time and time again, “This is not Death Race,” which I think the endurance veterans in the group were expecting, and you could kind of tell that by their actions as well. During the hours of breaking us down, I could tell how some were actually working hard while others were just trying to survive and play the game of beating the clock, since eventually we would have to move on to another task.
TEAM ASSIGNMENTS AND OUR FIRST TASK:
Each team included eight Spartan candidates (our group members included Amy, Albert, Tyler, Mitch, Brandon, David, Derek, and me), and we were immediately given our first task – to build an apparatus from two round table tops and the one inch tubular rope from the packing list. The apparatus not only had to carry all of our equipment on top of it, but also our heaviest team member, and it had to be lifted off the ground to be moved. Our team quickly worked together and decided it best not to build something as fast as possible, but to make sure it wouldn’t fall apart half-way to our objective. Some members worked on putting handles on the rope, others fed the rope through the holes in the table, and the rest tied knots for the carrying handles. We certainly weren’t the first ones out the gate to begin movement to our objective, but it quickly showed that the extra time spent building a solid apparatus was worth it. Our solid construction combined with our rotation plan working as a team paid off when we quickly started to pass other teams. For this reason we earned the group name of “Team Ferrari”.
All the groups moved as a team moving their apparatuses around the perimeter of Riverside Farms stopping at five stations along the way. At each station, a different skill was taught that would be used later during Agoge. Most of the classes were focused on winter survival given the season and weather we would be subjected to during the 48 hours (-20 deg temperatures). These classes were very professionally given and provided us with the knowledge needed to get through the weekend using not only our gear, but the environmental resources around us as well. The stations focused on: frostbite/hypothermia, fire making, shelter building, true north and commitment. I thought it was important to see that the staff hit the nail right on the head with their craw, walk, and run method of teaching us. Although, this came as no surprise to me knowing that former members of the military like Spartan VP CSM (R) Frank Grippe were not only part of the planning but were also on ground with us. With other key staff members like Tony Matesi, Charles Piso, and Peter Borden working hard behind the scenes as well, the first 12-hour period was already coming to a successful end.
Our next block of instruction was focused on land navigation. The terrain around Riverside Farm is a small valley, with numerous hills surrounding the farm. For this reason, the main technique used for navigation during Agoge was terrain association with the use of an altimeter – the idea being that you can find a point by looking at a map to pick out a terrain feature, use your pace count to determine distance, and your altimeter to know what elevation you’re at using contour intervals. A compass is only needed during this technique to determine your cardinal direction of travel, unlike 90% of military training where you live or die by your compass azimuth when not authorized to use GPS, altimeters, roads, nor trails. During the team navigation, it was important to use all the members of our team and not just put one person in charge of all the tasks. We were successfully working as a team because each member had a separate part of navigation he/she was keeping track of: primary and alternate navigation, primary and alternate pace count, primary and alternate elevation, and two people on lookout or security.
Throughout the day it was important to consume calories and drink water, especially when fighting to stay warm and having to conduct physical activities. We were always offered the opportunity to get water and use the bathroom if necessary. Due to the extremely cold temperature well below freezing, our water sources had to be kept close to our bodies to prevent the water from turning into ice. At first, most people seemed afraid to eat if not told to do so or were expecting a time to sit down and enjoy their meal. The smarter, more experienced candidates were eating here and there when there was a 5 or 10 minute break in training, and the others quickly caught on as well.
At this point in the event, you could tell that the long day, cold temperatures, stress of the unknown and physical activities were starting to wear on the group. Our next series of tasks were to execute a practical exercise of sorts to incorporate the training we received throughout the day. The main task given to us: establish a camp site for the night. Another sign that the krypteia were there to look out for our overall well-being and safety, they conducted an inspection on each one of our sleep systems to ensure we would be able to stay warm while sleeping a couple hours in the well below freezing temperatures. In the military, we like to call this type of camp a “patrol base,” where it’s important to maintain security, establish a rest plan, and conduct other priorities of work like eating or cleaning weapons. Team Ferrari quickly divided tasks to build a fire, get plenty of fire wood to last all night, gather pine tree branches for insulation from the snow packed ground, and build a shelter. It wasn’t long before all those tasks were complete and a fire watch rotation established. We were given right at four hours to rest so each team member took a 30-minute shift to maintain the fire, melt snow, and provide security. Having slept in similar conditions in the past, I had no issue falling asleep, but that wasn’t the case for all the other members of my team. With anxiety high anticipating a mid-night wake-up, along with the well below zero temperatures, some were more awake than asleep.
With 24 hours in the bag, I wasn’t sure what to expect from day two. I had heard a rumor that we would be conducting mountaineering training, but there are a lot of skills that can be associated with that. For example, and what I think was on most people’s mind, a long movement with snow shoes up and over some mountains. The rumors turned out to be correct about the mountaineering, but we were in for a much different experience than I had initially expected. At this point, we were split into two groups with half of us going to the mountain training and and with no idea what tasks the other group would be accomplishing while we were gone.
Our trip began with a 30-minute bus ride to the training site which was near a large frozen lake with an amazing view of the mountains. This trip also served as an important time to eat an MRE, hydrate, and get a few minutes of much needed rest. Once we arrived, our team was again broken down into two groups of four, and we were all given different tasks. The skills we learned during day one were about to be put to the test without krypteia assistance. We were tasked to navigate to four different stations given only a map with a route drawn on it and a radio. My team was directed to the rappelling station first and with much excitement began to move through the snow packed trail system to the top of a nearby cliff. We arrived at the station and received a brief on the equipment we were about to use and directed to first rappel as a team of two, then to conduct a final rappel individually. Both iterations were fun but also extremely challenging given the arctic wind gusts and heavy packs we were wearing. Despite the cold, ask any Agoge finisher what the most fun event of the 48 hours was and I would bet 99% of them say rappelling.
From the bottom of the rappel, we regrouped as a team and received directions that would lead us to the fire making section. We once again navigated through the woods successfully and arrived with high hopes of getting a little warmer if able to start a fire, although our task was not only to build a fire with the natural resources provided but also to boil enough water to fill an entire Nalgene bottle in less than 45 minutes. Furthermore, we were only provided one match to use and we had to memorize an entire paragraph about leadership. However, the work wasn’t without benefit; successful completion of all the tasks ensured our team received some extra calories in the form of hot chocolate powder. We were able to finish all tasks in 40 minutes and split the hot chocolate into four 8 ounce portions to briefly enjoy before moving on to our next tasks.
With the successful completion of two stations, our team moved out on our last land navigation lane that brought us to an empty canoe. Thanks to Tyler, we made it over the mountain rather than around it to save a bit of time. The task at this station was to move the canoe and all of our equipment across a frozen lake covering a distance of about a mile to our final destination. We made use of what items we had available from our packing list, mainly the 1-inch tubular rope, and tied handles to the canoe. This allowed us to work as a team and move the canoe quickly over the snow while trying to conserve as much energy as possible.
It’s very important during an endurance event not only to pace yourself, but even more detrimental in a winter environment to not allow your clothes to get wet from sweat caused by overworking yourself. If the base or insulation layers of your clothing get wet, the material will no longer do its job of keeping you warm. Therefore it’s important that you dress in layers using a non-cotton material, only work yourself to the point where you feel warm, not hot, and take off one layer at a time if necessary. An easy way to do this without going through the painful process of dropping your pack is to remove the insulation layer on your head first. Starting with the head will allow a good amount of heat to escape to cool you off without having to stop your movement.
Upon completion of our final task, we moved to the extraction point and met up with the group who stayed behind at Riverside Farm that morning. Of course, our first question to them was what did you guys do for the past 6 hours? The immediate response was we stood at attention for 3 hours among some other tasks. Now for some people that didn’t seem like a big deal since there is little to no physical exhaustion involved, but after graduating from The Citadel and spending 12 years in the US Army, I knew this wouldn’t be a simple walk in the park. Standing at attention isn’t a test of physical exhaustion, but rather a form of self-discipline and respect.
I’ve been to the point of exhaustion at Ranger school over an extended period of sleep deprivation during which I watched Mario run across the green screen of my night vision optics tossing fireballs at dragons. It happened! During that same movement, I also watched two guys literally fall on their faces from the standing position and remain sleeping. Those are the kinds of things the Agoge experience will represent for others who haven’t been through anything similar in the past. The ability to say, hey, I’ve tested my body’s limits and I know I can get through this. Or in my case, you’ve been through worse and succeeded so this should be no problem. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t always learn from something you’ve already done in the past. Every experience is a learning one, and if you don’t go into it thinking that, you’re never going to find your true north!
Now, what the other’s failed to mention to us, and was a key piece of information in my mind, is the fact that we would be standing at attention with our bare feet in a barn where the wooden floors were just about at the temperature for your toes to go numb after the first hour. Once we arrived, I was called in front of the group to explain how we would be standing for the next few hours given my military background. The position of attention requires you to stand straight, chest lifted and arched and shoulder square, no slouching. Your heels are together and feet pointed at a 45deg angle, arms by your side along with your thumbs running along the seams of your pants and fists clinched. While at the position of attention, your eyes are looking forward, no talking or movement is authorized unless directed otherwise. It’s imperative at this point to rest the weight of your body evenly on the heels and balls of both feet and not to lock your knees. You will pass out if you lock your knees, and one person actually did just that during the morning session. After that, I returned to my position in the group and it was game on.
During the first hour, I reflected on the past year of my life that brought me to Agoge and where I was standing at that moment. I thought about another year giving 100% and taking 2nd place at the Best Ranger competition and how that wasn’t going to happen again in just two short months from now. I reflected on how that finish drove me to train harder than ever before and the transition to what I feel was fate, finding the sport I was meant to be a part of, Spartan Race. I came out of nowhere to shake up the last few NBC series races and win the Spartan World Championships. But more importantly, just a month before Tahoe, my daughter Olivia was born and, by the grace of God, she overcame a very rough first two weeks. At this point, our first hour was over and it actually went by rather quickly. We were given the opportunity to stretch and warm up with some physical training followed by a small stretching session before we were back at it again. During this session, the krypteia shared a couple of heartfelt war stories with us and how those experiences helped or changed them. We ended the session with another round of yoga and were quickly instructed to get our gear together and meet up with the returning group.
After a full day of events, we were quickly losing daylight and the already below freezing temperatures were dropping even lower with wind chill factors into the -20’s. Our next team task was to move our team to a turnaround point only utilizing two wooden boards and 1-inch tubular rope. Team Ferrari once again lived up to the name and devised a solid apparatus. We started behind but finished well ahead thanks to our team’s desire to complete the task and have fun, not just to pass the time and survive. We conducted numerous iterations of this exercise going forward, backward, blindfolded, silent, and even sideways during the final session. The only parts of our bodies exposed to the elements during these bitterly cold temperatures was parts of our faces, and it was often difficult to see due to eyelashes freezing together from watering eyes. Our team mainly kept warm by continually moving forward, and after several long hours, the event finally came to an end.
FIRE AND FISH BOIL:
As a way to replenish all the calories lost from not only keeping warm but conducting physical activities all day, the krypteia provide each team with a frozen fish and the task to start a fire and cook it. We started a small fire using the techniques taught the previous day and built it up to the point where we were able to boil water from a pot. After about 45 minutes, we had our portion of the fish cooked and headed to the barn to refuel for our next task.
Everyone knew early in the day that we would be doing some type of activity with the large buckets stacked below the entrance of the barn where we were operating around throughout the day and that time had come. Our first task, led by kypteia all the way from Singapore, required us to work in pairs to carry a bucket once filled with water, now a solid block of ice for about 100m. We started off with twelve groups, but each winner of the heat didn’t have to participate in any of the remaining sprints. Lucky for me I had a solid partner, Tyler Fielding, and we were able to win the first sprint and sit out for the other iterations. Looking back, I’m not so sure that was the best option as we definitely got even colder waiting around while everyone else was still moving. None the less, it was an opportunity to reset and prepare for the other challenges sure to come our way within the six hours still left in the event. Immediately after the last heat was complete, we all lined up and started our final task with the bucket. With 10 buckets, we all lined up and were given the task to pass the buckets to the left, once a bucket left your hands you had to do five burpees then sprint to the end of the line before the last bucket got there. That process was repeated until we hit the fence line about 100m away. Upon hitting the fence, we dropped the buckets off, grabbed our equipment and began to jog around the farm. After a couple laps, we ended at the barn at around 4am and conducted our final medical check of the night. Due to the record low temperatures outside, we were given the opportunity to catch a couple hours of sleep indoors before capping off Agoge with an indoor pt session.
FINAL PT SESSION:
Our final PT / Yoga session was led by the well-known fitness guru Ben Greenfield. After getting to know Ben a little during the Atlanta Spartan series filming, I’ll have to say he’s a very committed and knowledgeable coach and athlete. We worked up a good sweat, which for me was very welcoming after almost 48 hours straight of literally being freezing cold. Burpee after burpee, followed by endless flutter kicks and other exercises would sum up the final hours of Agoge. Nearly at muscle failure and past the point of exhaustion from the previous 47 hours, we were given our final task of Agoge, to hold a plank as long as possible. I’ve never timed myself doing a plank before and rarely if ever incorporate them into my strength training, so I really wasn’t sure how long I would last. That time ended up being 10 minutes, which really isn’t anything to brag about. I may have managed to end Agoge as the last one still planking, but we all finished standing together!
To end Agoge, we recapped the highs and lows of the 48 hours by talking through not only why we were there, but how to make future event better. The fact that the staff took the time to receive feedback from each person speaks volumes about Spartan Race and the Agoge event. For me, like most things I challenge myself to do, it’s about testing my limits, finding my breaking point, and learning how to push past that point the next time around. It’s not a matter of whether I’ve done tougher things in that past. Yes, I have, but again every experience should be something you can learn from, and I met that goal during Agoge. If you really think about what the human body can do, physically, mentally, emotionally, and even subconsciously; it’s truly is amazing. Some people are content living life without setting goals, committing, and challenging themselves. To those out there who may be on that path, I challenge you to test your limits and find out what you’re capable of doing. I promise that you’ll surprise yourself. If you need more motivation, look at athletes like Jared Bullock, Derek Weida, Simpson Love, Amada Sullivan, Misty Diaz, and Joss Brass just to name a few. They are the definition of no excuses!