On April 25th, Team Believe 923 received the exciting news that the 1st ever Agoge 60 endurance event was opening its roles for amputees and other Adaptive Athletes (AA). As an Agoge 48 (Class 000) participant I understood that; a) hell’a miles and labor would be waiting for us in the Green Mountains of Vermont and b) with only 24hrs to commit to participating, there was no way I could mentally prepare our team and paralyzed athletes for the hell’a miles and labor that would be waiting for us in the Green Mountains of Vermont so we reluctantly declined the invitation. However, I did ask to be assigned to another Adaptive team in case I could be of any assistance…access granted!
Stardate 94062.71 (June 17, 2016 5:30am)
Enter stage left: team Operation Enduring Warrior (OEW) consisting of U.S. Army Veterans Earl Granville and Justin Shellhammer (each with 1 prosthetic leg) and Norbie Lara (with 1 arm) at the ready who were supported by Andi Marie, Eric Schmitz, and Erica Walker.
Enter stage right: team More Hearts Than Scars (MHTS) consisting of U.S. Army Veteran Billy Costello (with a prosthetic leg), U.S. Navy Veteran Greg Bullock (on crutches), U.S. Marine Veteran Matthew Pietro (an amputee on crutches and wheelchair), Blind Pete Cossaboon (no explanation needed), and Zackary Paben, who were supported by Joey McGlamory, Wendy Paben, and me.
We were 14 in total who were mostly greeted with silent nods for showing up but not given much hope to make it beyond the first 12 hours. After all, this event was created by the core of Spartan Staff that produced the DNF-friendly Death Race in this very same environment.
The day began with registration from 5:30am-8am where we received an Agoge Passport Card in exchange for our car keys and Drivers Licenses; a necessary precaution for participant safety especially for those who would endure 2.5 days of undisclosed training and torture. Next came medical evaluation followed by the barking orders for mandatory gear to be splayed on the required 8’x8’ tarps. Penalties for missing gear included disqualification while food other than the required MRE’s (Military Meals Ready to Eat) and Backpacker’s Pantry were confiscated. Reward for early registration included hauling lumber and other weighty objects to and fro Riverside Farm aka base camp until the registration process was complete.
Erica and I were tasked with a running assessment of the Adaptive Athletes for the duration of their participation. I was told that when they dropped out I could continue the Agoge with the rest of the participants but understood that I would not be a “finisher” if they indeed quit. Spartan leadership (aka Krypteia) had a look of concern and slight agitation as they said they didn’t even know what to do with AA’s, they didn’t know any would actually show up, they felt this was another one of Joe’s (DeSena) crazy ideas, and that this was NOT the right venue for the Adaptive Athletes. Well, it took less than 60 hours to prove them right. And wrong.
After a brief welcome and introduction to the Agoge format, both able-bodied and adaptive participants were split into larger teams tasked with carrying 80lb. bags of concrete and 5gal. buckets of water to reinforce the famous steps on Joe’s Mountain which was built and expanded on with manpower provided by several years of Death Races. It became instantly clear to the Krypteia that the veterans of OEW would need little assistance while we of MHTS had a different set of challenges in front of us that would require teamwork of epic proportions to overcome so when asked if we were capable of participating in this “beautification” project…a silent nod was my answer and that’s all that was needed for them to send us up the mountain to join the renovation. A single file of Spartans snaked up and around Joe’s Mountain like an ant trail with the adaptive athletes melting into the numbers pulling their weight and assisting others along the way. We were joined by Michelle ‘Stone Stairs” Roy who was assigned field communications for OEW and MHTS. She is intimately familiar with this terrain from years of Death Races and for writing the names of those battling cancer on stones that she would then personally add to this landscape.
Following this 3 hour effort we were reassembled at the Farm and divided into 3 large groups consisting of 3 smaller groups. MHTS now became Team 3 Division A aka Team 3-Adaptive. We understood that our goal to complete this 60 hour event required us to NOT interfere with the experience of any other athlete and that anyone who chose to assist us could potentially miss out on portions of the event that could cost them a DQ as the event progressed. With fair warning, we accepted 4 Spartans to join our ranks for an experience of a lifetime that, if fulfilled, may never be duplicated. Enter Brian Lynch, Matt Rex, Anthony Schena, and the bearded Mexican in a skirt Fernando Casanova. We were now equipped with 5 adaptive athletes, 4 work horses, Wendy to keep Zack in check, Joey who served as Blind Pete’s guide & 1 Puerto Rican Reindeer.
Teams were assigned a slosh pipe and a kayak filled with 25 gallons of water that would later serve as our source for hydration. Team 3 however, was assigned (2) kayaks, a slosh pipe, plus Matt’s wheelchair which has been in heavy use since he lost his right leg in a motorcycle accident after returning from combat with PTSD. Another team was assigned a wooden handled fence post hole digger and wooden 4×4’s which would serve as the structure that held the metal Spartan helmet bell to be rung as the final act of those who would later succumb to the rigors of the Agoge training.
As we completed several uphill miles to the Log Landing, we were given instructions to eat and hydrate quickly just as the Spartan Helmet Bell of submission first broke silence reminding us that we would all reach a point where tapping out would become a real option. Several participants withdrew due to equipment failure and medical complications while Lora Cesuga from Spain sacrificed herself for the sake of the team in light of her slower pace coupled with hearing the fate of those who chose to travel through the night into the famous Bloodroot and not make the time hacks. Lora also loaned me equipment that enabled me to keep working alongside OEW an MHTS teams.
12 hours into the Agoge and the 8 Adaptive Athletes were still in!! The toughest part at this moment was convincing the AA’s to follow a different path to the new base camp called ‘Area 51’ while the other participants trekked up Bloodroot to the same location. Fact is that only logistics prevented our teams from pressing on into Bloodroot but at the same time there were only 8 people trudging through with missing or disfigured limbs which kept the scales well balanced. This alternate path enabled Justin to stick around as he contemplated an early exit concerned whether a lengthier stay would cause him further injury and derail the limited summer time scheduled with his children.
We trekked back to Riverside Farm as everyone else powered through the night for their rest at Area 51. Before we were reunited with the rest of the Spartans, we were greeted in the morning by Michelle, cups of coffee, and Joe DeSena giving us limited time to gear up and transport building materials back up Joe’s Mountain to Muddy’s Hut, which is a rentable retreat built out of nature and recycled materials by Matt Batz.
At Area 51, another favorite destination for Death Racers, we began Physical Training and noticed for the 1st time that there was another adaptive athlete among us. It was virtually impossible to detect that Amy Palmiero Winters was an adaptive athlete until we saw her pant leg rolled up revealing her prosthetic leg. Amy would outperform many in this event even while tasked by Joe to personally assume responsibility for the fate of Spartan Editorial Content Manager David Deluca (you must read the 1st hand account of his Agoge60 experience!). The bell continued to be rung for different reasons. One international participant complained of boredom with little learned not realizing that shortly after quitting the real teaching would begin which would make the previous days torture worth it. After PT, DeSena interrupted the silence to advise that going forward NO ONE would be considered a finisher if ANYONE quits for non-medical reasons.
It was at this new base camp where our Agoge passports would be stamped as we completed evolutions including Drown Proofing in a leech filled pond (yes, blood everywhere), Raft Building, Survival Information (eating meal and earthworms), Litter Building (Stretcher), and Rolling 700lb bales of hay (through a swamp…I’m still confused about this one). Failure to complete an evolution sealed your name on the growing list of DQ’s and DNF’ers. At some point, Zack and I were asked to accompany Blind Pete to The Abyss for a 200’ repel followed by a 60-70 degree single track climb up a rock face with unstable footing as a way to assess this evolution for the other AA’s. Many faced and conquered their crippling fear of heights but to hear Pete who has been totally blind since April 2015 laughing as he stepped backwards off of the cliff to begin his descent was truly remarkable and inspiring for those that followed. Does it help not being able to see the dangers around you or does it help knowing that you are alive and thriving in spite of them? Another answered question for most of us this weekend.
The verdict was in, Norbie and Earl of OEW were more than prepared for The Abyss while Justin stayed behind to be checked out by medics due to a fall. Also Billy of MHTS who lost his leg in a roadside bombing in Afghanistan ran against daylight to make it to this location before nightfall. The inspiration continued as Norbie began his one armed repel since his right arm was severed by an RPG in Iraq, 2004. The climb continued to challenge able bodied Spartans alike but to hear the pounding metal of Earl’s prosthetic left leg as he sometimes crawled up the stone proved that a missing limb at the hands of a roadside bomb in 2008 would not deny him victory in 2016 (nor would the cast on his left hand from a recent cycling incident…this boy has issues :).
Upon our return to Area 51, we were told that Justin was removed from Agoge due to medical issues and we couldn’t be any prouder for him since he was forced out after fighting through 32 hours of Agoge training. A fellow Spartan ensured that Justin’s green military issued sun hat made it to the Agoge graduation ceremony in his honor. That was the least that could’ve been done for this soldier who lost his leg to a land mine in Afghanistan, 2005.
Prior to the repel, OEW was the 1st team to literally hack through the uncleared woods with Andi Marie on the litter but after the repel MHTS was the last team to perform the several miles of Litter Carry. The best Krypteia Eric Roman could offer us was to be partnered up with another team should we need help carrying one of our heaviest teammates, Matt, on the litter for an undisclosed distance. As both teams set off for the carry, we found a comfortable rhythm of resting and rotating positions every 100 steps…then every 50. Zack mentioned how the friction on his hands and the pain on his wrists and fingertips was akin to what he felt at the age of 10 when he had to tear off his fingertips in a horrific accident. Watching him persevere was a fresh reminder that even the crippling hurts of our past can be reduced to inconsequential memories when you choose to fight on! This includes physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual hurts as well.
At the end of the carry Krypteia Eric told us of how the team that went with us raved about our efforts. One of them helped us with Matt’s backpack while we managed without additional assistance. It was said that they mimicked our cadence, tempo, and methods of transport. We knew that inspiration would present itself as the AA’s fought to stay in the Agoge but this bit of news demonstrated our significant value which could benefit the able-bodied Spartans experience as a whole. We had Grit and it was contagious!
About that 700lb. bale of hay…even though the swamp route was now closed it still sucked to navigate it up and down several hills around the perimeter of Area 51. A funny thing happens when all participants are allowed to sleep for a few hours and your team of AA’s still has to deal with this 6-foot tall circular bale of hay, you get it done anyway.
A few hours of sleep later, we were woken up by the commotion of a Spartan who rang the bell late night but was not allowed to leave. You ring, you leave, and try again another time was the norm but this was different. This distraught Spaniard nicknamed Hunter was brought out into the circle of the 98 remaining Spartans because he worked harder than most in every evolution but due to language barriers he was under the impression that he had to manage the 700lb. bale on his own since his team completed it prior to his return from The Abyss. Only 1 question was asked “Should he be allowed to stay?” and only 1 resounding answer was given “YES!” And just like that many cheers, hugs, and tears were shared. The language of hard work and integrity was understood and well appreciated by these Spartans.
The language of flatulence during morning yoga stretching was also understood by all. We had plenty of time to interact with others while waiting to begin the “final” 1-mile hike that would conclude the event. Turns out many had gone without eating for hours and even days since their meals were confiscated. Every ounce of shared carbs were gratefully accepted by the Spaniards and other international participants who did not have MRE’s nor Backpacker’s Pantry to purchase in their country.
We began the hike without Matt’s wheelchair since he should be able to crutch his way for a mile…then 2…then we realized we would be back in these mountains for a long time. Someone suggested we make a litter to carry Matt once his wrists had enough. Four of us were allowed to continue while the procession stopped to make the litter. It was Matt and Greg, who fell 40 feet from a helicopter during practice jumps before is second deployment, on crutches, the Mexican in a skirt, and the Puerto Rican Reindeer moving as fast as possible to avoid using that stretcher. At one point, Agoge staff caught up and mentioned taking an alternate route for evacuation which caused Matt to crutch for his life. He would accept nothing less than crossing the finish line on his foot (if there ever was a finish line). So off we continued alternating crutching with piggy-back carries up the mountain over and over again. A mile or so later Krypteia Eric caught up to us and ordered us to stop and wait for the others since we had no radio communication. Matt was convinced to use the stretcher for a short while so the rest of us would have litter carry experience in this real environment. Although this was not the most popular moment of the journey, once again things got done and Matt was back on his foot in no time.
The last few miles were marched in silence and, with the help of many Spartans, we piggybacked Matt as needed with the Adaptive Athletes leading the way. After a pit stop for a refreshing river dunk, we marched the “final” mile back to Riverside where the graduation ceremony was set to commence.
We were met with applause and cheers from families and friends in attendance as well as several participants who rang out. This premature celebration was short-lived as Joe found someone whose medical exit seemed questionable to him and therefore rewarded our 60-hour efforts with disqualifications FOR ALL. However, a deal was struck where able-bodied teams had to run timed laps up and down Joe’s mountain while the adaptive teams ran timed laps through the woods around Riverside. It was chaos, it was confusing, but after 60 hours it was over.
Several hundred registered, 139 showed up and, in the end, the Agoge 60 produced the 99 graduating Spartans of Class 002! Closing ceremony was officiated by US Marine Corps Retired Veteran, 40 years of service Massachusetts State Police hostage negotiator, Gilbert Bernard, who prompted each team to nominate 2 Spartans to receive the coveted Spartan Coin for being the most inspirational, the most motivational, and for being the reason why many were able to complete this feat. And when the dust settled, 3 adaptive athlete’s were counted among them! Congratulations Blind Pete, Earl, and Norbie!!!
While there may still be confusion on how to pronounce AGOGE, I defy you to prove that AGOGE stands for anything less than Adaptive Grit Overcomes Grim Expectations. Are you adapting?
- It is a very humbling experience when your character is on display in the harshest environment and it proves to be less glorious than you thought it was.
- The struggle doesn’t build character; the struggle reveals your character.
- If allowed, times of suffering can transform strangers into family in some instances and preserve family in others. Suffer well!
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