The goal was simple. Run the Spartan Race Arizona Sprint blindfolded for a good charity organization, BlindStart of America, and not kill myself in the process. It started as an idea and suddenly turned into a serious commitment once Jeff Nelson, Stephen Sinek, and Lauren Marquez decided that they wanted to challenge themselves as well. I was stoked. Three elites coming to play.
Four obstacles that would hand me burpees came to mind: Monkey Bars, Multi-Rig, Spear Throw and Z Wall. In the past, I used to do blindfolded judo and jiu jitsu grappling practices. I use visualization and spatial relationships techniques, projecting in my head calculated distances and placements, and that practice and training in blindfolded grappling gave me the tools that allowed me to create a mental map in my head by analyzing slope, surface, and tactile shifts identified by my footing, touch, and sounds. Having nearly five years of experience in running OCRs, I’ve encountered nearly every type of obstacle that Spartan can throw at you, and using previous experience and muscle memory, I knew that if I came up to an obstacle that I’ve encountered before, that it would be relatively easy to use visualization to complete it successfully.
My equipment was a pair of ski goggles that I had spray painted the lenses with five coats of blue paint over 20 coats of black paint, attached stickers to the outside of the lens and used black duct tape to cover the vent ports so that there was no light or visibility. My wife, who would be guiding me, started giving me directions and descriptions at the Start. It’s very disorienting having no sight and it took me a couple of minutes to adjust my thinking and realize I had to really, absolutely trust my guide to get me through the course. Giving 100% trust in someone else is not as easy as it might sound, no matter who they are.
The race starts and my hands attach to the carabiners on my wife’s ruck. I would use three fingers to maintain a light grip. The only time I would grab with more than one hand would be during narrow passages where I grabbed both sides of the ruck, maintaining a light grip to avoid getting any assistance by my guide for incline or weighted hiking.
The guiding is good, but I’m lacking critical information for my mental map. Here’s where how I think and how my wife thinks starts to conflict. She’s giving me good information, but also gives me instructions on stride and stepping, or downhill techniques. I need degree of slope, length of incline/decline, and distance from topographical features. I can make a better determination on stride and technique myself. Large steps in unsettled terrain is dangerous because it’s more unbalanced. Smaller steps were more effective at avoiding falls and injury. We have good communication in our marriage, though, so it took less than a mile to get things figured out, and she did a phenomenal job throughout the entire event in guiding me safely and effectively. The new predicament is that my stride and body position changed which places increased demands to different muscles. Fatigue sets in faster and the change in walking posture forced me to stretch my body more often because you pretty much walk with the expectation of falling or running into something, so your body is on “high alert”.
The obstacles in the first half of the course gave me no trouble and I cleared them quickly and easily. Between obstacles, I felt an incredible urge to move faster and was getting impatient. I kept trying to push the pace. We jogged when we could, but it was normally a walk pace for safety concerns. Barbed Wire crawl was a bit of a challenge because of the congestion and being guided by voice only. Lisa kept directing me, and I just wasn’t able to process directions clearly, but we made it with extra assistance from another runner.
I am not a fan of Bucket Brigade when I have my sight. I am even less of a fan when visually impaired, but it got handled. Later, when I jumped on the 7ft wall, my toes pointed down and my calf muscles cramped. Lisa was allowed to help with the 8ft wall, and we headed to monkey bars. I attacked the monkey bars sideways, allowing me some stability as I was pulling upwards with one arm and swinging around like a wild man looking for the next bar. The pattern on the uneven monkey bars were different than before and I was a bit lost, especially not being able to process what my guide was telling me and hearing every other person shouting and talking. Two bars away from the bell, I dropped to the ground and screamed out the loudest swear word that frustration would allow. 30 burpees.
Near the finish came the next three obstacles that I dreaded facing sightless: spear throw, multi-rig, Z Wall. Facing Spear Throw with additional guidance from my wife and my friend, Mike Santos, I hit the target. Climbing on the multi-rig, I shimmied on the bar, caught a ring, made the mistake of holding on to the ring with both hands, got spun around, reached and missed the next ring several times and fell to the ground for 30 burpees. I didn’t care. I hit spear throw blindfolded.
I was afforded assistance for slack line, which I gratefully accepted, felt my way to Z Wall and used grip strength and tactile awareness to successfully make my way across. Tunnel, Slippery Wall, Dunk Wall, and a five minute conference on how we four blindfolded runners would do fire jump, which ended in a cluster. But cross the finish line, kiss my wife, grab my medal, and I removed my goggles. For three hours I was deprived of any light, having run the course in pitch blackness and my eyes hurt. The light was hard but the colors were painful, especially green. My sight was affected for the next half hour as my eyes were still adjusting and I couldn’t help but contemplate the thousands of people who are visually impaired and must negotiate through life in the darkness. I could remove the darkness, but they can’t and that really gave me a greater understanding and compassion for my fellow humans. I am still in amazement about the entire experience. If you were ever wondering about whether or not you and your significant other have good communication, place yourself completely in their care and trust them 100%, and it will become very evident if you can communicate clearly or not.
Andrea Trowbridge: Team Hike, Wall Jump, Guide hold, Bucket Carry
Brent Forbes: MultiRig, Fire Jump
He can be found on the weekends exercising and exorcising his demons on the OCR course and in endurance events.
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