As I muscled my way across the long stretch of monkey bars, my arms grew tired. With each subsequent bar I gripped I couldn't imagine how I would muster the strength to continue…
Twenty minutes earlier, my friend Michele and I were stretching and trying to stay warm as we anxiously awaited our 3 p.m. start time. With the wind blowing and our adrenaline pumping, we nervously talked about what lay ahead. We were about to compete in our first Spartan Race—an intense challenge that combines a 3-plus mile run with 21 boot-camp-style obstacles.
For the past twelve weeks we had trained together and were now racing as part of the 60-person "Relentless Fitness Team”, comprised in part of members from our gym, Relentless Fitness. We were doing the Spartan Race in part to raise money for Steve’s Club, a national nonprofit that helps keep at-risk kids off the streets by inviting them into the gym to exercise after school. And so part of our team was made up of a group of teenagers from Steve’s Club. Running along with the teens, knowing that we were helping to raise money for them and their friends, gave added meaning to our endeavor, while competing alongside them literally kept us on our toes, because they were so fast!
Spartan Strong …or seriously crazy?
"Are we crazy?" we asked ourselves as our minds and muscles tensed and we tried to help each other relax and prepare for the race. And then it started and we had no choice: We were off and running.
One of the first obstacles we encountered was the monkey bars. Eyeing the unusually thick bars and then my small hands, I couldn't fathom how I'd grip just one bar, let alone navigate across at least a dozen of them. But anyone who competes in the Spartan has to do a personal penance of 30 burpees for each obstacle they don’t complete. Michele and I briefly considered caving in, but instead we encouraged each other to forge ahead. At the same time, we watched in awe as our fellow teammate Toni successfully maneuvered the bars.
I was inspired to give it a try.
My arms ached. I struggled and wanted to stop, but I continued moving as I heard Toni and Michele exuberantly shout, "Go Suzie!" I also thought of my husband James and 5-year-old son Liam, who I knew were somewhere on the sidelines. The thought of them also encouraged me to keep on going. Suddenly I felt myself energetically and adeptly—almost effortlessly—swinging like a monkey. Before I knew it, and to my utter amazement, I reached the other side without falling.
Strength in numbers—the test of teamwork
Michele and I had decided earlier that rather than compete as individuals we would run together throughout the race. We, along with Roger, the co-owner of Relentless Fitness, our fearless trainer Ross, and his strong and willowy wife, Amy, used our unique physical and emotional strengths throughout the obstacle course to help one another with the variety of challenges. Whether it was giving someone a boost to scale a 6-foot wall, sharing one's technique on how to successfully pull a 75-pound weighted sand bag (thank you, Michele!), or giving an emotional lift with a word of encouragement, we were there for one another.
Psychologists might say that what we were experiencing was the strength of teamwork. Defined as "representing a feeling of identification with and sense of obligation to a common good that includes the self but that stretches beyond one's own self-interest," teamwork was definitely at play on this special day for me.
In their book Character Strengths and Virtues, psychologists Christopher Peterson and Martin Seligman say that an "individual with this strength has a strong sense of duty, works for the good of the group rather than for personal gain, is loyal to friends, and can be trusted to pull his or her weight. He or she is a good teammate." I saw this tenet of positive psychology played out again and again at the Spartan Race. I think Michelle, myself and the others definitely acted as “good teammates.” As for “pulling our weight,” we certainly did that (those 75-pound sandbags!).
Collaborators, not competitors
When Michele and I fulfilled our promise to one another and crossed the finish line together, I felt a greater sense of joy than I would have if I had competed solo. And remarkably, rather than being depleted, I was somehow energized—and even did a celebratory cartwheel! To top it off, I found James and Liam standing at the finish line cheering me on and sharing in my happiness.
Competing in and finishing the Spartan Race was a challenging yet truly rewarding experience. The fact that I was able to do it together with a group of supportive teammates while being cheered on by my loved ones certainly enhanced my sense of achievement and overall fulfillment, almost like compounded interest in the form of added meaning and happiness.
Suzann Pileggi Pawelski is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia and a contributing editor to Live Happy.