We were Spartans!

There used to be a DC comic series about an Old West bounty hunter named Jonah Hex. He had fought in the Civil War for the Confederacy but surrendered to Union troops when he decided that the South’s stand on slavery was wrong. He made his way out West, as many veterans of both sides did, once the shooting stopped in 1865. In an encounter with Apaches, Hex was tortured and suffered an extreme wound to the right side of his face that disfigured him for life. In part because of that, and his affinity for firearms and violence, Hex became a social outcast, which more or less naturally led to his choice of a profession. The writers of the series got into some down-and-dirty themes, not very common when Hex first appeared in the pages of All-Star Western in 1972. He starred in his own book from 1977-85, and then the writers decided to make it into a science fiction series with Hex being abducted by aliens. That’s pretty much when I lost interest.

Hex was nobody to mess with in the comics, but he generally stayed on the right side of the law.
Hex made it to live-action film and TV, but not too successfully. He was played by Josh Brolin in a 2010 film that had Hex imbued with supernatural powers (the film bombed, unsurprisingly) and then in the CW TV series Legends of Tomorrow by Johnathan Schaech (above).

What got me to thinking about Hex recently was my 66th birthday. I recalled a special edition Hex book back in the late 1980s or so that showed Hex at that very age, still bounty-hunting in 1904. It’s in this story that Hex meets his demise.

Nobody wants to leave this earth as the victim of violence, but Hex went down probably like he always thought he would, in a gunfight. Not the fairest fight, but gunfights rarely are, then and now. Had he been twenty or even ten years younger, it’s safe to assume Hex would’ve been able to get the drop on his assailant.

Another fictional old warrior who went out pretty much the way he wanted was Walt Kowalski, the hero of Clint Eastwood’s 2008 film Gran Torino. Eastwood produced and directed the film, in which he played the lead role of an embittered, widowed Korean War veteran. Walt is in his mid-70s in the film (Eastwood was 78 at the time), survived fierce combat in Korea and came home to marry his sweetheart and work on the Ford assembly line in Detroit. He and his wife raised a small family in a working-class neighborhood that has gradually been populated by Southeast Asian immigrants as the original white residents died or moved away. The recent loss of his wife of 50 years has made Walt even more bitter, but he discovers new purpose in his life when he reluctantly becomes a mentor to his teenage neighbor, the son of Hmong refugees.

Alone and depressed, Walt is just waiting to die and join his wife…
…until he finds an unlikely friend, next-door neighbor Thao.

I won’t put any spoilers in here, but suffice it to say that Walt comes to the rescue of Thao and his family when they’re targeted by a gang that doesn’t take kindly to Thao’s decision to spurn them in favor of a friendship with Walt. There are more than a few scenes showing Eastwood at his best, and it’s easy to see Walt Kowalski being just the Polish-American, blue-collar version of Dirty Harry Callahan. In the end, Walt goes out the way he wants to, not the way he’s seemingly destined to as the film opens.

I saw the movie in Arizona when I was visiting my parents over New Year’s weekend, 2008-09. As I sat next to my father and watched the climax of the story, I thought, This is how Dad would want to go out, standing tall for justice, confronting the bad guys. Dad would turn 74 a few weeks later, about the age Walt is in the movie, and he would live another 13 years and a few months. But he didn’t go out like Walt, or even like Jonah Hex. My dad withered away, to be honest, his mind and body decaying to the point where there just wasn’t anything left. It was a blessing when he finally left this realm. He’s in a much better place now, and as Christians, my brothers and I know that we will be reunited with him someday, for eternity.

Dad passed away on June 28, 2022. On August 4, the family gathered to say our goodbyes.

That doesn’t mean I want to go out like Dad did. No sir. To that end, Sue and I decided earlier this year to enter our very first Spartan race. We signed up in the spring and began stepping up our regular fitness regimen to train for the race. With none scheduled within a day’s drive of our home, we decided to race in Phoenix on the weekend before Thanksgiving, allowing us to visit family as well as compete. My brother Brian and his two kids, Yvonne and John, agreed to join us on Team Tindell.

How to be a Spartan? Train, and train some more.

I knew nothing about how to train for a Spartan, which in our case would be a 5km run/walk with 19 obstacles. Fortunately, I knew somebody who did: Tony Bergmann, owner of 4everFit in Rice Lake, where Sue and I have been members for some time. Tony had helped me rehab my knees after replacements in 2012 and then ’16, getting me back on the martial arts mat within a month of the surgeries. He had competed in a Spartan and knew exactly what I would have to do. So, for the better part of five months, Tony and I met once a week at his gym for solo training sessions. They worked.

After our final session on November 17. I lost 12 pounds over the course of the training, and felt better than I had in years.

We flew to Phoenix on the 18th, checked into our hotel and had a leisurely dinner, sitting outside the restaurant and enjoying the warm weather. Back home, it was in the upper 20s. The next day was spent with family, visiting Mom at her new assisted-living facility in Gilbert, then taking her to Brian’s house nearby for a family afternoon and dinner out. We ate light, following Tony’s advice to stick to carbs and avoid protein in the 24 hours prior to the race. When we retired at our hotel that evening, it was with a sense of apprehension, and yet excitement. The race was finally here, and so were we.

In the steps of Leonidas and his 300

There are all sorts of “tough-mudder” races out there, combining running with obstacles that test the mettle, strength and endurance of the competitors. Spartan Race was founded about 15 years ago and has since become the gold standard for these types of races, offering competitions all over the world. At ours in the Avondale area, in the southwest of the Phoenix metro, about 4,000 people would be competing over two days. Half of them would be in the Spartan Sprint, our race on November 20, billed as the one for beginners.

We would be on the short course, the red one bordered in green. The obstacles are listed in the sidebar on the left.

It was tough.

The drive from Brian’s home in Gilbert took nearly an hour, but the weather was great and the drive uneventful. The race would be held next to a NASCAR track, so we were accompanied by the rumble of powerful stock cars taking practice laps. Our check-in showed that Spartan was as thorough and efficient in person as it is on its website, and soon we were ready to go. We would start in heats of about 150 racers each, staggered every 15 minutes. Ours was the third, at 12:15pm. The start of the race, as recorded by Brian’s wife, Irene, was epic indeed.

The first mile or so was on relatively level ground, and then the obstacles picked up in earnest. Sue and I passed on the mud troughs and dunk walls, but we weren’t alone. Our nephew, John, did them all, and in fact did quite well overall. But hey, he’s a strapping young fellow of 27, after all. None of us succeeded on all of the obstacles, and I would guess that a minority of racers completed all 19. And very few people did the “punishment” burpees that each failure was supposed to require. It was more or less on the honor system, and when we got right down to it, survival was a little more important than honor, you might say.

Sue’s display of her rather awesome guns at the start was a sign of things to come; she was doing things on the course that most of the women, much less women of 65, couldn’t do.
Yvonne on the bucket carry, each one filled with 60# of rocks (the men had to do 100).
John making his way through the barbed-wire crawl. This was a tough one, over rocks and dirt. Thank God, Tony had worked me hard with the bear crawl.
Brian on the bucket carry. We had to lug them up the side of a mountain, then down again to the start of the carry, before moving on.
Sue and Brian on the way up the A-frame cargo net. I’m in the lower left. This was definitely not easy. The key: don’t look down.

The A-frame was the next-to-last obstacle. It was preceded by what I thought was the toughest of all: the sandbag carry. Brian and I each hefted a 60-pound bag of sand up seven flights of stairs to the upper deck of the stadium, then carried them 50 yards to the next staircase, then down to the ground and another 50 yards back to the start. John made this one, too, but the women passed. Sue’s hip was acting up following her successful conquest of the monkey bars, on which I and most others had failed. No photo or video of her effort was recorded, unfortunately, but on the Spartan website each obstacle has a how-to demo, so here’s what it takes to make it through the Spartan monkey bars.

The last one was the Helix, a horizontal climb that looked fairly easy on the training demo but definitely was not.

I’m on the right, trying to conquer the Helix, but it got the better of me, despite my heroic but fatigued efforts. The finish line, though, was just a few yards away.
And…we made it!

For a moment in time, we were part of the legend.

In 480BC, the Persian Empire had conquered most of South Asia and was preparing to sweep into Europe. Greece was the first target. A collection of city-states that often warred with one another, the cities of Athens and Sparta being preeminent, the Greeks knew they had to work together or all would be lost. They were working on this idea we now call “democracy,” and who knows what might’ve happened had it been snuffed out?

Leonidas, one of the two kings of the southern Greek city-state of Sparta, led a corps of 300 of his best soldiers north to meet the invaders. Along with a few thousand allied Greeks, the Spartans, the foremost warriors of their time, met the Persians along the coast of the Aegean in northeast Greece, in a narrow pass called Thermopylae. His aim was to delay the Persians, giving the Greeks time to mount a credible defense farther inland. He knew that he and his men would likely not survive, but the enemy had to be stopped; Leonidas and his troops were the first line of defense.

They all died, but their mission was eventually accomplished. The Greeks suffered terrible losses, but the invasion was repulsed. The legend of Leonidas and his 300 lives on, two and a half millennia later, commemorated on page and screen. The 2006 movie 300, a stylized version of the battle, was the most testosterone-fueled film I’d ever seen, but its catch-phrases sure did the job at this race. (For a more accurate and very stirring version, read Stephen Pressfield’s novel, Gates of Fire, required reading at our military academies.)

For a couple hours on a November Sunday in Arizona, we met the challenges, many of which we’d never faced before. It might sound corny, but at times I could almost feel the Spartans of yore alongside me, urging me to fight through the pain and fatigue, to persevere. And at the end, we could say one last time, “We are Spartans!”

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